I must admit that Far Cry Primal has intrigued me since its announcement late last year. I’d been quietly waiting for game set in the stone age for ages, and this setting immediately felt strangely right for a Far Cry game. The game tries its hand at at evoking the sense of living thousands of years ago in a harsh, uncivilised times in a world that’s not quite yet dominated by man.
In 10,000 BCE you are Takkar, a warrior of the Wenja people who turns up in sacred Oros, a land of plenty and promised land of sorts. However the Wenja, previously settled in the region, have been scattered into disarray by attacks from rival peoples. To counter your rivals you must bring the Wenja together, mastering the wilderness itself to reclaim Oros.
The fight against your prey, human and not, is realised through excellent combat systems characteristic of the Far Cry name. Despite the technological limitations the era, you make use of an impressive array of weapons and tools that feel like they support varied solutions to the problem of “kill them over there”. The spear has good melee range and is deadly when thrown, but breaks easily. The club packs a punch if you can draw in close. The bow shoots farther and truer than the spear, but starts to lose efficacy when armoured enemies start to turn up in the midgame. This core trinity is supported by a range of throwable weapons that eventually build up to make you a very potent walking armoury indeed. I always pick bows in games that let me; I like using retrievable ammo and I find the particular rhythm of dispatching an enemy with a well-placed arrow uniquely satisfying. Needless to say, I’m a happy man here, the sense of impact from your primitive weapons lend the combat a satisfyingly raw sensation.
A newly major focus of Primal is Takkar’s status as a master of beasts. You harness his unique skills to tame a range of beasts- wild cats, wolves and even bears- to aid you in battle. Your first companion is the owl, who you can call upon at any time to scan areas to mark enemies but you eventually unlock the ability to target single enemies to be taken out by the owl as well as dropping projectiles like bee bombs.
Land-based help is recruited by laying down bait near your desired beast in the wild, waiting for it to notice and start eating the food, and approaching it slowly before holding down the contextual “tame beast” button. It would’ve been nice to have a bit more of an extensive system where you have to maintain the trust of an animal though, for instance when hunting animals you could occasionally have to prevent your companion from eating the corpse of a rare kill, trading meat from your reserves for the valuable carcass. That’s make the help of your companion feel more earned as well as making them feel like more than a simple AI tool that you point at enemies or prey occasionally.
The actual mechanical use of your beasts is largely well implemented, although pathing issues can case frustration and contextual cues to heal your friend don’t always trigger even when you’re stood in the right place looking at them in the right way. Primal however does a better job than most at giving you largely believable and useful AI companions.
A feature that I’m especially enamoured with is the unlock able ability to ride the larger animals in your repertoire as well as mammoths. When you’ve mastered riding a sabre-toothed tiger to simultaneously hurl spears at enemy combatants and maul those foolish enough to get too close, you feel like a prehistorical badass in a way that feels game-defining.
Understandably, Primal places far more importance on scavenging and hunting than the previous Far Cry games as you build your village and crafting capabilities. You need to master opportunistically exploiting prey and environmental resources to fully realise your character progression. Hunting is really fun thanks to the varied AI of your potential prey- fighting a pack of wolves feels very distinct from taking on a cave lion or a bear, and you’ll soon learn to leave mammoths and wooly rhinos alone before you’ve built up some serious weaponry. The day/night cycle also has renewed importance, with predators becoming much more prevalent at night. The early game gave me lots of memorable nighttime encounters where I had to use flaming clubs to scare off roving packs of wolves, whirling around to stop individuals from sneaking up on me from behind.
The importance of fire is also emphasised in the northern reaches of Oros, which are cold and mountainous. A new “cold” meter appears while you’re in this area, and you need to bring out the fire clubs or stand near campfires to keep yourself warm. It’s a great way of making you feel like you’re in an area that’s just as deadly as the dense forest but in a wholly different way.
Far Cry’s patented annoyingly overlong scavenging animations make a return and are more egregious than before due to the much stronger focus on scavenging. Thankfully you can turn these off in the options menu, although this sadly doesn’t extend to the animations for helping yourself and feeding meat to heal your pet in battle. This can lead to maddeningly awkward instances where you’re in a 5 second-long animation feeding and even petting your companion in the midst of a deadly fight. I don’t see why there isn’t a contextual change to swiftly chuck meat down for your friend if there are hostiles or flighty prey nearby.
The game is also plagued by a temporary blindness to contextual actions for interacting with environmental objects and companion animals. While it’s not by any means a constant annoyance it does turn up often enough that it starts to impact on your experience of the world and it’s worth mentioning because of the way it breaks your hard-won immersion. It’s not fun to spend 10 seconds approaching and re-approaching a plant over and over to jog the game into presenting you with the contextual button press to harvest it.
I’m really impressed with the Wenja language, which is spoken by all character in the game. The subtitles can verge too close to “Me Tarzan, you Jane” at times, but the implementation and delivery of the language is effective enough at helping build the sense of place and time that I can forgive that. Unfortunately the characters, while aesthetically well-designed and varied, ultimately feel interchangeable in the sense that they’re all written to be different shades of crazy. One or two wacky characters could have been interesting but the “crazy primitive human” stereotype is a crutch that pretty much every character in the game leans on. This results in a cast of characters that melts together allowing no one to stick out memorably.
Far Cry Primal’s main issue comes from its poor narrative. It never really pulls out any threads beyond “we need these resources to build our village,” or “these guys are threats to us, so kill them.” Perhaps this was an intentional decision on the part of the writers because of the Wenja’s simpler life centred purely around survival, but that doesn’t make for a very satisfying narrative. Objectives often feel drab and repetitive, and even potentially more climactic encounters often fail to differentiate themselves from an event you’d stumble across in one of the many optional side activities. Much of the game feels inconsequential, mainly driving the player through its crafting and skill trees. And while the rewards from that progression are cool, it’s certainly not a worthy replacement for a good narrative.
The thin plot is such a shame because Oros is a very pretty and well-realised world that could’ve been a great canvas for a compelling story. Primal depicts packed forests in hazy sunlight starkly contrasted with deadly, frozen tundra and little havens of grass plains. The sound design also does a good job of pulling you into the environment, layering animal and ambient sounds to make the varied landscapes feel dense and dangerous. Sadly, these aesthetic triumphs are set back by the HUD and UI elements. The text and icons on the HUD and map are basically unchanged from vanilla Far Cry games, and don’t gel well with the prehistoric vibe that Primal goes to great lengths to cultivate.
The cluttered interface only serves to reinforce the game’s problem of plenty. The HUD is intrusive by its visual design and the map is overbearingly busy with a diverse set of markers that drives home the notion that the game doesn’t quite know its direction. There’s a huge amount of incidental events while you’re free-roaming (“help these guys defend their little base,” “save that captive,” you know the drill) that can penalise you if you just want to go to a specific objective and don’t feel like humouring the event. Sometimes these instances are so numerous that it really jams the pace.
Far Cry Primal is a mechanically accomplished game that’s held short of greatness by a systemically cluttered design, creating a general sense of meandering that extends to the weak story. What results is a solid and fun experience that nevertheless manages to feel inconsequential and never really satisfy with meaningful payoff of climax. Perhaps Primal would have benefitted from a shorter length in line with Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. As it is, it’s a game that’ll do a great job of holding your attention until its thin narrative and directionless gameplay loop stretch your patience too far.