With Arkane Studios’s reputation for top-notch world building, it’s a shame to find that in 2017’s Prey, they merely chose to inhabit something familiar. Prey draws notable inspiration from a number of other titles such as Bioshock, Deus Ex, and its sister-series, Dishonored. While inspiration can be the fuel for innovation, Arkane’s take on dystopia fails in paying homage to those before it. Rather, Prey feels like it is often trying to be another game, so much so, I could swap protagonist Morgan Yu’s space suit for a diving suit without missing a beat.
Prey’s “Rapture” is Talos I, a space station born during JFK’s second presidential term. This alternate timeline takes us to the year 2032, when the player wakes aboard the Talos I space station. Morgan’s first moments on the station culminate in a mind-warp most games reserve for the final chapter. Through these revelations, we discover Morgan is developing a space-age plasmid analog called neuromods. Neuromods afford humans abilities far beyond their normal limits, differing from plasmids in being applied through the eye rather than the arm, and to the brain as opposed to the user’s DNA. They also have the distinct disadvantage of resetting the user’s memory to the moment before installation, should they be removed. This fact sets the stage for Prey’s main plotline, as we find out Morgan has been the subject of extensive neuromod testing and is turned upon Talos I with no memory of how it came to its ruined state.
Arkane’s “unreliable narrator” approach to storytelling lends well to Talos I’s open environment. With no memory of who the player can or can’t trust, Morgan is left to discover for himself (or herself, should you prefer) how to proceed aboard the station. This manifests as we find Morgan left himself instructions as an emergency precaution. As other members of the Talos I crew present Morgan with conflicting pieces of self-prescribed instructions, questlines branch toward various endings. It is up to the player to decide if Morgan is being manipulated, or if perhaps multiple sets of instructions were left as Morgan’s memory was wiped time and again. The paranoia of potentially being your own worst enemy quickly becomes one of Prey’s most gripping plot elements. This paranoia is pervasive throughout your time aboard Talos I, as you quickly learn to scrutinize everything around you.
A species of various inky creatures known collectively as the Typhon serve as Morgan’s primary source of adversity. The Talos I crew were using the Typhon in neuromod development, which in a turn of events that should have surprised no one, ended with the Typhon escaping only to destroy the space station and most of the people inside it. Players will encounter the Typhon early and often, particularly the ubiquitous mimic. Mimics are cat-sized, purely black and resemble starfish, were starfish made of nightmares and spite. They’re agile and capable of shape-shifting into any nearby object. While the distrust of your senses inspired by these creatures is initially intriguing, the novelty quickly wears off.
My first encounter with a mimic left my health low, my suit damaged and my supplies depleted. This forced me to quickly adopt the habit of entering a room only to immediately wrench-smash everything inside. Part of what I loved about Arkane’s other work was exploring the beautifully crafted landscapes and evocative environmental storytelling they employed. Much of that is lost in the wake of destruction I left throughout Talos I. While this is later addressed by a scanner-like headset capable of revealing hidden mimics, it comes well after Talos I’s visuals become repetitive.
Exploration didn’t get much smoother as I ventured further into the space station. The controls are somewhat clunky and seem to be focused on the pseudo-RPG mechanics before FPS functionality. Features intended to give a life-like feel to Morgan, such as the game’s screen bob and camera roll settings made basic navigation feel haphazard. I immediately turned them down to roughly a quarter of their default values just to make motions seem natural. Further, Prey does almost nothing to explain the tools available to Morgan. Tinkering with all the buttons on my controller led me to discover the innate optical zoom function available, regardless of weapon in hand. It wasn’t until hours into playing I discovered this zoom could also mark targets. It was hours again before Prey actually made a point of explaining this to me. I’m still waiting for the tool tip explaining the lean function which blew my mind hours after discovering target marking.
Prey’s quirks combine with the unpredictable movement patters of the Typhon to often create an unfocused combat experience. While hotkeys mapped to the D-pad, allow players to quickly swap between weapons, only three items can be assigned, as “up” is reserved for your flashlight. Combat in this game can be engaging, with different enemies and scenarios pressuring the player to use many of Prey’s various implements of death. Disappointingly, if the weapon you need at any given moment isn’t mapped, you’re forced to bring up a massive weapon wheel, which pauses time and disrupts the game’s pacing. Nearly every fight left me wanting a secondary bank of keys to map.
This limitation is most noticeable when switching from the Gloo Gun, one of Prey’s more interesting and versatile weapons, to something more lethal. The Gloo Gun is capable of firing short-range globs that quickly expand and crystallize to create impromptu paths to otherwise unreachable areas, or to incapacitate enemies. The transition between encapsulating an enemy before immediately shotgunning it into pieces could be fluid and satisfying and instead left me fumbling through my weapons as though they were keys on a crowded ring.
Inventory management becomes increasingly vexing due to one of the few departures from the Bioshock/Dishonored structure. Suit mods, scope mods, and key items (most of them, anyway) are all managed for the player with no storage limit. However, weapons, ammunition, health kits, food, crafting materials, weapon upgrades, and anything else you may want to venture forth with all end up in a bag similar to that of SquareEnix’s Deus Ex. Supplies vary in scarcity throughout Prey, forcing players to choose between a massive armory of interesting gadgets or a stock of health and crafting materials likely needed along the way. Limited bag space makes stockpiling neuromods and upgrade kits, or food (each different type of edible takes up space as its own item stack) punishing for players who would rather take along more actively used equipment.
This is disappointing as Talos I plays host to a multitude of interesting weapons. Many are introduced through the kind of environmental storytelling I wish was more prevalent. Finding the Huntress Boltcaster initially gave me my first sense of power and security during my tour of Talos I. As I pieced together an email chain among the doomed crew, I realized the Huntress was a passion project among the engineering team. Rather than finding a tool of destruction, I had stumbled my way into a company Nerf war.
The Huntress fires foam darts which can distract or lure enemies and, more interestingly, can remotely activate touch panels within the station. This sense of playfulness is carried on in the less benign Recycler Charge grenade, which causes space to bend around the charge, first expanding, before collapsing inward until any objects or living things caught in the blast are transformed into brightly colored cubes of raw crafting materials. This level of stylizing also crops up in the environments of Talos I, though inconsistently.
The Talos I space station manages to capture a future-retro chic all its own. The art deco design is sharply reminiscent of Bioshock; however Arkane’s art direction is immediately identifiable. True to the studio’s form, areas are large, open and smartly lit. Upon first entering the station’s main pavilion, I was treated to eye-grabbing crimson carpet highlighted by golden fixtures and luminescent glass structures, all radiating a futuristic grandeur. However, while labs, HR offices, and foyers are distinct from one another, the aesthetic caries throughout the entire station with only moderate variance. Where Dishonored and Bioshock delivered a different sensory experience with each new area, Prey distinguishes different sections of the station through more subtle changes in lighting or architecture, with the exception of the Arboretum’s lush gardens. This is serviceable, but is a sadly missed opportunity to develop Talos I as a character in Prey’s story.
Prey’s setting manages to become significantly more intriguing once you work your way out of its grand halls. The first spacewalk scene lets players appreciate the scale of the station and the intricacies of its structure. Air locks allow Morgan to enter and exit the station at various locations; however these air locks must be first made accessible from inside the station before they can be used from the void of space. This eventually creates a network of easily accessible gates between sections of Talos I, becoming Prey’s answer to a fast-travel system. Making my way across Talos I’s exterior was an oddly calming experience, much welcomed amid the constant threat of mimic ambush.
The inhabitants of Talos I, sadly, fail to have their “spacewalk” moment, remaining flat and forgettable from beginning to end. Character models are clearly reflective of the deep-wrinkled inhabitants of the Dishonored series, but possess none of personality facets which set them apart from one another. Prey seeks to use other characters as a reference point for Morgan’s humanity, hinting at a deeper meaning of what truly separates humans and monsters. However, I never found any reason to become attached enough to my fellow cosmonauts to link their fates with Morgan’s moral wellbeing.
Ultimately, Prey is a game wallowing in untapped potential. It echoes of stories told through masterful pacing, characterization and world-crafting, though manages itself, to ring hollow. For all its missed opportunities, I greatly enjoyed Prey. While that certainly carries its own merits, I’m unable to say I enjoyed Prey as something of its own. This game fills the void for those wishing for a continuation to other titles in Prey’s lineage, but offers little to those seeking a new experience.
Last modified: May 14, 2017