By Nathan Grayson on December 7th, 2012 at 5:00 pm.
Fact: robots and adventure are my two favorite things. I like the former even more when they implicitly worship me, so Primordia seemed right up my alley. Oh, and I suppose a gorgeously retro sci-fi aesthetic also helped to sweeten the deal. But can this partnership between modern point-and-click maestros Wadjet Eye Games and fledgling upstart Wormwood Studios teach my icy, robotic soul how to love? Here’s wot I think.
I sort of love the fact that Horatio Nullbuilt – the cold, mechanical heart of Primordia’s point-and-click adventure – absolutely, positively despises the idea of going on an adventure. He just wants to find his damn power core and be done with it, and he despondently grumbles about that fact constantly. The entire first act of the game is devoted to his quest to stay as close to home as inhumanly possible – home, of course, being a busted-beyond-repair ship in the middle of a lifeless desert wasteland. Problem is, when Horatio drags his feet, so does the game. And even though I found his single-mindedly selfish – sometimes to the point of near-heartlessness – pursuit fascinating, it never managed to build enough steam to hook me.
Granted, it was hardly all Horatio’s fault. Primordia’s rundown, dust-and-rust-encrusted future hides a point-and-click adventure that’s firmly rooted in the past. Now, as other Wadjet-published games have proven in exceedingly delightful fashion, that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. But there’s a difference between learning from gaming history and slavishly clinging to it. Unfortunately, Primordia leans more toward the latter – especially where interface and puzzle design are concerned – and that ends up being its brilliant setting’s undoing.
Here’s the basic setup: Horatio and his hovering snark bucket of a best friend Crispin are going about their ordinary desert dystopia business (read: scavenging, wondering why all of humanity’s dead, worshiping said dead humans) when a giant bruiser of a machine busts down their door, shoots Horatio, and takes their power core – which they need to stay alive. However, instead of tracking the ‘bot behemoth back to Metropol – the legendary city of glass and light and top-hat-clad British robots (sorry, Jim) and intrigue – the duo first opts to cobble together a backup power generator.
So begins the thrill-deflating puzzle-palooza, and it never really lets up. Happily, most events in this Brainolympics made sense within the context of the world’s fiction, so it’s not like I was leaping through a series of arbitrary hoops or anything. But it’s like Newton would’ve said if he got bonked on the noggin by an old-school point-and-click adventure instead of a fruit meteor: for every action, there is an equal and opposite progress-halting puzzle. So building that backup generator required all sorts of parts, and finding each part was a puzzle in itself. What ensued was copious amounts of directionless pixel hunting and random item combining. Because of course it did. And then there were more puzzles to do yet another thing that didn’t involve going to Metropol, because of course there were. And so on and so on and so on.
Few of them were truly difficult, but Primordia’s reluctance to clearly communicate objectives made everything more obtuse than it needed to be. For example, one character requested that I bring him “something shiny” to trade for a crucial tool. After a bit of tinkering around in my inventory, I realized I still had an old lamp, which had pretty much ceased to be useful in a place that billed itself as “the city of glass and light,” so I handed it over. “No,” said the gravel-voiced ‘bot, “I want something shiny – not something that shines.”
Fair enough. But after that, I was stumped. So I wandered around the city for a while – aided, thankfully, by a handy map-based fast travel system – until I got fed up and started clicking Crispin, who doubles as a highly reluctant hint system, for help. After his usual protests of “I’m just the sidekick, boss. Why do you keep asking me for help?” he eventually pointed out that my severely busted energy sensor (which had exploded earlier due to reasons) still contained an energy-filled rock. So I extracted that, traded it, and went on my merry way. Here’s the problem, though: it was also technically shining (brimming with energy, you see) – not shiny. How does that make any sense? Also, the energy sensor? Really? The game hadn’t even referenced the crystal inside it for hours. That’s reaching a little, I think.
It’s especially unfortunate, because a few of Primordia’s puzzles strike a perfect balance between high-flying mental gymnastics and “I feel smarter for having solved that” lateral thinking. You know the type: those puzzles where you scratch your head in confusion for ten minutes, toss your hands up in rage, and then suddenly put two and two together only to say, “Oh, duh! How did I not figure that out sooner?” Sadly, a good many instead left me feeling like I hadn’t really done any of the heavy lifting. Instead, I just blindly pixel hunted through all the places until some crazy thing happened, or I waited until one puzzle – in an exceedingly convenient coincidence – coughed up the solution to an entirely unrelated one elsewhere.
Primordia’s world and story never really seemed as though they were constructed with these puzzles in mind. Rather, it felt like something truly fascinating was always just over the next junk-strewn hill, but that hill turned out to be a tedious mountain of obligatory puzzles. And most of the time, the payoff for success wasn’t some incredible plot revelation or juicy bit of info about this mad, human-worshiping mechanotron society. Instead, it was just another time-consuming puzzle. Another setback. Another roadblock. Heck, half of Crispin’s dialogue consists of fourth-wall-cracking variations on “Oh hey, another door,” “Great, what does this guy want,” or “Yeah, OK, we’ve heard all this before.” Sorry, though, Primordia. Making fun of a glaring problem doesn’t excuse it. Not by a long shot.
Speaking of, Crispin’s constant chatter vacillates wildly between much-needed mood-lifter and nigh-felonious mood-killer. He’s a wise-cracking sidekick to the tiny mechanical core, and he pretty much never relents. Sometimes, his banter with Horatio makes their friendship feel real, but it often goes too far – to the point where I started to wonder why the pair hadn’t gone their separate ways ages ago. With Horatio, though, it’s at least understandable. The real problems arose when Crispin piped up during moments of actual dramatic consequence – and that happened far too often for my tastes. It almost seemed as though the developers didn’t have enough confidence in the strength of their writing and setting. Like they felt the need to hide behind faux-humor instead of letting their best work shine in the spotlight.
That’s a tremendous shame, too, because – once Primordia finally kicks it into not-doing-its-best-impression-of-a-two-legged-turtle gear – it hits some fantastic high notes. Are its characters and world the most inspired adventure gaming’s ever seen? Hardly. But Horatio’s barely contained loathing for pretty much everyone and everything makes for an interestingly atypical main character, and a few extremely interesting themes at least get some lip service – if not full-on dissertations. A cast of thoroughly insane-in-the-short-circuited-membrane side characters keeps the ride nice and lively as well, complimenting the oppressively dreary setting with a strong mix of mystery driven drama, Old West frontier charm, and dark humor. Again, it’s not a tale for the ages, but I certainly don’t regret seeing it through to its (exceedingly telegraphed, but also well-done) twist ending.
That, then, is the central paradox of Primordia’s journey: I felt satisfied once I reached my destination, but I can’t say I had an incredible time getting there. The lows – obtuse puzzle design, Crispin The Tonal Wrecking Ball, an exceedingly slow start – don’t outweigh the highs achieved by characters and the game’s overall atmosphere, but neither do those lows get completely eclipsed. Instead, the end result levels out somewhere in the middle. So Wadjet’s been involved with better, but Primordia could’ve been much, much worse.