Eight. There are probably only eight games ever made that have the twisted, unique, and strangely enviable ability to fuck your brain up. We’re talking about walking away from it, and the game still has the hold on the way you look at the world—your home, your friends, all of it. Now, with the release of Arkane Studios’ Prey, that total has gone up to nine.
This game continues the striking and undying legacy of the Looking Glass heritage for worldbuilding. If Arkane’s Dishonored titles followed the footsteps of Thief, then Prey does the same for System Shock. From the loose but committed Art Deco design to the hands-off, experimentation-oriented gameplay and right down to the environmental and completely optional storytelling, Prey could not be more that than if it took SHODAN’s face and wore it like a mask.
Hell, it even takes place on a space station, although the reason why is vastly different. To go into serious detail on the premise of the game would ruin a lot of the grotesque magic it casts on the player early on, but if you’ve seen any trailers or pre-release coverage, you’ll know the bulk of it. You play as Morgan Yu (whose gender can be selected before you start), and you awaken aboard the Talos I space station with little to no understanding of how or why, let alone who.
The Talos I is one of the tremendous successes of the game. It is a completely open—albeit ability-gated—world that is almost overwhelming in scope. You’ll go from area to area and see how the design influences of its constituent parts morph and mold around their utility. And simply the amusement park-style variety of zero gravity and vacuumed space regions puts you back on your heels, reeling at the audacity to set you loose in this unfettered structure.
You’ll really get a feeling for what you’re in for the first time you exit the station. It looks like a titan tried to throw a skyscraper into the Moon but didn’t quite make it. And once you enter the Talos I once more, you’ll see that you still barely scratched the surface.
This completely unopinionated way the game presents its heavily opinionated world is incredible and is easily when it shines the hardest. The gameplay is the perfect example of this. When you are free to experiment and combine different weapons and environment systems, you are the most powerful and the most engrossed. It lets you poke and prod at the gears spinning behind the scenes with possibilities overflowing at every turn, and all you really want is to test them all.
This unfortunately falls apart towards the last act of the game. Both the story and gameplay waver as it becomes more opinionated about how you should go about defeating your foes to the point where its previously perfectly balanced scales of terror and relief gets thrown out in favor of grinding through battles in areas you’ve already pillaged. And more than that, it seems to push you towards overcoming challenges in specific ways, taking that aforementioned freedom to experiment and replacing it with mediocrity.
It makes a comeback by the end in terms of the narrative, but that sharp decline into more traditional running and gunning never quite recovers. All those odd little reminders that you should return to explore are gone. Those tips that you require more strength or hacking to gain access to a room hold no water by the end, stripping the world of just a little more mystery.
Granted, the lead-up to that degradation is sublime. Part of the conceit to both the story and the gameplay is that you can’t trust anything. Seriously, anything can kill you. Radioactive space can kill you, space bats can kill you, and falling from 30 feet up can kill you, but most importantly, that coffee cup can kill you.
The way that enemies can take the shape of literally anything—including item pickups and seemingly benign inanimate objects—is a surprisingly simple yet effective tactic and playing into the core theme of the narrative. As everything starts to blend together into a Hitchcockian nightmare of paranoia, fear, and shocked paralysis, you can only possibly question everything. Even your understanding of who you are in the game begins to shake itself loose from your grip.
That being said, it is a struggle to even get going to reach that point. It is plagued with technical issues that you’d more often associate with a Fallout title. (Keep it in the Bethesda family, I guess?) Consoles end up with minute-long loading times, the Xbox One can chug along at single digit frames, and the PlayStation 4, patched or not, has some input latency that isn’t terrible but never quite feels comfortable.
A lot of that can be sidestepped by playing on a reasonably beefy PC, but every version suffers from debilitating problems. You might encounter corrupted autosaves or the random crash here and there, which is a hearty reminder that manual saves exist. But god help you if you encounter a game-breaking bug, such as the same one that forced IGN to give this game a 4.0 out of 10.
Perhaps the best comparison for Prey is something akin to a partner with commitment issues. It opens itself up from the get-go and you want to love it so deeply, but as you go along, it starts to close up and it keeps you at arm’s length, only engaging you at like levels. But up until that point, there’s plenty to love. It’s up to you, though, if you let the game defeat you by the end.
+ Stellar worldbuilding and environmental storytelling
+ Atmosphere and mood is never not foreboding and unsettling
+ Mechanics and systems play together wonderfully
– Ends up doubting itself towards the end before a mild recovery
– Technical woes out the yang
Final Score: 8 out of 10
Game Review: Prey
Release: May 5, 2017
Developer: Arkane Studios
Available Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC