Wadjeteye Games keep releasing them, and we keep lapping them up. Personally there is nothing like a nice hot mug of tea on a dreary day, thinking through puzzles and being entertained by the gripping storylines of their games. The publishers have forged a well-earned niche market with gritty, clever and unique adventure games and are, at least partly, responsible for the resurrection of the genre.
Primordia is their latest release. Set in a dark post apocalyptic sci-fi world run by machines, you control Horatio NullBuilt - a robot on a mission to recover a vital power source that has been stolen from him. Travelling with his floating comedy-relief sidekick, Crispin Horatiobuilt, he must discover the truth behind the Man-worshipping religion and his own erased past. Sadly, this lovingly crafted robotic-steampunk setting is the brightest part of the game: depth, puzzles and controls seem to have slipped down the wayside.
It is not that the puzzles themselves are a failure. The issue is that it’s all just standard fare on the adventure gaming train. If you have got your mitts on any previous adventure games from Monkey Island to Beneath A Steel Sky (a game that Primordia is obviously influenced by) to the recent Wadjeteye games releases Gemini Rue and Resonance then everything will seem natural. Gather up all items that can be found, combine them in your inventory and then work out what to do with the resulting amalgamations. Unlike Gemini Rue with its multiple characters and intertwining plot or Resonance with its interesting memory system, Primordia offers nothing novel. Perhaps these could be called gimmicks to distract the player from the very well realised world of Primordia, yet not a single puzzle stands out as being inventive or genuinely intelligent.
Instead of taxing the mind, pondering over how to solve any particular puzzle, far too often it’s the eye straining work of pixel hunting that will halt your progress. Essential items are hidden away in obscure places, almost as if the developer has a deep-seated desire to hinder any progress. Which arguably may be the case: the whole adventure clocks in at barely three hours and with little reason to replay it definitely feels lacking compared to similar releases.
Playing Primordia directly after the recently released adventure Chaos on Deponia also highlights the weakness of the user interface. The latter game may have failed with other elements, but the swiftness of the interaction and navigation was a joy. Primordia feels ancient in comparison, one can almost imagine blowing off the cobwebs before playing. Repeatedly travelling across areas feels painfully slow (there is thankfully a map to speed things up a little), while using the inventory and the threadbare notes system is desperately frustrating. In a way it could be considered a loving tribute to the games it is inspired by, insisting on maintaining the classic, if archaic, design, yet there is definitely a feeling that the game could be vastly improved by some tinkering with the interface.
It is not all tears, hair tearing and woe however. The tale being told, between the intermissions of puzzles, is clever, intriguing and, at times, laced with sharp witticism and cultural relevance. Perhaps it is not groundbreaking science fiction, but still worthy of following through to the end to reveal the shocking truth. Meanwhile your sidekick Crispin often provides witty one-liners that help lift the mood while you plod across the desolate post-apocalyptic desert or crumbling ruins of a city run by mad machines. Fortunately he also provides an effective hint system, as attempting to speak to him sometimes yields clues to help solve a puzzle, even if sometimes it feels like you are trying to beat that information out of him.
Every line in Primordia is fully voiced, adding that extra level of quality to the proceedings. Wadjeteye games have brought back some of the talent from previous games: those lovely sonorous vocals of Logan Cunningham from Resonance, whom you may also recognise as ‘that narrative voice’ from indie darling Bastion. The acting makes working through the surprisingly large amount of conversations for a short game far more easy going and enjoyable. Remember that the entire world of Primordia is inhabited by robots, so it is also fairly amusing to hear the actors attempting to be robotic, and with the help of some clever sound techniques it comes across as surprisingly realistic. Combining the vocal talent with some clearly lovingly crafted pixelated backgrounds and models makes the overall game rather beautiful, despite the woeful interface.
Perhaps it is simply the case that Primordia was rather rushed. The desperately short length, lack of freedom or choice, the rather unintuitive interface and the absence of many intricate puzzles seem to indicate a game that has been pushed out before it was truly ready. The atmosphere of the world created suggests something far more epic than the rather short tale told and when it comes to a close, much too soon, pulling a Deus Ex: Human Revolution style ‘choose the final cut scene’ ending one cannot help but feel a little cheated.
All of this creates a rather strange predicament: recommending Primordia to any but the most ardent adventure or science fiction fan is difficult, yet at the same time, there is still something magical about it. Much like Amanita Design’s recent robotic adventure Machinarium, the world and setting that is created is far more impressive than the resulting game. And while arguably Wadjeteye’s previous releases are more engaging, the world of Primordia may well stick with you far longer.
A steampunk adventure with Man worshipping robots, what could go wrong? Well...