Reviewed on Xbox One.
Prey is less than the sum of its parts.
A thoughtfully crafted homage to better games before it, recycling decade-old ideas to craft a good product that functions well enough but fails to find any deeper meaning or purpose in its existence. A sporadically thrilling but unremarkable journey through a game with design choices that are in frequent discord and a story that, despite some meta-narrative beats and token twists, never flourishes.
With its first commercial success, France-based developer Arkane Studio expanded; the Arkane Studio in Lyone began work on Dishonored 2 while the newly founded Arkane Austin set out to revitalise the dormant Prey franchise. Utilising a legacy in immersive sims and an obvious adoration for the design ethos of the now-defunct Looking Glass Studios, Arkane Austin offers up the rebooted Prey.
I’ve heard an inordinate amount of praise for the opening hour, which plays out as a thematic microcosm for the rest of the game. It very deliberately plays with expectations, leveraging an uneasy incertitude that wreaks havoc with the players understanding of the world and their role in it. Protagonist Morgan Yu (whose gender is determined by the player before the game begins) has been hired to help out the family company with its burgeoning Neuromod technology by partaking in tests at company headquarters. Morgan is asked to hide in a room with only a small chair in it, so despite knowing I could still obviously be seen, I ducked behind it anyway. The observing scientests whisper to each other how silly Morgan was for trying that, how silly I was for trying that. It was a small moment that only interactive media could have pulled off, akin to the way The Stanley Parable gently teases the player for making the only choice available to him or her.
Naturally, things go awry and through a series of events I found more trite than revelatory, Yu finds him/herself aboard Transtar’s moon-orbiting Talos I complex; a Soviet Union space station refurbished into an art deco research facility, complete with living quarters for scientists and corporate personnel. There is a fascinating conceit to Prey’s alternate history, and Talos I has a tangible sense of place because of it.
Talos I is an elegantly designed, interconnected space which allows for organic discovery of the ways each location snakes back into others. Exploring the station internally is a pretty standard affair; supply closets with holes in the roof allow access to upper levels, code locks can be hacked, and small openings encourage the use of the game’s excellent mimic ability. The charmingly named GLOO Gun lets you build makeshift staircases and grappling holds with its quick dry blobs. Getting lost in the G.U.T.S., a massive maintenance shaft that runs throughout the station is befuddling and joyful all at once.
Prey also allows players to traverse Talos I externally through zero-gravity walks through the cold space surrounding it. These moments are inspired, with debris and bodies drifting around you and the disorientating, directionless space pressing in. I felt dread creeping in as I propelled myself further away from the station to reach a nearby objective; once I finally reached it I spun around to watch Talos I silently rotating in the void, moon looming in the background. It was stunning, and in that moment Prey was too.
Arkane are proponents of the “Play your way” philosophy and where it succeeded in Dishonored it falters somewhat here. Stealth is an option if the least encouraged play style, while direct confrontation of threats results in cacophonously awkward combat. Shooting feels hollow and tackling small, fast-moving enemies with a wrench is a nauseating swing fest. Combined with an overload of visual and aural cues for each enemy, combat devolves into a mess that leads to wasted supplies and confusion.
Encounters are markedly improved by using the ethically dubious Neuromods, Prey’s overly familiar power-up skill tree. These allow players to experience the abilities exhibited by the Typhon, including the ability to hack drones, blast enemies with telekinetic blows and transform into everyday objects. These powers, while nothing revolutionary, are a fun addition to a combat system that sorely needs the additional options.
Balancing once again becomes an issue here as the game actively punishes you for choosing to use these powers. Incorporating too many of the Typhon’s abilities into your skillset will cause Talos I’s defence systems to turn on you, and while I won’t spoil any details, the game’s narrative also distorts around your choices. Consequences as a result of in game choices are a powerful tool (the post credits sequence is a prime example), but penalising the utilisation of a skill set which adds a needed layer of depth to an average combat system is poor game design.
Typhon designs run the gambit of quality too. The Mimics, shapeshifting creatures that look like Facehuggers dipped in oil, keep the paranoia dialled up when exploring new areas. Victims of the Typhon are often mutated into Phantoms, which stalk the halls, harnessing a variety of elemental powers to ruin your day. Beyond these two main types, there is very little experimentation, leading to uninspired bullet-sponge blobs and overly armoured sentry robots.
Talos I often lends itself well to environmental storytelling. Modish deep reds and gold trimmings juxtaposed with the cold efficacy of modern machinery make for a stunning backdrop. Staff quarters hide contraband substances, email chains detailing a knockoff Dungeons and Dragons campaign, a man whose life was destroyed mere hours before he could deliver a flower, and a proposal, to his girlfriend Laurel. I remember her name, I remember quite a few of their names actually because Prey’s best storytelling is hidden away in these quiet, unassuming places. My favourite character is Danielle Sho. Find her. Help her.
Given the time dedicated to fleshing out the personalities of the Talos I staff, Morgan spends a disproportion amount of time isolated from the beats of the main quest and those instigating them. The story is primarily told to you via phone calls from the various forces that are now fighting over the remnants of Transtar’s research. While this is hardly the first game to do so, this storytelling device isn’t able to support a plot as intricate as Prey’s is trying to be, resulting in revelations and conclusions that play out as fumbled, missed opportunities.
Of course, it also doesn’t help that Prey tries to be smarter than it actually is. The events of the game are wrapped up in literal amnesic ambiguity, sidelining genuinely fascinating characters and ideas in the name of upholding its trite self. Alex Yu, Morgan’s older brother, is the most egregious victim of this. Had the events of the game played out in a different order there would have been time to explore an emotionally multifaceted family relationship, grounding the game’s deeper questions about morality and the self in a recognisably human frame. Instead, like much of the game, he is shrouded in a mystery that feels like an obligatory nod to games past rather than genuine story telling.
Despite some narrative and gameplay gaffes, Arkane has practically weaponised style. While the poorly-mixed audio levels deserve acknowledging, the soundtrack and general audio design are wonderfully suspenseful and oppressive. UI is simplistic (with the exception of the awful inventory management), menus and objective notifications adhere to a very deliberate, very Arkane sense of style which runs throughout their recent work. The numerous computer terminals around Talos I have well detailed, clean displays that are useable in such a way as to not break immersions, complete with on-screen distortion. The clocks on the wall match the time on your personal computer. It’s a symphony of attention to detail that brings the world to life.
It’s also packed to the brim with content. Dozens of side quests, hundreds of Transtar employees to track down (seriously, they all have names and you can spend hours trying to find their bodies/whereabouts), a hefty selection of weapons, crafting possibilities, and the main quest feels like it will never end…until it abruptly does.
The final act of the game is heavily focused on action and large-scale spectacle, which stands out in harsh contrast to the previous acts due to a radical change of pace and tone. The game conflates more enemies and explosions with dramatic tension, leaving the actual plot dangling until the last minutes of play in which crucial questions remain unanswered and ideas unrealised. Perhaps most baffling, Prey does eventually have a proper, more satisfying ending, but it is tucked away beyond the credits, a design choice I really can’t make any sense of.
So ultimately, in many ways, Prey feels like a peak in AAA game making. A game that borrows a name for brand recognition alone, published by a company disinterested in the old media while heavily leaning into an unsure future. An amalgamation of market proof components, woven together with the deft touch of a developer which has, in a short time, galvanised a pedigree in world building. An objectively well-made product that fits the design parameters of a modern day game.
The main reason it fails to leave an impression is the same reason it got made in the first place. It is, at its base level, a primarily dispassionate remake of the great works of art that have come before it. You’ve played Prey before and no amount of stylisation can gloss over that crippling problem. Understanding the individual elements required to craft something meaningful is useless without vision, and while Arkane are undoubtedly skilled developers, greatness remains just out of reach.