"I actually did not play many of those games," Prey lead designer Ricardo Bare tells me when I ask him about what lessons he might have learned from Metroid and Castlevania—the two games that combine to form the now ubiquitous term "Metroidvania."
I've just finished spending some time with Prey, which I didn't so much play as... mess around with. The area they showed comprised one big sandbox in which I could play around with the physics and the various powers, such as the ability to transform into a mimic—one of the game's spider-like aliens. As many have noted, Prey has little in common with Human Head Studios' shooter from 2006, but it also feels a little weird to call it a Metroidvania in the classical sense.
Rather, Bethesda's Prey has more in common with Arx Fatalis, a dungeon crawler that happened to be one of Arkane Studios' first games. Like Prey, Arx Fatalis is set in a large open dungeon that serves as a sort of open-world sandbox. The main difference is its fantasy setting, which was one reason Arkane opted to go with sci-fi for the game that would become Prey.
Still, that hasn't stopped various publications from referring to Prey as a Metroidvania.
"One of the most revealing details is the structure of the game, which sounds like it will have more in common with Samus Aran's adventures than those of the original linear Prey," Eurogamer wrote following the gameplay reveal last year.
Do a quick Google search, and you'll find any number of headlines in that vein. But is it actually a Metroidvania? Eh...
Classical Metroidvanias like Super Metroid are defined by a relentless sense of progression. Even when you're backtracking, you're usually moving forward because you have a new item that will open up a new area. Metroidvanias also tend to be pretty combat heavy, their roots being in platformers (Super Metroid), shooters (Metroid Prime), or action RPGs (Castlevania: Symphony of the Night).
Prey is more deliberate than all that. It's got a little bit of a sense of survival horror to it, as Jaz alluded to in his preview, and it leans heavily on an RPG-like sense of character development. Character builds are a big part of Prey thanks to its decently-sized skill tree, which makes it possible to focus on both passive and combat-heavy approaches. It even has multiple endings, including one that involves a character you can kill literally a minute after you meet.
It also feels more open-ended. Where most Metroidvanias are built around acquiring powers to open up new areas, Prey usually offers multiple solutions to a problem. In opening up an area like the armory, for instance, you might free a nearby prisoner and have him enter the access code; or you might turn into a mimic and enter through a small opening, or you might use your dart gun to press the button on the control panel and open the door. It's essentially a puzzle game, deemphasizing combat in favor of wits and problem-solving.
Indeed, you rarely take on enemies directly in Prey. One of the first weapons you get is a glue gun capable of freezing the aliens in place, in turn enabling you to either shoot them or bash them with your wrench. Later on, the Null Wave, which Bare refers to as an EMP grenade for aliens, becomes key in disabling an alien's powers and defeating them.
"Our main desire as a studio is to make a game where players are deeply-immersed in a world, and that they have an awesome amount of creativity and control over how they solve puzzles," Bare says. "One of my greatest pleasures is watching people play and solve problems with the game systems."
Prey's main connection to the Metroidvania genre, ultimately, is its setting. Prey's space station is somewhat reminiscent of the research station in Metroid Fusion; both are abandoned and overrun by hostile alien lifeforms, some of them quite powerful. Like Zebes, Dracula's Castle, and other familiar locales, Prey's setting also kind of takes on a life of its own as you get to know its various nooks and crannies. "One of my favorite moments is when you get to go outside and see just how vast the space station actually," Bare says. "It's not a fake level or a one-off. It's part of the open-world, and you can re-enter the space station at various points."
But plenty of other games have rich settings as well; Half-Life, for instance, a shooter to which Prey is frequently compared. Otherwise, a lot of the similarities seem incidental at best. When I ask Bare for his thoughts, he tells me, "I think people use the term Metroidvania because we have things like a broken elevator in a lobby. You don't have to fix it, but you can. And if you fix it, you suddenly have access to three more levels that you didn't have access to before. So, in that respect, it sort of is like a Metroidvania in that, once you complete Activity X or find Item Y, the world has become bigger. On top of that, there's a lot of backtracking, traversal puzzles, that sort of things. And some of it is just player-driven. People just want to find everything there is to find."
The thing about Prey is that it's not an easy game to pigeonhole. It's got some survival horror elements; some RPG elements; some puzzle elements, and yes, a bit of Metroidvania's progression. But it's also very much its own thing, which is partly why it's kind of hard to talk about it in traditional terms. Even its history is kind of a hindrance in that regard, as most of the coverage to this point has been fixated on the "other" Prey.
In that, it's probably best to enjoy Prey on its own terms, regardless of what it's trying to be. If Arkane's track record is anything to go by, it's apt to be pretty good.
A previous version of this article misidentified Ricardo Bare as Raphael Colantonio, who is Prey's creative director. We regret the error.