Prey Review -- An Atmospheric Sci-Fi Thriller
Arkane Studios has taken its first-person action adventure formula to sci-fi horror with Prey. The result? Another great game.
PC, Xbox One
Review copy provided by the publisher
I prudently creep my way through Prey’s Neo Deco space station, the Talos I. The air is thick with atmosphere and a feeling that someone or something is watching me. What’s around the corner? What’s on the other side of that door? The beauty of Prey is in these moments, the times where you get turned around, a bit lost. Constantly chaperoned by unsettling music and brilliant sound work, Prey is a game that never lets you feel safe or experience proper respite. I breathe in. I’m noticeably anxious. I proceed through the door. Nothing. I explore for a bit and then hear slight movement: 4 o’clock. I turn around and it’s a trash can twitching. I know what is about to come, yet I’m still startled when the can transforms to a dark blur and leaps. A wave of panic clobbers me, as I desperately try to catch the shadowy figure on the sweet spot of my wrench.
Unfortunately, in these moments — the moments of combat — the thick atmosphere quickly disperses, the tension is replaced with ungainly chaos, and all of the great build-up feels wasted and let down by combat that is passable, but an eyesore compared to the rest of the game. Coupled with not enough variation in environmental designs and ungodly load times, Prey unfortunately falls a bit short of the games it was clearly inspired by: classics like BioShock, System Shock, and Deus Ex.
Prey takes place in the year 2032, in a setting that strikes the right balance between futuristic and relatable, while also mixing in some classic sci-fi tropes. However, the game is notably set in alternate reality where the United States and Russia, instead of having a smackdown during the height of the space race in the 1950s, came together to build a space station to house a new alien threat it encountered: the Typhon. This station eventually would become the Talos I decades later when a corporation called TranStar moved in and expanded the structure.
Prey is a game that never lets you feel safe or experience proper respite
The game’s opening hour is one of its best hours. And by one of its best hours, I really just mean it’s a damn good opening hour. Where many games struggle to be engaging, Prey souses you with a palpable leeriness that immediately makes your mind go into 20 questions mode.
It begins with you, a scientist named Morgan Yu, waking up in your futuristic, rather flashy, apartment to a rather inexplicable unease that something is amiss. What follows is an hour that deeply hooks its narrative potential in you, and primes you for what feels like it’s going to be a sci-fi story full of mystery, twists and turns, and heart skipping revelations.
And Prey mostly delivers on this, but with far less flair and at a little by little pace that got a bit ho-hum at times, and that undermined the great story that was being told. Where the narrative in the opening of the game was ingenious and absorbing, in the middle the story dripped out a such a slow rate that everything felt a little uneventful.
It’s worth noting that what did drip out was great and I savored every bit of it; there just wasn’t enough for long stretches of the game. Luckily, Prey ends at a similar pace and high note to which it begins and makes good on the potential tantalizingly narrative served up in the beginning of the game.
Prey’s sidequests are a whole other story: ranging from exemplary to vapid fetch quests that seem to be the product of some detached executive exhorting that the game needed more content and to be longer. Whatever the reason: some of side quests were so uninspired that even I, an OCD gamer who needs to do every quest no matter the size or significance, was left saying “meh, no thanks.”
But there were terrific ones: quests that often included a cast of interesting characters and stories to help attenuate the less than satiating narrative drip during large slabs of the game. Further, almost every single sidequest and non-consequential character you meet is well-performed. This, along with there being just the right amount of side content (not too little and not too much) was quite refreshing; especially in contrast to the current landscape where games are flooded with futile content and where said content contains voicework that sounds — from a quality level — wildly out of place comparatively to the rest of the game.
Making narrative-light sections of the game more tolerable is the game’s setting, Talos I, and how fun it is to explore, get lost in, and resurface from hours later. Talos I is a behemoth of a space station, daunting to explore, and that makes you feel very minuscule when you’re wandering through it.
Better yet: Arkane did a stellar job of making the station feel alive, or rather making it feel lived in at one point. This is partially thanks to the incredible attention to detail and is arguably one of the most freighting aspects of Prey. Talos I feels real, and the feeling that something terribly horrifying happened in the lab you are desperately checking medkits for also feels very real.
This disconcerting aura is only amplified as you stumble across audio logs of deceased crew members that paint a vivid picture of life before the Typhon outbreak and, in some cases, the grisly deaths they endured as a result. Through audio logs, emails, notes, the crewmembers and their relationships, their office squabbles, their problems, their romances, their games of nerf tag, Talos I pre-outbreak comes alive in your imagination, vastly contrasting to the horrific and forlorn reality in front of you.
At certain points you will even encounter crew members stalking their way around the station in the form of a Typhon that you will need to rather reluctantly cut down. All of this goes a long way in creating the game’s eerie atmosphere, and in a weird ways shows you what is at stake.
Talos I isn’t without its flaws though. While the station’s enviroments — from its Neo Deco sections to its early IBM parts — are memorable, fully-realized, and a joy to scurry through, there’s one problem: there’s not enough variation. Too much of the station — even the parts separated by terribly long loading screens — is draped by a set of repetitive designs that get particularly tiresome given the considerable amount of trekking back you will do throughout the station. However, the silver lining in this design flaw, is that navigating around Talos I at times can be a little disorienting, which in turns pumps a bit of added tension and vulnerability into the mix.
Speaking on how the game looks, it’s worth noting that the Dishonored-esque designs of the humans doesn’t really transition well to a sci-fi setting. In Dishonored the setting is set in the past, and so its stylized humans are passable. However, sci-fi settings are often associated with high graphical fidelity, crispness, and realism. Thus, every time I encountered a human aboard the Talos I, something felt awry and clashed with my preconception of what sci-fi should look like.
Talos I feels real, and the feeling that something terribly horrifying happened in the lab you are desperately checking medkits for also feels very real.
Arguably most pivotal to Prey is its soundtrack and sound design. When you consider the aforementioned is handled by Mick Gordan (the composer of DOOM), this is no surprise. The game’s soundtrack is unnerving, intense, and epic at always the exact right moments.
Even in moments of perceived safety, the soundtrack will ratchet up letting you know of the ever present possibility that something is in the next room ready to catch you vulnerable in a moment of respite. It’s exhausting, but in the best way possible: the way that isn’t vexatious or unwelcome, but reminds you of the pervasive threat of danger and that mentally fatigues you or builds you up in anxious anticipation.
The sound design of Prey is just the cherry on top. Often under-appreciated and overlooked in games: the sound design in Prey brings the world of Talos I to life in a way that otherwise would not be possible. Whether this is in the form of hearing the dismaying and crashing footsteps of something bigger slowly surveying for you in the other room or the wobbling noise of a Typhon in the form of a coffee cup on a table: the game’s sound design is instrumental in not only creating an atmosphere dripping with discomfort, but to creating a highly immersive experience in general.
Then there is the Typhon: some of the most corybantic original enemies I’ve ever had to blast to the face with a shotgun. And also at the same time rather insipid and unmemorable. Ironically, the best enemy is actually the weakest and the first you encounter: mimics, who have the ability to camouflage themselves as any ordinary objects in the environment. More than a glorified jump-scare, the mimics are at the center of tension throughout the game, even when they become easily disposable.
As you navigate your way room-through-room there is always a chance that a mimic or multiple mimics are hiding in plain sight as a chair or a coffee mug. And your best chance to detect them (at least for a sizable chunk of the game) is by being very punctilious in your approach and surveying each part of the room for slight movement before turning your back on any given part.
But even the most meticulous players — such as myself — will find that these little guys will often have you a paranoid mess and frantically trying to recall whether that chair was across the room two seconds ago or whether you’re about to have to break out your wrench to the tune of Hit That Sh*T by R.U.G.
Beyond the Mimics, some of the other Typhon are actually quite novel, including the Poltergeists that posses the ability to render themselves invisible. These creatures are sporadically hostile, and may only make their presence known when one starts messing with the environment or when a chair comes hurtling across the room seemingly out of nowhere.
There is also the Nightmare, an enemy reminiscent of the Nemesis monster from Resident Evil 3, that tracks you down constantly throughout the station. The moments of reading through a crewmember’s email to momentarily look up an see a hulking Nightmare coming your way created some of the most dicey and thrilling moments I’ve had all year. These three types alone more than made up for the more common place Typhon/enemy types, such as the Phantoms.
Alas, then there is the controls and combat. Imagine Dishonored without Blink. Okay, now imagine that, but a bit worse: that is how Prey’s controls feel, aka it all feels slightly too floaty and imprecise. In moments when a clique of stools turned mimics run up on me and are desperately hurling themselves from all different directions before retreating and then returning for another wave, I want to be able to do one thing: reliable hit the damn things.
You could say, “Hey Tyler, git gud m8” (fair enough, you better hope I never catch you on Rocket League), but the problem here really isn’t a lack of skill or a difficulty issue, it’s simply the controls: Morgan Yu’s handling is far too frigid and the gunplay doesn’t allow for the precision level you would want for a game where low ammo counts and potential quick deaths are only ever one frantic encounter with two Phantoms away.
Luckily, the game packs a nice arsenal of weapons that will allow you to forget about the game’s pedestrian controls every once in awhile. There isn’t a wild number of choices — nor do many of choices explore more zany concepts (a missed opportunity if you were to ask me) — but each choice, each weapon, feels like it offers a different approach to any encounter, mildly altering up what can feel like repetitive encounters late in the game.
The best weapon though — which does lean a little on the unconventional side — is the gloo cannon which can be used to freeze enemies, put out fires and electrical sparks and, most importantly, be used to create makeshift platforms and staircases. This allows Morgan to maneuver his way up levels and to places otherwise impossible to get to. The gloo cannon adds a unique approach to every situation and, more importantly, can often be used as a substitute to sneaking — which is super boring to do — to get around the station undetected.
In addition to the arsenal of weapons, Yu can also upgrade his body — via Neuromods — with a range of human-based abilities (think: increase in hacking, health, weapon modification) before eventually being able to also mutate himself with Typhon abilities that allow him to to disguise himself as a banana peel like a Mimic, teleport like a Phantom, or release a telekinesis blast that sends enemies flying across the room.
It’s when you start experimenting with these alien abilities that combat encounters become more rousing and less reliant on scrambling. However, there is a drawback with dosing yourself with too much Typhon-goodness: such as the station’s turrets unleashing a storm of bullets on you because they think you’re a Typhon and being more intermittently greeted by the big ol’ Nightmare, who no matter all the alien powers you have, will make you sprint away in fear.
No matter what weapons you use or powers you inject yourself with, Prey does a brilliant job of letting you access everything it has to offer no matter what. And while this should always be applauded, at this point, this is an expected staple of an Arkane game: the whole “play it your way” mentality is an overruling game design principle. Combine this with choices throughout the game that effect the narrative and you have a final product that not only has a healthy slab of 20-40 hours of content, but decent replayability as well.
Prey often feels like mash-up of some of the best sci-fi survival horror games of yesteryear and Arkane’s previous work. And it is. But it also is a title with some wildly unique ideas, an incredibly thick and unnerving atmosphere, and an exemplary soundtrack.