8 of Hearts: 2022 Games of the Month 1: Praey For The Gods

Praey For The Gods is in some ways an extremely easy game to talk about. It is a Shadow Of The Colossus-like, a game where you find huge creatures scattered around the map at the direction of mysterious, disembodied spirits, climb to weak points spread around their bodies and slowly bring them down. Added on top of this is a winter themed survival system which mainly comes into play in the spaces between , which, with the breakable weapons, warmth mechanics, gathering mystical items to exchange in groups for either health or stamina, and a handheld glider for easy vertical movement, feels mainly based on The Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild. As a final small comparison, the somewhat sparse writing often has the cadence and feel, if not delivery method, of a Dark Souls game: the opening narration talks about a dying world ending with a repeated refrain of “Ring The Bells”, which immediately put me in mind of “Link The Flame” as a short, three word mission statement for your aims in the game.

I don’t think these comparisons to other games are unjustified. The similarities to Colossus in particular are so striking it is genuinely hard not to talk about the game in those terms, defining it primarily by how it follows or deviates from a now seventeen year old game, but I feel like I want to avoid doing so too much. Partially that’s just due to me wanting to try and flex at least some review muscles and not take the easiest route, and partially because I feel the game has at least earnt being examined on its own, merits and flaws alike. In many ways, it is an extremely impressive game, considering it was developed by No Matter Studios, a three person team. Initially developed part time, they were able to switch to full time following a successful 2015 kickstarter campaign that netted them $300,000, twice their initial aim. The game was first released in 2019 as an early access title on Steam, with the full version released in December 2021, making it eligible for the January slot of these reviews. (For reference, the curious spelling is due to Zenimax protesting No Matter Studios filling as Prey for the Gods as Zenimax argued it was too close to the game Prey. No Matter Studios, not wanting to go up against such a big company, changed the name)

The game’s biggest strength is its visual design. “Frozen wasteland” is a very easy setting to make visually really boring, giving the player endless identical white and grey vistas to run (or slip on ice, or slowly trudge through snow) across, but the game gets around this by having its environment be primarily vertical. The archipelago of the game’s setting is a well laid out collection of mountains, cliffs and plateaus, taking a limited palette and using it to create an array of visually distinct corridors for you to pass through, while the grappling hook and glider provide easy vertical motion to stop navigating the island from constantly feeling like a literally uphill slog through the snow.
It helps that a lot of the cliffs are, in fact, frozen giants.

These are literally background features: you rarely even find yourself climbing across them before the finale, but as well as breaking up the landscape, having these great icy figures either towering over you or desperately clawing at the bases of cliffs, trying to pull themselves out of the sea establishes the mood of despair, of being a tiny figure in a doomed land surrounded by the shades and bodies of those who came and failed before you, where even the giants who’s shoulders you may stand on are nothing but helplessly frozen wretches themselves. It is a good mood to set for a game like this where, armed with little more than some fragile, cold damaged weapons that cannot even scratch their hides, you must face down monsters once worshipped as gods. The bosses are, themselves, appropriately huge and morbid in design, creatures of bone, fur and stone bound by ropes and chains by those who have come to the islands before you. The appearance of the first boss, the Satyr, rising out of the snow in the first cutscene was what initially sold me on the game enough to complete it, the way a hill becomes a seemingly mobile corpse of a giant, its face ripped back to the bone, swinging desperately at your tiny figure. The bosses are similar enough to be obviously of the same nature, while each having at least some gimmick such as being a huge tower like worm spewing purple lightning at you, a charging boar who you need to stun by tricking it into slamming into a wall, or a giant half dead crow that you desperately cling to as it flaps through the sky. It is all design aesthetics we have seen before, but it is done well, and the game maintains this morbid, frozen, desperate atmosphere through to the beginning of the finale, which…goes places I both expected on one level given some of the obvious inspirations but I did not expect how hard it went.

Unfortunately the game is ultimately let down by its mechanics. I’d never say it drops below the level of mediocre, except for one notable and quite important exception, but the game is trying to do a lot and can’t quite stretch itself out enough to cover all it. The survival mechanics are, on one level, kind of obvious for the themes and atmosphere the game is going for. Having a warmth mechanic makes sense for a game about the end of the world triggered by an endlessly harsh winter, but the implementation is less lacking and more…minimal. There’s no recipes for food that I could find, just cooking and eating the meat and mushrooms you find across the island. The sleep meter rarely comes into play, at least on the default difficulty, as even a small amount of exploring will yield plenty of one use bedrolls to clutter your somewhat small inventory. The warmth mechanic is the closest the game comes to really engaging with these, since it is obviously linked to the state of the world, dropping faster in windstorms than in caves, and being controllable by making fires and upgrading your clothes (refreshingly seriously designed for a female video game character), but it still doesn’t *do* much, outside of the higher levels of the (admittedly impressively broad and clearly defined) difficulty levels. Those upgradable clothes are another example: while you can upgrade them with furs taken from hunt-able animals around the islands, the defence bonuses those upgrades provide are honestly less noticeable than the fairly subtle visual changes each part of the outfit goes through when upgraded. You can even find other clothing sets in treasure caves around the island, protected by puzzles that honestly tend to be impressive and enjoyable enough I wish they were a bigger part of the game, but these medium and heavy clothing sets still don’t feel important enough to really be worth focusing on. Hell, they are even called, in game, light, medium and heavy clothing.

Non-boss combat isn’t really much to talk about. There are very few enemy types, and it is rare to have an encounter with a minor enemy that actually feels interesting. The closest is probably the occasional puzzles where you need to trick tiny versions of the giant worm boss into powering mechanisms for you by standing behind the power conduits, which is less combat and more another puzzle, an area which, again, the game does well in general. The weapons do, of course, break, but the combat encounters are far enough apart and the weapons numerous enough that this was far less of an issue for me than it is in other, similar games. I suspect that in a more mook combat focused experience, the rate of decay would annoy me a lot, but here it is saved by it just not really mattering. The only things you need to keep an eye on is having a good supply of arrows, since they are useful for both some bosses and plenty of puzzles using classic “light torches with flaming arrow rules, and on higher levels, making sure you have a non-broken grappling hook on you at all times, since that is really the only weapon that feeds into the mechanical meat of the game.

Praey for the Gods is a game about climbing. Climbing up mountains so you can leap off them to glide to the bosses and start climbing up them. Vertical movement is key in this game, and while the grappling hook and the glider are pretty well handled, letting you keep a brisk pace up and down the side of cliffs, the core mechanic is climbing. And unfortunately it is probably the worst mechanic in the game. Not due to it requiring stamina: I think that’s a really good idea and fits this kind of boss a lot better than health as a limiter, since “can you keep going and climbing, or will you fall and need to start again” is a far more interesting limitation in a boss fight than “did you die and need to restart the rather long fight entirely”. There are some awkward bits in how the climbing controls in general, it being slow and kind of awkward to leave on command, but it is some specific but extremely common scenarios that cause the system trouble. For one thing, your character’s climbing animation will always point to a global up, and if she finds herself facing downwards, she will reorientiate herself so her head is always above her feet. The problem is you will find yourself climbing the arms, wings and other limbs of the bosses, meaning that you will constantly find your controls adjusting themselves with the movement of the bosses; you might begin climbing straight up along the arm, but then the boss lifts its arm, tilting the surface you are on ninety degrees and suddenly your forward motion is pushing you around the circumference of the wrist.
Even worse, when that boss lifts the arm, you may find your character struggling to hold on. This is hardly unexpected; you are climbing on giant creatures trying to throw you off, there needs to be some kind of mechanic that has you clinging on for dear life, but that mechanic is just spamming right click. It is an extremely boring mechanic, and one that you will find yourself doing a lot. Each boss has a number of metal sigils implanted in their body by the ones who came before you, which you need to reach on the body and ring by pulling out a central metal core and slamming it back in (The “Ring the Bells” action mentioned in the prologue, since doing so creates a bell ringing sound). Each bell takes three goes to ring properly, and both during each pull back and after each successful attack the boss will immediately start trying to throw you off, meaning that you will have to spam right click at least nine times each fight (the bosses having a minimum of three bells on their forms), not counting all the times you will start being thrown off while you are climbing the bosses. It’s a vital mechanic and it is just really badly done.

The individual bosses are impressively visually but are for the most part fairly standard fare mechanically, having a clear weak point you find and exploit to stun them long enough for you to start climbing. The standout for me is the fourth boss, a giant flying ribbon fish which avoids the climbing issue by spending the clambering over the boss stage of the fight either with you running around on its back and not needing to climb, or with you dangling from what is not the bottom as it flips over in midair, a fight that genuinely left me feeling dizzy and finding myself trying to mentally correct the rotation of my twitter feed having spent half an hour guiding a character as the screen’s contents rotates around me. There’s also a rather interesting sudden shift near the end, which I won’t go too far into here but at the seventh boss, which is notably the one that was released with the ending with the full release, the game suddenly introduces a new mechanic which becomes really important for the finale. Seven out of eight bosses is a bit too late to be introducing a vital new mechanic but I can understand why the team did it, given the development history.

The game is ultimately I think just over ambitious, adding too many mechanics in and not really polishing the core mechanics for the gameplay it is going for. With the exception of the climbing, nothing is done badly, but a lot of it is just the bare minimum in scope, reasonably competently executed. I feel like it would have been drastically been improved by a bit of focus, cutting some of the extra mechanics (I could do without the sleep mechanics at minimum even if the game kept the other survival meters) and really nailing the core boss climbing game play.

Alternatively, that focus could go into fleshing out the writing. While you do find notes scattered around the island, I finished the game honestly confused as to exactly why I was doing this. There’s some vague talk from three dead ladies you find under a shrine about it being a route full of sacrifices, and you can definitely make some conclusions with some fairly basic knowledge of norse mythology, but it did leave me wanting just a bit more actual text. Not explaining everything but explaining something, at least. As far as I can tell there wasn’t any really lore relevant to that in the notes scattered around the island, which tend to either be from one particular guy who also does not seem to know what’s going on and is very worried about this (and which, to be fair, does explain the state of the island as you find it), or function mainly as hints for the bosses or treasure locations. The writing is, for the most part, fairly average. Not bad, but not standing out particularly either.

Praey For The Gods is, ultimately, a reasonably serviceable game that, like the frozen giants it displays, is trapped while reaching for better things. It is an impressive feat for the number of people working on it, but its lack of polish drags it down. I did play through the whole game before writing this, which I think should be taken as an important indication that it is definitely not bad, and some bits are really enjoyable, but it is not at all everything it could be. Currently it is on sale on Steam for £25, which I feel might be a bit much, but if you enjoy Norse mythology and boss climbing gameplay, you might want to pick it up maybe a slight discount. If you don’t already know you like the look of the game however, I’d leave this one.

Honestly if you have access to a playstation console I’d say you might want to just go get a rerelease of Shadow of The Colossus. I know I said I wasn’t gonna bring it up but it’s still true.

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