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About the Story
You've been having a series of nightmares about Leo, standing at the edge of a cliff. No matter what you do, a bell rings and Leo disappears over the edge . . .
Nominee, Best Game; Nominee, Best Individual PC - 2006 XYZZY Awards
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Number of Reviews: 5
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This game is excellent. I want to get that up front for once so it doesnít get lost in the endless cavalcade of small nitpicks, bugs, and my own cumbersome sentence construction. So, if you just want the knee-jerk reaction to this game: "It is great, and you should play it. Without question."
So, why is it great? It starts with the player/protagonist relationship, which is unique, and (regrettably) never fully defined (though I imagine doing so would be a needless distraction to the gameís events). The protagonist, Matilda, is an older, single woman, living alone in a two-family apartment. The other resident in the building (occupying the opposite apartment) is the enigmatic Leo, with whom Matilda has a complex, and uncertain relationship. Matilda is very spirited, but in the manner of someone who has been forced to endure any number of indignities and has learned to keep a stiff upper lip through lifeís foibles. Ninety percent of the time, she does as instructed by the player, but occasionally, and usually for a reason, she gets a bit of spunk in her and decides to be prissy with the player. Itís charming, and only occasionally frustrating, and overall gives the character incredibly depth and believability. If one were to interpret the playerís instructions as her whims, you come to understand the character as someone who goes with the flow most of the time but has learned, over the years, that there are times she must ignore her whimsy and do whatís sensible.
There are only two other characters in this game (generally speaking), which are Leo, and Leoís mother Irene. Both have only cursory roles in the game, but we learn much about them through Matilda, who litters her room descriptions and actions with reverie about her life living next door to them. Leo easily gets the least screen time, but itís his dire situation that forces Matilda into action, and, as such, much of her nostalgic thoughts center on him. He doesnít get as much of his character fleshed out as Matilda, but enough is filled in that some sympathy is created for his situation, and you come to understand some of the erratic behavior Matilda has witnessed over the years.
Irene, Leoís mother, is a bit of a mystery, and is easily the least understood character in the game. Some of this has to do with role in the story. The first scene of the game establishes her as something of a nemesis, but further interactions with her make it clear she isnít exactly evil. My biggest nitpick of characterization for this game is with her. I was never quite certain what I was supposed to feel about her. Was I supposed to hate her? Sympathize with her? Stop her? Help her? SAVE her (as the game suggests at one point you might do)? I never had a good bearing on her, and as such I was somewhat unsettled by the ending. But I wonít say more about that.
Gameplay-wise, this game is very clever, and probably technically complex. There are three major mechanics in this game that are turned and twisted and viewed at from almost every angle (like any good fantasy should do): time stopping, teleportation, and time travel. Each of these three mechanics has a unique method of invoking them and in the ending they all collide and must be arranged in the right order to save everyone.
Unfortunately, the technical complexity I spoke of results in a few bugs in the late game since there are a large number of variables being juggled at once. At regular intervals in the game, your inventory is changed because of plot-related reasons. Items are supposed to vanish and return into your inventory when certain actions are taken. Near the end of the game, I caused an inventory item to vanish and when I did the appropriate action to make it return, a different item came back. The game never acknowledged this and just went along as if I had always had the other item. It didnít make a huge difference, but it was surreal. (UPDATE: Literally minutes after posting this review I went back and tried a few things and determined that a few of the bugs I thought I found (including this one) were based on misunderstanding of a couple events. A few more were in fact based on sub-plots I somehow missed during my first few playthroughs. So, less buggy than I thought.)
Additionally, there are about a half-dozen endings to this game and sometimes the ending text doesnít exactly line up with the actions taken to reach it. A character may reference something from another room as if it was there with you. Or take an item you have yet to obtain from your inventory. Also, a couple of endings make reference to being trapped in an endless loop, but such a possibility is never hinted at during the game proper, so I was unsure if I had missed a plotline or if I was supposed to deduce something I hadnít yet.
Finally, the last nitpick I have is the large, large number of red herrings in the game. Itís not terrible that there are things in the game that give character to the environments without having a direct impact to the story, but it IS somewhat annoying that some of those things take a bit of effort to maintain. Such as the birds nest, or the painting of Ireneís sister. Objects that were somewhat hard to find but has no purpose I could divine other than to teach you how to climb things in one case and to give a bit of (ambiguous) background to Irene.
But, as I said in the beginning, these complaints are insignificant compare to the excellence of the game overall. The scenario is well thought out and, as mentioned above, the game thoroughly explores the many possibilities of the time and travel mechanics such that I felt both satisfied there werenít opportunities missed AND satisfied when I figured out how they all worked together. The characters feel very real, as well as the situation they are in. And mechanically, the game works perfectly about 99% of the time, an incredible accomplishment given the complexity of whatís going on behind the scenes. I really, really, enjoyed this game.
Puzzles that use the fantasy tropes of time travel and teleportation are nearly as common as games set in one's apartment, and any game that blends the two is just begging to be painted as a train-wreck of clichťs. So I believe it's something of a small miracle that The Primrose Path is both well-written and quite engrossing, despite all these brain-breaking puzzles. We play the role of Matilda, a nevermind-how-old-I-am woman who is woken up at the crack of dawn by her rather frantic next-door neighbor, Leo. Leo's a painter, and seems to have gotten himself shot this morning. He needs Matilda's help to fix a few things in his life, such as its ending. Matilda, like any other sensible woman in her nightie, immediately embarks on an adventure through their duplex.
Primrose is a difficult game. Were it not for the collective mind-bending powers of the members of ClubFloyd, I certainly would never have finished it. Partly this was due to an under-clued bit: it will help to know that Matilda takes a bit of convincing to see or do what she is reluctant to, so player be prepared to argue a little with your own PC. On the other partly, this is due to it being a puzzle-laden work at heart.
Rest assured, there's no Soup Cans in this one. Nor any lazy writing. The locales and props and even world-states lend themselves well to imagery, and the characters, while not exactly three-dimensional in the conventional fiction sense, sustain belief primarily through action: they will move between locations, and will even move to foil the player should they need to.
The author's attention to detail continues through to the end of the work. The final puzzle or puzzles, depending on how you define your boundaries, decide how the story ends. There are at least eight endings that I know of, all of which say that somebody or something has won even if it be the antagonist. This is a refreshingly positive spin on sub-optimal endings and is much appreciated. Add to that that none of the endings felt contrived or tacked on for the sake of merely having them. Programming bugs aside, if you get an ending you don't like, chances are you know you deserved it. Completionists will appreciate the final AMUSING command, which hints at the many easter eggs and subplots tucked into the game's nooks and crannies.
The Primrose Path is a fine example of how a difficult game can be worth several hours of investment. Just bring a friend or twelve.
Amy Hill and and I discuss The Primrose Path at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l6R_ecqf7vI#t=27m13s
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