Prey is a game about identity, wrapped in the clothing of a first-person shooter.
Developed by Arkane Studios, the creators of Dishonored, Prey shares a similar heritage, even if the genes it expresses are different. Where Dishonored went back to the Thief series for inspiration, Prey takes its cues from the legendary development house Looking Glass’ other child — System Shock.
The result is a systems-driven adventure, one where levels are marginalized, supplanted instead by a believable, interconnected space station beset by an otherworldly force. When Prey seems the most at the whim of "modern" first-person game ideas, it struggles to make the best case for itself. But when Prey opens up enough to ask questions without easy answers, and to let you unravel its mysteries, it’s something much less common — and much more successful.
Prey opens as protagonist Morgan Yu — whose gender you determine before the game begins — awakens to a mysterious nightmare underway on the space station Talos I. I won’t speak much about premise here, because the way the game starts, and the way the early game unfolds, is so key to the success of its ongoing appeal.
The setting is a sparkling cosmonaut future haunted by a nightmarish specter, but narratively speaking it owes as much to noir and spy media. Prey builds a conceit that calls into question any trust in the figures you meet — and possibly your own perception of what’s happening. Prey’s influences seem to be movies like Solaris and writers like Philip K. Dick, but the execution successfully leverages Prey’s interactive nature.
Put more simply, Prey consistently, successfully fucked with my head. Nothing is as it seems, whether that’s your own understanding of Morgan as a character or whether or not a coffee cup is going to try to kill you.
Feel free to skip the next two paragraphs if even the most basic premise spoilers for Prey are too much — and honestly, I think you should go into the game knowing as little as possible about it.
Prey’s alien menace, the Typhon, are capable of mimmicking other forms in Prey’s game world, and they do so in a largely unscripted fashion. Any object you see on Talos I could be an enemy in disguise. Not even item pickups are safe, and shy of some special equipment later in the game, there's no way to know for sure without hitting an object or risking picking it up.
There are other, less subtle enemies, enemies that are more dangerous, though these are also even more tragic. There’s a pervasive sense of loss in Prey’s halls, if you spend even a moment trying to listen, and as I snuck around, avoiding as much conflict as possible, I heard a lot of disturbing things.
As you navigate Talos I, you’ll encounter a variety of obstacles, but Arkane has provided an involved skill tree system that allows you to spend points — albeit in a manner effectively and disturbingly grounded in Prey’s fiction — to gain new abilities. Some of these are combat-related, including bizarre supernatural abilities ranging from stealth to head-on combat. But others are more exploratory in nature.
Methods of access were my preference. Prey is full of locked doors, and I wanted to see behind every one. Some can be hacked via a tolerable minigame, assuming you have the appropriate level of hacking to do so. Others are blocked by heavy objects that can be lifted, if you’re strong enough. Still others are at the mercy of security stations that can be manipulated through unorthodox ways, if you have the tools.
These spaces yield equipment and materials vital for survival aboard Talos I, but more importantly, each new space is an opportunity for Prey to tell part of the station’s story or history. As you find the remains of Talos I’s crew, you’ll frequently find their personal data devices and their passwords, which in turn allow you to read emails and other accounts of their lives. It’s through these stories that I was able to piece together what was happening on Talos I, and then what happened on Talos I as everything went sideways.
The freedom Prey offered to go as deep into its mystery as I cared to was almost hypnotic. The starting space, for example, is full of locked doors and areas you simply won’t be able to access the first time through. But once I had accumulated enough upgrade points, I went back and started peeling away layers of that onion. In the process, I stumbled on challenges that were, to be honest, way above my pay grade, and I survived, but just barely.
It felt really good to play a game that let me almost screw myself that way.
It’s not that Prey isn’t fair — at least generally speaking, anyway. But the game seems to have respect for your ability to get through somewhere if you’re resourceful enough to get into it. And somehow, this didn’t counteract the sensation that I was getting away with something when I managed to hack or sneak my way into a new area.
Part of the reward in these spaces has to do with the variety of areas and environments Talos I comprises, up to and including zero gravity and even vacuum spaces. Talos I may not be the biggest play space I’ve ever experienced in a game. But it feels significant, and extremely time-consuming. You could probably finish Prey in 15-20 hours if you were really rushing through its critical path, but doing most of its side tasks, my in-game clock was at 45 hours before I saw an actual ending.
Granted, my play time was actually longer than that, because Prey is willing to kill you just about all the time. Sometimes, this feels legit — "yeah, I probably shouldn’t have jumped from a third-story atrium window to the floor" or "I didn’t make sure that thing couldn’t hit me before I tried to beat it into oblivion with a wrench."
At other times, it all feels a little punitive. Ammunition for weapons isn’t scarce, exactly, and you can make more, though it’s easy to run out at inopportune moments. Sometimes, this was educational. Experimentation often yielded surprising results with less obvious tools. But sometimes, Prey really wants you to use more powerful tools, and if you run out at the wrong time, you’re probably going to get murdered extremely quickly.
This difficulty is great at instilling a sense of risk and danger, and between that and an aggressive, excellent soundtrack, Prey is fantastic at creating an ominous, foreboding mood. For much of the game, combat can be punishing, but it’s peppered throughout at a smart pace. It’s exciting, not exhausting, and it doesn’t get in the way of the exploring/learning/experimenting loop.
However, Prey loses sight of its strengths in the last third or so. As things on the station become more desperate, the freedom of movement and decision-making that allowed me to lose myself in the mythos and mysteries of Talos I became bogged down in a constant back-and-forth through the station. I had already discovered most of the secrets in the primary areas the game wanted me to pass through again and again. It all felt like an excuse to make me fight and shoot my way through new encounters in the same spaces.
Sometimes this felt at the service of Prey’s story, and I grudgingly accepted the busywork involved. But for much of it, it felt like padding, and it really dragged me back down to earth, no pun intended.
Luckily, Prey finds its footing in the end. There’s confrontation and conflict, but it’s not about boss battles or setpieces. The big decisions I was making toward the end felt like a culmination of my decisions and actions in an organic way. They very well may have been canned — I don’t know how much variation there is in Prey’s potential ending scenarios, but it all seemed to have grown through and around my decisions.
Arkane has the confidence to let Prey end on its own terms, even if it occasionally leans too heavily on its least interesting aspects. When it looks most like a shooter, Prey is merely competent. But as a mystery, a deep-space haunted house with dozens of stories of tragedy and humanity to tell, Prey is a remarkably successful archaeological expedition — and it manages to compellingly ruminate on what it means to be .
Ed. note: Due to the technical issues discussed in the included sidebar, scores have been adjusted accordingly and per platform.
Prey was reviewed using a "retail" Steam key provided by Bethesda. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.