The elephant in the room deserves acknowledging upfront: Prey doesn’t have a single blessed thing to do with Human Head Studios’s 2006 shooter of the same name. That was a mechanically shaggy game that still found a devoted cult following by defiantly flying in the face of just about every convention of modern FPS design, including its story, which managed to handle a potentially galling setup—modern-day Cherokees calling upon their ancestors to help combat an alien invasion—with surprising depth and care. Arkane Studios’s Prey, by contrast, is infuriating in how much it isn’t its namesake. This “reboot” is objectively a marvel of different systems of gameplay interlocking with each other flawlessly, and it rather favorably compares to Zelda: Breath of the Wild in its encouragement of players to innovate in order to solve problems, but in favor of a world, story, and characters that sprawl out with the cold indifference of a machine.
Prey never quite figures out what kind of experience it really wants to be throughout its campaign. It is, on its face, a horror game, a story about massive international space station Talos 1 being overrun by a race of twitchy shadow monstrosities that can infect, subsume, even mimic living things and stationary objects, with protagonist Morgan Yu—selectable at the outset as male or female—needing to avoid or kill the beasts ad nauseam in aid of accomplishing the goal of either escaping or blowing the place straight to hell. And Prey balances its aesthetic mood swings rather convincingly—with golden Art Deco majesty rather admirably meshing with glossy sci-fi sterility caked in blood and ruin. But the game’s jump scares are cheap and so ubiquitous that the effect is numbing. The first time a downed office chair turns into a wiry, tenebrous space demon is terrifying, but not so much by the time it occurs for the umpteenth time across the next 20 hours.
Oftentimes, Prey suggests a lonely sci-fi treatise on humanity and the power of memory closer to Solaris than Alien. It would be a beautiful, welcome accomplishment in a video-game narrative if the developers pulled it off. Unfortunately, every moment of poignancy—mostly stemming from the B plot of working through long-repressed family frustrations with Morgan’s antagonist brother, Alex—has its throat slit by forcing such constant attention on what might be coming to kill Morgan next and whether it’s in the room where the human stories are being told (spoiler: it probably is).
The niche where the vast majority of Prey decides to settle in is the wearying genre of survival thriller, one that wears its influences proudly on its sleeve but without any sense of wide-eyed wonder amid the desolation. There’s no truly immersive space here beyond the first mysterious half hour. There’s simply the next objective, and any motivation to marvel at Talos 1 as a sheer human accomplishment and mourn what the aliens have done to it is muted at best. Most of the game is spent skulking from location to location with blinders on, looking for ways to unlock new areas of the station, rescuing the few lucky survivors of the alien threat along the way, carefully managing resources like food and ammo, and praying that the next horrible thing to walk through the door doesn’t leave you defenseless for the next one.
For a large chunk of the game, this is exactly the indignity players can expect, with a quick-moving spidery enemy being a particular, frequent annoyance, forcing you to waste health and precious ammo dealing with it every time. Yes, Prey does offer an upgrade system where abilities and health can be enhanced by finding and installing “neuromods” (literal life-hack items that you install using a particularly hard-to-watch injection), but you don’t feel particularly enhanced after initiating them. Self-improvement is a glacial process in this game, and enhancements don’t start to make a significant difference to gameplay until dozens of them have been installed.
The times that Prey veers close to actual fun all have to do with a special type of neuromod that allows Morgan to obtain some of the aliens’ powers via a scan mechanic reminiscent of BioShock’s Camera ability. Through these, Morgan can learn how to fire orbs of psychic energy, unleash waves of fire, telepathically throw objects, and morph into different objects to evade or ambush enemies. Even then, Morgan can only learn about these abilities by scanning enemies; unlocking them still requires finding neuromod items in the environment, and they’re prohibitively expensive unless you divert an obscene amount of attention away from the primary objectives to find hidden caches of them. Even once you have the alien mods, one of the game’s smarter touches actively discourages even installing them; automatic defense mechanisms on the space station stop recognizing Morgan as human if enough neuromods are installed and open fire on sight. It’s a case of the game being too clever for its own good, sapping the joy out of a system that should give the player more, not less control over their environment.
Prey dangles a narrative carrot in front of the player often enough throughout its campaign to make the trek through Talos 1 interesting, but just barely. The sidequests given by random survivors often lead to some fine, albeit melancholy stories of human spirit along the way, and the game is punctuated by eyebrow-raising revelations (a major one is how neuromods are actually manufactured). And though the game’s climax is “Poochie returning to his home planet” levels of perfunctory, its post-credit sequence is a masterstroke, casting every minute prior in a new light. But it’s a rough, arduous road leading to that, a dispassionate and surprisingly long game that seems to hold the kinds of intrigue and grim exaltation that games like this thrive on too often at a distance in favor of mechanical prowess. Prey is a game that forces players to tread far too lightly. It’s dour and oblivious that its destination is more interesting and vital than the journey.