It’s the richness of the characters that makes the jumps between light-hearted robot comedy and grim post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction work. Despite the cast being populated by machines, these are, for the most part, fully fleshed out personalities. Robots may need to recharge instead of eat or sleep, but they have wants and needs like any human. They may desire justice or freedom, have senses of humor, or feel sadness at the deactivation of another robot. They are all, to some extent, enslaved by their own core logic, whatever that dictates. Horatio can’t help but eschew societal integration in favor of a life of rugged individualism, however lonely. Charity, an assistant to Metropol’s former legal authority (think a one-man supreme court), works constantly to push her feelings aside and view the world only in the black and white impartiality of the law. Even Crispin, who at first might seem like a shallow jokester, has a carefully constructed set of desires.
Other than the aesthetics and story, Primordia is about as traditional a point-and-click adventure as they come. Hotspots are labeled as you hover over them; left-clicking interacts, right-clicking examines. You store items in your inventory, where they can be combined or used in the environment. You can interact with Crispin at any time, either by using his inventory icon on hotspots or using items on him, often when there is something that only he can reach with his maglev hover ability. You can also talk to him to receive a tiny hint, which is usually no more than a nudge in the right direction. Horatio keeps a datapouch that automatically stores important notes such as codes and key conversation points, as well as a map that allows you to jump between main locations instantly. You’ll love having that ability when moving between bombed-out train stations, junkyards half-buried in sand, and crumbling towers that comprise so much of Primordia’s decayed world.
In terms of gameplay, there’s very little here that will surprise anyone who’s ever played an adventure game. You’ll scour environments for useful items, gather clues from conversations, and figure out lots and lots of keycodes. I’d wager that a good 2/3 of the puzzles in this game involve doors locked by codes that must be deciphered, constructed from various clues, or extracted from NPCs. To get those codes, you’ll run the gamut of standard adventure obstacles, combining items into new gadgets, navigating conversation trees, dealing with logic puzzles and even doing some light math. The game is reasonably challenging without being frustrating, and puzzles include plenty of feedback and signposting to guide you to the right solution instead of leaving you in the dark. So all in all, very well done, if a little on the safe side.
Many of the puzzles have multiple solutions, but these branching solutions are so subtly woven into the game that I rarely realized a choice was available. Primordia is not the type of game that smacks you over the head and says, “You can go through the sewers or you can convince somebody to open the door.” Most of the time it just seemed like I was discovering the solution that made the most sense, without ever knowing there were other options. But then, isn’t that the way it should be?
Decision-making doesn’t just stop at puzzles. For a game that heavily features the theme of free will, it makes sense that it would involve a number of player choices that influence the outcome. Some of these are obvious—near the end you’ll have a number of choices that directly affect which of the ten(!) endings you’ll get. But some are not so obvious. In fact, I was making choices throughout the game that I didn’t even realize were choices. The way one deals with a particular religious zealot early on, for example, can slightly impact one of the existing endings. The effects are small but it does add a layer of replay value and reinforces the game’s concepts. And considering the game is roughly 7-10 hours long the first time through, there’s already quite a bit of content to begin with.
If Primordia had been released in the '90s, there’s a good chance we would be talking about it with the same reverence as minor classics like Snatcher or Beneath A Steel Sky. I have very little to actually criticize about the game—it’s a uniquely gorgeous sci-fi game with style to spare, a plot that veers successfully between goofy humor and suitable solemnity, and puzzles with multiple solutions that feel like logical extensions of the situation. It's only in more subtle ways that it falls a little short of the genre masterpieces. It has lofty goals, exploring profound themes such as collectivism vs. individualism, free will vs. conditioning, religious faith vs. pure logic, but it doesn’t seem to reach the depths of its potential. The puzzles are satisfying but none are outstandingly clever, the characters are likeable without being truly unforgettable, and so on.
None of this is a knock on what Wormwood Studios has achieved, however, as every part of the game screams of the passion and talent of its developers. Like other indie designers Wadjet Eye has taken under wing, this team has proven itself a studio to watch. For their first outing, Primordia is already a great game, and I look forward to seeing more from them in future.