Prey (2017) is an Immersive Sim developed by Arkane Studios and published by Bethesda in 2017 on PC, PS4 and Xbox One. The player takes control of Morgan Yu, one of the executives of the interstellar corporation Transtar, who finds themself stranded on the space station Talos 1 with no memory of what's happened. And to make matters worse, the station is full of hostile aliens with few survivors. So it's up to Morgan to discover what went wrong and find a way out.
Prey takes an interesting approach to its story by letting the player pick the gender of Morgan at the start of the game and then have them be quiet the entire runtime, with your interactions with the story being solely delegated to your mechanical actions within the game's rules (which offer more nuance than the choice system in Bioshock, for example). So instead of dialogue trees and good/evil options, your approach to playing dictates what happens. And in an impressive show of care and foresight, you're allowed much more freedom than is initially apparent.
That makes for a rewarding experience if you're curious about the limits of the game's design, but if you simply go with the flow of the story, you probably won't even notice the freedom you've been allotted. Thankfully, the game has a clever solution to make sure that even players who stick to the most basic choices in the main story have a satisfying roleplaying experience.
Due to a bunch of experiments, Morgan has been deprived of their memory. Foreseeing this, they set up a contingency plan by recording messages for themself in order to give guidance. But this memory wipe has happened multiple times and managed to shift their personality each time. So while things are initially clear-cut, there comes a point where you're presented with conflicting opinions from yourself on what to do about the alien threat of the Typhon.
At that point, it becomes impossible to read Morgan as a single cohesive person, so that's when the roleplaying comes in. With so much moral noise present, you simply have to put your foot down and make up your mind about who Morgan is or perhaps should become given their past actions. Helping to tie you into the present your past selves aren't privy to are a bunch of minor (but often urgent) choices found within the various areas of Talos 1 and its side quests.
A common theme with these quests is acting with incomplete information, either because you missed a detail somewhere or because there simply is no good answer. This makes the game very interesting to play through, as depending on your current knowledge and priorities (regarding yourself, the station and Earth), certain choices can be read as either good or bad. This is the first game in a long time what has left me wanting to really discuss the merits of my actions and what they really mean compared to what others did. The game juggles a ton of themes that I like, but it all works together really well.
Identity is the big theme (what it really is and how it can be defined), but there's also the nature of empathy, the worth of incredible scientific progress with steep costs and how one's nature, needs and environment influences perception. It's this amazing sci-fi soup that never loses its ties to the human experience by focusing too hard on scientific minutia. More impressive still is how well I managed to enjoy the story despite having its key details spoiled beforehand. I can only imagine how well the game resonates with the right person who goes in blind.
The space station the game is set in is a fantastic achievement both in level design and narrative design. Talos 1 is comprised of a series of distinct levels featuring their own assets, theming, stories and traversal challenges that are connected to eachother via simple doors, a central elevator, a backdoor engineering site and the vacuum of space outside the station.
Progression through the station is somewhat linear initially, but the game eventually opens up and lets you explore areas before the plot or a side quest brings you there, should you want to. These areas are dense with hidden goodies, story tidbits about the dead crew, engaging side quests and hostile aliens to fight. It tickles the dungeon-crawler part of my brain so well that it kind of became tiring to engage with it all after a while.
But I need to stress that it was my own fault that happened, since I went out of my way to ignore the plot for as long as possible just because. This made the pacing a bit odd, but it was my own choice to play the game like this, so I can't really fault the game for that. It was just so much fun to explore the levels and figure out where all of these tiny plot threads went. And when I did resume the plot, I had basically explored the whole station already, so I could just ride from plot point to plot point really quickly when the climax kicked into gear.
The reason I did that is because there is so much care put into the logistics of the station and its staff, making exploration very engaging. You naturally find logs and emails detailing life on the station before the fall. That way you'll learn about the problems associated with the station itself, the alien attack and what kind of relationships people had.
If you're ever curious about someone in the crew, you can actually track down their corpse through a tracking system, letting you get closure on them if you should feel inclined to do so. Even people with no presence at all in the plot or the side quests were given names, which is such a small but impressive detail that you never question the absence of in other games
Prey builds on a lot of genre staples for its gameplay, particularly System Shock and Bioshock. If there ever was any doubt about what game Prey wants to be, one need only look to its choice of a wrench as your most basic weapon.
Just mentioning those other games saves me a lot of time, as Prey should prove familiar to people who have previous experience with immersive sims. So the expected mix of item conservation, gunplay, stealth, fun environmental interactions and super powers is very much present. So I'm going to focus on what really sets Prey apart in spite of how much it apes after its forebearers.
Generally, it's closer to System Shock than Bioshock, as there is a larger focus on inventory management and planning over straight-up gunplay. Shooting stuff works to a point, but the Typhon are mean customers without a plan to bring them down. Nothing exemplifies the game's ideals more than the GLOO gun, which is a multi-purpose tool meant to facilitate both traversal and the evening of odds in battle.
It shoots out chunks of white goo which hardens on impact. This can be used to make platforms and disable environmental hazards, but when fired on enemies it stops them in their squiggly tracks and makes them more susceptible to damage.
That's the most evident example of how Prey should be played, but that's not all there is to it. More so than any other immersive sim I know, it's really an ambush simulator. The most engaging parts of the gameplay happens when you analyze your environment, your enemies and what resources you're willing to spend to succeed in this encounter and then formulate a plan of attack. You can set off explosives, snipe, stun, run around corners, set mines, use hazards or whatever else you can think of. Even when it comes to traversal challenges you can cheat your way past obvious solutions in a number of interesting ways. It very much channels the same energy as my box-stacking no augments and no shooting run of the Human Revolution DLC.
The game's key feature is of course the Neuromods, which act as skill points that let you inject new skills into Morgan. These can be either human or alien in nature. The human skills are easy to understand and include a bunch of passive abilities that are very nice to have like more health, inventory space or movement speed.
In comparison, the alien abilities are naturally a bit weird and difficult to grasp the proper usage of. To make up for that, they are quite strong and varied, making it possible to rely on them instead of a few guns, which saves inventory space.
Compared to Dishonored, which is more of a stealth game where the more explosives abilities are difficult to justify the use of, here in Prey I'm more happy with the balancing. Stealth is encouraged since it helps you get a leg up on the aliens (and makes them easier to scan, which unlocks new powers), but there aren't many tools available for getting past them sneakily and they forget about you quickly. So you're not gonna be punished a lot for getting accidentally noticed every so often. It's really just a matter of finding your playstyle and adapting your choice of Neuromods accordingly.
The roguelite DLC Mooncrash is complex enough to warrant its own review, but I'll try to be brief and focus on the essential parts of it.
With how complex interactions between various mechanics can be in the main game, it was a bit of a genius move to reimagine them in a roguelite scenario. But even among roguelites, Mooncrash is rather unique, as instead of just having standard meta-progression inbetween runs, there is actually a degree of permanence to your actions. It's set up like this:
You play as an operative working for a rival company to Transtar from the main game who is tasked with examining the data that remains after an alien outbreak on a Transtar moon base. To do this, you dive into a simulation modeled after the recovered memories of the people there. This simulation is unstable, which is the justification for randomized roguelite elements in the DLC.
But it's not as randomized as one would think, as the geometry of the 4 areas you explore remains consistent. What does change is a bunch of parameters that make traversal more difficult and the enemy/item layouts. But these things only change when you complete enough objectives or reset a run.
Normally, once you have either died or successfully escaped the moon as one character, you can then switch to another character, who will then run around in the same run just as you left it. This widens the scope of decision-making beyond both what the main game expects from you and what other roguelites expect of you. Not only do you need to think about your current encounter and run, but you also need to consider how things will go for your next character. What items to leave, which enemies to kill and what obstacles to undo.
This is pretty overwhelming to internalize and will take a few deaths to learn. Once you get to know each character's strength and give them some more skills, you can then start planning for the long game, with the ultimate goal being to have all 5 characters escape without dying. The game does a good job of keeping things engaging as you learn its tricks, as more factors are introduced as you make progress to make things more complex.
Eventually, the difficulty evens out and your victory is basically assured as long as you take the game's lessons to heart (and craft a bunch of items to keep the difficulty from increasing). But it's still a lengthy and engaging journey that really pushes you to the max, even after mastering the main game's challenges.