Thanks to Cart Boy and NantenJex for edits.
Morgan Yu is not having a good day. The polymathic scientist wakes up to a blissful morning, a gorgeous apartment, and a flight to the Talos I space station to explore superpower injecting “Neuromods” with big brother Alex. Of course, in the first verse of the game’s love letter to mind-bending cyberpunk literature, it’s a lie. In one swift motion, they (players can play as a male or female Morgan) are forced to quite literally destroy what turns out to be a beautiful, dishonest fantasy. They’re actually trapped on the station already, and it has been violently overrun by a horrifying species. It’s hard to be sure if any of the crew are still alive, with the only consistent voice being that of Morgan’s distant and unemotional robot assistant. The monsters, the Typhon, shape-shift, wield hard to discern powers, and are inescapable throughout the ship. As the scientist sneaks through laboratories, parks, and even the vacuum of space (explosions have ripped up large sections of the station, demanding they float outside to reach certain areas), they’re constantly besieged by a deeply alien threat.
Playing Prey is a strenuous and often nightmarish experience. The Mimic Typhon can turn into coffee cups or chairs or items or seemingly any detritus in the room once your back is turned; I’m pretty sure one even took the form of the corpse of another Mimic I had already killed. Their older forms substitute the transforming for strength and superpowers that can kill you in seconds even by the end of the adventure. The largest mind-control groups of survivors to act as suicide bombers or throw you or heavy objects around the room. Panic attacks are a regular status effect, the result of being overwhelmed by too many enemies. And that doesn’t count the dearth of ammunition, the myriad of radiation leaks, the time sensitive quests where failing kills certain crew members, and even a serial killer who’s riddled the station with deadly explosives. Even the incredible score is antagonistic, with painful discordant strings and an unnerving synth that emphasizes the cyberpunk feel.
The emphasis on horror and weakness is necessary as a corollary to the experiences you typically get from other immersive sim games (or RPGs in general), where getting more experience or abilities turns you from weakling to superhero, Charles Atlas style. Prey doesn’t fully escape that, but the title always needs to be relevant: you are not a hero but a survivor, and surviving is going to potentially demand doing some things you do not want to do, or which seem utterly illogical or unsafe. It’s why the optional psychic powers come with the consequence that injecting yourself with too much alien DNA makes you genetically less human, and able to be targeted by the station’s defensive turrets. Even self-empowerment is a threat, and choosing how to deal with your problems comes at a cost: to your ammo pool, your ability to make more of those wonderful Neuromods, or your own humanity.
There is, however, one exception to this rule (beyond things like just upgrading the weapons you have or choosing non-PSI skills), and that comes from two very silly but very fascinating sidearms. The first is the less interesting, the Huntress Boltcaster. It’s a crossbow that fires spongy Nerf darts which do no damage but are just strong enough to push buttons or LCD displays. There aren’t a lot of ways to use it, but puzzles about shooting the lock on a door to a sealed room, distracting enemies, or detonating bombs from far off are still really neat. It’s a gimmicky weapon that makes an unbelievable amount of sense for a game about finding your own path through things. But what’s even more exciting is the GLOO Cannon, which I think might be the second weapon you get in the game.
The GLOO Cannon (“Gelifoam Lattice Organism Obstructor,” though it hardly matters) shoots giant globules of this glue-like substance. When you use it to hit a moving thing, like a person or Typhon, it covers them a bit and slows them down; when you use it against any hard surface it creates a big ball of glue that sticks to it. On its face, that’s about it. As a weapon, it’s incredibly useful; stopping enemies in their tracks – even floating ones fall when paralyzed – is quite the boon in a game where almost everything is faster, stronger, and more dangerous than you.
But let’s talk about this latter ability. The game gives you a light tutorial on it the moment you find the first cannon laying around, in the Neuromod Lab at the beginning of the game. There’s a corpse carrying the gun, lying prone beneath a large range of glue making an impromptu set of steps on the wall. If you follow it up, you can find more goodies in a crevice that you’d need glue steps to climb into. What this tells you is fairly simple: this is a device that can let you transcend more “normal” limitations of game architecture and space. Talos I is a massive and dizzying beast, with plenty of tall walkways, walls, and maintenance shafts. Shooting a glue staircase in the Hardware Labs’ large engineering center could get you to one of those shafts, letting you bypass whole rooms in that section of the ship and theoretically avoid a showdown with an alien beast.
It’s delightful seeing how much Arkane Studios lets players do with this device. The first thing that comes to mind is sequence breaking, and it’s more than good with that. You could theoretically cut through huge portions of the plot just by carefully building glue walkways around blocks to ensure the player has to get a go on the intended path. Just one idea would be using it to scale a tower to Morgan’s brother’s office. It’s at the top of a structure designed to block the glue directly, necessitating spending the bulk of the game searching for a card key to access an elevator to get up there. But it is actually possible (if very difficult) to approach it hours ahead of schedule, with one way being to just make steps inside the elevator itself. It’s not the only reason for speedruns that last under eight minutes; there’s also the litany of glitches, the ability to turn into a coffee cup yourself and jump through small holes, having a Boltcaster dart ricochet off some glue to hit a door switch you can’t see, and all sorts of other things players used to break even the demo. Fortunately, the game is more than happy to go along with any shenanigans, even those that break the entire plot in two.
A corollary to its value to sequence breaking is how useful the Cannon is for suiting any kind of playthrough. I don’t think it’s possible to beat the game with no other weapon – there is one opponent near the end who you must confront and can’t be fully subdued by the glue – but you can can certainly use it to supplant pretty much any style of play. Entirely pacifist runs (which are so difficult it seems Arkane never accounted for the idea someone would complete it) depend heavily on physically avoiding enemies. Ones based on refusing the siren song of Typhon powers need to rely on their guns – and those include the one that can slow down the creatures. It’s not possible to get every crew member or finish every side quest without spraying glue, a lot of it in some areas.
The gun also comes with a million other little tools as well. Glue can seal exposed pipes, put out fires, and temporarily stop haywire electrical junctions from shooting electricity at you (and giving you time to repair them). The ship hasn’t taken well to the attack, and while having a one size fits all approach to dealing with these problems isn’t exactly realistic, it does follow along with how hacking skills can be used equally well on safes or security drones, or how you can just genetically boost your health or strength. Going by the fan Wiki, it can even be used to plug seal breaches in the station’s hull and allow you access to more parts of the ship, which is something I hadn’t even considered in my playthrough.
There are limitations; for one obvious fixer, you can’t stack glue “balls” on top of one another and make a massive, station-wide helix. The glue is also vitreophobic, meaning it can’t affix itself to glass (this is different from hyelophobia, the actual fear of glass, and so obscure a scientific term I can’t figure out whether it’s a correct use of the word), which poses a problem given how many of Talos I’s walls are beautiful glass screens. These two weaknesses work in conjunction, requiring you to use a vertical space to explore further. There are a few shaft doors in the ceilings of rooms, and it’s hard to imagine it being possible to reach those from the bottom.
But it’s surprising – at least for someone like myself unfamiliar with immersive sims – to see this tool allowing so much freedom. You’re even constantly given rounds and rounds of the stuff; it’s the only ammunition which is never in short supply, all the more encouragement to use it as much as you’d like. Even the sound effects the gun makes is comforting, all soft and “natural” sounding splats compared to harsh buzzes and bangs. It’s a wonderful tool that makes sense for the world of Prey (a space station filled with experimental scientists severed from any moral or plausible limitations, where firearms are limited), and helps cement its image as this place both on the cutting edge and constantly in danger of self destruction.
Prey is predicated on the idea of choice, and it lives and dies exploring that idea. It’s a story about what you are in the dark, providing a structure in which players can (mostly) justify acting the way they do. Its gameplay furthers that, with your abilities allowing you to or barring you from certain paths or opportunities in the game…at least theoretically. In practice, the game works hard to allow you to explore Talos I and discover its secrets, to the point where many “hard” locks of sealed rooms or broken machines aren’t so hard at all. Far more things in this game can be dealt with on your terms, not theirs, than the oppressive atmosphere and horrific beasts imply. The GLOO Cannon is far from the only reason for that; it might not even be the single most important one. It is, however, the most deeply visceral of them all.