Primordia (2012)

Developed by Victor Pflug and Mark Yohalem, Primordia is the newest point-and-click adventure released by publisher Wadjet Eye Games. While I hadn’t heard of them before 2012, I played enough of their games this year that I pre-ordered Primordia before reading any reviews, such is the strength of their brand. The new game falls in nicely with their previous science-fiction titles, Gemini Rue and Resonance: it has an engaging, occasionally thought-provoking story, interesting characters, good voice-acting, appealing if retro graphics, and a reasonably simple interface. It’s regular $10 price may also be a bit on the steep side for six and a half hours of gameplay, but that’s a regular complaint I have about indie games, may stem from unrealistic expectations, and in any case the pre-order price was a little less than that, so I shouldn’t complain.

In the post-apocalyptic world of Primordia, humans have come and gone, leaving behind only a dusty wasteland and scores of machines both sentient and not. The game’s protagonist is Horatio Nullbuilt v5, a humanoid robot living in a crashed ship far from any civilisation. He does not remember his previous incarnations before the latest upgrade, nor does he remember his creator (hence “Nullbuilt”). He spends his days trying to repair the ship and tinkering with Crispin Horatiobuilt v1, a flying robot intended to assist him. One day, the ship’s power core is stolen, setting off a journey to Metropol, the only remaining city and a place Horatio abhors without knowing exactly why.

While the setting and the robot sidekick may invite comparisons to Beneath a Steel Sky (1994), atmospherically and thematically I was far more strongly reminded of Planescape: Torment (1999), one of my favourite games of all time, and Inherit the Earth (1994), one of the first adventure games I ever played and one I may well remember more fondly than it deserves. Primordia shares with the former a wisecracking floating companion accompanying an amnesiac main character whose special destiny has shaped the world he lives in and continues to shape it as the game progresses, as well as a bleak and dark sense of place leavened with moments of humour and surreality. Earth is altogether far more colourful and lighthearted, but like the 2012 title it was interested in building a post-human world in which Man had grown mythic and become imbued with notions of divinity and perfection, with our creations unaware of our true nature.

Much of Primordia‘s thematic interest lies in the juxtaposition of what the robots think about humans, how we actually tend to behave historically, and how we behaved within the world of the game (though the latter is only revealed in bits and pieces). Some of the robots revere humans (or, more accurately, an abstract version of humanity called Man) as gods, others consider the entire concept of non-robot creators to be illogical superstition. The game doesn’t entirely succeed at developing a coherent thesis, but it’s to be commended for tackling issues like faith and free will in the first place, sometimes subtly, sometimes not. I do like how there are a number of different endings, sometimes dependent on choices you make earlier in the game, though it’s fairly clear which one the “intended” ending is (it’s the one with the longest pre-credits cutscene).

The gameplay/interface is a fairly standard two-button affair (right click for “look at”, left click for “use” and “go to”); I prefer more complex parsers, but the puzzles we get are varied enough that I wasn’t bothered by the lack of more verbs. Surprisingly for a game featuring robots, most of the puzzles involve dialogue and/or the inventory, and there are very few logic puzzles requiring abstract thinking to be found (off the top of my head, I can think of just three, and while one of those took me and a friend half an hour to solve, in retrospect it wasn’t punishingly difficult). There’s nothing innovative about the gameplay, but that’s not a negative.

All things considered, Primordia is a worthy addition to the Wadjet Eye library, though the more time goes by since I played it the more I think it really should have been a bit longer. Not necessarily from a cost/benefit perspective, but because the game may have left a few things on the table it could have devoted more time to. It tells the story it wants to tell, sure, and it gives us a few hints regarding the backstory as well. But this robot-populated world seems more interesting than the ultimately fairly predictable main plot can convey, and the game doesn’t spend enough time on the side plots and supporting characters that liven up the player experience. One of the things I love most about Planescape: Torment is the richness of the supporting characters and the wealth of detail you can explore if you choose to do so. In focusing primarily on its main story, Primordia doesn’t really have that and while I wouldn’t want to suggest that all non-Horatio characters are lifeless caricatures, they are less than they could have been.

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