As always, parts of this are subject to change. Parts can be cut/expanded. Reading this may also spoil your experience of watching the video for the first time. For some it might be improved though!
I don’t think Prey has gotten a fair chance to impress people. Reviews have been mixed and not without their minor controversies, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. The problem is a lot more fundamental than that. It’s the name.
So before I do the usual thing and spoil this entire game for you, please be informed that a far more fitting name for Prey would be Bioshock 3. Or System Shock 3. I have played all of the Bioshocks and, for the purpose of making this video, I went back and finished System Shock 2 for the first time. Not only do I think that Prey is worthy of being in the same group as these games, I also think it’s better than all of them. By a significant margin.
Now I need to qualify that statement a bit. First, I didn’t play System Shock 2 at release. So I can’t tell how good it was relatively compared to Prey’s release today. Secondly, I don’t love the Bioshock games. I enjoyed them. But they’re not my favorite. Not even Bioshock 1. However, they ARE a favorite for many, many people. They reviewed incredibly well and are high up on many people’s top ten lists. Chances are you liked them more than I did, which means you should theoretically also enjoy Prey more than I did.
That’s not to say the game is without any problems. I’m not willing to overlook its flaws just because I think it hasn’t been given a fair chance—that wouldn’t be right of me. But I also don’t want to ruin an experience for some of you since I think this game has been misunderstood, or overlooked. It’s going to be compared to the first Prey that came out a long time ago. Is it a reboot? A spiritual sequel? Did an actual sequel get canceled for this? I can only tell you that there is no connection between the games and that this sort of confusion has probably been fatal for the game’s success. Which is a bit troubling—how much a name really matters. Because by my reckoning, any game that does the Bioshock and Deus Ex formula this well, should be a smash hit. Even with its flaws.
There will be spoilers from here.
The best thing that Prey does is its world design, then individual level design within that world, and then giving you strong reasons to pay a lot of attention to it as you navigate each area.
I would love to say that story is also one of Prey’s major successes because it starts out very strong. Unfortunately, I think the story has fallen victim to the same problem that much of the game suffers from: a frantic rush to finish it, when it needed a bit more time.
You play as Morgan Yu, who is either male or female depending on your choice. The only difference this makes is the voice actor for your character, even though they’re a silent protagonist. Which is—yeah, the story is a bit weird, but this is part of why it starts so strong.
The game begins with you waking up in bed, in your apartment, to a song playing as an alarm. You go through a morning routine guided by your brother. You can take as long as you want to soak all of the details in—your computer, your work area for gadgets, a conversation in the hallway, and so on—before you leave on a helicopter ride through one of the more memorable opening credits that I’ve seen in a game.
You meet your brother face-to-face and are then put through a series of tests. These are simple tasks: throw some boxes out of an area on the floor, try to hide in a room, jump over an obstacle, and then answer some questions on a computer terminal. I really like this sequence because it’s a tutorial that manages to hide that patronizing teaching from experienced players because there’s a bit of intrigue from those observing you. Something is clearly going wrong, no matter how well or poorly you perform in these chambers. Something out of your control and maybe a little sinister.
Then, sooner than you might expect, this happens.
And then you’re unconscious.
The game begins with you waking up in bed, in your apartment, to a song playing as an alarm. You go through a morning routine—wait, what? The tone is different this time. Something is wrong. The objects in the room are in a different arrangement. The computer has a warning email spammed instead of the ones that were there before. The mechanic in the hallway is dead and, next to her, is a wrench. You pick it up and, if you’re like me, you will be drawn to smash through the window to the balcony where there were some things you couldn’t get to before.
This is one of the coolest openings I’ve played in a game in quite some time. It really grabbed my attention and I was ready to get lost in this twisted narrative. If this was just the beginning, where was this going to lead? How were they going to build on this? The looking glass feature alone—the technology that allows one scene to be displayed on top of another, like a window instead of a video—is really fun all on its own. What were they going to do with it?
Unfortunately, this is the best that the story gets in this game. That might not be truly doing it justice because there are some parts of it that are worth some thought and attention—and the exploration through the rest of the game is definitely worthwhile. But in terms of the main narrative surrounding you and your actions, it never gets any better than this opening.
Well, maybe. It depends on how you view the ending.
Morgan has been stuck in this simulation for about three weeks—living the same day over and over. We’ll get to how that works in just a second. For now, you go through the area surrounding your fake apartment, fight some mimics, and eventually discover that you’re not even on Earth. You’re on a space station that’s closer to the Moon than our planet. A space station that has been overrun by these aliens called the Typhon.
Your character is directly responsible for what has happened here. You and your brother Alex Yu, have been experimenting on the Typhon. They’re not the only sort of experiments that have been going on here, but they’re the most important because they resulted in neuromods. Basically, using the typhon’s organic matter as a base, human experiences can be copied from one person and implanted in another. So a gifted musician or a grandmaster at chess—those abilities can be identified, copied, and then gifted to another person through these neuromods. With the unsettling method of injecting them through your eye. Which is why some of the promotional footage for the game showed your character with a deep redness in the eye when looking in a mirror.
There are a few unforeseen problems with neuromods, but one that was fully understood was that they cause the erasure of memories when they’re removed. Adding a new ability causes the brain to be remapped in such a severe way that it has to revert back to the state it was in before receiving the neuromod. So if you were to have the ability to play guitar injected in you right now, and then three years later have it removed, you would forget those three years completely. You’d be back to where you started, only three years older and very confused.
This is how you were kept in the simulation of your apartment for three weeks. Your neuromods were removed and, each day, you were sent a different set which was also removed afterwards. You were being run through a series of tests for reasons that we’ll get to later. They’re a little intriguing but not all that exciting.
Your goal is to either find a solution for the aliens rampaging through the station, or find a way to leave it. Which is enough context to put all of that on hold for the time being, and to focus on gameplay instead. Which is where Prey is a lot more interesting.
The space station is called Talos One. It is comprised of many different levels which you eventually have total freedom to move between. At the beginning you can only access a few areas. As the story progresses, more floors of the station are opened to you, but you can always return to the others to explore or complete side-quests. The most surprising thing about all of this for me was that you can also go outside the station. You can space walk around with controls that are initially quite awkward. If you’re willing to adjust they can become comfortable, but they never felt good for some of the combat parts in zero gravity. There are five airlocks around the station that you need to open from the inside first—so this doubles as something like an alternative to fast travel. Just hop out an airlock and rocket your way up the station.
Doing this a few times led me to realize that the sections of Talos One are put together in the actual arrangement that you can see here. There’s the main lobby, the hardware labs, the long elevator bridge leading to the upper decks—the arboretum, crew quarters, and so on. The exterior matches the interior which, considering that the game didn’t need to have the option to go outside at all, struck me as an impressive commitment to world design. Some thought went into the needs of the people that live here too, and how they would work and get around—to make it feel close to a place that could actually exist.
Not only that but it’s an interesting setting that offers a lot of freedom. There are many areas you can explore early if you’re willing to get creative with some of the movement mechanics—the gloo gun and climbing especially. You also get the ability to glide early on which reminded me of the movement system in Breath of the Wild of all things. Being able to grab onto ledges, pull yourself up, and then also jump with a glide to soften your fall at the end, compounds to make exploring not only vertically focused but something that’s so liberating. You’re not stuck looking at the same horizontal layers around you. You’re looking up to see what you can climb—often rewarded with alternative routes and hidden supplies. You’re looking down to see where you can glide to, or a quick way to get back to the main floor instead of taking the long way with the stairs.
Which is the best way to explain how the level design in each of these areas maintains the quality that the entire space station has. First there’s the theme of each area—despite being restricted to a single space station, there was a surprising amount of variety and visual distinction in many places. There are offices that look like they belong on Earth. Then luxurious lounge areas, a high class cafeteria, and an enclosed park at the peak of the station. In contrast to this are the more pragmatic locations. The cold labs of Psychotronics, and the industrial layers at the bottom that control the station’s power, water, and oxygen supply. Then there are sections that look close to what our actual space station in orbit looks like today—parts of Talos One that couldn’t been plastered over to hide that reality, to make it appear normal. The appropriately named GUTS section—a wide maintenance tunnel that connects the whole station—being the best example of the complex inner workings that most inhabitants don’t see everyday.
Peeling that atmospherical layer away, you have how you explore each of these locations. This is where the other gameplay systems of Prey begin to get tangled into a big ball that’s hard to separate. It’s difficult to nail down the One Essential Thing in this game that it’s built around. You can say that it’s the neuromod upgrade system, but on my third playthrough I finished the game on Nightmare without using any. You could say it’s the combat system, but it takes a bit of thought to realize how combat even functions in Prey. The loop of gathering objects and then recycling them might be a safer choice, but if you use neuromods you can undermine the value of that system. And that’s how my thought process goes, looping between each one like that tangled ball bouncing along.
So let’s try to address them all together.
Most places, and most problems, have more than one way to deal with them. So, for example, if the way into an area is blocked off, you could use a neuromod ability that gives you extra strength to pick up the obstacle and move it. Or, if you don’t have that mod, you could find some explosive canisters and use them to blast the blockage clear. Or you could throw a recycling charge to condense whatever is in the way. Or you could use a mimic ability to turn into a cup or something to bounce your way through the opening. Or you could go around to another entrance and hack your way through the security lock. Or you could use your gloo gun to make a set of stairs on the wall to smash through a window or open a hatch to crawl through. Or you could use your toy crossbow to shoot the unlock button on a computer terminal. Or you could…
I think you get the idea. For other kinds of problems you have the same sort of options. By going through that list, I’ve spoiled a lot of the game. Some of them may seem obvious when pointed out but when you’re first playing, a lot of the options you have available can be overwhelming. Or you might not realize some of the functionality that they have—using recycling charges to clear blocked doorways being a good example I think.
This is tied directly with exploration and gathering, because everything you pick up can be broken down by the recycling machines. It’s a cool feature actually, all the stuff gets shot through this laser and pooped out into cubes you can collect. Like it’s one of those rigged claw machines at arcades only this time you’re always a winner.
The more resources you find, the more options you have. Neuromods, at the beginning of the game, are the best reward for exploring. These are Prey’s version of an experience system. One that’s also eventually tied to combat because you can pick up alien materials from the corpses and, with a neuromod schematic, start to craft these yourself. So in a way each alien gives you some experience points, you just need to go refine them at the recycling machine first.
Neuromods are hidden all over the station. But you also need other materials to craft them. Metal. Synthetic. There’s also organic for some other things too. So you are heavily incentivized to pillage each location for everything that you can carry, and to make regular trips to the nearest recycling machine. Early on this can cause a bit of a feedback loop: you gain a new ability which unlocks access to new areas, which then gives you more resources for a new ability, which unlocks access to another area, and so on. The more creative and observant you are, the more you’ll be able to find and collect with as few of these abilities as possible. During my no neuromod run, I was able to access a large chunk of the station with recycling charges, some clever climbing, and the gloo gun. It was areas, terminals, and safes that required hacking that locked me out more than anything. Some of them have codes you can find around the station, but a fair chunk of them can only be unlocked through the hacking minigame.
So with scavenging being so important, I think you can see how exploration and studying each level is encouraged. You want to have as many resources as possible—not just for finding neuromods, but also crafting ammunition for your weapons. A lot of work went into making these levels: tons of secrets and rewards for players willing to climb around and look for things that aren’t laying out in plain sight. It’s a twistedly wonderful feature then, that the mimics are capable of disguising themselves as those very same items you want to pick up.
In terms of gameplay, this might be the best thing that Prey does: this concept that, the act of looting and acquiring items is tied to an enemy and danger. Mimics can take the form of any small to medium sized object. Even medkits that you can pick up. And I love the tension this made me feel on my first playthrough. Eventually I learned the rules of how mimics worked—the subtle movement objects have, or the little ticking noise they emit like they’re bombs ready to go off. But before that, I had to question a lot of items that I was about to pick up. Early on this prevented the game from being too cleanly split into two halves: clearing the level of enemies, and then going on to safely loot. I was always a little on edge early on because of it.
Having said that, once you’re used to this it loses some of its charms. I wish that the concept could have been expanded on somehow. To take that idea—to make a game mechanic out of inspecting and picking things up. Maybe some mimics don’t reveal themselves unless you hit them, but that the objects you want to pick up also break from a hit if they’re real. There could be minor differences you could learn and identify so you have to judge when it’s a mimic or not. Might not be a great idea though since it can be resolved through save scumming, but it’s the only one I’ve got. That might be why it wasn’t built on further.
Later on the game does devolve into those two phases as well, since you find the ability to scan objects to see if they’re mimics. Once you’ve cleared out an area you are safe to loot it without being bothered, until you leave and come back through a load screen. Enemies don’t respawn in a direct way—it’s more like a new set of aliens has wandered into the area while you were gone. Some people might not like that but I thought it was mostly great. Sometimes big enemies spawning in places I had already cleared out was a bit annoying, but having a fresh set of mimics swarm in was fantastic.
Remember at the beginning, when you woke up in the apartment for the second time and some of the stuff was in different places? The new mimics are like that. You start to question anything that’s out of place. Was that lamp on the floor before? Was that garbage can in that position? A few mimics can be noticed like that too, which I think is wonderful. You can go into an office and see that there are one too many chairs. You can figure it out just like that. Or you can feel paranoid when something else you were certain was an alien turns out to be benign—like there’s a mind game being played on you.
Having brought up mimics it’s likely best to go into combat now, which is also deeply linked with gathering, crafting, and neuromods. The biggest problem combat has is also right there in those links. Some people, including myself when I first played, might not understand the type of game that they’re playing.
Or, to put it another way, Prey isn’t really a first person shooter.
I mean of course you are in a first person perspective. You are also shooting things. I know how stupid it sounds but genres can be stupid sometimes. Is Skyrim a first person shooter, because it has that same perspective and magic spells and arrows to shoot? I doubt many would say that fits. Nor does Prey in my opinion, but for different reasons.
I went through a really long example a few minutes ago about how many options you can have to solve problems—how to gain access to a room. Combat in Prey is sort of like that. But it can be summarized into other parts too. Such as:
Planning and Tactics
Character Building and Stats
The issue with these three stages is that many players are going to go rabid for the third one. Myself included. It’s a shooter. There are enemies. I’m just going to go in and shoot them while dodging their hits until they’re dead. If you’ve played the game and tried to smack the very first phantom with your wrench, you know how much of a bad idea that is. It just doesn’t work.
Please understand that the fighting is more complicated than this. There is a certain amount of skill and finesse required to succeed in combat—and we’ll get to that shortly—but I think the best way to describe fighting in Prey is with this sentence:
It’s all about bringing the right tool for the job, as long as you know how to use it.
For mimics, this means hitting them with the wrench. But where the game gets a bit cruel is that it doesn’t make it clear how much more effective the wrench is if you hold the attack button down to gather your strength for a second. Not only does this do more damage, but it can stun some enemies for even more hits. Most curious of all about this feature is that using the weapon this way doesn’t cost more stamina. Only time to charge the strike.
I’ve seen some people spam the attack button on mimics with very little success, which can quickly lead to no stamina and a mimic still trying to eat you. This can make encounters with them very frustrating because they’re small targets that dart around a lot. But if you charge your strikes you have to wait just a little bit, which makes connecting with your wrench feel much better. At least that’s how it did for me. It feels a lot less mindless than swinging away as fast as you can.
If we take that example and run it through our list, you have figuring out that a mimic is nearby and knowing which weapon is best, which is linked with your build and upgrades. If you’ve invested a lot in typhon abilities, for example, then going with the wrench might not be the best option. Then you have executing that plan by aiming your shots well and moving out of the way of the mimic’s counterattacks, or locking it down before it has a chance.
Seems simple enough right? Well, unfortunately, the mimic is probably the cleanest enemy in the game for this.
First off, it’s worth noting that some options are more powerful than others. With only a few exceptions, the shotgun is capable of chewing through any enemy in the game. Same for the neuromod that allows you to slow time down for only your enemies. You can break combat through using some of these things and, for some, that might be the best way to play. However, this isn’t a simple solution to every encounter because, aside from the wrench, every action that deals damage in Prey is going to use some sort of resource. You need to find bullets and batteries for your weapons—usually you craft them yourself from items you find. Psi powers also use psi points which usually can’t be replenished for free.
Neuromods that increase damage and recycling yields then, become very important. If a basic pistol shot only deals say, 8 damage, then that is the low return on how many resources it took you to craft that bullet. If you take neuromods that boost your damage, and the gunsmith line that allows you to upgrade your weapon even more, then each bullet is now a much more effective use of your scavenged materials. Same goes for the mods that increase your inventory space, since it allows you to carry so much more back to the recycling machine.
This is what I meant by the systems being tangled together. Some neuromods can lessen the importance of scavenging because it makes your weapons so much more efficient. I don’t know if this is a good thing or not, since players who realize this early on will have a much easier time as the game progresses. It might be tempting to invest in more hacking mods, or some of the healing ones, when boosting your raw damage will lead to having so many more resources since you’ll spend fewer of them on ammunition.
This could be seen as a learning curve, or a trap.
However, the game is still possible to beat on the hardest difficulty setting without using a single neuromod. I did three Preythroughs of this game. My first time was on normal. I didn’t use any of the Typhon-based neuromods because it seemed like a bad idea in terms of the game’s story, and I was having a good time with basic weapons. My second time I went on Nightmare, installed many Typhon mods, and killed every NPC that I came across. My third run I also went on Nightmare and didn’t install any neuromods at all.
This made the game more tedious than difficult, and I don’t mean the combat. The biggest problem I had was the lack of inventory space. I needed to recycle a lot of items for ammunition to compensate for my low damage. I also had to rely on the wrench for many fights, and carry more grenades for some of the tougher enemies. This took up much of my already limited inventory, so early on I had to make many trips back to the recycler for only a few items each run. In some parts it made the game more exciting since I had to think of solutions to problems that mods previously solved. But it also made the game feel a bit empty since I missed out opening a lot of safes, offices, and computer terminals.
I also think doing it on Nightmare wasn’t really necessary. I couldn’t find any stats for the difficulty modes in this game so I had to go in and tinker with it a bit on some enemies to find out for myself. By fighting the same mimic and phantom on each difficulty mode, I’ve concluded that the game has simple modifiers for damage dealt and received.
So no matter if I was on Easy, Normal, Hard, or Nightmare, this mimic always had 30 health. And this phantom always had 100 health. The difference was, on normal and hard I was dealing 10 damage with a basic strike with my wrench, but on easy that was bumped to 11 damage. And on nightmare it was lowered to 8 damage.
So a 10% damage bonus on easy. A 20% damage reduction on Nightmare.
Funnily enough this answered a question I was going to bring up in this video: there’s a secret weapon you can find halfway through the game that’s an upgrade to your basic pistol. The problem was, it was showing numbers that didn’t make sense. I upgraded it to deal 9 damage, yet it was showing here to do 10 damage when unmodified. So I had made it worse by modifying it, somehow. What was really happening was that the Nightmare difficulty debuff was effecting the numbers here. That was part of the modification and the reason why it didn’t make sense. At least that’s what I think. You can see the same thing with the wrench when you’re on easy mode.
Damage received works in the same way. On Easy you take half the damage that you do on normal. On hard it’s increased by 40%. On Nightmare it’s 60% higher. That may seem like a lot but the only significant difference here is between the easiest and hardest modes. And even then, the way combat works in this game means these modifiers don’t mean all that much. I’ll confess the real reason I went to all of the trouble of figuring this out was because I didn’t feel like the game was any different at all on the hardest mode when compared to normal, and that I was suspicious it didn’t change anything at all.
But it does, right? 60% should be a lot. So why did I feel that way?
Very few enemies allow you to reliably avoid their attacks. Even the basic mimics can scurry out of sight and slash at you before you can turn to follow them. Phantoms show this even better since they zip around like they’re vampires in True Blood. Often they will race away, then come back, and hit you before you’ve had a chance to react—not that the game even has a proper defensive option to use if you did notice. Same goes for their projectile blast. This has a charge time to let you know it’s coming, but sometimes they use this and the rapid dash together so you have no way of knowing when it’s going to come at you.
You can see a similar thing in the larger enemies. Prey only has five, arguably six enemy types—each with their own variations. Again sort of like the enemies in Breath of the Wild, of all things. Phantoms can be active with fire, lightning, invisibility, or some sort of dark energy. Mimics can be the usual type, greater mimics, or infused by those phantoms. There are robotic sentries that can be corrupted—either a turret or the flying ones that can spew fire or an electric shock.
Then there are the larger enemies. These are all the same hovering sort of blocky blobs that have minions do the fighting for them. One hacks any turret or robot in the area. Another “hacks” people in the same way to turn them into bombs that explode if you get too close. And the third creates an energy shield and spawns smaller blobs that rush at any source of movement to burst open.
The last enemy type is an event, quest level boss. The Nightmare, more dinosaur than typhon, can spawn when you enter some levels in order to hunt you. And you can see the same problem as the phantom here, with how it can move a lot faster than you and attack without any sort of telegraph. If you stay far away from it you can sometimes dodge the projectiles it creates to follow you, but reliably avoiding its melee attacks felt like I was exploiting the fight through the terrain around me rather than actually beating it.
Some of these enemies have attacks you can learn and avoid. The pattern I saw, with the flame typhons and the technopaths, were damage zones that spawn on your position that you need to run to avoid. Once you realize that this is happening this can be a fun mechanic to remember and sprint away from, but the first person camera may limit your ability to even understand why you’re dying at first. Especially since a flame typhon is in the medical center in the first major area of the game—it can feel like it’s killing you just by looking at you hard enough. Same for the technopath, which is introduced in a cramped area with two other robots guarding it. This may function as a mini-boss at this point in the game, but this area is so small you’re likely going to die from the ball of lightning it can summon without understanding what it’s doing.
The theme of many of these enemies is simply to stay away from them. The telepath, as another example, has an ability that had no warning that I could see which simply does a massive amount of unavoidable damage in a huge ring around itself. Really huge if you find this guy in space outside the station.
This is what I mean when I say Prey isn’t a first person shooter. You can bash your head against these encounters and bruteforce your way through with weapon upgrades, but I think the intended way to go about these fights is similar to thinking about how to overcome the obstacles you find in each level.
The telepath can’t do that big explosion of damage if you throw a nullwave grenade at it.
The technopath can’t do any of its abilities at all if you keep it stun-locked with the disruptor gun—something you can fire and then switch to your wrench or shotgun for some free hits.
Same for robot enemies: these weapons can knock them over and prevent them from fighting back.
You can sneak up on phantoms, knock them out, and then switch to a shotgun blast to finish them off when you’re out of stamina. Or the gloo gun to freeze them while your stamina regains for the last hit.
Meanwhile the elemental phantoms radiate a damage aura that prevents that, but they also don’t dart around as often so you can better shoot at them from afar. The old tactic won’t work.
This is closer to a puzzle approach rather than a fight. Which is why the difficulty settings changed almost nothing. Once you’ve “solved” each enemy, being able to kill them in one or two fewer hits, or dying a little faster, doesn’t matter. You’re going to keep them incapacitated or ambush them from full health to dead. Which is something you’re strongly nudged into figuring out when you begin to scan enemies and can view their weaknesses in a list.
Again, this is of course assuming you’re not breaking the game with some of the more powerful mods—the combat focus one especially—which is simply another way of looking at the puzzle and finding an alternative solution as far as I’m concerned.
I wouldn’t call this combat system great, but if you realize this it can be a good fit with the more slow-paced resource gathering which fuels your options. But I can imagine someone trying to jump around larger enemies with their shotgun, which only works if you’ve heavily invested in damage and health neuromods. It’s a shame that there weren’t more ways to avoid damage, and some more variety in both enemies and weapons to fight them.
There are other balance issues as well if you’re willing to put the legwork in to use the medical and engineer bots to recover health and armor. Deus Ex and System Shock 2 have this same problem. I vividly remember being on a first-name basis with the little medical drone in the shipping container on the Liberty Island level in Deus Ex, since I could risk meleeing every enemy to save on ammunition before returning to this little guy to heal up for free. Same for the medical beds in System Shock 2, which can heal you to full for a pittance. I didn’t use a single healthkit during my first run of that game because of that. And the same goes for Prey: I didn’t use any of these medkits or suit repair kits. I ran back to a helper bot instead, which I was often doing to get to a recycler to unload my inventory anyway.
Which might be the best time to speak about some other sloppy and questionable decisions the game has, which I believe are a symptom of rushing to meet a deadline. My guess is that some of those instant-damage attacks may also be a result of that, since they don’t feel quite right no matter what kind of combat system the game was meant to have.
As always, it’s very difficult to judge what’s a bug and what’s a bad feature. The best example of this in Prey is how the screen flickers and becomes dim during combat. Sometimes this effect is very gentle and adds a bit of tension to a fight. Other times it gets so dark or rapid that I found it genuinely hard to see what was happening, like the game suddenly became a rave. Especially when against simple mimics. Sometimes it feels like this effect is being tripled because of a glitch.
Other enemies have similar problems that come across as poorly thought out features. There’s a “fear” mechanic for some enemies that makes your camera go wild in random directions. You can prevent this by opening your inventory and drinking alcohol but I’m not willing to slow down combat just for that, or stockpile booze just in case I run into these monsters. Maybe that’s my own fault and I’m being unreasonable, but at the very least this supports the view that Prey has a more puzzle-like approach to combat.
For some things that are definitely bugs you have visual flickering, some missing models, and enemies occasionally dashing themselves right off the map. These are minor and don’t spoil too much. Another minor bug made hilariously into a big deal because of the type of game Prey is, are objects not sitting right when they’re placed on top of other surfaces. This is a common issue in games but it’s a massive deal in Prey because these vibrating items appear like mimics, when they’re just glitches. It’s funny looking at it now, but in the game it can be annoying. Not a common issue though.
Some of the more major bugs prevented access into some areas. Sometimes a keypad will bug out and become uninteractable, even if I had the keycard that was paired with it. Even restarting the game wouldn’t fix this. A similar problem was with invisible walls spawning over doorways, which I believe is tied to hit detection on gloo gun piles remaining even after they were destroyed but I’m not sure. I’m lucky that this only ever blocked me off from an unimportant area.
NPCs will often speak over each other. Or you will get phone calls that you cannot decline that speak over important audio logs. Both of these are incredibly frustrating, like you accidentally opened two youtube videos at once, and show how much polish the game is lacking. A similar problem was with the audio logs that only auto-play sometimes. I’m lucky I thought to look for a hotkey to play the most recent audio log I found because navigating the menu so much is terrible. It was definitely designed for a gamepad and not a keyboard and mouse.
While we have the inventory open, I feel the need to gripe about items not automatically stacking when you pick them up. Or, far worse, that some of the typhon organs you can loot from corpses won’t add to a stack already in your inventory. So you have to open it up, drop a one slot item, then pick up the organ, and then pick up the item you just dropped. I really wish I understood how a problem like that, in a game where almost every player is going to be constantly hitting the limit on their inventory, made it into the game.
There are four levels of hacking—both in difficulty and the neuromod that matches them. Yet because of the way the allotted time increases with each node you have to hack, the level two hacks end up being the most difficult by quite a lot. I always had a ton of time leftover in the level 3 and 4 hacks compared to the level 2, because the numbers weren’t properly considered. A better way of doing this might have been you can always try to hack terminals but each neuromod upgrade grants you more time. Instead of it being a check to see if you’re able to begin the hack at all.
But the biggest issue I had is present right from the start: the game’s UI and its insistence on holding your hand. Now some people dislike this sort of thing because they find it insulting to their intelligence. I sometimes agree but I also think this is an incredibly difficult thing to judge. An example being that, I am certain there will be at least one person who watches this video who didn’t like all of the UI tutorial hints and yet wishes that the game had made it more clear how important it is to hold down your attack button for some of your wrench strikes.
I’ve been dismissive of some tutorial sections in the past—the one in Fallout 3 comes immediately to mind. My opinion has changed a bit on them now but I still think that Prey goes too far with it because these pop-ups and notifications persist throughout the entire game.
For me this is about preventing freedom and discovery. Let me explore on my own. Include details that nudge you into figuring things out—more like the scanner information for a way of it being done directly, but still something that you’re making happen yourself. Worse than all of this however, is that all of these notifications get in the way and slow you down. The noise that accompanies them is quite loud and jarring compared to the moodiness present in the rest of the game. I was always afraid to start moving so soon after completing an objective, since I knew all of the notifications would have to play and could interrupt conversations or block my view of things or even disrupt combat if I was moving quickly to the next area.
What’s strange about this problem is that the game has quite a few puzzles and details that require you to be paying attention. They’re not spoonfed to you. You could argue the story is the biggest one of all—that it requires quite a lot of thought outside of all of the information that’s more plainly delivered to you.
Two puzzles that come to mind are the way you get the code to the first safe in the game. You can notice that it was written on this board but later erased. If you remember this, and recognize when this scene is repeated later, you can look through the looking glass screen during a recording to see the code and return to the safe.
Same for another puzzle in the hardware labs. You can notice a specially named flask in one of the workshops. You can also find some emails that prod at you to think that it might be important. The secret can be revealed through another looking glass recording if you’re willing to watch the whole thing.
I’m not saying these are supremely stimulating puzzles or anything, only that they require some amount of perceptive ability and thinking by the player in comparison to so much of the rest of the game that holds your hand. Same goes for exploring the outside of the station and repairing some of the rooms that are broken. Or remembering prior areas that were blocked before and you should return to with the appropriate upgrade later.
Speaking of that however, let’s address a few issues about Prey’s world and level design. Some of these points may not be truly fair to criticize, but it would be dishonest of me if I ignored them.
First up is something that I think most people will agree with. Unless you’re a huge fan of backtracking through levels with very little to do. Some of the places you unlock through abilities are very far from the most traveled routes in the game. The most extreme of these is the derelict shuttle floating quite far from the station. This is guarded by a weaver which isn’t the easiest enemy to kill in space. Inside are some corpses and some loot, but part of it is locked unless you’ve invested heavily in a particular line of neuromods.
With this example we can see a number of problems. When I realized that I would have to come back here later on, and travel all the way to the shuttle again, I let out a very heavy sigh and questioned if I would even bother. Of course I ended up doing it and the reward wasn’t really worth it.
Which makes me have to ask: is that a good thing or not?
You may have had an instinctive reaction to that question but I suggest thinking about it a bit more. Locked areas like these, which require a specific upgrade, should theoretically have the best loot—in order to make the trouble worth it, and to reward the player for investing in their character. Especially in a case like this where many players won’t even notice or be able to access this area.
And yet right there you can see how it should go the other way: putting valuable items in a place like this means many players will miss out or, in many cases, be almost forced to take a specific upgrade and do all of this backtracking so they have whatever it is that’s locked away here.
It’s a strange conflict when you really think about it and I’m not sure what’s correct, only that I hated having to waste time to come back here afterwards. And I probably would have still hated it even if there were 20 neuromods here as a big reward.
As I said though, there are a number of problems. The three main points I want to address here are the progression system, how Prey’s loot isn’t as exciting as it could be, and that the world design suffers a bit from what I’m going to assume is a hardware limitation. I could be wrong on that though.
Like the points earlier on combat, these three are all tied together.
There are only a few things that are really exciting to find in Prey. Neuromods are the obvious one. Then there are weapon kits and upgrades for your suit. These are minor modifications that add little perks like resistance to certain damage types. Stuff like that. They would likely be talent trees in most other games. Outside of gameplay are audio logs which most people enjoy listening to—at the very least these are good to find if you’re invested in the story.
Outside of that there isn’t much that makes you think “Oh cool, I just found this!” Early on weapons fill that role but you quickly have a full set and there’s only really one alternative weapon to find in the game. There are also materials—especially storage rooms full of typhon biomatter—but that also leads to another problem. You can craft neuromods and weapon kits, which dilutes the excitement of finding them “in the wild” so to speak. It’s still always good to find them, but about halfway through the game there’s never anything really thrilling to find on the gameplay loot side of things.
I don’t think Prey would have benefited from a Diablo style weapon system. In fact I think that going that route can bog a game down—the most recent example being all of the clutter it adds to Nioh. But maybe larger weapon modifications could have had a place, or a few new weapon types added late in the game, or more upgrades like the jet pack that are simply added to your character as a fun addition to everything else you’ve already collected.
Suit chipsets are mostly boring. In fact, the only memorable ones are the stamina upgrade, the jet pack upgrade, and the ability to scan for mimics—which arguably also ruins your enjoyment of trying to figure out where they are for yourself. The reason why these stand out is that they aren’t simple number tweaks and that they also change more than one thing. The jet pack upgrade allows you to travel much faster in space, but also gives you more air time when used in the station. The stamina upgrade allows you to sprint more from place to place and also helps during combat when using the wrench. It’s possible there were some other chipsets like this that I missed, but to be brutally honest most of these were so boring that I sometimes didn’t even check to see what they did until hours after I picked them up.
To link this with neuromods, there’s another reason why it gets less exciting to find these as the game goes on. It takes many more than just one neuromod to get most of the later tiers of upgrades. You also start finding packs of neuromods to compensate for this a bit, which leaves me sort of puzzled. I’m hesitant to say this, but I do have to wonder if this was simply something they copied from System Shock 2—where the number of cybermodules needed for later tiers also begins to rapidly increase.
On paper this makes sense because it allows players the freedom to invest in a lot of the early mods and acquire a lot of low-level options while investing heavily in certain paths. But there are so many neuromods in Prey thanks to crafting that you can typically get everything that you want. The only areas you’ll be lacking are some of the typhon powers that only really help with damage anyway, which you’ll likely want to pick only one or two of—or the human weapon equivalent—since you rarely have to use multiple damage options in any given fight. If anything this could be seen as another trap in progression since some of these options will be redundant, and you’ll want more hacking, repair, inventory slots, or health upgrades instead.
Same goes for the leverage abilities to move heavy things, which can be done with the plentiful amount of recycler charge grenades you’ll find in the world, which frees up a bunch of neuromods for more worthwhile things.
The core of the problem here is that finding neuromods became less exciting as time went on, the upgrades weren’t always worth it after filling out the fundamental ones to access each area, and that the game couldn’t be built around the assumption that players had these tools because they may have chosen a different progression path, or ignored neuromods completely.
So here’s where a broad judgement call has to be made. Did Prey benefit from this freedom, or would it have been better with something closer to a Metroidvania? The only options the developers knew for certain that every player would have for getting around were the gloo gun, the jet pack, and at least a few weapons. And you can see this limitation reflected in every area that has multiple paths. If it’s part of the main storyline, then there will always be a way to get somewhere either by looking closely around for a vent to climb through, somewhere to glide around, or a wall to make some stairs with the gloo gun. Always. This is the baseline that the levels are built around, and even most of the optional areas follow this.
The gloo gun is a cool weapon. I really like that it’s effective in combat without dealing damage directly. It’s an unusual twist like that. Building your own stairs or climbing points up elevator shafts is also strangely satisfying—like you’re breaking the game—and it’s impressive that these gloo clumps persist in areas even after you leave and come back a long time later. You can also learn to use it to put out fires or plug broken pipes, which you have to realize yourself through experimentation, studying the environment, or paying attention to audio logs. This was a great, versatile tool that every player has access to.
So my thought process is maybe some of the neuromods should have also been things you “find” in the world and a different system could have been used instead. Upgrades and abilities that you acquire just like those in a Metroidvania, so that later levels could be built safely with the knowledge that every player will have some sort of hacking ability, or repair ability, or the increased jump height, or puzzles involving the mimic transformation.
I know that this ruins a lot of the game’s story. I also know that it changes Prey significantly. I am not trying to say that the game as it is now should be altered, only that it’s worth considering if the open ended nature of Prey’s progression system is really superior to upgrades found in each main area so levels can become more complicated. Or maybe a mix of the two could have been better—the game already does that, and it could have done it more.
This would have also offered more ways to put rewards for exploration around the station. Inventory slots would have been a great one to start with instead of tying it to neuromods. Basically a more advanced way to upgrade the suit you’re wearing outside of chipsets. It would also be a way to explain some of these upgrades, since I don’t see how injecting experiences through your eyeball could ever increase a physical limitation like how high you can jump, or help you lift drastically heavier things. It also doesn’t make sense that you would need multiple neuromods for one thing either, unless there’s some sort of unspoken limit on how much information each mod can hold so abilities had to broken up into multiple pieces. How would that even work?
The last thing I want to point out here is how much the game’s world is hurt by all of the loading screens between areas. This might not be fair to criticize the game for—I have no idea if it’s even possible to make levels that are as complex as Prey’s without the load screens separating each one—but it’s still something that brought the experience down for me. In more ways than one.
The obvious thing to gripe about here is that load times are boring. They interrupt the game. You’re forced to wait. They’re not excessively long so they are tolerable—although I do think it’s strange to have to wait for an animation to finish and press a button to finalize the load. The issue is made worse because of how often you’ll be returning to previous areas. Not just for when you unlock a new ability, but also when the main mission sends you through the whole length of the station a few times. Or returning to the hub and your office to speak to some NPCs.
For me, knowing that I had to sit through two or three load screens to go outside the station to fix a problem really killed my motivation. To leave the area, find an airlock, go through it, get to the place I need to go, and then go back through the airlock. It also makes the world feel disconnected even though it’s put together quite well, which is a reason why I was surprised that it mostly makes sense when you go outside the station and view the different parts.
But the real loss here is that it makes the routes between each level feel so rigid. Each of the sections on Talos One are brimming with hidden routes and alternative ways to access most areas. Yet when it comes time to go from one level to another, your options are limited to just one or two. There could have been a similar, large scale network of hidden paths between levels that could reward exploration, or accessing previously blocked areas. This could have made backtracking more interesting since these alternative paths could have opened up as the player gains new abilities, so they’re not constantly retreading the same path.
However these problems could also be caused by the game’s story and the progression path that you’re set to at the start. Because despite the eventual freedom you can find later on, you’re kept quite confined at the beginning. This could be why the open ended upgrade system may hurt a bit, because it’s not matched in the same way by the world. There are gated checkpoints you have to reach before some places unlock, which could have also been smoothly matched with some mandatory upgrades—just like how the jet pack works already in the game.
Prey’s story starts out strong and then quickly becomes background noise. An excuse to go on many fetch quests and to explore each part of the station. Once you arrive at these parts, you have some wonderful environmental storytelling to take in, as well as some mostly well acted voice logs and emails to read about what life was like on the station. Almost every area also has a choice to make, which is thankfully not broadcasted to you with very clear right or wrong decisions—at least for the most part it isn’t. This is a full step above many choice systems in games, but it still has some stumbles.
<clip of January grandstanding>
But see how quickly I slipped past so much of the story there? Because that’s how empty most of the main quest is. After this gripping opening, your actions become: go to your office to view a video. Oh no, the video system got turned off somehow. Go somewhere else to turn the system back on. Now go back to your office to finish watching the video. Now the elevator is broken, go through another part of the station to get to the upper levels. Oh no a door is locked. Go find some audio logs so you can fabricate the necessary speech patterns to open it. Oh no now another door is locked. Blow yourself out the airlock. Oh no now the whole station is locked down. Go to the engine room to reset it.
See what I mean? The end goal of the game is interesting, as is the setting and some of the choices you make along the way, but the main story is so boring that I wish they hadn’t bothered. And I truly mean that: I wish that the game had let you go anywhere from the beginning and let you discover all of these choices and scenarios in each part of the station on your own, as you decided to go to each place. Because that’s what 90% of Prey’s main storyline is: a trail of breadcrumbs to keep you moving to new areas so you have some direction. Which is something that could still have been provided to you with some more broad goals without sacrificing your ability to go anywhere on the station.
With the way that the typhon infestation continues to grow over time, this could even be factored into a difficulty curve since most levels go through phases and become populated with more difficult monsters. The station could have reacted and changed slightly depending on where you go first or last. This is something that Prey already does.
I want to make something clear here because I sometimes get comments saying that I hate linearity. I don’t. I think a directed, polished, linear experience will often be far superior to a vague open one. But like everything it needs to be done well. I look at Prey and see a bunch of work that went into the main mission and see how much better the game would have been if they just hadn’t done it. And considering how strong the opening is, and how many interesting details are in the game outside of this main story, it makes me wonder if something else was originally planned, and that what’s in the game now was rushed together when they realized they didn’t have enough time for the original idea.
Let’s go back to the beginning and look at how much work went into this. Each day Morgan spent here was fake, but Prey’s developers also committed to fully realizing how that would work. This starts out early on with the scuff marks on the floor from the constant rearrangement of the fake walls while Morgan is in the elevator—which, of course, isn’t moving anywhere. It’s just shaking to give you that impression while the rooms change outside.
I noticed these marks on my first playthrough. I didn’t make the leap to think the room was changing, but it did make me pause and feel slightly off. A feeling that continued when I reached the test chambers. And a feeling that persisted throughout the whole game after I smashed this glass—because I was ready to smash another wall hours later and find out that even Talos One wasn’t what it appeared to be.
Which turns out to be exactly right.
<clip: They’re lying to you>
Work went into the helicopter room, the big screen, the supply room, and even some other ways in and out of the fake apartment. All for this opening. When you play the game again, you can notice some other things too—including what I thought was a cool email about how much trouble they had getting the birds right during the helicopter ride. The reason the researchers are getting exasperated with you is that you’re meant to have a typhon neuromod installed to try out. That’s what the “just do whatever feels natural, do the first thing that pops into your head” means despite how easy these tests are.
You’re meant to use a kinetic blast or levitation to move the boxes. You’re probably meant to use the teleport to cross the room. And, most telling, the room with absolutely nothing to hide in is meant to trigger your usage of the mimic ability to become the chair—the only other object in there.
The computer at the end is to monitor changes in Morgan’s personality. In theory, these answers should always be the same since it’s the same Morgan with the same memory wipe each day. The idea that changes can still happen is an unsettling one, and ends up being a major part of the story.
As I’m typing this it sounds pretty good. And yet after this, the game becomes fetch-quests-in-space and the more interesting parts are situations mostly isolated to each part of the station that you find them in.
Like whether or not you execute a prisoner in Psychotronics.
Whether you save a corrupt mechanic in an escape pod—one that has caused the deaths of so many others by not investigating the faults in the other pods. A decision that’s made more difficult because there’s someone else in the pod with him that’s innocent.
Choosing to save groups of mind controlled people, or letting them die as you take out the alien. Or even if you’ll be able to figure out how to save them at all.
There are quite a few choices like this, and more than a few stories that you can discover through emails and audio logs about people who lived on the station. It’s a simple thing, but seeing an email early on in the game and then many hours later finding that person’s office and reading the email again sent from their terminal, made Talos One feel a lot more real. This sort of thing happened many times as I played. I think the tracking bracelets and security terminals that allow you to find the corpses of everyone are to encourage that feeling: that everyone who worked here had some sort of minor story about what they were trying to do, and how they ended up dead. Most games don’t put that level of work in.
One of the most powerful moments for me was when I first got outside the station and decided to check out the orbiting billboard I saw earlier on. There was the corpse of a guy there that had died in the middle of uploading something. I finished his work and, as I drifted away, got to see the slow unveiling of a new message flash on the screen. This is something that I made happen for myself, and the creeping “Oh shit” realization of what it said stuck with me. This is what I mean by the potential of letting the player free to wander and discover for themselves.
The only parts of the main quest that came close to this involved Alex and January. Alex is Morgan’s brother and is absent for the majority of the game. He speaks to you through your phone when he really should just come out and talk to you directly. Even when you get to his office, and are right above his safe room, he refuses to meet you. Because the game was so unwilling to give players total freedom to roam around Talos One early, that they knew they had to keep Alex away from players who would kill him on sight and ruin that progression.
I think Alex is an interesting character and voiced incredibly well by Benedict Wong. Eventually he still has some opportunities to shine but it’s a shame Arkane felt the need to keep him locked away and unimportant for almost the whole game.
The same can’t be said about January and his brothers. Or sisters, depending on whether you choose to be a man or a woman at the start. The simulation at the beginning that you played through was not the first one Morgan had been subjected to. It was not the first trial for alien neuromods. He or she had gone through it and then been released at least two times before now. I think it might even be four or five from what I’ve gathered from emails and audio logs.
Each time the test was over, a different version of Morgan came out, because the memories lost from each experiment are unrecoverable.
The first iteration of Morgan was quite cold and committed to the tests involving the Typhon. Mimics can only reproduce by feeding on a consciousness, which means that for every new mimic created a human had to be sacrificed to them. From what I understand, this was done exclusively with Russian prisoners who were lied to—that they were volunteering for some sort of experiment in space as an alternative to their punishment on Earth.
Since neuromods are created through typhon material, and typhons can only be created through feeding on humans, that means every neuromod is also ground up and refined human matter as well as alien. That’s being injected along with a human’s experience and ability when a neuromod is used. Combine that with the memory loss which got Morgan into this horrible state to begin with, and you can begin to understand why there are some strong reasons to avoid using neuromods completely.
While the first Morgan was willing to see humans be sacrificed for progress—and even the morals of himself and his brother—those that came after him were not. Alex was troubled by this and eventually things got so bad that he decided that Morgan should be kept in the simulation for longer than they agreed to while he figured out a way to deal with him. Because the new Morgans kept wanting to shut the experiments down.
Enter January, December, and I believe a November robot that we never find. Morgan created these as a failsafe to help the next versions of himself deal with what’s happening on Talos One. At first you only meet January, who is the previous version of Morgan who believed the best course of action was to blow up the station.
Then you meet December, who believed the best idea was to escape and presumably expose what they were doing to the people on Earth.
If you keep going back, you have the original Morgan who wanted to develop a weapon that could destroy all of the typhon material with a station-wide pulse, just in case things got out of hand.
This is one of two parts of the main story that are interesting to think about. Because at first it may seem that January is the most valid perspective to follow. He’s the first one who speaks to you. He’s the one that helps you the most. And he even shows you a video of you, yourself, confirming everything he’s saying.
However, this happens only because the previous Morgan had the most time to develop this robot and create these plans. There are other videos too. Other audio logs. And other robots. Then there’s also the current iteration—you. What do you think about all of it? What do you want to do about it?
Once you realize that January is only one of many prior personalities of Morgan, things become a lot more unstable and harder to judge. What he says sounds reasonable: the station is a dangerous disgrace and needs to be wiped out to save Earth from being exposed to the typhon. But what’s really the best choice here?
There are other decisions like this in the game. Whether or not you decide to blow up a shuttle that left Talos One before it reaches Earth—with no way to tell if they’re carrying mimics to the surface or not. Whether or not you try to save survivors on the station and find a way for them to escape, even if you choose to blow up the station in the end.
Unfortunately the main quest doesn’t live up to this potential because there are only three choices. You either destroy the station, arm the nullwave transmitter to try to destroy only the typhon, or you simply find an escape pod and leave without doing either. Something that can finish the game early and ruin the surprise waiting for you at the end.
Which is probably something I’ve spent too much time dancing around by now. So let’s get to it.
The big twist in Prey comes after some shockingly bad ending cinematics. These are so abrupt that I think most will be relieved that the real ending comes after the credits.
If you haven’t played the game I think you’re going to have a very strong, negative reaction to what I’m about to show you. So please try to temper that because things are a bit more complicated than “it was all just a dream”.
Everything you have done has been a simulation based on the real Morgan Yu’s actions. Alex has captured a phantom and injected human abilities into it, just like they were putting typhon abilities into people. You have been playing as that typhon, believing you’re human, as you make choices through Talos One. You’re now judged on your performance, to see if you are empathetic enough to relate to humans, instead of being a typhon that only wants to kill—the typhon are more complex than that but let’s go with it for this part of the story.
Now setting aside the “it was all a dream” reaction for just a second, this sequence where the game passes judgement on you is pretty cool. You may have made some good or bad decisions that you didn’t even know the game would be paying attention to. This is especially strong with decisions that are hidden within decisions. You can choose to let some NPCs die—specifically Sarah Elazar and her people in the cargo hold, Doctor Igwe in a container outside the station, and Mikhaila who is dying above the station’s power plant.
If you save these people, then there are even more choices that branch out from that decision. Whether you help Mikhaila discover what happened to her father—who was a Russian prisoner that Morgan sacrificed to create more mimics—and whether you let her have the information if you find it, or destroy it and lie to her. Then you have whether you save Elazar and her people a second time later on. Igwe also asks you to retrieve something from his room for him, but he also has important roles to play in the decisions presented to you by Mikhaila and Elazar. All of which would be different depending on who you did or didn’t save.
The game judges you at the end for these decisions, which I think is really interesting. It made me want to go back and try to do different things—even how many typhon you killed, or how many mind-controlled humans you saved, is a part of it. The goal of the simulation is to create a typhon ambassador that can communicate the needs of the surviving humans since Earth was infested—no matter what Morgan may have done, it didn’t work.
At the risk of getting ahead of myself, it’s worth considering that even this isn’t something you should take at face value.
The decisions that matter the most involve the NPCs you find on the station, which is why it’s so fitting that they end up being the voices of the robots that judge you. There are some flaws with this—for example, if you leave on an escape pod the simulation ends immediately with failure. The same really should happen if you demonstrate that you’re a feral, bloodthirsty typhon that uses mostly those powers and kills every human they see, even if they’re not a threat. Especially Alex, the first chance you get, since he would see himself being killed as a great reason to not trust the typhon when the simulation was over. But for that sort of reaction to be present in a way that was still satisfying, there would need to be some sort of continuation of the story after this point. Or an initially artificial way that ends the game if you murder someone without giving away the ending like the escape pod does.
What surprised me on my second and third playthroughs were how many things the game does react to. For instance, you can kill January on sight and go the rest of the game without his advice. I think the game is both improved and weakened played like this—you get to make more decisions on your own, but you miss out on some of his better lines and background information on the areas you visit. If January is not killed then he kills the other robot December, since he sees himself as the most recent robot helper and therefore the most valid. If you kill January first, then December survives and continues to direct you to find a way to leave the station. There aren’t nearly as many lines for the December robot, but that the developers accounted for this choice at all is impressive.
Likewise for the events of the third act of the game, although it’s likely you won’t appreciate it your first time through. Prey is quite a long game that, due to a lot of backtracking in the main story, overstays its welcome. You end up going to Alex’s office multiple times only to be interrupted by something and sent elsewhere. The worst of all of these is if you follow the January path, since you’ll end up going down to the engine room, then back up, then outside the station, then back up again, then back down to the engine room again, then all the way back up to the top. Even saying it sounds ridiculous.
So please try to understand that I’m not being contradictory when I say that I both enjoyed the arrival of Walther Dahl, but also wished that the game was done already instead of throwing another problem without introducing any new areas to visit.
Dahl is a mercenary hired by Morgan and Alex’s parents to clean up their mess on Talos One, which is a twisted family betrayal that isn’t explored nearly as much as it could have been—especially if Dahl had shown up much earlier in the plot. He arrives at the station via shuttle and brings with him a robot helper that hacks all of Talos One. He begins printing military grade robots to move through all of the levels, killing any typhon and also any survivors. Including you and your brother.
There’s a giant plot hole here that I can’t ignore. Dahl’s service bot did not physically change any of the hardware on the station. Which means that these dispensers were always capable of creating these high-grade combat drones. Ones that are surprisingly difficult to kill and, as you can see, are more than a match for cutting through the typhon. I do not understand why Alex or Elazar didn’t have this capability ready to react to any aliens that escaped confinement, considering how easy it was to get the machines pumping them out.
Plot holes aside, there is an impressive amount of different options and reactions you have here. Depending on how many people you’ve killed, Dahl will either start taunting and insulting you over the phone, or he’ll congratulate you on doing most of his job for him because you killed so many people. He’ll ask you to hunt down some of the final ones and then offer to meet you in order to bring you back to your parents—which is of course a lie but it’s still a way the game reacts to what you’ve done.
If you saved Elazar’s group, then Dahl tries to bait you into fighting him. First with an ambush in the lobby on the station. The same technology you used earlier to create a synthetic voice to get through a sealed door is used against you: to simulate the voice of a dead man in the medical centre. If you were paying attention to his name when you explored it earlier, you can dismiss this distress call and not fall for the trap. The second way he baits you is by turning the air supply off to the cargo hold where the survivors are still hiding.
On top of this, if you saved Igwe, he will propose knocking Dahl unconscious instead of killing him so you can remove his neuromods, making him forget his mission and act as an ally instead of an enemy. You can ignore this and still kill him. If you choose to incapacitate him, you can purge the oxygen control area to knock him out, or you can use the disruptor gun. Or you can choose to ignore the whole scenario, and use the location of Dahl’s security bot from his shuttle to block his access from Talos One and save the survivors that way.
If you do this then Dahl rides the elevator to the top of the station to try to kill Alex. Which you can then choose to kill him, knock him out, and the same for Alex himself. If you choose the disruptor gun, then the game has even planned to react to the big alien’s arrival by further tasking you with getting Dahl’s unconscious body safely to the nearest medical office so a robot can transport him down to the neuromod division to remove his mods.
See how many choices there are? There are more too. Whether you saved Mihkalia and her presence on the shuttle at the end. Even the prisoner you can choose to save in Psychotronics can be here if you cleared enough of the typhon so he doesn’t die in that area after you set him free.
Unfortunately not every choice is as well executed, or expanded on thoroughly enough. One of the most initially interesting parts of the game was the chef in the crew quarters. This is a little under halfway through the game—this story unfolds the instant you enter the area and hear him half-guiding, half-taunting you over the speaker system. You continue to do things for him while you collect audio logs to create the fake voice to open that door across the station.
There’s something both great and terrible about this encounter. Firstly, you should know that the chef is a fake. The real one is dead and this guy is an escaped prisoner from Psychotronics. He sends you on seemingly pointless tasks which I didn’t understand on my second playthrough—the first thing he wants is for you to go to his room and bring him a cooking award. Since he’s a fake, he shouldn’t care. It wasn’t until I was really paying attention to his lines here—about how the lights are flickering and the station is hurting, just ignore it—that I realized the chef knows about the lightning typhon near the room and has sent you into a trap. My first time I just assumed it was a coincidence this enemy was here.
You can also hear him talk aloud afterward, wondering if you’re still alive or not.
There are several chances to realize the chef is an imposter on top of this. First are the audio logs with the real chef—he has a different voice and a different portrait. Then there’s the photograph in his room with his face scratched off, and at least one email confirming that Morgan and the chef already knew each other.
Pretty cool encounter right? Lots of clues. And the mystery of what the chef’s endgame is. After he tries to kill you, by locking you in the freezer, he sets traps for you all over the station which is also a neat twist on the idea of studying your environment for dangers.
There are two major problems here, however.
The first is that this cat-and-mouse routine through the station leads to an anti-climax. I don’t know if you always find the chef in the same place, but for me I stumbled upon him in an escape pod and simply backed away from the recycler charge trap he set off, which killed him instead of me. There was no grand explanation or involved story about what this guy has been plotting. You just find him and he dies. Very disappointing. Although it’s possible I may have missed an alternate path.
The arguably even bigger issue is that you cannot confront the chef with any of the clues. The game won’t let you interrogate him, or accuse him of being a fake. You either need to go along with it and wait for him to attack, or you need to presume he’s out to kill you on top of being a fake Gordon Ramsey, and hit him first. This is a problem in many stories in video games and is probably worth discussing another time. I understand that this can’t simply be solved with a dialogue box since that option itself would reveal the truth to players who didn’t notice. Because there’s no trigger for acknowledging these clues—which I definitely think is the superior way to do it instead of an interactable prompt which is also a clue in of itself—it’s difficult to have the game realize that you’ve seen through the deception and want to make an accusation. It hurts this encounter because my only option is to pretend to be fooled, or to attack first and never find out what was going on.
This could be explained away, like several other issues, by the game being a simulation—a game within a game with its own limitations. I don’t buy that since it seems like just an excuse to me, but I do wonder if some people will accept it. It’s a way to explain other things too: like how the NPCs you save somehow get around the station unscathed. Especially for Doctor Igwe, who has no combat abilities whatsoever, who manages to get to the neuromod division to remove Dahl’s neuromods.
A plot hole that IS explained by this, is the absence of any sort of hacking or repairing skill on Morgan at the start. You can clearly see in his apartment that, even before receiving any neuromods at all, that he was an accomplished engineer. There’s a ton of work he was doing and he was even able to make the January and December robots after losing his neuromods. We also know from Alex’s comments that Morgan has been hacking into computers for decades, and yet he’s incapable of doing even the most basic versions of these things when you’re in control because it’s a typhon in a simulation. It even explains why the player doesn’t have all of Morgan’s prior memories either.
However, once you open the door to that line of thought, it’s hard to close it again. And the end result is a feeling of deep uncertainty about the story—about what’s intentional, what was planned, and what was rushed together.
Once you know that Prey is a simulation, it’s easy to dismiss it. If you think about Alex for a bit though, and assume that this ending scene is real, then things can become a lot more interesting. The key phrase spoken at the end is that it was a RECONSTRUCTION that was BASED on Morgan’s memories. It’s not a faithful, entirely accurate representation of true events. Of course how could it be, when they’re judging you on your decisions?
Alex has a lot more at stake here than simply seeing if a line of communication can be opened with the typhon. Earth is lost, and they’re desperate for a solution. It makes zero sense to think that Alex would not alter the simulation in significant ways to make the humans appear more sympathetic.
When I went through the game a second and third time, I was struck by how little respect the employees had for Alex and Morgan Yu. They are painted as borderline incompetent and maybe even a little evil. Alex admits that he broke Morgan’s arm when they were kids over some deleted save files for a game. And there are numerous emails and audio logs that show how ruthless he was with his staff—that they were underpaid, rebellious, and even forced into neuromod removals to keep teams in the dark about what was really going on. Let that one sink in all on its own. Forced neuromod removal, robbing people of months or even years of their lives.
The picture so vividly painted was of the majority of Talos One’s employees having no idea that the typhon were being used in such a way—or that they even existed at all. Most that do find out reject it outright, from the extreme end with suicide, to organized plots to get the truth to news outlets back on Earth. The station is teeming with the stories of Alex being questioned, undermined, and hated by almost every major character.
Nothing like the reasonable person he is when you speak with him directly, or the cautiously optimistic, calm presence in the ending scene. Like a man acting the part of one on the road to redemption. A few of the audio calls you receive don’t match his actions running the station either, especially the one where he seems to show some understanding about the aliens, and even an affinity for them.
I find it very hard to believe that most of the people on Talos One would be unaware of what was really going on. Just like I also find it hard to believe that so many of them were plotting against their employers.
The conclusion I want to come to is that Alex has made himself and his brother into scapegoats, and arranged the station to make the typhon believe that it was only a small minority of humans that were treating their race like a science experiment. That most people, when they discovered the truth, rejected the whole thing and would have treated them better instead. That there’s something worthwhile in our race, and that we shouldn’t be held accountable for the actions of only a few. That they should please, please empathize with us and try to help.
Where I stumble is that there’s no way to confirm this in the game, aside from the choice to reject Alex and kill him instead. And maybe that’s enough. Maybe the real mind game in Prey is realizing that you are being treated like a puppy—being trained and conditioned to grow up to be an obedient little dog, and that maybe the horrific choice at the end is the right one for once. That you should reject the manipulation and punish them instead.
I would have loved to be able to break the simulation on subsequent runs. Find flaws and cracks and escape in some way after realizing what was happening, but maybe that’s asking for too much. Especially given how many choices there are.
Overall I think Prey as a story starts out strong, and spends too much of its middle portion wasting time to also finish strong, even if there is a lot to think about. It’s strange to realize that the sidequests are still overshadowed by a weak main quest, since the expectation after the opening would be a continuation of that quality.
As for gameplay—combat and exploration—I think Prey is well worth experiencing yourself if you’re a fan of these types of games even despite some of its shortcomings, and a more puzzle-like approach to combat. But another big reason to play ties back to System Shock 2. A supposed classic that’s often exalted for doing everything well.
Prey has so many similarities that you’ll probably get a much better understanding of what System Shock 2 was at release then you would playing it today. You can see how blatant some of the influences were: from the gravity shaft elevators on many levels, to the almost exact same way the wrench is swung from above and to the side. There’s hacking, repair, cybermodules to neuromods, a voice telling you what to do for most of the game, vending machines for supplies, a lot of audio logs, environmental storytelling, a setting in space, and I could really just keep going.
System Shock 2 is by no means a flawless masterpiece and, like some of the other Shock games, it falls apart at the end, albeit in a more hilarious blaze of glory than the others in my opinion.
Prey is also far from perfect, but so are many games released. I know I’ve been heavily critical of it in this video but I hope, if the game happened to pass you by, that I’ve shown at least some of what it does well.
Because it all comes back to the name for me, and how Prey should have been called something more SHOCKING instead.