The concept of loop based narrative experiences is fast approaching saturation in the gaming space, it would seem anyway. Over the past year or two, we’ve been treated to a stylish FPS (Deathloop), a disturbing story-based experience (12 Minutes), a frenetic 3rd person shooter (Returnal) and a game everyone loved except for me (Outer Wilds… not sorry). All of them have been game of the year contenders for one category or another, so much like any popular premise, it’s becoming a focus for emulation in search of similar success.
Yet, no upcoming genre is complete with someone taking a stab at it with a cyberpunk style and neon-glistened sheen. Naturally, that brings us to Loopmancer. Now, I will say that while I’m somewhat of a fan of the idea of loop-based video games, I’ve not been blown away by the execution. There’s a very fine line to tread between repetition for development, and repetition that descends into mind-numbing disinterest. Loopmancer has the unenviable job of following some of the pinnacles of the repetition-breeds-fun genre, so can that Cyberpunk aesthetic provide it a unique enough edge? Sharpen your katana and let’s start dissecting some prosthetics.
Didn’t We Do This Already?
From the off, Loopmancer wears its inspirations openly and plainly. The tutorial section has our grizzled detective Xiang Zixu meet an untimely end (which occurs abruptly if you don’t reach the… end… of the level) only to awake back in his apartment room bullet-hole free. You begin the day completely fresh, able to wonder about the two rooms, inspect an evidence board and invest in upgrades with cores gathered from each run. Oh, and you can pet a cat to get a buff for the remainder of your loop, so you know, it’s game of the year automatically.
As is now standard practice for the genre, each time you get a bit further and die, you piece a bit more of the story together. Xiang isn’t just hoarse and tough-talking for the sake of it, he’s been through a pretty intensive time. Having been in a car accident six months prior to the day he’s now repeating, his daughter has since passed away and his wife left paralysed, incurring his wrath for justice, truth and vengeance. Brutal, violent vengeance if necessary. As this is a cyberpunk world, that means machinations from overly-powerful conglomerate corporations, seedy mob bosses and loser hackers who now have a means to be cool by hacking stuff.
Unlike the cream of the crop such as Hades or even 12 Minutes however, Loopmancer’s story is just a bit too bareboned to really justify multiple loops and decision-making. A single run that hits one of the multiple available endings will tell you the majority of what there is to know, with other endings only adding bite-sized extra chunks of context. After my second ending I couldn’t help but feel like the rest of the time wasn’t going to be especially enlightening, which doesn’t do much to incentivise you to keep playing. There are a couple of forks in the road but they’re too few to make it meaningful and the second choice can even be done where you do both options if you do them in the right order and within a time limit.
What’s here is perfectly serviceable and Zixu’s motivations are well established, but everything else from the antagonists to the end goal just feel too menial to justify having to replay multiple times. Voice acting and lip-syncing issues certainly don’t help, and while there are plenty of notes and lore exposition documents to be found within the world, they come off as walls of text that slow the pace down and honestly, a few I read felt pretty superfluous. I stopped reading them on my third loop and never looked back.
There’s something about the cyberpunk aesthetic that just brings out the incredible quality of visual and graphic designers. Truly, I don’t think I’ve ever played an average looking cyberpunk game – maybe it’s the robotic rose tinted glasses or I’ve just not played the right (or… wrong?) games. Either way, Loopmancer is another to add to the catalog of “it looks freaking incredible”. Through your looping, you’ll travel to a handful of locations, each with its own style and jaw-dropping palette. One section set on a sea base just looks flat out ridiculous, as you ascend the top of a stunning vista, gazing out over a sun-drenched sea and golden-kissed facility.
It’s not purely decoration either. With a later level tasking you with battling metallic-limb flinging foes while obscured by massive draping sheets, only yours and your opponent’s shadows to guide your ballet of death. No matter where I was in this dystopic universe, I was consistently blown away by the environmental design and sheer attention to detail that went into making this game so damn gorgeous. That is, until you get a closer look at the character models. Yikes.
For some reason, every person in Loopmancer just looks… strange. The faces lack texture and detail, their movements in cutscenes are stilted and blocky, their mouths inexplicably move when compared to what they’re saying. If you took the backdrops and levels alone, you’d think this was a AAA millions-invested project. As soon as a cutscene kicks in and you see Zixu’s horrendously smoothed face fail to move properly and you’ll be questioning if a kid with plasticine made it. Still, if character models in cutscenes are your only gripe about a game’s visual presentation, it’s probably doing something right.
The combat is typically violent and gory – enemies are carved into bite-sized chunks by your blade and eviscerated into pieces through explosions. Whenever anyone is slain, there’s an eruption of blood and body parts which just is oh-so-satisfying. The menus, HUD and interfaces are suitably futuristic and everything is cleanly presented, which goes a long way towards selling a cyberpunk world. That it manages to maintain a solid 60fps throughout all this is genuinely impressive, so if you like a good cyberpunk aesthetic, know you’ll be well pleased with Loopmancer’s presentation, minus the faces. Poor Zixu.
Hack, Slash and Shoot
As much as I love to wax lyrical about a beautiful visual style and lighting effects, we gotta talk about the good stuff – carving up cybernetic enhanced goons with electrified swords and plasma rifles. Yes indeed, Loopmancer has no fewer than dozens of utensils of death to dish out some serious hurt. This is a dangerous city, so it’s only fair you’ve got the armoury of a small futuristic nation to separate your enemies limbs from their fleshy beings.
To this end, you start out with a sword for melee, pistol for ranged, basic ability (like a palm energy strike or mine) and a piece of equipment. As you progress through a loop, you’ll find spots offering new options you can purchase with currency you’ve accrued on your current run. Invest as you go, and it’ll carry over to future runs until the weapon is permanently unlocked. Die while building up enough in one go, you’ll lose it altogether and have to hope it comes up again soon. After just a couple of hours, I was repping a beastly buster sword with heat plasma rifle and drone that spat out electrified bolts at targets on a whim. There are comical options like the melee fish you can wail on goons with or just launching a brick in someone’s face for equipment. The variety is hugely impressive and it feels good to unlock a higher tier weapon like a rocket launcher to decimate enemies on your next run.
The combat itself however, doesn’t really do justice to both the inspirations of Loopmancer and the vast array of exciting weaponry at your fingertips. You move across 2D spaces, equipped with a double jump and grapple to move vertically through impressively sprawling levels, and you have a dash accompanying your previously mentioned weapon skills. Engaging in a battle with the various enemy types is for the most part pretty chaotic fun – you trade blows, hammer someone’s skull into their stomach, tear off a limb, set goons on fire and just generally cause violent mayhem. However, the mechanics are lacking the fine touches of something like Hades.
Whether it be getting cornered and gank-squadded by a group against a wall or the dodge mechanic refusing to work as it’s supposed to, there’s a lot of frustrating deaths that can happen regardless of your skill. Good runs can come to a grinding, devastating end not because you weren’t careful, but because certain opponents can unfairly stun-lock you and blow apart your health bar faster than a Cyberpunk 2077 glitch occurring. A punishing difficulty is fair game for rogue-likes and adds to the immersion and satisfaction, but your ability to react to whatever threat is on-screen needs to be on point, which Loopmancer is just slightly lacking. Enemy tells of yellow or red alert icons happen in nanoseconds and are impossible to react to in time, meaning you’ll usually end up getting tanked by a powerful hit or hoping your combo knocks them out of the animation in time.
Initially, I genuinely believed I was just garbage at the game. Playing on normal I was getting cybernetically spanked to the point I could barely get to the end of the first level. However, my fears were allayed when a patch was released which has drastically improved the difficulty curve and made it far less unfairly punishing, though Loopmancer will still put you through your paces. Just for context, pre-patch I made it to the second level once in 2 hours, post-patch I finished the game twice in a row without dying. I’m rarely one for calling for games to be made easier for the sake of it, but the difficulty balancing in light of the mechanical flaws feels like a very fair move here. Eventually I got to grips better with the mechanics, but I suspect many people would have bounced off the game before given how terrorising it could be, so kudos to the developers for easing the entry.
Live, Die, Upgrade, Repeat
Naturally, you’re expected to die a lot in Loopmancer, so failing isn’t the tragic fate it can be in other games. Though, that doesn’t make cheap deaths any less annoying. Some levels will have added pressures like environmental traps, areas that pulse out poison or a time-limit to up the ante. There’s a few bosses, usually one for the end of each stage too. There’s a decent variety to them, however their attack combos can be broken down into: 1) easy, clearly meant to be punished melee attacks and 2) absolute bullshit ranged, rapid, un-counterable barrages of Hell. For the most part, being aggressive by dashing through hits and continually hitting back works as the best tactic, which slightly undermines the use of other equipment and abilities, but they’re fun tests of your skill nonetheless. On one run however, the last boss did bug out by just apparently being stun-locked by my combos. Potentially stage fright? Who knows.
If you’re felled or complete a level/run, you’ll have the opportunity to upgrade Zixu through various abilities, earned with cores by completing challenges in each mission (e.g kill x number of enemies with a gun) or through natural progression. There’s three main upgrade trees: one for core stats (health, stamina etc), keeping currency between runs after death, and combat abilities like a second chance revive or a ground slam. Upgrades feel tangible and worthwhile, though I queried the value of a couple of the more expensive ones.
Zixu is only one part of this blazing combat experience though, with his weapons requiring some love and TLC to succeed also. Once unlocked, and provided you have it equipped in your current run, you can visit a vendor to upgrade their damage, clip capacity and cooldowns for currency too. Each weapon has a couple of tiers and stats to improve, making even your beloved salt fish semi-viable (though still poor, you need to part with that thing, sorry). It creates a nice system of death offering the means to improve and is what all good rogue-likes are built upon.
I quickly found a set of equipment I particularly enjoyed, with buster sword, heat rifle, electric drone and pyro blast proving an effective Dredd impersonation. When it all came together, I felt like a one-man cybernetic bull, blasting out unfathomable destruction and leaving nothing but bloodied entrails in my wake. Nevermind I’m supposed to be upholding the law, I’m here to chew up fools and have a good vengeful time doing it. If it wasn’t for the occasional frustratingly designed level segment or that one piece of “£$% ninja stun-locking me in a corner, it could rival the best of the best, but it’s just lacking that extra layer of precision and tightness to elevate it beyond very good.
Did Zixu Have A Good Run?
I like rogue-likes a lot. From Returnal, to Deathloop, to Salt & Sacrifice and my personal pinnacle in Hades, it’s a fun, chaotic and satisfying type of game to test your abilities in. I also like all things Cyberpunk, dystopian and neon infused, so Loopmancer was right in my wheelhouse. It never quite hit the absolute highs I felt with some of those aforementioned games, but it has a compelling package with stylish combat, punishing difficulty and a gorgeous world to take in as you spray blood throughout its world.
It borrows virtually everything from games that have come before, with little in here that progresses or moves the genre forward in any way, but not everything needs to be revolutionary to be enjoyable. It’s a solid and fun compression of all the tropes that make the genre fun, with a couple of awkward quirks that sadly diminish it from shining as well as the golden floors of the tower complexes you cleave your way through. From Samurai duels at the top of a skyscraper to combo-ing a helpless fool with a plasma blast, igniting them only to then be accosted by a flurry of sword attacks, I couldn’t help but smile while playing Loopmancer.
Is it the best rogue-like or loop-inspired video game? No. But it has a lot to offer fans of the genre and those who bask in the wonderful decay of a cyberpunk world. The story is middling, the combat has mechanical flaws and the character models look so awfully out of place, yet I still had a very good time tearing up the city and seeing how the narrative could play out. Zixu might be grizzled and hardened, but that only makes dicing up his foes that much more satisfying.
Loopmancer has all the hallmarks for a phenomenal game, but is just let down by some mechanical issues and a middling story. It’s stellar visual design will reel you into its Cyberpunk world and its fast-paced combat will hook you into trying out even more outlandish varieties of weapons. Unlike most dystopian cities, the rot only occurs at the top and in patches, leaving a healthy and exciting core to explore for a few loops. Just don’t look at the faces, even Dredd couldn’t make them any more hideous.
Loopmancer is out now on Steam.
Developer: eBrain Studio
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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