The Far Cry series has a penchant for sending its players into far-flung corners of the world, either metaphorically or literally. For their fifth installment, 2016’s Far Cry Primal, they send the player not only into a remote backdrop but also back in time - 10,000 BCE to be exact.
Heavily researched and developed, Primal introduces the player to a world without guns and vehicles - some of the franchise's mainstays - instead stressing crafting and animal husbandry.
One of the most fascinating additions was the creation of the prehistoric language used in-game, inspired heavily by Proto-Indo-European (PIE). Anyone familiar with Classical languages will notice plenty of phonetic Easter eggs while playing this immersive game.
Set in the Carpathian Mountains, the player is cast as the protagonist Takkar, who is the only surviving member of his tribe. Your goal is to help settle the Oros valley for your fellow Wenja, the name of the vaguely Cro-Magnon people, competing against the Udam (equivalent to Neanderthals) and fire-toting Izila (mysterious Proto-Indo-European peoples.) This follows the Far Cry rhythm of taking over outposts to save individuals who will bring your settlement new upgrades, equipment, and missions, in turn, defeating regional leaders to finish the storyline.
The most interesting step Ubisoft took to develop was the creation of the prehistoric language used in-game, which is the only language option paired with localized subtitles. Having consulted two linguistics professors, Dr. Andrew Byrd and Dr. Brenna Byrd from the University of Kentucky, Primal features a language inspired by Proto-Indo-European, the oldest vestige of language academia can attest to. (For an in-depth look on their process of creating this language have a look at this.)
This in-game language is spoken in three dialects and, due to its connections to the ancestral roots of many languages, players can catch words sounding vaguely familiar, such as ‘dugishtar’ for ‘daughter’ or ‘bum’ for ‘BOOM!’ There is even a lexicon online and for the purposes of this piece, we will examine some of the examples from this incredible home-brewed database.
As a student of Near Eastern and Mediterranean languages, there are many points throughout the game where ears are perked at familiar sounding words, despite the idea that the in-game language is foreign to all audiences.
As mentioned earlier, the setting of the“Oros” valley will be recognizable to students of Greek as ὄρος, ὄρους, n. “Mountain or hill.” Upon looking at the lexicon, you can see just how many words pulled directly from Greek and Latin, as well as Hittite and Sanskrit, and it soon becomes a game within a game to see which words can be recognized without the closed captioning.
One of the first interactions is with the brother of the protagonist, who mentions the “hwantars” scare “mamut” with “pur.” Immediately, you are presented with ghosts of modern language, including yet another Greek word πῦρ, πῠρός, n. “Fire,” leading us to assume something about hunters frightening mammoths with fire.
As you progress, you meet the Izila who are alluded to be from closer to the Mediterranean Sea and speak a dialect almost identical to reconstructed PIE, featuring words such as homecoming, return “nostom” (Greek νόστος) and chant “kanmen” (Latin “carmen.”)
The language development is not the only immersive element, as Primal does a fairly impressive job bringing a prehistoric world to life in a way that still allows for fun gameplay. The weapons and subsequent upgrades are based off of clubs, bows, spears, and accessories such as “bombs,” which are just clay pots filled with flames, poison, or bees.
These weapons, all of which are craftable with collectible resources, give the game a DIY feel one could expect in the time before the wheel while still allowing for maximum ‘crunch’ and ‘bang.’
A more fantastical element is the ability to tame creatures, creating NPC assistance throughout missions that feels more akin to the shamanistic, mystical stereotypes of prehistory. While it is a low hanging fruit, it is a fun mechanic and some animals, such as sabertooth cats and mammoths, are even rideable! The most important animal companion is the owl, which acts as a top-down (birds eye view if you will) UI that reveals map features, enemies, and mission points.
This feels like Ubisofts beta version of the bird mechanic in the later games Assassins Creed: Origins and Assassins Creed: Odyssey (two games any fan of the Classical world MUST experience) and it is successful in helping scope out and eliminate outposts. While you explore, you can even chance upon harmless allies who are hunting, gathering, and just trying to survive in the world, which brings the game back down to earth.
Primal is an enjoyable romp through a prehistoric world with fun animal companions. While it often feels disconnected from the Far Cry series, there are franchise tropes that make it work with new additions whose skeletons can be seen in later Ubisoft releases.
It is fun and noncommittal, the perfect game when you want to take a short break from a longer, more invested game. If you do not have a console, there are plenty of gameplay videos that feature the dialogue, which are easier to pause and replay if any word catches your ear.
For those who love to see Classical reception in action, it is an exciting opportunity to experience the ancestors of both humans and modern language!