Then Man the All-Builder stood and took the machines in his hands, and guided them to a great mountaintop. Together they looked upon the world in its beauty. "All this world was made for you, and now unto you all this is given. Keep it, tend it, and make it flourish." And the All-Builder fell silent and passed from the world, and so ended the Primordium."
– Excerpt from the Gospel of Man
If you thought mankind was capable of destroying itself and the planet around him, wait 'til you get a load of what his machines can do in Primordia. The upcoming post-apocalyptic adventure from Wormwood Studios and Wadjet Eye Games tells the relentlessly bleak tale of artificial life (and a whole lot of death) after Homo sapiens. All that's left now – at least in the barren, desolate wasteland outside the city of Metropol – is a cold metallic existence and a desperate struggle for mechanical survival. I recently played through the first couple hours of this nearly-finished game and found what looks to be a very promising retro title steeped in its own rich sci-fi mythology. It's unapologetically dreary, but there's just enough humour sprinkled in to lighten the mood considerably.
Primordia may not be a happy game, but it just might be a hopeful one. After all, when you've hit rock bottom, there's nowhere to go but up. And the bottom is pretty much where the android Horatio Nullbuilt (version 5) and his floating sidekick Crispin find themselves when a hulking robot invades and steals the power core from their home – a permanently malfunctioning vessel called the "UNNIIC" (pronounced "unique", as the alternative would be far less flattering). The craft was already in shambles with repairs going agonizingly slowly, but it had been providing shelter from the acid rain and radioactive sandy dunes all around them. Without its power, however, the robots can't function, leaving only two choices: flee to the nearby city, or seek out their attacker and retrieve their core.
Lesser bots would have chosen the easier path, but Horatio is fiercely independent and deeply mistrusts any idyllic propaganda out of Metropol, the "city of glass and light". Clearly there's some sort of troubled history there, but the player is not privy to such background information at first. In fact, Horatio himself may not be. As "version 5", his memory has been wiped with each upgrade, and it soon becomes apparent that his earlier incarnations have experienced a remarkably turbulent history. An armoured "preacher of humanist creed" who closely guards a bomb as an enduring shrine to man (probably fitting) knows Horatio by another name as a former pupil, while a giant robot operated by malfunctioning smaller bots calls the android "the Destroyer". That can't be good.
But the Horatio we know is a likeable enough sort. He's rather serious, however, focused squarely on the tasks at hand in playing the straight bot to his hovering pal Crispin. Like any good sidekick, Crispin is quick with the wisecracks, his "guilt subroutines" never letting his “boss” (and creator) live down the fact that he was built with "all mouth and no hands". He can fly (having no arms was the compromise for his mag-lev unit), which makes him useful for reaching otherwise inaccessible places. Though he remains onscreen throughout, a Crispin icon is a permanent inventory fixture, so you can use him like any other object. You can also use inventory items on the real Crispin, which can get a little confusing, or click directly on him for a very general hint about your current objective.
Other than Crispin, Primordia's point-and-click gameplay is entirely traditional in the early going, with right-clicks used to observe hotspots and left-clicks to interact. Accessing the inventory at the top of the screen involves one click to get in and another to close out, which feels unnecessarily cumbersome, but the currently selected item does stay visible in the menu bar until used or replaced. Horatio's datapouch stores relevant notes for future use and includes a map that lets you quickly travel between major locations once they've been discovered (in fact, there's no other way to reach them). Some places like a junkyard consist of only a single screen, while others such as the UNNIIC involve various rooms and levels to explore. A few areas surprised me by scrolling, so it's important to walk to screen edges to be sure you aren't missing anything.
As you'd expect in a world built by machines for machines, many of the puzzles involve practical makeshift constructions. I encountered no bizarre leaps of logic, though there was one serious case of pixel hunting. There was also a standalone puzzle that proved to be an unsolvable red herring, which has wisely since been removed (who says good developers don't listen to feedback?). Overcoming obstacles isn't as easy as it might sound, because many of the parts involve sockets, plugs, conduits and the like, so less mechanically-inclined minds may yet find good use for the try-everything-on-everything approach. You'll also need to track down telescope coordinates, answer some multiple-choice quiz questions, and make use of binary code. One puzzle offers an "alternate" solution (really two variations of the same idea) that apparently has consequences farther along, but I didn't play long enough to see how the difference plays out.
Though Primordia was in development long before Wadjet Eye got involved as publisher, there's no mistaking the game as part of the company's stable of retro-styled adventures. The pixel art graphics would have looked right at home in the genre's VGA Golden Age, and while they're nicely designed, this look certainly isn't for everyone two decades after the fact. Even more distinctively, the game's palette consists of only three colours: brown, browner, and brownest. Okay, there are a few other hues sprinkled in, but for the most part the early stages of this game are largely monochromatic. That's entirely intentional, of course. What would you expect from a world ravaged by war, now covered by permanently overcast, stormy skies in a desert completely devoid of life, littered only with the rusted husks of broken vehicles and equipment? It's ugly, but stylishly so, instantly sucking you into the oppressive futuristic setting.
This game will also sound familiar to Wadjet Eye veterans, its lead characters voiced by Detective Bennet and Joey Mallone... err, I mean... Logan Cunningham (Resonance) and Abe Goldfarb (everything Wadjet, but most notably the Blackwell series). The sound quality itself is a little off in places, but the vocal performances are consistently excellent. That includes the various secondary robots. While the two protagonists sound human, the other bots all have blatantly mechanized voiceovers that sound great. The soundtrack and ambient effects I heard were generally understated, suitably supporting the sombre atmosphere without ever dominating the action.
By the end of the preview demo, I'd managed to restore power to the UNNIIC, but had far more questions about Horatio's chip-wiped identity than when I began, and I look forward to continuing the quest for truth about what really happened since the glorious "age of building” when the game releases in December. I may not like the answers, but hopefully somewhere – anywhere – a hopeful ray of light will shine on this gloomy futuristic world of machines.
If you like your sci-fi dark and dreary (think Harlan Ellison's I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream, but with jokes), keep an eye out for this one next month (you can even preorder while you wait). In the meantime, let's open up and peer inside the Primordia control room to learn more about the game's creators Victor Pflug (concept / art), Mark Yohalem (story and design), James Spanos (coding), and Nathaniel Chambers (music / audio) – all of whom are human... we think.Continued on the next page...