Arkane Studios, you magnificent bastards, you’ve done it. There were understandably doubts about whether the 2017 reboot of the Prey franchise would do its namesake proud. After all, the original 2006 game was a cult classic, its highly-anticipated sequel was stuck in development hell, and after acquiring the rights to the franchise Bethesda cancelled the sequel and essentially charged Arkane with rebuilding everything from the ground up. But as it turns out, a completely fresh start is exactly what Prey needed.
It’s hard to review a game like Prey without feeling the need to compare it to Arkane’s other major series Dishonored. And while players familiar with Dishonored will instantly recognise similarities between the two, Prey in fact owes a lot more to other landmark sci-fi titles than it does to its studio brethren. It liberally (perhaps gratuitously) takes influences from System Shock, Half-Life, Dead Space, and Bioshock, and it isn’t afraid to wear those influences like a badge of honour. Thankfully however it isn’t just a lazy pastiche of great ideas from other, better games. Instead, it is a lovingly-crafted piece of art that is ultimately greater than the sum of its parts. It masterfully combines gameplay, narrative, and presentation influences from the aforementioned games into a unique final product.
The first thing players are going to notice is that stylistically, Prey looks and sounds excellent. Visually, it’s a blend of Arkane’s trademark stylish-yet-gritty chic, Bioshock’s vibrant 1950’s décor, and Dead Space’s industrial, metallic environments. It sounds confusing on paper, but when you see your first funky, colourful piece of metal furniture covered in blood and burn marks, it totally works. The sound design fits the game beautifully, too. Mick Gordon’s grimy, electronic soundscapes make heart-pounding gameplay sections feel even more tense, and the joyful 80’s synth-pop chords that accompany completed objectives are a welcome relief. Performance wise, on consoles the framerate suffers occasionally during sections with intense visual effects but for the most part is stable, and on a decent PC the game looks and runs like a god damn dream. Lighting and physics effects are especially impressive, as are the overall environment detail and textures.
Prey takes place on Talos I, an abandoned space station overrun by a terrifying interdimensional alien lifeform known as the Typhon (hey Dead Space, Half-Life and System Shock, hope you're well). You control Morgan Yu, a lead researcher on the station, who has lost their memory and follows the conflicting directives of the mysterious January and Morgan’s brother Alex, who both contact them by radio but never quite make it clear who to trust (oh, hello, Bioshock’s come to join the party). To avoid any major spoilers I’ll stop there, but suffice to say even though the narrative isn’t especially groundbreaking or unique, it is extremely well-told, superbly paced, highly intriguing, and raises numerous philosophical questions just like a good sci-fi story should.
Much like in the Dishonored games, narrative is intertwined with gameplay. Your actions – both big and small – have large-scale consequences, such as informing how the story plays out, as well as more subtle effects on the game world such as how NPCs treat Morgan. Arkane have only gotten better with each title at this interplay of gameplay and narrative, and it feels like they’ve truly nailed it in Prey. You don’t just make a simple choice to be “good” or “bad”, which roughly translates in Dishonored to being merciful or ruthless. Instead, there is more nuance and grey area, as you show how “human” you are through your choices, actions, and whether you infuse Morgan’s character with alien DNA or purely stick to human-based skill upgrades. Although the Typhon are the game’s antagonist, it becomes clear throughout the story that it’s not as simple as “humans good, aliens bad.” Consequently, what you feel is the “right” course of action in any situation becomes a truer reflection of your values and ethics, rather than you simply trying to exploit a particular gameplay system (I’m looking at you, Chaos).
Speaking of gameplay, if you’re a Dishonored veteran, you’ll have absolutely no trouble picking up Prey and getting a handle on its various systems (it will actually likely be difficult to stop yourself from diving too deep too early). From the UI to the control scheme, almost everything is familiar. Stats and powers can be upgraded through Neuromods and Chipsets (the game’s equivalent to Runes and Bonecharms). Favourite items and powers can be assigned to keyboard or controller shortcuts via the extremely familiar selection wheel. Items can be dismantled for parts which can in turn be used for crafting. You can see why some people have called it “Dishonored in space.” But even if you haven’t played a Dishonored game, if you’re familiar with action RPGs you will learn the Prey’s ins-and-outs quickly. Players new to the genre shouldn’t be turned off from trying the game either, as it has excellent tutorials and despite its considerable depth, doesn’t throw you straight in the deep end.
That’s not to say the game is easy or shallow though. It’s anything but. Almost every single objective in the game can be tackled in multiple ways. The multitude of powers, weapons, and gadgets available to Morgan make experimenting with different playstyles rewarding and fun. Indeed, it’s just as feasible to complete the game sampling a portion of every skill as it is spec’ing entirely into just one and taking full advantage of its higher-level upgrades. However, the game never stops being challenging, even when Morgan is fully kitted out with an array of badass powers. At no point will you be able to just enter a room, utterly wreak havoc like a demi-God, and walk away unscathed. Regardless of how you upgrade Morgan’s powers and the play style you choose, there is always a palpable sense of dread about the next potential encounter with the Typhon.
Depending on who you ask, Prey’s consistent difficulty is either its biggest strength or its biggest downfall. For fans of games like Dead Space and Alien: Isolation, constantly being on edge and never truly feeling in control of the situation is what keeps the game exciting. On the other hand, players who loved becoming an unstoppable force in Bioshock and Dishonored may find themselves being frustrated by the fact that even when they have spent upwards of 12 hours in the game, they are still barely walking away from combat encounters with their lives.
Because of all the above, this is a game that not only warrants multiple playthroughs, but actually excels thanks to them. Multiple endings and immediate changes to the game world are possible based on your choices at key junctions in the narrative, smaller seemingly innocuous things like how you tackle an objective, and even how many Typhon-based powers you choose to give Morgan. The game can be a survival horror nightmare, a challenging sci-fi shooter, a tense stealth puzzler, or any combination of the above depending on what playstyle you choose. Small details in the game world that can go unnoticed in one playthrough suddenly stand out the next time. Even entire parts of the environment may be accessible in one playthrough but not another. You can’t appreciate just how deep and varied this game really is by only playing it once.
Prey truly is more than the sum of its parts. Don’t let its immediate familiarity or obvious influences fool you, because when you look under the hood, it’s not just Dishonored set in space.
Prey (2017) (Reviewed on Windows)
Excellent. Look out for this one.
Prey is a deep, challenging sci-fi adventure that is more than the sum of its various influences