Prey (2017)

It is well known that 2017 was an absolutely stellar year for games. One game that may have gone under the radar is Prey. There are a few theories for why Prey went so unnoticed, but the prevailing reason for it being overlooked is its name. Despite the confusion with its name, I think Prey is a solid title that definitely is deserving of more recognition.

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Prey shares its name with a 2006 game. Unintuitively, the games are in no way related, they are not even in the same genre. The Prey that was released this year feels more like three other series: System Shock, Bioshock, and Dishonored. Prey was obviously inspired by System Shock and Bioshock. The lonely, dark, and disturbing atmosphere portrayed in Prey is straight out of these series. You feel like you are trying to survive a utopia gone wrong, there is a heavy emphasis on survival compared to a standard first-person-shooter (FPS). You cannot tackle encounters with guns blazing like DOOM or Call of Duty, you must carefully and tactically use your resources and knowledge to proceed. Moreover, I say Prey is similar to Dishonored mostly because the level design philosophy is remarkably similar. That’s probably because they are made by the same studio, and if you’ve played Dishonored you will immediately recognize the hidden ducts and paths to sneak through the levels.

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The setting Prey is a space-horror and psychological thriller. You play as Morgan, a scientist with no memories as to what happened and what led to the dire situation at hand. There are mysterious aliens roaming the halls and the quarters are littered with corpses, and it is your job to decipher what happened. There are conflicting characters and perspectives that you weigh in your mind, somebody is lying to you about the situation. I’d argue that the story is simultaneously engrossing and lacking. The vast majority of the narrative and exposition is told at the beginning and the end of the story, and the entire in between section just feels empty. The opening to Prey is probably one of the greatest openings to any video game, or any media for that matter, ever.

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I usually loathe the slow and monotonous starts of games as a narrator or character spews expository dialogue at the player, but Prey starts differently. It feels simple and innocent enough, but the atmosphere just feels a little off and tension rises as you discover the reality that Morgan must now endure. As usual I really do not want to spoil anything, but Prey does an excellent job at building pressure and mystery for the first few hours. Sadly, after the initial introduction to the world there is not many narrative aspects to expand on the opening until the very end. The entire middle section of the game consists of “Do this, do that, find your way through the space station, and then I will tell you the truth”. This was incredibly disheartening and by the time I did reach the ending I feel like my interest in the outcome had waned after hours of being kept in the dark. That being said, the final sequences of Prey were phenomenal and were a great pay-off, but the middle section just left a bad taste in my mouth.

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The people over at Arkane Studios have built one of the most cohesive and intriguing worlds that I’ve seen in a game. The space station Talos I is a sprawling, living, breathing world that can be explored inside and out. The living quarters, lobby, arboretum, and other areas feel like a luxurious hotel that people actually lived in. Computer terminals with emails, innocuous notes, and the placement of objects goes a long way to make the world feel natural and realistic. Every corpse has a tag that can reveal their identity and you can uncover where that character worked, their background information, and possibly find terminals containing emails they sent or received. Again, this really ups the immersion that Prey provides. Also included are places like life support systems, the power reactors, and the­­­ maintenance tunnel that runs the length of the station. These areas are far sparser, as it should be. You can also visit the exterior of the station, and see all the sectors from the outside, and they make sense logically. The developers obviously put a ton of work into creating and maintaining this immersive universe.

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The meat of gameplay in Prey consists of three core elements: exploration, combat, and gathering/crafting. These elements work simultaneously with each other to create a gameplay loop in which the player explores a new area, dispatches of the enemies in the area, and then gathers all the resources to restock on ammunition and supplies. Early on, it feels like you are deprived of resources and you must conserve ammunition, grenades, and health packs because they are scarce. That aspect is certainly enjoyable as it makes the game tenser as each encounter no longer focuses on only survival, but also the cost of taking down enemies. You are encouraged to creatively kill enemies to save bullets, or even avoid the foes altogether. Despite this, as the game progressed I realized that I had a huge stockpile of health packs and ammunition building up since I was being so conservative, I almost wish the game did not give you so many resources. This way, creative planning would be vital and scavenge for resources would be a necessity.

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While Prey labels itself as a FPS, the shooting and gunplay is hardly a main focus. Prey feels more like a horror or thriller game than a classic FPS, and that’s a good thing. In DOOM for example, you blast through hordes of demons, you never really feel scared or threatened by these hellish creations. In Prey, the scarcity of the enemies is what makes them so dreaded. Most of your time will be spent exploring the station, cautiously looking out for any aliens, but for the most part the aliens are few and far between. This creates a psychological effect as you never really get comfortable at fighting these creatures. Furthermore, subconsciously you make the connection that if there is a lot of enemies, they must be weak so that you can deal with them in large numbers, and if there is only a single enemy, that enemy must be immensely strong. Prey falls into the latter category; any encounters are incredibly tense due to just how frightening these aliens are perceived to be. Moreover, a specific enemy can mimic regular objects in the environment, leading to fear even when you think you are safe. As you scavenge for resources, the coffee cup next to you could reveal itself to be an alien and strike at you. All these reasons just lead to an atmosphere of horror and dread. All that being said, the actual FPS features in Prey are rather weak. The gunplay feels unsatisfying as enemies do not even react to getting shot, it feels like there is no weight behind your bullets. If you are looking for a classic FPS filled with action and firefights, Prey is probably not for you. However, if you want a thrilling and fear-filled adventure, it may be right up your alley.

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The best way to describe the level design of Prey is that it mimics Dishonored. There are loads of alternate paths and routes through the levels. You can use your gloo-cannon to reach an inaccessible ledge, or you can use a special perk to jump higher, or you can find a keycard to unlock a door, or you can find a duct, or you can turn on the power an unlock another routes, or you can use your strength ability to move objects out of the way, or you can hack a terminal and unlock a path, and the list goes on. It feels like there is an immeasurable amount of ways to tackle any individual obstacle in Prey, and that philosophy also pertains to enemies. Using different guns, grenades, special perks, and melee attacks also remind me of the “playground” feel in Dishonored. The only difference is that in Dishonored you play as an elite assassin, the enemies are feeble compared to the player, but in Prey, you are the prey. The numerous options feel a little stunted in this game because you are not the hunter, so the player’s creativity is limited by the feasibility of their tactic. All in all, the level design is fantastic, but I wish instead of offering creative combat options which barely see any use, we instead had more polished and refined gunplay befitting of a FPS.

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Overall, Prey is a solid title that unfortunately did not get the attention that it deserved. Its name confused consumers and fans of the original Prey felt alienated by this brand-new game, while people who did not like the original did not give this game a chance. Either by branding itself as completely new entity, or perhaps by paying homage to System Shock or Bioshock, Prey easily could have gained a lot more traction and generated far more interest than it did. Prey tells a cohesive and mind-bending story, but unfortunately the pacing was slightly off. Moreover, Prey has some excellent gameplay elements to keep your blood pumping and heart racing, but the FPS aspects are just underwhelming. For these reasons I give Prey an 8/10. It is an outstanding and immersive psychological thriller with an unfortunate name. ­­

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The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human (2016)

While the metroidvania genre is one of my favorites, it is also one of the more saturated game genres, and there are just so many competing titles to choose from. The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human is one of those metroidvanias but with an interesting twist. Inferred by the title, you are the last human alive and you set off to explore the now submerged metropolitan areas of earth in a submarine. The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human has nearly no standard enemies, but instead the bulk of the game is pure exploration as well as clashes with legendary bosses. I quite like this take; the lonely and somber feel of the ocean starkly contrasts the intense boss battles. In a way, this format is very similar to the classic Shadow of the Colossus style.

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The single best feature of The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human is hands down it’s totally free exploration. Even compared to other metroidvanias it is far more free and open then many of its contemporaries. The player is free to explore wherever and however they want. For the most part, you tackle the bosses in any order you desire. Most of your time will spent just be gliding through the ocean finding different paths to explore. In classic metroidvania fashion, as you defeat bosses you unlock more upgrades, weapons, and tools to explore deeper into the submerged city. Using saws to cut through overgrowth, torpedoes to blast through rocks, and harpoons to trigger switches are regular methods of exploration in The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human. The one issue I have with the exploration in this game is its world map. Instead of a comprehensive layout of all the different paths, the map is just a bunch of connected squares. So, opening the map to find the best route to where you want to go is ineffective and confusing.

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It is unfortunate that The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human is certainly lacking in the gameplay department. There are a few obstacles in your way as you progress through the abyss, but no enemies other than bosses. It is unfortunate then that while those bosses are incredibly creative and visually interesting that the fights can be long, drawn out and frustrating experiences. This is simply due to the unpolished and frankly amateur game design decisions. The first being that there are nearly no invincibility frames when you get hit. Most games give the player a small frame of time after getting hit to get out of danger, but that is not the case here. This coupled with the insane knockback when the player gets hit leads to being frustratingly ping-ponged between enemies until you die. Moreover, there is an intense screen-shake when the player takes a hit, which combined with the knockback is incredibly disorientating. A single hit often leads to death, and it feels like you can do nothing about it. The next issue is that nearly boss has a 1-hit-kill move, some are intentional and some I believe were mistakes. The intentional ones are fine, for instance a giant laser that is obviously telegraphed and gives plenty of time to react. On the other hand, there are some instances which lead to instant death that feel unintentional. For example: a swarm of small sharks surrounds you and you get bumped around without any recourse. These instances often feel like cheap shots that instantly kill the player. Since there is such a minute amount of combat it should be far more polished. Often times The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human just feels unfair.

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While the two crutches of this game are its open exploration and boss battles, there are a few more factors to talk about. The art style in this game is heavy pixelated and is reminiscent of pixel-art, but it is odd that the pixels are not uniform in size. If you are just exploring and not focusing too hard, this art choice was fine. In boss battles, however, the screen can feel cluttered and there is a lack of visual clarity. I had to physical strain to see many of the projectiles and threats. Finally, the narrative is fairly bareboned. The vast majority of any story comes from hidden holotapes across the sea floor. There is no guarantee that you find them, and the ones you do find are out of order. I suppose it could be interesting to piece together a cryptic narrative, but the game beats you over the head with its environmentalist motif.

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In its entirety, The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human has a difficult time measuring up to other modern metroidvanias. In such a heavily saturated genre, this game fails to stand out in a meaningful way. I think that it certainly has the potential to be a great game if the gameplay had been polished further, but otherwise I cannot recommend it when there are so many other wonderful games in the genre. That being said, if you are a fan of the genre it is a relatively quick game that can sate the metroidvania hunger. For these reasons I give the Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human a 6/10. The juxtaposition of the calm and flourishing ocean compared to the intense boss battles is a compelling concept, but the amount of “cheap shots” that the game throws at the player grows tiresome fairly quickly.