Spent most of the game slowly backing up and shooting behind me...

User Rating: 2 | Primal Fears PC
The first thing I figure out about Primal Fears is that it controls like a twin-stick shooter - move one direction, shoot in another. Then I start the first level, and there are a number of tiny bug-like zombie things dancing around but not yet acknowledging me. Is this actually a survival horror title? Do I need to think about conserving ammo? Is there a way around these things without killing them? I spend a few minutes walking the level to see how I can interact with objects and sneak around, and the bugs perk up and run me into a corner. Okay, it's a twin-stick shooter.

So these creatures start chasing after you. Their limbs are longer and scratchier than yours, but your assault rifle has longer range than theirs - a sort of asymmetrical gameplay. Clearly the advantage is for you to stay away from the bugs and shoot from a distance. This is largely accomplished by walking in one direction and firing back at the other, putting space between you and the melee-only bugs. There might be enemies later in the game that used ranged attacks, but for the first few levels, the offensive retreat gambit is clearly the winning tactic.

Of course, enemies will occasionally flank you from both sides or cut off your only way out, such as when you walk into a side alley to grab a money box and the game spawns creatures from behind to trap you. This is a horribly dangerous situation up until the point that you sprint past the creatures back out into the street and are once again availed of room for tactical backing. With practice, you can learn advanced techniques, like using the sprint button to quickly run away when you need a moment to reload, or how you can walk backwards around a vehicle to create an infinite loop of strategy.

Tactical backing is actually a part of most twin-stick games, but the way that Primal Fears also wants to be a horror game turns this into a wretched slog. For one, there are no creatures that can be killed by a single bullet in the beginning of the game, and all of the creatures run at the same speed or faster than you do. There's no use in standing your ground or trying to corral enemies into better firing spaces - if you're not constantly moving backwards, then you're going to get caught by the waves that you can't quickly kill.

Granted, you do earn money to spend on new weapons and weapon upgrades. Let's say you earn your first $1000. Do you buy a new rocket launcher with a maximum ammo capacity of THREE? Do you buy an ammo upgrade for your shotgun, which increases your carrying capacity by ONE? Or do you just upgrade the starter assault rifle with a 600-bullet backpack, which you'll be using for 90% of the game? Here's question two of the pop quiz: If Dean can only carry 34 rounds for his shotgun, and the medium-size enemies on easy difficulty require two close-range blasts to kill, with no spread for killing multiple enemies at once, how many of the 7,384 bugs in a level will Dean kill before he forgets that he has any weapons other than the basic rifle? Maybe the joke is that you're supposed to buy each special weapon and use each just twice before reaching a shopping station, where you'll have to spend half your upgrade money to refill each weapon's ammo.

There's a lesson here somewhere about mashing different genres together. A shooter game is about, "Which targets are the most immediate threat to my survival, and how do I get to a place to best dispatch them?" Horror games are usually about, "How many resources do I have left, and can I bypass these enemies without directly engaging them?" This game is about, "How many more bullets do I have to fire into this wave of 32 bugs before they explode into goo, and can I buy a pair of custom Dr. Scholls inserts for walking backwards?" The compromise between the two genres has neither tension nor cheap thrills.

The tedium is exacerbated by the way enemies appear. You move through a level with the occasional full wave of bugs, but mostly you're dispatching one or two bugs at a time, requiring you to pop the tiny ones over and over or restart the walking process against the larger ones. The levels feel even longer with the lack of diversity - bugs only seem to be distinguished by size and health, using the same chase-you-down-and-bite-you tactics no matter how big they are. I earned enough points to enter the first arena, which first had no ammo pickups and forced me to quit the match when I was out of ammo, and salted the wound by not allowing me to keep what money I'd earned there so that I could not immediately buy capacity upgrades.

The artists deserve a bit of credit, as the levels appear to be crafted without a lot of cut and paste, and there's just enough gruesomeness and apocalyptica to create a mood. But if this is how the end of the world is going to go down, then I'm going to spend less time looking at the landscape and more time figuring out how to attach a rear-view mirror to a baseball cap. I made it through a few levels of this thing, but I think I'll wait for someone else's Let's Play videos to find out how the endgame goes.

(Every indie Steam game of 2013 at http://deancleansoff.blogspot.com/ !)

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