I spent most of my unvaccinated days in the pandemic combing Steam for new games and, truthfully, I don’t actually remember buying Prey. What I remember is a three day binge in February 2021 and being thankful that I spent those three days immersed in an exciting suspense/survival simulator rather than the immensely boring and frustrating real world one.
As for what the critics thought, Prey was generally well liked when it was first released in 2017, with the only major complaint being that there was a game-breaking bug, which was quickly patched anyway. It’s one of the better games released in the past 10 years by a publisher (Bethesda Softworks) with a solid pedigree (the Doom reboot, Dishonored, the Wolfenstein reboot and its sequel Skyrim, the Fallout reboot and its sequels), but I don’t remember much publicity around its release.
Prey follows a similar development path to other properties Bethesda Softworks. I don’t know the exact legal workings of how it happened, but over the course of the aughts and 2010s, Bethesda got their hands on the rights to a bunch of older titles, both known and unknown. Doom and Wolfenstein are two of the more prominent examples, but Prey fits too, as it’s the reboot to a 2006 game by the same name where you’re also being hunted by aliens. That’s about where the similarities to 2006 end though, as the game released in 2017 is very much its own thing.
The Storyline of Prey
The premise of the game is a fairly simple one. You play as Morgan Yu, a half-Chinese, half-German character who can be played as either a man or a woman. You wake up on a space station infested with alien enemies and have to stop the invasion from spreading. You have very limited memory of who you are and next to no memory of the invasion (don’t worry, this one comes with a satisfying in-game explanation) and spend a good bit of the game piecing your own backstory and alien origins and motivations together.
Narratively, Prey uses cutscenes and set pieces to deliver the bones of the plot while the true world-building is left to optional exploration. It’s a familiar formula, and anyone who’s played a game where exploration yields voice diaries and in-game emails, notes, or journals, (think Bioshock, Dishonored, Fallout, Dead Space, those kinds of games) will find plenty to like.
What the Gameplay Is Like
Prey is a mix of a first-person shooter, RPG, and horror/suspense survival game, all three of which run the risk of boring the player. For an FPS, chewing through waves of enemies get monotonous and, as your guns improve, boring. RPGs often give the illusion of choice but are really adding different spices to the same main dish. Horror and suspense games, at least the ones I’ve played, usually ditch their carefully crafted atmosphere and start flooding you with glass cannon enemies that were rare only an hour or two earlier.
Prey avoids all of these genre pitfalls. Your guns and powers never become so godlike that the enemies turn into pushovers, the RPG requires actual thought as to where you’re putting your skill points because you’ll be able to strut through certain areas while others will kick your ass, and the suspense holds throughout the game since singular enemies pose a real threat all the way through the game. There’s also one enemy who stalks you the entire time that gets easier to evade but I don’t think I ever actually tried to fight.
Fans of Dishonored will recognize the art style and enjoy bouncing magic/supernatural/technological powers off of the solid shooting mechanics. Fans of the new Wolfenstein games will find more of the notably good writing Bethesda’s games have had lately. Fans of any horror/suspense game that gives you weapons will like how you never outclass the monsters to the point that they’re not scary anymore.
There’s some crafting, but it works in a way that fits the futuristic setting and rewards my penchant for hoarding supplies. It’s a streamlined approach where items in the world are broken down into their component parts or materials, then fed into a fabricator to print weapons, ammo, upgrades, and other necessities. You don’t spend hours bent over a bench scrolling through much-too-long menus trying to find what you want. You tap a few buttons and print out what you need, which I mean literally because you’re interacting with an in-game touchscreen in real time.
Prey also actively rewards exploration while also not mandating it. It hides some of the most interesting narrative elements and more challenging fights in rooms you can skip altogether. I love that kind of stuff and spent most of my time backtracking using my improving abilities to access areas that were previously locked. Notably, when I was backtracking, I was actually excited to be doing it, rather than feeling like I was slogging through a bunch of game padding. You’ll also be excited to explore because it fosters a unique sense of creative problem solving. Think opening doors and unlocking computers with foam darts and a toy crossbow or using a glue gun to climb three stories up, both instead of spending six hours wandering around the space station looking for your standard keycards or passcodes.
The RPG elements of the game also require real thought. I’m reasonably certain that, in theory, you can unlock every skill in that you can grind for enough resources and craft enough upgrades. But if you’re playing a stealth build, why would you spend hours grinding for DPS upgrades? Conversely, if you’re playing this like a run-and-gun, why does it matter how quickly enemies can or can’t detect you? It makes for a better overall experience to build the character you want and play to those strengths than to be a stubborn completionist.
I’m being purposefully vague about many of these plot and gameplay details because it’s a very thin line between enticing teasers and spoilers. Suffice to say, it’s an exceptionally well-crafted story that finds new twists on old themes and has more than one genuinely shocking moment. Player choice has a real impact on the events of the game, not just in a way where a few lines of dialogue change or a character’s tone is a little harsher. Based on whether or not you help or hurt other survivors and how you solve different problems in the game, you’ll get a different recap and choice at the end. Anyone who respects gaming as an art form and storytelling medium should absolutely add Prey to their library.