Way back in 2006 during the start of seventh generation console period, a game development team by the name of Human Head Studios released a game called Prey for PC and the XBOX 360. These days the game isn’t particularly well remembered but it received generally positive reviews and was an overall commercial success at the time of its release which lead to the early development of a sequel. Not long after the rights to the franchise ended up in Bethesda’s hands who quietly axed the game in 2011 but didn’t officially cancel it until 2014 for reasons that have never been entirely clear. Then in 2016 a reboot of the franchise was announced as a survival horror game, under the development of Arkane Studios; the team that is best known for their work on the Dishonored games. Earlier this year we saw the release of this game and while I can say that it isn’t nearly as interesting or as promising as Prey 2 appeared to be I can say that it is a solid little survival horror game. Even if it really doesn’t bring anything new to the table.
The game takes place in the not so distant future on a space station called Talos I that is in orbit around the moon. The player takes control of Morgan Yu, an executive scientist aboard the station who is suffering from amnesia and discovers that the station has been overrun by the Typhon; a mysterious alien race that feeds off of conscious beings and takes on many shapes and forms. With the help of his/her AI guide, it’s up to Morgan to travel through the station, decide if you want to rescue its various members from their predicaments and ultimately decide if the station should be destroyed with everyone on board or simply destroy the Typhon on the station and continue to help advance humanity’s reach for the stars.
As you can tell, the plot here is more or less standard survival horror/isolated location fare. You have a protagonist who doesn’t really know what is going on, monsters of unknown/alien origins running around, causing trouble and a very real possibility of it spreading if the protagonist doesn’t step up to stop it. It’s basically the setup of every other sci-fi horror story ever conceived and does very little to differentiate itself. It lacks the terrifying atmosphere of the System Shock games, the Cronenbergian body horror elements of the Dead Space games, the novelty of seeing the xenomorphs in a survival horror game as in Alien: Isolation or the power trip one gets from tearing through demons in Doom (2016). That’s not to say that game does an incompetent job of it but it lacks any real novelty and seems to be going through the survival horror checklist. You have a station that is falling apart all around you, company men of dubious allegiances hindering your path, people’s backstories being told through audio logs and emails, a final act hindrance in the form of a human antagonist and a last second monster who pops out of nowhere to give you one last bit of trouble. While it is done competently enough it’s something that we’ve all seen a million times before and longtime fans of the genre are more than likely going to be bored by it before too long.
The one thing that it does do differently is introduce supporting characters who may or may not die depending on your actions, whereas other survival horror games are perfectly content to let said supporting character become monster food. The actual choices, however, are insufferably simple morality choices that even early BioWare and Lionhead developers would look down their noses at. But then you get to the ending and all of the simplicity makes a lot more sense. I won’t spoil it for you but it is one of those endings that will make or break the game for a lot of people. For some people, it will make the game’s choices feel far more meaningful and give the game a more artistic edge to it. For others, it will make them feel as if they just wasted all the hours they just spent playing it. Personally, I found myself in the former category as I found that it gave more depth to my actions and made me wonder where the franchise was going to go next. I won’t say that it makes up for the rest of the game’s uninspired plot but it does give the whole thing more of an edge that it would have otherwise lacked.
The gameplay itself is also something of a mixed bag. Like the main plot it’s competently done but it seems to lack any real imagination. The Typhon is an antagonist that is a challenging one to defeat. The different types that you encounter often require different strategies to defeat and even when you figure it out you’re never given enough resources to blast your way through the game easily, allowing the game to keep the tension levels up even while the individual enemies get easier to defeat. Unfortunately, this design is something of a double edge sword for the game.
As I’m sure you’ve all heard, the game is an open world, first person, Metroidvania style of game with a ton of side quests spread throughout a rather large station. While the main quests can be finished in about thirteen hours all the optional content can increase the play time up to twenty-five hours which, in theory, is a good thing. The problem is that actually running around and doing all of these side quests quickly becomes a massive drain on time and resources, making your struggle to get through the main quests all the more difficult. As mentioned earlier, the individual enemies get easier to fight through but you’re never given enough resources to cut through the Typhon in large numbers over a long period of time. Unfortunately for us, the game can and will throw A LOT of enemies at you all at once for long stretches of the game. Once again, it keeps things tense and challenging but it also makes the side quests feel like an annoying chore that may not be worth all the extra effort you go through to accomplish it. They’re doable given enough time and patience but it honestly feels as if the team doing the level designs and side quests had a bit of a communication problem with the people designing the monsters’ abilities, strengths and numbers.
Speaking of level designs and abilities we once again have a mixed bag in this category. The level designs themselves are actually pretty good and allow a nice verity of options when it comes to combat and story progression. One way may seem correct but then you’ll find an impassable obstacle with your current stats and are forced to find another way around, be it finding the correct key card or using your Gloo Cannon to make a new set of stairs on the wall. The problem, however, comes when you take the neuromod advancement system into account. The main problem is that the game doesn’t have any kind of respec option. It makes sense given the game’s main narrative but there is nothing more infuriating then running half way across the map, grinding through or sneaking around hordes of enemies only to discover that you can’t progress because you aren’t strong enough to move a box or make it to a much-needed replicator that turns out to be broken and you can’t fix it because you didn’t put enough stats into repair. It completely cuts out any chance for experimentation and effectively makes you choose what kind of character you’re going to play as from start to finish, lest you end up to weak to battle the games later challenges. It’s by no means a game breaker but it does make the so-called role play elements feel extremely restrictive.
There are three things, however, that I can honestly say that the game completely fails at. The first is the designs of the Typhon. The only way to really described these things is as black blobs that look like the symbionts from Spider-Man if they were having a bad hair day. Their initial reveal at the start of the game is frightening and helps induce a sense of paranoia that continues throughout the game but are otherwise unfrightening blobs of black goo that occasionally shoot lighting and fire. You have the octopus looking blobs, the werewolf looking ones, the giant floating balls, the small floating balls, the kite shaped ones, the one that looks like a giant gorilla and one that looks like a giant worm and they’re all about as generic looking as that reads. There is quite literally nothing that makes them stand out outside of how under-designed they are.
The other two things are the game’s graphics and atmosphere. The graphics themselves aren’t particularly good. Everything about it looks like it came out of a last gen consul with everything looking far too smooth and lacking any real detail or depth. And it’s this lack of detail or depth that contributes to the game’s atmosphere or lack thereof. Like everything else in the game, the atmosphere lacks any identity. If feels very much like a generic space station that we’ve seen a million times before and fails to contain anything unique enough to give it its own sense of identity. The environments themselves, while well designed, are not scary. It lacks the dim lighting and used future atmosphere of Alien: Isolation or the overall sense that something is terribly wrong that System Shock 2 evoked and just all around fails to leave an impression.
In the end, Prey (2017) is the definition of a competently made sci-fi survival horror game that fails to leave any impression. The plot and gameplay are all by the numbers and I am hard pressed to find a reason to recommend it. It’s not a bad game and will give you your survival horror fix but it’s a game that I would only recommend playing if you’re sick of replaying System Shock 2, Alien: Isolation or Dead Space and are a fan of the genre. Beyond that is just a perfectly average game.