Developer: Arkane Studios, Human Head Studios
Release Date: May 5, 2017
Platform Reviewed: PC
Time Played: 37 hours
Concept and Execution:
It’s a bold move for a publisher to acquire a franchise, in this case Prey—which debuted in 2006—and then decide to make a game that is in no way whatsoever related to the original outside of its genre. A confusing decision, and a decision that is ultimately unimportant to the merits of this latest release. In rebranding Prey as a psychological sci-fi thriller (well, moreso than the original), Arkane Studios sloughed off the problematic elements of the original and, alongside Human Head Studios, ventured into a higher echelon.
Prey takes place aboard Talos 1, a space station owned by the family of the player-controlled protagonist, Morgan Yu. Talos 1 serves as a haven for unrestricted scientific pursuits, a kind of corporate quasi-utopia akin to Bioshock’s Rapture. The rapidly deteriorating status of Talos 1 reveals itself as Morgan breaks free of a looping simulation Morgan and her brother, Alex, placed her in. It’s then up to Yu to figure out what’s going on, why these amorphous aliens called the Typhon are wreaking havoc, and how to best stop it before it gets out of hand, all while recoveringfrom a massive gap in her memory.
Prey starts with the cliché of amnesia in the midst of disaster, which is a steep hill to climb. It functions as a means for obscuring information that Yu would otherwise have immediate access to, which in turn helps give Talos 1 a reason for all of these audio logs scattered around the place. What’s most interesting, though, is not the mechanical handling of Yu’s amnesia, but the ways in which it the narrative folds back in on it over and over again.
Everything in Prey, whether deliberate or not, serves to reinforce this backbone. The primary enemies are mimics, small globular masses of black shifting matter with legs that can take the form of anything, including items Yu would pick up without thinking, like ammo and health packs. Such a foe challenges the validity of a person’s senses, and it works wonderfully in reinforcing the uncertainty that plagues Yu throughout the story.
Characters are flawed, incredibly human creations that left me yearning to set things right. This struck well given the setting; Talos 1 is unequivocally the result of a no-regulations environment with little regard for consequences. Major players are both responsible for and victim to the terrible things that happen here. One mission has players gathering audio files to replicate a voice for a lock, and the way in which that character’s story unfolds—both within and removed from the context of the logs—was gripping and emotional, something that Prey manages to replicate nigh-flawlessly to the end.
Concept and Execution Score: 24/25 A+
As a genre, Prey straddles the line between horror and action, with the whip-smart narrative tying the two together. The aforementioned mimics are part of the larger Typhon category, which includes beings like Phantoms, crew warped by mimics into unrecognizable husks of their former selves; Telepaths, massive floating blobs that psychically take over living crew; and the Nightmare, a seemingly unstoppable behemoth who only serves to make you run for your life. The set up for these enemies implies a sort of horror—the first instance of a mimic when the player has absolute agency is met with the shrieking strings mandatory for any jump-scare.
The mixture of horror and action depends heavily on the route that players choose to take with the upgrade system. Said system consists of installing “neuromods,” devices that in-fiction allow for individuals to transfer skills to others. As a gameplay mechanic, neuromods unlock skills on discrete skill trees, improving character aspects like movement speed, health, or how well Yu can hack computers and robots. Eventually this opens up to Typhon mods, which introduce the magic-like powers wielded by the alien aggressors. If one specs heavily into non-confrontational abilities, then enemies remain a sizable threat for the entirety of the game. Spec into combat skills, however, and enemies quickly succumb to your arsenal of specialized (and generic) weapons.
Environmental exploration makes up the second pillar of player abilities, something that I found absolutely essential to getting the most out of Talos 1. Much of the station is gated off behind card keys, oversized cargo bags, and high-up vent systems, all of which require some form of finagling to surpass. Pumping mods into hacking and strength, then, become no-brainers—they quickly pay for themselves as one’s ability to gain new skills is directly tied into finding neuromods in the environment.
Prey’s most interesting aspect of exploration and combat is the crafting system, which might sound odd in a title like this. Player’s can find miscellaneous junk around the station and dump them into machines that break them (and anything else that isn’t story-critical) into their base components. These components are then used to craft everything from health packs to weapons to more neuromods. It’s that last bit, the ability to craft neuromods, that makes Prey so interesting. Where most games gate the ability for players to gain new skills, Prey’s only limit is how many things you can break down for materials. By the end of my second play-through I had acquired and crafted enough neuromods to fill out the entirety of the non-Typhon abilities.
Another by-product of this crafting system is the way in which resource management is no longer carefully gated. A crucial factor for survival horror titles is the ability for the developer to control how frequently the player gets the tools they need to survive. In most cases this means limiting ammo and health, making players think cautiously before approaching a situation. And while this certainly happens in Prey—I had more than one instance where I refrained from combat because I wasn’t prepared for it—it happens less frequently and with less effect.
In all other regards, though, Prey controls like a dream, and the tools available are interesting enough that figuring out how to best use them is a joy in its own right.
Mechanics Score: 23/25 A
For a world that so thoroughly lies to you, Prey’s Talos 1 sustains a cohesive, dreadful thread throughout. A mix of Art Deco stylings, corporate excess, and near-future space technology, Talos 1 embodies a believable rendition of science unrestrained by the moral hang-ups of modern society. Offices and living areas are lavish and replete with the luxuries one would expect at a Silicon Valley office—exercise equipment, a theater, and a park, to name a few. This world is necessary as the foundation for tragedy, as Prey’s tragedy cannot exist in a world that doesn’t first allow robust actors to operate within it.
In creating this world, watching as it breaks, or seeing broken, and operating as both a passive viewer and an active participant allows for it to breath and tell stories. One instance of passive becoming active comes in the form of the Looking Glass monitors, giant screens that allow for three-dimensional recordings. In one task that has Yu repairing the Looking Glass system, she can view the test footage in the lab that they were created. Doing this, and viewing emails on a nearby computer terminal, reveal a secret stash in the lab. This information isn’t made immediately apparent; rather, figuring it out requires curiosity, and the world provides enough pokes and prods to elicit said curiosity.
While the exploratory nature of Prey plays off of its structural ethos, the horror element builds primarily from its auditory ambiance. Lurking through Talos 1, players will find a world creaking under the strain of its failing systems, and remnants of what once was. The humanoid phantoms mutter the fears of the crew through modulated tones, maintaining the dance of false familiarity that underscores Prey’s narrative. By doing so, the phantoms aren’t just intimidating—they’re tragic. More tragic than any zombie could ever aspire to become. In conveying this tragedy, Prey combines the emotional with the horrific through its mere ambiance.
Enemies don’t provide the only voice acting, of course. Scattered throughout Talos 1 are operators, floating robots that provide helpful services like refilling health and repairing your suit. These robots provide a welcome layer of comfort, save for when they’re corrupted and hostile, at which point they range from menacing to silly. Corrupted medical operators (voiced by Tom Kenny, A.K.A. Spongbob Squarepants) while idling will proudly announce “A RATIONAL MIND ALWAYS LEADS TO THE BEST C-C-CONCUSSION,” for example. Mae Witman (Family Guy, Avatar: The Last Airbender, TMNT) puts in a heartbreaking performance as Danielle Sho, and Eliza Schneider (various Assassin’s Creed titles, Lego Dimensions, South Park) oscillates from hopeful thanks to absolute scorn beautifully as Talos 1 scientist Mikhaila Ilyushin.
Prey’s music, composed by Mick Gordon (Wolfenstein: The New Order, Doom 2016, Killer Instinct) dabbles with the horror/action dichotomy, and even dips into the moments that make Talos 1’s crew so human. The requisite stingers and fight songs aside, one piece, “Semi-sacred Geometry” (sung by Mae Witman no less), works well beyond the trappings of the game to the point that it works in a normal playlist you might have on Spotify.
Keeping in line with the dichotomy of action and horror, Prey manages to weave a world that encourages both exploration and apprehension through its very bones.
Atmosphere Score: 25/25 A+
Viewed as a whole, Prey creates a story that is self-contained enough to work as a satisfying experience from start to finish. However, there are enough questions left unanswered in one playthrough—and enough paths left unexplored—that another is more than welcome. I’ve completed the game twice and plan on another shortly. Understanding the interactions Yu has with the crew of Talos 1 can lead to diverging paths, some more desirable than others. There are points within the story, as well as terminals and even characters aboard Talos 1, that help to fill in the gaps in Yu’s memory, framing the choices you make.
Many of these paths express themselves as optional side missions, though how optional they are is ultimately to up how deeply the player feels about a character. Being an altruist in Prey often means going out of your way and into direct danger to protect somebody, and these moments are often the most thrilling.
There was one mission in particular where Yu is given an ultimatum and a race against the clock, all while access various parts of Talos 1 are restricted. Worried, I raced through the parts of the station that I had memorized, all while trying to avoid the spreading typhon menace. Managing to make it in time and neatly wrap up the problem without incident was one of the most satisfying moments in gaming.
At its best, Prey mimics a psychological thriller, replete with smart writing and a gripping array of problems to solve. At its worst, Prey is a roller coaster with speed bumps. For as much praise as it deserves, there are moments when the momentum simply dissolves, such as when a well-executed stealthy crawl through an infested area is ruined by a miss-timed stumble. These instances are thankfully few and far between.
Entertainment Value Score: 23/25 A
The original Prey in 2006, for all of its faults, made some bold steps in what was expected from science fiction titles. That, if anything, is what this Prey carries from the original. In the franchise’s rebirth, Prey finds itself exploring a new frontier that challenges the intellectual boundaries of gaming narratives. Overall Score: 96/100 A+