[18 September 2013]
As of right this very minute, if you search “Prehistorik” on the iPhone App Store, three results will come up. Two of them are versions of old platformers remade for the iPhone, and one, the game being reviewed here, is a remade version of the same idea. Caveman runs around, finds food, battles dinosaurs. It doesn’t sound like a half-bad idea for a game.
I can’t speak for the retro takes on that theme, but this new one never should have happened.
This is actually a review of the PC version of Prehistorik, though I imagine it hews pretty closely to the version on the iPhone. The iPhone version is three bucks, the PC version five. While it feels a little hostile to strongly warn against an independent platformer that only costs five bucks, there are so many moments throughout Prehistorik that either feel unfinished or poorly conceived that it also feels necessary.
If you start with the graphics, the first thing you notice is the color. The colors, particularly in the backgrounds are actually quite lovely, as developer Joystick Replay is not afraid to push saturated primaries and a bright, almost painted look on the backgrounds. Our caveman avatar, however, looks like every caveman cliché you’ve ever heard and moves like a paper doll with pins in the shoulders and hips.
This sounds like a mere stylistic choice, but it’s a big problem.
A platformer is built on a trust between the player and the game. The player has to trust that the on-screen avatar is going to do exactly what it is supposed to, and the player has to trust that nothing is left to chance, that a combination of mastering the game’s rule set and memorizing the game’s layout will translate to success. Having a player-character that feels as though it could lose his balance and fall down a bottomless pit at any given moment regardless of the player’s choices is a poor design decision. Sure, eventually, you get used to the style, eventually you get to the point where you know where to land and how your caveman is going to behave when you do, but it takes a while. It takes too long. It is not going to take that long for someone who bought a five-dollar PC game to decide it’s not worth their time, so a game like this shouldn’t be spending precious seconds trying to earn the player’s trust.
Once the game has earned the player’s trust when it comes to controls, it completely betrays that trust through level design. There’s a moment early on when the player finds a jetpack. As the player flies around with the jetpack, it becomes obvious that some of the game’s precious food (the incredibly common collectible of choice for this game) is located in the otherwise unreachable stratosphere. When you fly up there, you feel as though maybe you’re accomplishing something. When the jetpack runs out of gas and you fall directly into a bottomless pit, sending you back to the last checkpoint, you feel a little less happy with what you’ve just done.
There are moments like this throughout Prehistorik. You can push a key/button to look beyond the default camera screen, but not far—crucially, you often can’t see far enough to see what lies below or beyond a particularly difficult to reach ledge or gaping hole. Add some unpredictable hitboxes and an utterly uneven difficulty spread, and you have a game that offers more tension than fun.
It’s clear that Prehistorik was going for something like “fun”, given its sense of humor, which could have mitigated the other problems somewhat. Unfortunately, even that comes off as awkward and forced. While grammar doesn’t seem like a particularly important quality in a game about a caveman, there are numerous grammatical errors that don’t feel intentional so much as they do lazy. Look past the grammar and you get the sort of scatological slapstick that hasn’t been funny since the third grade.
A lot of this stuff would have been passable in the days when platformers were the most common style of game out there. There are plenty of Mario and Sonic games that all but encouraged the player to, say, jump into pits to find secrets. Still, in a modern platformer, the worst thing a game can do is convince the player that the conditions for success are not entirely in the player’s hands.
Prehistorik is a poor game by any metric. There’s a certain amount of leeway that you can give a budget game by an independent developer. These games are allowed to be rough around the edges.
Still, there are so many apps out there, so many games that can be had for five bucks (or less!), that an independent developer has to either make its game unique in some major, identifiable way, or it has to execute already established ideas to perfection. Prehistorik is a display of just about everything platformers have managed to get wrong in the last 25 years.
But hey, at least it’s colorful.