Not to be confused with the upcoming Catholic church funded blockbuster Pray, Arkane Studios, makers of the acclaimed Dishonored series, take a step in a new direction with Prey. Based loosely on the 2006 title from Human head studios, Prey combines horror elements with first person shooter mechanics nicely.
Prey follows the story of Morgan Yu, a head scientist on the orbital space station Talos I, as he finds himself stranded following the events of a disaster that left the space station nearly uninhabited . Utilising the resources and technology available aboard the space station, Morgan needs to unravel the mysteries surrounding his own lost memory while fighting off the alien invasion responsible for the disaster.
The premise sounds about as original as a Chinese bootleg, but it’s the small details that really bring the narrative to life. The game takes a similar approach to Fallout where a lot of the exposition is stored in various computers and data drives throughout the game world, usually in the form of both formal and informal correspondence. Not only does this approach make the characters seem more human and three dimensional, but the recurring characters and events that you read about paint a vivid picture of life aboard Talos I back in the good old days where everyone was considerably less dead. This also adds a lot of context to the environment itself, making it feel a lot more like a place that people used to live, and not just a setting for sticking a shotgun down some alien gullets.
The game is essentially an open world game as Talos I is free to explore, although the fact that it’s a space station means that the “open” world doesn’t feel so open. This is not a bad thing, in fact it’s refreshing compared to the sprawling but empty worlds that are quickly becoming the norm in modern open world games. Having cramped environments with all sorts of valuable resources hidden away in nooks and crannies is vastly more satisfying than covering a square kilometer of open terrain in search of a single loot box. As well as this, certain areas and loot are initially inaccessible until you’ve either acquired a passcode/keycard from around the station, or you’ve got the appropriate skill to bypass it. This means that as you progress further, more of the station opens up, and revisiting previous areas offers more to explore and collect.
The skill system, based around the use of Neuromods, therefore complements the core gameplay quite nicely. According to lore, Neuromods store the brain scans of highly skilled people from earth, and enable anyone to almost instantly learn a skill by applying the Neuromod to their own brain. As you can probably guess, this piece of information is vital to the main storyline later on. Collecting enough Neuromods allow you to upgrade your character, with several skill trees offering various perks that allow you to hack machines, lift heavy objects, and enhance your combat abilities. Later on, players can scan the abilities of the Typhon – the mysterious aliens that have taken over the space station, and use Neuromods to gain those abilities themselves.
To prepare for the horrors aboard Talos I, players will also need to utilize the crafting system to stock up on essential items. Scattered around the station are fabrication plans for everything from health packs, to ammo, to suit upgrades, as well as junk that can be refined into crafting materials. There are also weapons to be found around the station, although you get the shotgun earlier on as a pre-order bonus, which dwarfs the use of pretty much anything else in the early game. In fact I can’t imagine playing without it, because otherwise the only reliable weapon you have once you run out of pistol ammo is a wrench for bashing things, and getting within arm’s reach of enemies is rarely going to end well.
Prey offers a variety of Typhon enemies, all of which are pretty keen to prey upon you. The first thing the game introduces you to are mimics, which take on the appearance of ordinary objects throughout the station. This means that you’ll occasionally walk into a room and be ambushed by a sentient chair, cup, or sometimes even a goddamn health pack. At low health this can make for a frustrating death, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. In addition to a cheap jump scare, there are audio cues for nearby mimics, so as well as keeping you on your toes it does a good job of adding tension to the game via a healthy dose of paranoia. Better empty a shotgun shell into that lamp, just in case.
Further in you will encounter other enemies with their own unique abilities and weaknesses. These include elemental Typhoids that can throw fire and lightning at you, telepathic Typhon with mind controlled human minions, and even technopaths that can inhabit and control the robotic servants known as operators. Mama didn’t raise no softie, so I played the game on hard mode, which provided an ideal level of challenge. In most cases, if you run at an enemy head first guns blazing you’d become Typhon food, so using your environment and resources to your advantage is a necessity. One of my favourite tactics was to set up a turret and bait enemies into range, letting the turret wear them down so I could finish them off. This became less effective later in the game, forcing players to change up their strategy if they want to survive.
This is where the horror elements start to come into play as well. Generally in horror games players are defenseless against some greater evil, whereas in Prey the enemies are terrifying because despite being armed to the teeth, you still don’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell against them toe to toe. This was never more apparent than when I first encountered a kind of Typhon known as a Nightmare. Walking into a new area and being face to face with something three times larger and more pissed off than you are is bad enough, but the guttural screech it let out terrified me on a primal level. Luckily I managed to find shelter in a bathroom because I had just shat myself, and I proceeded to spend the next few minutes admiring the inside of a toilet bowl while I hid in a stall until the Nightmare had passed.
It wasn’t until I passed a window and found myself staring out at earth longingly that I realised how utterly immersed I was in Prey. Here I was tiptoeing around this hostile space station, while earth looked so safe and far away. This was the result of a strong, well spun narrative, a believable environment, and engaging gameplay. Everything about Prey comes together and compliments each other nicely, from mechanics to storytelling, but they sure did miss an opportunity by not including an enemy called Typhoid Mary.
Also published on Medium.