‘Prey’ preview: Arkane Studios’ reboot turns everyday objects into interstellar horrors

When Arkane Studios finally announced its upcoming adaptation of Prey, the studio said it wanted to try its hand at sci-fi after leaning so heavily into the “Steampunk” aesthetic of the Dishonored series. What Arkane didn’t say was that, in addition to changing settings, Prey would transpose its well-refined mechanics onto a new genre, horror.

And Prey is definitely a horror game. The first hour or so, which the studio showed off at a preview event in Los Angeles, is filled with jump scares and musical stingers. Like Arkane’s Dishonored games, players gain special powers and a variety of weapons to use for their survival. Those mechanics, however, are paired with a slowish pace, and a foreboding space station filled with empty rooms that might not be so empty. Prey gives players what they need to survive, but at least in its opening moments, it’s weighted so you won’t always be sure that you’ll be able to do so.

The first hour of Prey give sets the stage for a System Shock 2-style mystery. Players take on the role of Morgan Yu, a scientist preparing for a trip to Talos 1 station in orbit around the moon. At the start of the game, scientists, led by Yu’s brother Alex, put players through their paces by testing Morgan’s newly installed “neuromod,” a technology the Yu siblings created.

No one can hear you scream

Of course, moments into the test, everything goes wrong. The scientist leading Morgan through her (or his) paces (players can choose Morgan’s gender at the start of the game) is suddenly, viciously killed by some kind of weird black tentacle creature. The test chamber is filled with gas and Morgan passes out.

A few seconds later, Morgan awakes in her apartment, where the game first started. Everything is exactly the same, but a mysterious voice on Morgan’s phone warns her to try and escape. Using a wrench to break the glass leading to her high-rise apartment’s balcony, Morgan realizes the whole thing is a stage — the experiment included her fake living quarters. She’s already on Talos 1. Everything you’ve been told was a lie.

What follows is a tense survey of the station. The halls are filled with dead bodies, and strange black aliens called mimics have gotten loose. You’re armed with only a wrench to keep the spooky things at bay when they attack you, and they prefer to leap toward your face and stab at you with long tentacles. Their movements are alien and tough to predict, and your wrench is not a lot of comfort.

This is where Prey gets creepy. As Morgan starts to search the station to find out what happened, and what’s been happening to her. The mimics can take the shape of everyday objects. They lie in wait, hiding as coffee cups or clock radios, until Morgan moves in close. As January, the voice on the radio, warns, be careful what you pick up.

The Arkane approach

In its first two games, Arkane Studios has given off a very specific vibe. Much like Dishonored or games like Deus Ex, Prey’s gameplay evolves through abilities that allow you to interact with the world in your way. This is mostly done through the aforementioned neuromods, which allow players to unlock skills like increased strength (good for moving heavy objects that sometimes open new paths) or hacking (which allows players to break through doors or computer terminals).

Like Resident Evil or Silent Hill, Prey balances the player’s power against a dearth of supplies.

Lead Designer Ricardo Bare said that, like Dishonored, players’ approach to the game and the abilities they unlock will dictates how they move through the station, what areas they can access, and sidequests they can complete. Unlike Dishonored, which is mostly mission-based, Prey will feel more open and allow players to backtrack to previously visited areas.

“Some of it’s like path-related — like maybe there’s a crawl vent you can go into,” Bare said, describing how players might get into certain rooms and areas. “Some of it’s ability related, like, if you have hacking you don’t need the code, you can just play the hacking minigame to try to get in there.

“And then even on a bigger scale, later the game opens up even more to where you have access to the whole space station. As you gain abilities and as the story progresses, you get more and more access to the space station and eventually you can even go outside. So the entire exterior of the space station is like a big open world.”

Inventing Morgan Yu

Arkane’s Dishonored games focus on providing players with lots of choices about how they approach objectives, but choice also plays a major role in their stories, too. Dishonored centers on themes of how powerful people exercise that power. The games ask players questions about how they use their power, and what expression they’re willing to have that power make on the world and other people.

Put to the question of what theme Prey would focus on during the preview event, Bare answered with a question of his own: “Who is Morgan Yu?”

From the preview, that seems like the question players will answer through their actions. It quickly becomes apparent in the story that Morgan was a willing participant in neuromod experiments. But each time the scientists uninstall a neuromod from Morgan’s brain to test a new one, she loses her memories — hence the reset at the beginning of the game to replay the same day before she left for Talos 1.

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While Bare said there won’t be anything quite as overt as Dishonored’s “Chaos” system, which measures how players’ choices directly make Dishonored’s world worse, your relationships with the people you run across as you explore Talos 1 will have an impact on the game.

“Later in the game you’ll actually find survivors. Most of the people are dead — the aliens have just broken out and they’re just overrunning the station,” Bare said. “So you’re in the middle of a disaster, but occasionally you’ll run into pockets of survivors, like some security guards who have barricaded themselves in, or somebody who’s hiding in the kitchen in the crew facilities. And how you interact with those people, how you treat them has significant consequences for the endgames.”

“We don’t have an explicit abstract morality system, like ‘High Chaos, ‘Low Chaos,’” he explained. “Instead, it’s more like — I guess I would call it ‘natural consequences.’ There are very few people alive on the station, but how you treat them matters. Sometimes it has an immediate, short-term consequence, and sometimes it has long-term consequences related to the endgame.”

A game infused with consequences isn’t a completely novel concept, but with Arkane at the helm, those consequences can often get pretty dark. What we’ve seen of Prey so far suggests Arkane is building into its creepy, foreboding atmosphere with a number of tools. It’s a horror game that wants to get players’ heads, as well as make them toss their popcorn, so to speak. After only an hour on the station, we find ourselves drawn back — and worried about what we’ll find.