“Far Cry: Primal” caters to those longing to connect with our earliest ancestors. The game speaks to the atavistic wish to experience the world in a pristine state, where humankind is but a participant in the natural order and not its master. (Post-apocalyptic narratives do something similar by reining in mankind’s power over the environment.) “Primal” opens with the chatter and noise of the present and then rapidly reaches back through past using audio clips that conjure our impression of different centuries until the number on the screen halts at 10,000 B.C.E. What better exit from the noise of the present than the primordial past?
In Central Europe, a dark-skinned shaman makes a fire in a cave. Lighting a torch, he casts its wavering light over cave paintings as he tells us the story of the Wenja tribe who became separated from its brethren over a migration that saw a portion of the tribe settle in the fertile land of Oros. The pseudo proto-Indo-European dialect he speaks was assembled for the game by professors Brenna Reinhart Byrd and Andrew Miles Byrd (no relation to the author) from the University of Kentucky. The developers were wise to bet that their audience wouldn’t be thrown off by subtitles. The language barrier sharpens the game’s exoticism, an intrinsic aspect of the series’ DNA.
After the shaman tells us of the lost Wenja tribe, the game cuts to a group of Wenja tribesman stalking a herd of woolly mammoths; the scene is striking and grounded in a plausible scenario. The leader of the hunters tells you to wait for a mammoth to fall behind the pack, then lead the charge on it. Watching the mammoths in the mist and your fellow tribesmen edging into their positions is captivating. What the game does very well, particularly in a small number of quests where you track a great predator over a large area of terrain, is to offer the most enticing hunting simulator of any Far Cry game. Whereas hunting — and gathering for that matter — felt somewhat auxiliary to the psychedelic guerilla warfare of the other Far Cry games, these activities are necessities in the paleolithic world.
The hunting expedition takes a catastrophic turn when a sabertooth tiger jumps into the fray. Your leader saves you but not before sustaining a mortal injury. It’s then up to you to find and reunite the Wenja tribe scattered throughout the land of Oros.
At length, you’ll encounter two other tribes who are hostile to the Wenja — the brutish, cannibalistic Udam and the matriarch-led Izila, who are reputed to be the masters of fire. It is your destiny to become the master of beasts and to break your rival tribes’ spirits. If the idea of mowing down your enemies with a mammoth or sending a badger into an enemy fort to do your dirty work doesn’t tickle your interest, then the game’s charms will likely be lost on you.
“Primal’s” spectacular violence is consistent with a world in which animals pose one of the biggest threats so it’s not surprising to see your avatar, say, drink the blood of a rat then spirit walk. Because the setting is such a blank in our collective imagination it’s easy to take the game’s liberties in stride. (Shout-out to Urki the Thinker — the proto American rube.)
Anyone who has played one of the recent games in the Far Cry series — or any of Ubisoft’s open world games — will recognize the overall rhythms. There are outposts for you to claim along your incremental land grab, a mind-numbing slew of collectibles to find, and bosses with so much health they become boring to fight against. (Thankfully, you don’t have to struggle against an icon-saturated map as it’s easy to filter all but main quests or whatever groups of missions that you prefer.)
Over the 24 hours that I put into “Far Cry: Primal,” I found that most in-game missions pass by in a blur — lots of kill this and burn that. More memorable for me were the little details in the game — such as the man in your village who spends his days rehearsing one of the Wenja’s chants or the shrine-like structures that dot the land and please the eye with their rough-hewn refinement.
“Far Cry: Primal” won’t re-wire your expectations of what a game can be but it has just enough energy to pleasurably distract one over the length of its journey.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
More game reviews: