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Pt. 1—The nightmare never ends in the sadistic sci-fi game Prey

Screenshot: Bethesda Softworks
Screenshot: Bethesda Softworks

Welcome to our Game In Progress review of Arkane Studios’ Prey, a new sci-fi horror game from the developer that produced Dishonored. No, it has nothing to do with the old Prey or that other Prey. It has everything to do with being trapped on a space station with hostile, ephemeral aliens and getting the bejesus scared out of you. This first entry covers everything from the start of the game to Morgan Yu’s arrival in Deep Storage. Players can choose for their Morgan to be either male or female. Matt is playing as a guy and, for simplicity’s sake, will be referring to the character as such.


Morgan Yu wakes up every morning in a huge loft apartment overlooking a gorgeous city skyline. He’s poised to get a great job doing important scientific work for a company that provides him with a private helicopter to cover even the puniest of commutes. He has a good relationship with his older brother, who’s shepherding him on this incredible venture. He owns a really cool rice cooker. He’s living the dream.

Of course, this idyllic life is essentially an actual dream, foisted upon Morgan to cover up the Sisyphean horror in which he’s really living. In a move that proves to be Prey’s powerful statement of intent, the game forces you to literally shatter that opulent false reality and confront the truth: You are stuck aboard a spaceship that’s been assaulted by an alien menace, and most everyone else is dead. You’ve been here for god knows how long, your senses manipulated into reliving the same glamorous morning in an attempt to test the morally dubious superpower-granting technology that’s been shoved into your brain. And if watching that beautiful skyline view come shattering around you wasn’t enough to shake you to your core, there’s always the view of a distant, achingly unreachable Earth from the lobby of your real home, the besieged space station Talos-1, to get your gut sinking and put your new nightmare in perspective.

Screenshot: Bethesda Softworks

With more than 10 hours under my belt now, I’ve yet to shake that horrible sensation I felt when seeing Earth for the first time. It’s the ineffable crushing feeling of being trapped and utterly helpless, and even as Morgan assembles a sizable arsenal of guns, gadgets, and psychic powers, it’s not enough to overcome it. Prey is an overwhelmingly hostile game, an uncompromising and punishing crawl through the bowels of a spaceship where pretty much everything wants to kill you. Yes, even the mundane detritus of human life—coffee mugs, toppled chairs, cardboard boxes—has a chance to be an alien in disguise, an inky spiderlike mimic ready to explode out of its current form and slap the crap out of you. They’re a pain in the ass and can rip you to pieces if you aren’t careful, flitting all around and dodging your clumsy wrench swings, but they’re nothing compared to the larger monstrosities aboard the Talos.

The cumulative effect of all that constant threat bearing down on you is the impulse to move slowly and think about everything around you. Coming from the creators of Dishonored, a series with unparalleled art and set design, it’s a brilliant direction, forcing you to inspect every handcrafted inch of every room for signs of danger, at least until you find a piece of headgear that’ll detect mimics for you. And thoroughness doesn’t just result in relative safety, it’s important for picking up on the many alternate paths and hidden goodies in each room, many of which will take advantage of different branches of the vast skill tree available to Morgan. The key code to a locked door might be sitting on a hackable computer one room over, for example, or maybe you can use your superstrength to move a huge crate and access the vent behind it, circumventing the door entirely. With the odds stacked this high against you, vigilance isn’t just for those looking to get more of an edge or to hear the stories of Talos-1’s mostly deceased crew. It’s necessary for survival.

And surviving is all you’ll be doing. Perhaps this will change as my Morgan continues to grow, his humanity waning as he splices himself with more and more alien abilities in an attempt to give the Typhon a bit of their own medicine, but in its first dozen hours, Prey never wants you to feel comfortable. Every time you think you’ve overcome some insurmountable challenge or put together a combination of guns and psychic magic that grants you a foothold against the common enemies that were once decimating you, the game ratchets up your opposition: stronger aliens; more aliens; destructive combinations of aliens; and one particularly nasty wrinkle that doesn’t show up until around the stopping point for this entry, but, when it does, pressures you to drop everything you’re doing and deal with it.

The constant danger, scarce resources, and Morgan’s fragility are one thing, but what really puts Prey into ceaseless nightmare territory is its sound. It’s the kind of game that demands to be played with headphones, isolating you in its rich and deeply disturbing soundscape. Horror-movie-style discordant stingers are everywhere, adding to the jump scare when you trigger a mimic or stabbing into your ear like a record scratch to let you know an alien has spotted you. When you do get into combat, the disarmingly sparse soundtrack shifts to pounding, propulsive techno. Even accomplishments like scoring a sneak attack on an enemy are accompanied by sharp, awful noises. It’s enough to keep you in a state of worry, jolting the confidence and complacency out of you just as it was beginning to rise. Some of the scares are cheap, but it’s a masterful use of stomach-churning, ear-splitting sound, the detailed craft of which is on par with Arkane’s best-in-the-business visual and level design.

Screenshot: Bethesda Softworks

It’ll be interesting to keep writing about this game as I go through it. Ostensibly, the whole point of an RPG-infused shooter like this is that, eventually, I’ll maybe have enough power on my side to do more than scrape by, and with consistent check-ins, it’ll be neat to see if we can pinpoint that moment and the particular bit of character growth that puts me over the top. But the power of Prey so far has been its ability to dash my spirits so quickly and effectively that it feels as if this moment of empowerment may never come. The glimpses of hope and the chance to keep toying with all the strange powers and weapons really have me hooked, but I’d be lying if I said I liked my chances.


Prey
Developer: Arkane Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Windows, Xbox One
Reviewed on: Xbox One
Price: $60
Rating: M

Purchase Prey here, which helps support The A.V. Club.