It is perhaps a little unfair that pretty much every single review I’ve seen of Arkane Studio’s Prey 2017 (because why would they want to give it its own name when there was a perfectly fine older IP to reboot) immediately begins by comparing it to other games. One could be forgiven for thinking therefore that it is a hodgepodge of elements from other games, melted down into a single product. It’s touted as yet ANOTHER spiritual successor to System Shock 2 as well as to Bioshock whilst also drawing on elements from Dishonored and Half Life.
However, it feels somewhat like one does Prey a disservice by constantly comparing it to all of these other games in that it is very much its own distinct game and an extremely compelling and well put-together one at that.
Prey is set in the not-too distant future in an alternate Universe where mankind has discovered an alien species called the Typhon and is now using the genetic material of the Typhon to enhance themselves. In the lore of the game the resulting “neuromods” allow people to gain the experiences of other people, for instance talent at a musical instrument, but in practice it also allows the player to get access to magical powers which one perhaps shouldn’t really question too much.
You play as Morgan Yu a male or female protagonist who is woken from the prologue on board space station Talos I by a robot you yourself made as a back-up plan in case the Typhon escape containment, which they do (obviously). The robot January, speaking with your voice, then begins to provide you with instructions to blow up the station along with everything on board, guiding you through the majority of the game.
The game utilises the age-old trope of memory loss as a story-telling mechanic, as Morgan has absolutely no memory of any of the goings-on of the station for the past few years, despite having been central in the events which led up to the game’s current dilemma. While it has been over-used to death, the “protagonist with amnesia” device is implemented to great effect in Prey, as you are often in contact with older iterations of Morgan Yu. This “new” version of Morgan is however you choose to play him or her whilst also viewing the actions of your past self as that of a complete stranger. This means you will often spend time critiquing your own past actions and choices. It allows the game’s story to unfold extremely naturally as you and Morgan learn what has been going on together and so grow together in your understanding and opinions of the station and its inhabitants.
I’ve heard of some complaints saying that Morgan is an uninspiring character, but that doesn’t make sense, because Morgan without his/her memories is now YOU (heh… Instead of Yu… heh heh heh…). Yeah it’s a completely unoriginal device, but it just works so perfectly here.
In fact the writing and story-telling in general of Prey is pretty stellar. It draws inspiration from previous Arkane titles and Bioshock in that one can learn a lot of the station and its inhabitants from audio recordings, scattered notes and e-mails, learning exactly what happened and of all the little dramas that occurred in the daily life of the space station. Outside of that however, a lot of the actual story is fairly nuanced and not really stated, leaving you to make your own conclusions about a lot of things.
A prime example is that one can learn relatively early in the game how people extracted the Typhon material from the Typhon to make neuromods, but unless you make the connection in your own head then the actual significance of the discovery can completely bypass you. Like it did me, until it was actively pointed out making me finally realise the stakes at play.
It is a very strong narrative, letting you discover the story and come up with your own theories, which again perfectly tie into the memory-loss aspect, sort of like you are actually relearning all of this instead of learning it for the first time. It refuses to shove any exposition into your face, beyond the occasional comment and instruction from January, and so it just feels pretty intelligent in the way it allows you to discover what is going on, on your own.
The game has a form of moral choice in it as well, but it is again, like the story, not thrust in your face and often really just acts as yet another thing that is occupying your attention along with the invasion of oily black psychic alien monsters.
It’s a story-telling method which is subtle, complex and overall very effective. By not absolutely hammering you with long segments of narration or flooding you with information all at once, it makes the discovery of new bits and pieces of the puzzle that much more satisfying. But it also doesn’t leave things lying or unanswered, so it doesn’t leave you in the dark. It starts off with the very simple “aliens are attacking, blow up the station to stop them” and then ends up a good deal deeper than that.
Despite being set on a space station in the near-future, there is a vaguely retro feel to the game, which also draws comparisons to Bioshock. Plus the game has a relatively similar graphical style to previous Arkane title Dishonored. While things do look relatively futuristic it also all has a very solid, slightly chunky and weighty look, which I actually very much appreciated and enjoyed.
Actually a lot of the game is just extremely well-designed and good-looking in general. It’s a bit odd that it should feel like a big step-up from Dishonored 2 which was released just last year, but it actually does.
It was also a noted complaint for Dishonored and Dishonored 2 that NPCs were fairly lifeless and uninspiring, a problem which is removed from Arkane because humans are few and far between and almost all are speaking characters. So the fact that the Typhon enemies act weirdly just plays into the fact that they are aliens after all!
Another thing which the game does with no small amount of flair is its much-lauded Metroidvania approach to exploration and the semi open-world. There feels like there is always more than one route to every objective (even if this probably isn’t actually the case) and the gradual opening up of the map happens completely naturally. The acquisition of more magic powers from the Typhon allows you to go back through the world, getting into nooks and crannies you’d had to ignore previously.
As a side note here, while I actually appreciate that the game would have ended up very quiet very quickly if enemies did not repopulate areas you had already cleared after you left, but sometimes it felt like it happened very quickly and could get a bit frustrating fighting through baddies again when you are just passing through.
The use of EVA space walks to get along the exterior of the space station was also quite an inspired touch. I feel it’s far too common for a game to go “the setting is a sci-fi space station in space and the future, now spend the next 20 hours walking along metal corridors”, so I just greatly appreciate having some kind of demonstration of the actual scale of the space-station and being able to traverse it from outside.
As well as this, the use of the Gloo gun as both a combat weapon and a method of traversing the inside of the space station was actually fairly inspired. A little clunky at times (it bothers me, for instance, that you cannot create a gloo “blob” on an existing blob) but overall just a neat little thing which provides another dimension that you have to be thinking about. Because it’s just so easy to get tunnel vision on your objective and forget you have a method of climbing up the sides of walls to get to hidden areas.
The world itself is also a fantastic piece of design. A lot of it feels extremely interconnected and there is a real feeling of “form follows function” from the station, where it feels like it was initially designed with having a few hundred people living on board in mind before it was then actually put together by Arkane’s team. Plus as you explore it you get a real picture of the life of the scientists and support staff on the station, with many little stories and dramas being put together by different e-mails and notes in different parts of the station. It’s just really nice world building honestly.
The combat is a tiny bit squiffy in a way that I can’t quite pin-point. The weapons feel nice and have great feedback in your hands, but somehow the aiming doesn’t feel quite as specific or sensitive as it could, and it has a distinct feeling like something is missing. This is amplified when fighting the mimics which are small, fast and scuttling creatures and hitting them with bullets (or indeed with a wrench) feels more like luck half of the time.
Thankfully though this is mostly alleviated by late game when you obtain more magic powers and your weapons take a distinct back-seat to the “set fire to absolutely everyone” power. Although on the other hand then, by the late game you feel so absolutely saturated with power that the combat often becomes quite trivial.
With the above in mind, there feels like there is a distinct lack of focus on the combat, in a weird way… It is stated very early on that there are always multiple ways to achieve an objective and to progress, which is certainly very true. One thing it alludes to however, is a possibility of sneaking past enemies and avoiding combat. There is a sneak function in the game, which is why one can even draw some similarities to Skyrim with its sneak-attack bonuses, but despite its presence, sneaking through the game never once really felt like an option.
I’ll admit there were a couple of fights I avoided. There were a couple of times when I discovered new Typhon forms I hadn’t seen before or those which were still giving me trouble, before I properly got into the swing of things, or encounters on side-quests which were seemed to be designed for a higher level and I said I would come back to. But for the most part, and most definitely when progressing through the actual story, I did not leave a single Typhon alive as I went.
I bet I’m not alone here as well, and this is why it feels like there is an odd lack of focus on the combat. There is a very limited choice of guns to use and the actual fighting itself wasn’t great, but the sneaking was just totally not an option. One weapon I more or less did not once since discovering it was the crossbow which fires foam darts for “distractions”. Not only was not killing the Typhon a blow my pride could not take, but also killing them is actually quite an important method of getting loot. So, for all that it was touted as an option, the stealth is really very little more than a side-show and a way of preventing yourself from getting in over your head.
So despite insisting that it isn’t focused on combat, the game is actually quite focused on the combat… If that makes sense?
There are a few other issues as well, while I loved the writing and the story, parts of the way it ended did not quite resonate with me. It felt like in the final choice of ending you were not provided with an actual sensible choice of how to conclude things and rather two extremes, neither of which were wholly good. There was also a fairly philosophical leaning (which makes sense given some of the game’s psychological themes) which, as always, sort of passed me by. This is more of a nit-pick though, because I get the feeling that Arkane have left it moderately open-ended for the option of sequels, whilst still providing a game which is whole and complete (also, Prey sequels? Never heard that one before…).
Despite all it does oh-so well, there is something which Prey distinctly does not do well. For all the potential of the setting and the enemies, it is not a particularly scary game. In fact, while the atmosphere is pretty excellent overall, there was only the barest modicum of tension involved. In my mind this is potentially something of a missed trick for the game as the mimics and indeed the larger Typhon enemies definitely had the potential to be pretty scary.
The mimics in particular could have been terrifying if one became paranoid enough that one was constantly on-guard for them, that haunting possibility every single object could potentially be about to snack on your face. The phantoms as well, with their whispering voices and thudding footsteps could have been properly fear-inducing given the right atmosphere. There are a few moments where one can be startled by a mimic in a “jump-scare” and a few more tense sequences, but overall the atmosphere does not lend itself to the right mindset to be properly scared.
There are a few things which prevent it. First and foremost is that the enemies are simply too common for there to ever be any tension associated with meeting them. The game’s focus on combat means that you will repeatedly encounter the baddies and will have to fight your way through them in order to progress, and after you’ve been killed a few times and killed a hundred of them all tension vanishes as you focus more on fighting them.
The game is also, for the vast majority, very, very brightly lit and also very clearly signposted. Ask anyone and you’ll find that it’s pretty difficult to feel worked up when you can see the enemy from miles away and can also see every single escape-route within spitting distance.
Of course, the game brands itself as a thriller and not a horror game, so perhaps this a moot point anyway. But given the repeated similarities drawn between it and Bioshock and System Shock 2, it makes sense to point out that it is nowhere close to as scary as either of those games succeeded in being. While it may not share much else with Bioshock Infinite, that seems to be the closest game I can compare it to in terms of fear-factor. There are a few moments which succeed in being tense enough for you to be on the edge of your seat, but for the most part it’s too brightly-lit, open and you are too powerful and dynamic to actually be scared.
With this in mind, if scares are what you are after then this probably is not the game for you. However, if you are instead after a rich and deep world, a game with exceptional metroidvania free-roaming and a compelling and inventive story, then I can wholeheartedly recommend Prey.
In fact, I would say, that even those of you after horror, the atmosphere of Prey ought to be enough to convince you to get it.
|· Utterly compelling and rich world-building and writing, with a slow and careful reveal to keep you engaged
· Metroidvania-style exploration has rarely been done better and makes the space station Talos I truly unfold before you
· Great atmosphere with tense, funny, thoughtful and startling moments
· Combat is fun and varied enough for what it is to not really become boring
· You are given enough options in character customisation, exploration and combat for it to feel like the route through the game is yours alone
|· Game is very low on the horror scale, despite the connotations of its predecessor: not for horror aficionados
· Combat does not feel precise enough to be truly great
· By late game it is very easy to become utterly overpowered
· Ending ties up loose ends with a neat bow, but also doesn’t quite tick all the boxes for being perfect