Primordia — originally released on PC in 2012, and now landing on Nintendo Switch — isn’t your typical post-apocalyptic adventure. Sure, it stays true to the genre’s bleak atmosphere and cataclysmic set design, it’s not really interested in questions about how the world died and the struggles of people continuing to eke out a life in the wasteland. Indeed, there isn’t a human in sight—this post apocalypse is one where humans are long-gone, with the remains of the world left to robots. From that basis, Primordia deftly balances humour, personality, and thoughtful philosophical musing on questions of religion and the nature of existence (with a dash of Shakespearean influence, for good measure).
In the middle of the dirt and rust that defines what’s left of the world, the city of Metropol stands tall as a beacon of hope. It’s an apparent paradise for robots, with an abundance of the electricity that robot lives rely on and a happy, peaceful existence. For Horatio Nullbuilt, though, it’s a place to be avoided at all cost—he doesn’t exactly know why, thanks to damaged memory chips, but some remnant of programming from his previous versions makes Metropol a source of trouble. So, instead, he lives a hermit-like life in a crashed airship in the Dunes, alongside his jovial if sarcastic sidekick, Crispin Horatiobuilt.
It’s not the supposed glamour of Metropol, but it’s a comfortable enough life—at least, until a strange bot shows up and takes off with his home’s power core. Understandably a bit miffed, Horatio and Crispin set out in search of a replacement, and with no other options, decide to finally visit the city. As you can probably guess, it’s not quite the paradise it’s made out to be, and Horatio finds himself drawn into the sinister machinations behind the flashing lights, and the murky questions that arise from his own fragmented memories.
It’s a riveting journey, rife with mystery, political drama, a touch of cyberpunk influence, and just the right dose of levity. Horatio, ever stoic and serious, and Crispin’s lively personality balance each other out wonderfully, with an eccentric supporting cast surrounding them—all brought brilliantly to life by sharp writing and fantastic voice performances. It can be a relatively brief adventure, depending on your aptitude for solving puzzles (or if you follow a walkthrough), but that’s to its strength: it’s a succinct, captivating tale that doesn’t mess around and lets brevity be a source of impact.
As enjoyable as it is on a superficial level, though, it’s the philosophical underpinnings that really make Primordia stand out. Skipping right past the tired questions of whether robots can truly be sentient, it instead explores far more interesting questions on the nature of existence and society. What does identity look like in a world where you can be one version upgrade or virus away from having your entire being rewritten? What does law and order look like in a society governed by a robotic adherence to the letter of the law? What is free will, really?
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Primordia is its thesis on religious belief. In this ruined world, there are those who revere Man, the All-Builder, to whom all robots ultimately owe their existence. With its own scripture, belief systems, worship rituals, and God to place faith in, this Humanism has all the pieces of a religion, and it provides the same sense of peace, comfort, and community that comes with any other faith. But as anyone playing will know (and as the game touches upon), the Man that Humanists revere and the truth about the humans who left the world in ruins don’t exactly marry up.
In that, Primordia undertakes an intriguing exploration of the nature of faith. Through Horatio’s own Humanist perspective and the clear disconnect between Man, The All-Builder and the true nature of a humankind that brought the world to ruin, the game finds an answer to the age-old question of whether God is “real”: does it actually matter? Faith is about… well, faith, not facts and science, and if that can be a source of comfort and peace, it’s a worthy endeavour.
(Which isn’t to say that Primordia is dogmatic or preachy. Quite the opposite—it presents belief as just that, a personal belief and way of navigating the world, and something that everyone will engage with, or not, in their own way. Even from my perspective as a deeply non-religious person, Primordia makes a valuable point.)
And despite the rust-hued presentation and sci-fi trappings, there’s a clear Shakespearean influence, too. “Horatio” wasn’t a name pulled out of a hat, and traces of Hamlet run through the whole game, from superficial similarities in character (Crispin is certainly “a fellow of infinite jest”, and with a form not unlike a skull) to its existential themes. It’s not a retelling, and you certainly don’t need a background in Shakespeare to appreciate Primordia, but it does add another layer to what is already an intriguing game.
All this runs through a classic point-and-click adventure, the story unfolding through item-based puzzles and exploration. Primordia‘s puzzles rarely gets excessively complicated, but with solutions that can be obscure (if obvious in hindsight), patience is a good trait to bring with you. If you get stuck, you can always try to get help by talking to Crispin, although his hints are often not that helpful. The interface can be cumbersome, too—being one of Wadjet Eye’s older games, it lacks a lot of the helpful features seen in more recent games like Strangeland and Unavowed.
That said, Primordia finds a welcome new home on Switch. The port is a flawless one, and it adds a few useful new things, like various button shortcuts and the ability to show hotspots and quickly target them. It’s not an overhaul as such, and some of the signs of age still show, but the Switch version does what it can to keep frustrations to a minimum.
Among Wadjet Eye’s back catalogue, Primordia is certainly one of the most memorable: a gripping sci-fi romp that’s mysterious and dramatic, with fascinating philosophical subtext and just the right amount of humour to balance everything out. It shows its age in some ways, but nonetheless makes a smooth transition to Switch and finds a natural home in handheld mode. If you like classic point-and-clicks and want a different, more thoughtful type of post-apocalypse to explore on your Switch, Primordia is one you don’t want to miss.