An interesting (Altered) Beast
Primal Light is an interesting project. It’s an action platformer that takes clear inspiration from the games of old. This isn’t a particularly new idea, but it certainly gets props for being one of the most authentic old school experiences I’ve played thus far.
This is clear from the first few seconds as you boot up Primal Light. It greets you with the ominous green/blue hue of the main character in the background as a 16-bit style start menu awaits you. This is when you are shown one of few changes Primal Light makes that couldn’t have been made 30 years prior. It has multiple save slots and a difficulty setting, a refreshing thing to see. This does not mean at any point Primal Light gets easy, just easier. It is punishing but attempts to give you enough control to feel powerful. This works to varying degrees. From the very start of the game, you are given an attack, a jump, a heal, and a roll mechanic. That’s about it.
What’s it about?
Before mentioning the gameplay, let’s talk about the story. For the most part, there isn’t really much of a story. Like old school titles before it, Primal Light doesn’t seem to worry too much about the story, only really taking a minute or so to get to the fighting. One day, a big haunting phantom attacks your village, leaving it in embers. As Krog, you must retrieve 12 artefacts in order to undo that which the gods have done to you. You can just skip this and get right down to the killing.
The attack mechanic has a fairly slow swing leaving you open for punishment if you miss or attack from too close up. This is occasionally frustrating but works decently for the most part. You have three segments of health from the start of Primal Light, but this can be upgraded to store more. Generally, at the start of the game, enemies kill you in three hits, but you can restore and a half bars with each heal. You have three non-replenishable heals per life that take a small window of time to use. All these small moves can result in death which is, ultimately, what is so appealing about Primal Light. You will probably die a lot, but it’s so easy to get back in and rush your way through levels.
A nice place to rest
Luckily, you don’t have to make it through the levels in one go; bonfires are lit as you walk by which work as a checkpoint system. When you die, you respawn from the bonfire until you run out of lives, in which you must restart the entire level. Like most games of this genre, you probably won’t make it through the level first go. It must be played through a few times to learn the best ways of going forward and find the secrets that await you. That secret usually takes the form of extra lives or equippable charms that give you buffs for the future. These can be equipped from bonfires and do things such as higher damage on low health or show enemy health. Whilst they don’t entirely change the difficulty, they do give a nice little bonus for exploration. Speaking of exploration As you kill enemies or destroy items, you earn a currency of sorts that can be used just before boss fights to buy extra lives.
Generally, these lives will be needed. Not for the boss in front of you but for the next level. Bosses tended to be a bit easier than the level that proceeds them as they are often strictly choreographed and have a surprisingly small pool of health. For the most part, they take inspiration from ’80s and ’90s boss fights which leaves them feeling a little overdone nearly 40 years later. This is true of the entirety of Primal Light.
While the gameplay is solid and manages to pack a punch; there isn’t much that’s new apart from a small health upgrade system and a few moves you pick up along the story. It takes such large inspiration from older titles that it often fails to properly identify itself as anything more than a nostalgia-driven passion project. There are so many little details that feel like they’ve come right out of old titles, but this ends up feeling a little bit dull after the shine wears off. Seeing old school stun locks and intentionally annoying enemy design can only get by on so much goodwill. If you long for a time of cartridges and broken controllers, this one is definitely for you. If not, I probably wouldn’t bother.