Game review: Far Cry: Primal immerses you in a vivid prehistoric world
Primal doesn’t redefine gaming by any stretch, but it does offer a vast world of possibilities to explore – and addresses a deep need to connect to a time before humans were ascendant
Far Cry: Primal
On a recent rainy afternoon, I rewatched Werner Herzog’s documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which reverently presents images from the Chauvet Cave in France. Closed to the general public, the place houses the oldest human art ever found: wall paintings, some of which date back over 30,000 years. Pondering the dizzying gulf of time that separates us from those elusive artists, Herzog says, “We are locked in history, and they were not.” Hearing his words, the imagination can’t help but take flight. We know that the people who painted those rock surfaces with woolly mammoth and other animals existed, but otherwise, they fall outside our sense of time.
Far Cry: Primal (for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One) 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 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 the past using audio that conjures impressions of different centuries until the number on the screen halts at 10,000 BC. 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 their brethren during a migration that saw a portion of the tribe settle in the fertile land of Oros. The pseudo proto-Indo-European language he speaks was assembled for the game by professors Brenna Reinhart Byrd and Andrew Miles Byrd 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 men stalking a herd of woolly mammoth; 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 palaeolithic world.
The hunting expedition takes a catastrophic turn when a sabretooth 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 matriarchal Izila, who are reputed to be the masters of fire. It is your destiny to become the master of beasts and to break the spirit of the rival tribes. 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.
Anyone who has played one of the recent games in the Far Cry series – or any of Ubisoft’s open world games – will recognise 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 with 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 rewire your expectations of what a game can be but it has just enough energy to provide a pleasurable distraction over the length of its journey.
The Washington Post