There's nothing special about a game with high production values. I think we're past the point in this industry where we should be impressed by a game simply because it "looks professional." After all, there are plenty of movies that "look professional," but that doesn't mean they're good. Not that I don't appreciate it when people go the extra mile to give their game the best possible presentation, but that ultimately has little effect on the quality of the game itself. What amazes me is that "high production values" and "Hollywood-quality story" are common praises for videogames. On one hand I can sympathize with this position: I too grew up during the age of bad full-motion video and numerous painful attempts on the industry's part to emulate Hollywood. But on the other hand, I think we're far enough beyond this unfortunate phase to still be caught up in this kind of rhetoric. Imagine, if you will, how pathetic it would seem if Roger Ebert began a review by saying "Wow! They really spent money on this movie! They even got real Hollywood actors like Ben Affleck and Bruce Willis!"
This is the kind of vibe I get from Primal, a new gothic action/adventure game by Sony Computer Entertainment's European branch. It seems to be designed to invite this kind of praise. It doesn't use any high profile actors (at least none Americans would know), but the way the story is emphasized and the visual style in particular have an "aren't you impressed that we spent this much time and money" quality I find aggravating. This wouldn't be so terrible if there were some redeeming gameplay, but there isn't. In fact, there's almost none. I don't think I've played a more boring game in my life, a fact that makes the game's obsession with its own story and moody atmosphere seem almost narcissistic—as if it is actively trying to prevent me from having fun so I can be captive to what it obviously thinks is more important.
Primal is the story of a girl named Jen who is sucked in an alternate reality after her boyfriend is kidnapped at a rock concert by a mysterious hulking figure. After she's injured trying to save him in a scuffle with the mystery person, she finds herself in a hospital where she is visited by a gargoyle named Skree. Skree tells her that she must come with him if she wants to save her boyfriend, and he leads her into OBLIVION, a dimension which houses the NEXUS, a machine that keeps reality balanced and in check. Naturally, Skree tells Jen that the NEXUS is failing because the four sub-realms of OBLIVION are out of balance, and this all has something to do with why her boyfriend was kidnapped. If you've ever played a videogame in your life you can probably guess what comes next.
The first thing players will notice about the game is how languid its storytelling is. After a fairly long cut-scene where Jen's boyfriend is kidnapped, the player is subjected to endless expository cut-scenes in which Skree basically outlines the entire backstory of Primal's universe. This is amazingly boring. Long cut-scenes aren't necessarily bad, but for them to be justified they at least need to be told in an interesting way. Games like Metal Gear Solid 2 and even Xenosaga, while they could certainly stand the use of an editor, at least have a rudimentary understanding of what makes a story interesting (i.e. not telling the player everything from the beginning). Primal's exposition is so one-dimensional it feels like a classroom lecture. I half-expected Skree to pull out a chalkboard and quiz me on the names and places I was expected to remember. This isn't helped by the fact there's nothing to do for the first hour of the game except literally walk from one cinematic to the next. There is no actual gameplay for what seems like an eternity, and when it finally does come around you might even have trouble noticing it since it is so inconsequential.
Basically, the game is designed for Jen and Skree to function like a team. The player can choose between one and the other at any time, and through their combined efforts the player is able to solve puzzles that allow her progress through the realms of OBLIVION. Skree can use torches, turn to stone, and climb on walls while Jen can fight and shift into "demon forms," alternate physical forms gained throughout the game that each have different abilities. I'm sure this sounded great on paper, but in the game it never rises above the level of plodding busy work that is so contrived it clearly has no other purpose than to give you something to do between cinematics. Environments, while technically gorgeous, are nothing more than linear paths with arbitrary puzzles littered along the way to impede your progress. Players can expect to spend several minutes at a time wandering aimlessly around empty spaces looking for a single lever, door, or whatever to get to the next area and repeat the process all over again. I assume this is supposed to be made tolerable by the presence of combat, but even that is a joke. The player can literally run past every enemy in the game, a flaw so obvious that the designers had to resort to making certain enemies stand in crucial doorways to force you to fight them. Of course, even this might be forgivable if the combat itself was fun enough that you actually wanted to fight, but it isn't. The controller layout is needlessly awkward, and there is no sense of impact to speak of when hitting or being hit not even with the extra demon forms. There is absolutely no visceral dimension to it whatsoever. It's exactly like the puzzles and exploration: limp and monotonous.
But, even with all these examples of lazy design, the game could have been redeemed somewhat. Even games that function as little more than over-glorified DVDs can be interesting and entertaining if the story itself is actually worth suffering through the gameplay for. Unfortunately, this is where Primal strikes out once and for all. As I mentioned above, it is clear that the story and general presentation have been given much more attention than the gameplay. Primal is counting on its story to motivate you to play through the game, but in this sense it fails pretty miserably. There are multiple reasons for this, but the all basically boil down to how clichd the story is—and I know how that sounds coming from me. I firmly believe that cliché is not necessarily bad, and that good writing and good acting can rise above even the most tired formula. Primal has neither of these. Although Jen appears to have been designed as tough goth girl with spunk and wit, her dialogue and acting is so hollow it sinks any appeal the character could have. The "jokes" and "banter" she frequently exchanges with Skree invariably fall to the ground like comic lead, and, I'm sorry, but I couldn't listen to her voice without thinking of Courtney Cox in Masters Of The Universe. I eventually switched the voice-acting to French so she at least wouldn't seem quite as ditzy. Ultimately, the thing about Primal that bugged me the most was how superficial its aesthetic was. It seemed to think that dark skies, spooky castles, cloven hooves, and metal music makes something a hip piece of neo gothic fiction. But there is absolutely no originality of substance to it whatsoever, nothing interesting Primal brings to the mix. Devil May Cry had a lot of the same flaws as Primal (dialogue, plot) but at least it had two things going for it: gameplay, and a new spin on the goth aesthetic. Likewise, Soul Reaver 2 had gameplay arguably as bad a Primal's but managed to polish off a truly compelling story with superb dialogue. I can't imagine anything Primal does that doesn't seem derivative of something much better. In the end, it seems like a very, very lame imitation of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer.
It's sad. It boggles the mind to think that this much time was spent on presentation and backstory when none of it resonates in the slightest. At the very least, the game could have been enjoyed for its narrative, but given the fact that gameplay is virtually non-existent there is nothing to cushion the player from the agonizing boredom that is Primal's randomly generated gothic fantasy plot. Soon after I got it, someone ask me to describe it to them and I remember saying it was like Soul Reaver 2 without the plot. In other words: nothing.