When Primal Hunt was first announced, my heart sank a little. Not because of the game itself, but because of who was making it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of well-established developers Phaser Lock, but the announcement of this Dino-Hunter crushed my dreams of seeing a surprise announcement of a Quest port of their outstanding MOBA/RTS Final Assault happen any time soon.
That said, the studio was also responsible for the seminal N64 classic Turok, so there was still that spark of hope that Primal Hunt will see a VR revival of a classic part of my childhood. Well, we have the developers, and we have the Dinosaurs, but did we deliver the Jurassic dream? Grab your bows and join me in the long grass as we hunt for VR excellence…
With no need for a heavy story-based preamble, the player is swiftly introduced into the world of Primal Hunt as an elite big game hunter visiting a futuristic game park with the express purpose of murdering prehistoric animals for sport. By way of a fancy neuro-linking process, gamers inhabit a cybernetic hunting suit specially designed for the rigours of hunting the biggest of big game.
I’ve always found the concept of big game hunting entirely repellent, so I will admit to being a bit put off by the concept right from the outset. This sense of distaste was magnified in the early missions, as the game starts you off hunting essentially harmless herbivores, sometimes killing them in front of their young. The game then congratulates you on your manly prowess while you dismember your prey’s remains for mounting as a trophy. Not my bag, but that’s neither here nor there.
Primal Hunt then provides you with a progression of hunts, pitting your skills against dinosaurs of ever-increasing ferocity. Not satisfied with just scaling up the size, quantity, or threat level of the dinosaurs, each Dino type also has a tiered level system of bullet spongery designed to increase the challenge. Like so much of the rest of the game, this tactic feels like an easy way for the developers to stretch out the campaign, but we’ll get into that later.
Should you find yourself getting weary of killing mere dinosaurs, then fear not! The team at Primal Hunt have been good enough to equip many of your reptilian foes with an assortment of impossible-seeming tech upgrades. Things like razer legs, sniper rifles and missiles are bolted onto your once-extinct fodder to make history’s deadliest predators even more threatening. It is quite frankly ridiculous, but in the context of the game, it actually works and is worth a laugh, if nothing else.
Each hunt you undertake is broken into 3 sections, split up by having to find and examine “clues”. These clues are entirely unnecessary and really just serve as waypoints to section off the quest and give you mini-missions to achieve along the way. As the hunts progress, these challenges get progressively harder, going from killing one or two low-level enemies to navigating raptor-infested areas to proceed to the next zone.
You can choose to brute-force your way through if you wish, laying waste to anything cold-blooded along the way, but there are also stealth mechanics that allow you to hide in bushes to avoid combat or better position yourself for a kill. With the limited ammo available, these tactics can often make the difference between life or death. There are also roosts or towers spread around the map that can be traversed with a grappling arrow, which can be lifesaving if you are pursued and outnumbered.
While the stealth elements can be tense and challenging, they frequently result in your final quarry being that much harder to take down as you are swarmed by all the lesser Dinos you previously avoided. As such, unless expressly forbidden by the mission brief, it’s usually best to shoot first and ask questions later.
Outside the trappings of the hunt, Primal Hunt is primarily a bow shooter and, unfortunately, falls a little flat on that front. It’s not that the bow mechanics are “bad” per se, it’s just that they have been done so much better before that if you’re an enthusiast of bows in VR it can be a little disappointing. The physics and fall of the arrows feel slightly off and adjusting your aim takes a little time. The sound effects and animations that correspond with a successful hit lack weight and really struggle to give a satisfying sense of impact.
Games like In Death: Unchained have demonstrated to a gold standard how these elements can come together to resonate in an impactful and satisfying way. By comparison, Primal Hunt’s archery just feels weak and arcadey. This may seem nitpicky, but in a game where the majority of what you do is shoot creatures with a bow and arrow, it really robs the experience of what should be one of its great satisfactions.
All criticisms aside, there are still some really engaging moments on offer in Primal Hunt. Attempting to track an enhanced Galimimus while being pursued by a pack of raptors with sniper rifles was an experience, to say the least. Likewise, hiding in a copse of Palaeolithic ferns while a gigantic T-rex roared and lumbered past was also completely noteworthy, as was running through a swamp while trying to get away from a charging Dimetrodon.
In fact, Primal Hunt’s biggest asset is the sheer scale of the beasts that inhabit the world, and it’s hard not to be a little intimidated sharing the map with them.
When it comes to content, Phaser Lock have definitely gone for the Brachiosaurus-sized portion, however, it really feels like quantity-over-quality. Everywhere you look, there are things to do, with a good range of biomes to explore, dinosaurs to hunt, and even different hunt types to spice up the gameplay. All that said, though, it often feels like the game gets mired in repetitions or slight variations on a theme, a fact that is compounded by the infinitesimally small rewards gained for completion.
There is a fairly deep skill progression tree on offer in Primal Hunt, as well as a decent range of unlockable traps and arrow types. It’s really quite good if you have the patience to get into it.
I think it’s fair to state that my first impressions of Primal Hunt were not good. In fact, they were downright terrible. Everything that is fun about Primal Hunt is hidden behind the game’s progression system, and this takes a dangerously long time to reveal itself. In fact, overall I would say that pacing is my main vexation with this game, far outweighing any of the gripes I’ve mentioned above as an impediment to continued enjoyment.
After 7 hours in the game, I have unlocked a pitifully small arsenal of perks, weapons, and embellishments with which to further my hunt, despite having completed a reasonable number of hunts.
This Gatekeeping through Grind approach is annoying at first and worse over a longer time, having a real chance of putting new players off before the gameplay starts to evolve. The skill tree, for example, offers such mighty boosts as “2% gain in stamina” in exchange for your hard-earned “essence” (the in-game currency). It’s maddening! The gains are so minute as to be imperceptible, and you just have to assume that if you grind long enough you’ll eventually see some results.
All of this combines to give the impression of a game that started with a “20-hour campaign” as an initial product feature, and filler content was just stacked on until it lumbered across the finish line.
Visually, the team at Phaser Lock have done a decent job, although it is not without its small share of charming jank. The environments are impressively large, just like the creatures that inhabit them. But in order to achieve this within the Quest’s obvious limitations, there is a liberal usage of a fog palette to hide the draw distance. This works in the swampy areas but feels a little out of place in brightly lit biomes bathed in clear blue skies.
There are frequent issues with dinosaurs “forgetting” their animation cycles and moving through the environment like a toy pulled along on a string, as well as the odd upside-down Pteradon to keep things amusing. I also had a repeated issue where my arrow hand would shift in front of my face, making it difficult to aim. There is a chance, though, that this may have been a tracking issue caused by my play space more than a graphical hitch. Other than these issues, the art style is coherent and well suited to the game’s tone and does an adequate job of imparting the awe expected from moving amongst so large a scale.
The sound design is deliberately understated, with the player seemingly encouraged to immerse in the sounds of the environment they are stalking through. Dinosaur sounds boom and shriek as you would expect, and the overall soundscape creates an ambience that compliments the gameplay (aside from the impotent weapon impact sounds, of course). It is nonetheless a little vanilla and there is a missed opportunity for creating a deeper sense of tension. Had Primal Hunt seen the dino-themed equivalent of Cosmodread’s outstanding audio work, the experience would have been considerably more immersive.
Primal Hunt is a reasonable attempt to fill a dinosaur-sized niche in the Quest library that does several things well. However, marred by mediocre bow mechanics and pacing issues that spread the fun too thinly to be properly enjoyed, the game, unfortunately, falls somewhat short of its potential. With just a little more polish to a few key design elements Primal Hunt could still improve over time, but as it stands, it showcases that even in dino land, bigger is not always better.
Despite those criticisms, there are plenty of moments dotted throughout the game that build an immersive tension that briefly capitalizes on the wonder of walking amongst dinosaurs and the terror of being chased by them.
It’s no Final Assault, but it does have Cybernetically enhanced T-Rexs, so there is always that.