Death is not the encumbrance it used to be in video games. What used to be a means of gouging coins for arcade games, a concept ported to hard-as-nails early console games, is being phased out. That, and the popularity of the roguelike/lite genre, sees death instead as a stepping stone to progress. Deathloop, Arkane Lyon’s latest IP, takes that concept and doesn’t just run with it, it skyrockets it to bold new heights.
I’ll admit, I was sceptical when Deathloop was announced. I thought Arkane had jumped the shark, made a generic multiplayer affair. As time went on, and more information was revealed, I changed my tune. This was not a gimmicky, forced, online-only multiplayer. It’s not Arkane selling out to the masses. This is instead one of the most subversive, genre-reinventing first person shooter/stealth ’em ups I’ve ever laid my hands on. With a time looping mechanic and narrative, no less. This is, very much indeed, my jam.
I refrained from reading too much into what Deathloop was about, bar the odd trailer. Now I can see, like a prophet stumbling upon some kind of grail, and am here to spread the good word. Am I being hyperbolic, or is this actually worthy of reverence? Let’s find out…
Colt In A Time Loop
When most people wake up on a beach, no idea who they are or how they got there, they put it down to a “good night”. Not our protagonist though, who instead wakes from being stabbed by a mysterious assailant… to then realise he can’t remember his name, etc. Most people just tend to die, so this already raises a few questions.
Turns out, you are a man named Colt, and your stab-happy murderer is a lady named Julianna. You’re both inhabitants of an island called Blackreef, the site of an anomaly that gave way to a timeloop. This loop, headed by eight Visionaries of varying backgrounds, allows the inhabitants of Blackreef to live out the same day essentially forever. To some, that sounds ideal, but players will soon discover that beneath the surface, there’s some dissent in the ranks.
Colt, having discovered he’s on a mission to break this loop, sets out to bump off the Visionaries. However, there’s a catch, as is the way with time-manipulation shenanigans: he has to kill them all in the same day. Failure to do so will see the loop repeat again… and again… and, well, you get the idea. Should Colt die, the loop resets. If he only snuffs two out before the day ends, the loop resets.
It’s a very clever mechanic, one that requires backtrack and ingenuity, and I am all for it. Split between four areas, linked by a loading screen network of tunnels, players will be unlocking new information on targets to come back and kill them more efficiently tomorrow. Err, I mean today.
If At First…
As the more astute of you may have gathered from the pictures, Deathloop is a first person shooter. It’s what Arkane do, and they’re very good at doing it. It would be remiss to say, “This plays very much like Dishonored” and call it a day but, well, it does. As well as being a tightly crafted shooter, the platforming and traversal is as fun here as sneaking around Dunwall was back in 2012.
Arkane made a big deal about multi-approach tactics when sneaking about as Corvo back in the day, and again, haven’t messed with it here. As you enter one of the four areas that Deathloop has to offer, you’ll see many pathways available to explore. Ledges to be climbed, rooftops to creep quietly across, or even shorelines and waste outlets to lurk through lest you get spotted.
It’s not strictly a stealth game, mind. If players want to go in guns blazing, they’re free to do so. Say you know where a target is going to be, there’s nothing stopping you from going full ham. You want to leave a trail of destruction and remnants of dead bodies behind, feel free. What’s death but a momentary setback?
But for me, I like to explore. I like to sneak, gather my intel on where I can kill two nerds with one stone and come back later. And in this world, much like in Dishonored and Prey, Arkane have packed the world(s) with detail and minutiae to pick over. You can kill the half-brained programmer and his lover separately, or you can bide your time[loop] and discover them in their love nest together. Stumbling upon that extra nugget of info is what makes exploration here absolutely worth it.
We Dishonored Few
Normally, the notion of backtracking through multiple areas ad nauseum sounds boring. Unless it’s a Metroidvania, specifically designed for that, it seems a bit of a slog. Not in Deathloop, however Arkane have worked their magic into the most beautiful of set pieces.
If you played 2017’s Prey (and you really should have), you’ll note how well they captured that retro-space-futurism look throughout. Well, Deathloop follows that similar look except, as you may have noticed, not in space. But it keeps that chunky, 60s era facade to everything. Characters sport turtle neck sweaters and dresses straight from No One Lives Forever.
The NPC’s all wearing masks with blank expressions reminds me heavily of We Happy Few: all despondent attitudes behind forced smiles. Even the technology looks like something futurists thought we’d all be using by the turn of the century; that clunky, retro-future aesthetic. It looks like an industrial accident between Studio 54 and an IKEA showroom, backed by a recurrent theme of decay and destruction on Blackreef.
And even then it depends on what time of the day Colt comes wading in.
Right On Time… Like A Violent Milkman
Deathloop doesn’t have a “dynamic weather system”, per se. Players can’t stand in Updaam and watch weather cycles switch, as time doesn’t pass when Colt’s in an area. However, leaving an area and popping to the next will not only advance time, but will see a change in the weather. So going to Karl’s Bay at the morning, then advancing time (either through progress or deliberately advancing it) will see it has changed in weather and target movements.
So, what does this mean? Well, for one, it makes planning a hit on all eight something to really plan out. Frank Spicer, one of the Visionaries, loves his tunes from his station in Fristad Rock. However, he’s only there in the morning. By noon onwards, he’s slipped off somewhere else.
Aleksis, the wolf-masked fellow, only hosts his party in the evening, as you’d expect. Can you see the pattern emerging now…? Logic dictates that you’d bump off the DJ by breakfast, kill the crash-survivor-cum-prophet by brunch, eliminate the bomb-happy hippy by lunch and unwind by party crashing by nightfall. It all sounds so easy, right?
Like Clockwork… Oh, Wait
Permit me now to tell a tale, just one of many of my Colt’s loops. Don’t worry, there won’t be spoilers. I’ll keep names and locations out of it so you don’t have this bias when you get round to playing it.
So, meandering about, I end up in a district with a Visionary inhabiting it. I kill them, then discover that they and another are having a sneaky little tryst at a certain location. Rummaging through the dead person’s things, I find a photo of said location. I hunt it down, it’s a bunker somewhere. The bunker itself, however, is locked.
So, I go to where the other person in question lives to discover the code. I don’t kill them, instead triggering a bad thing that wipes that locale off the map. Of course, with Colt inside it, it kills him too and resets the loop. So now, I don’t need to kill target A because I know I can unlock the code early enough to meet them at their spot on the next loop. No point killing them now, I’m halfway through the day. Need to take them all out in one go, remember.
Plan in hand, I go about putting this early assassination in motion… and Julianna kills me. I was so engrossed in the hunt that I’d forgotten the multiplayer aspect of Deathloop.
Et Tu, Amica?
See, this was the part of the game I initially balked at. If you’re an avid reader (and you should be), you’ll know I have a particular distaste for forced/included multiplayer. But here, on the isle of Blackreef, it works. I won’t spoil why Julianna is after Colt, but she’s determined to stop him. And believe me, she will.
This can be done in one of several ways, but it largely boils down to picking your own poison: do you want to die by the AI’s hand, your mate’s, or some random from the online world? At random intervals, Julianna will close off the tunnel network in the zone Colt is in. Temporarily trapped, he has two options: open the tunnels with his wireless Hackamjig (yes, that’s it name) or square off with Julianna.
Fortunately, if you don’t like the idea of someone who clearly spends too much time playing video games killing you, you can change it to Friends Only invasions. Conversely, you have that option when you pick “Protect the Loop” to play as an invading Julianna from the main menu. Or, if you don’t want to give your mates bragging rights, you can keep it to the AI and essentially keep yourself to yourself.
It makes the game come to life, not that it was drab before, when you suddenly have to think fast and avoid being hunted. Fortunately, over time (or loops, as time is… never mind) you can gain the upper hand.
Keeping What’s Yours In Death, Reborn And Retooled
Whilst Deathloop makes it very clear that death is indeed a big part of the game, being in the title and all, it can be initially frustrating. Nabbing some Slabs and trinkets (this game’s version of powers and upgrades, respectively) only to have them whipped from you on death and completing the proverbial Groundhog Day. Thankfully, I’ve been tempered by some eighty hours of Hades, but I know others won’t be as patient.
But, as with all things, persevere and you will eventually turn the tables on this recurrent day. Killing a certain Visionary early on, and following a few steps, will grant you Infusion. This ability lets Colt carry over weapons when players die, along with any upgrades they’ve sunk Residuum into. This can be obtained by hoovering up Residuum-infused objects, the corpses of Visionaries, or even processing trinkets you don’t want.
The caveat? It doesn’t carry over to the next morning (same morning, whatever), so you’ll need to Infuse each one to permanently keep it. Providing you’ve got some Reprieve’s left, a permanent Slab that allows Colt to die up to twice in a loop, any held Residuum can be collected from that death. Die thrice, however, and that’s any and all Residuum lost, as well as progress on that loop.
I hate to sound trite and say you can “Play Deathloop your way” because obviously there are limitations. What I can say, very comfortably, is that it caters to a wide variety of play styles. Personally, I love a good sneak-a-bout. Whilst I’d avoid conflict in Dishonored, there’s no penalty for the odd murder spree here. Well, besides certain trophy criteria and the occasional hairier moment of multi-Eternalist showdown.
If Time Has Stopped, Why Can’t I Pause It?
While Deathloop is shaping up to be, without hyperbole, my Game of the Year, it doesn’t score that most perfect of ten’s from me. Whilst the gameplay on show is absolutely spot on, there’s just a couple of prickles in my taint that prevent me from reaching full comfort with this game.
The most egregious: not being able to pause it. I understand if you’ve got it set to online invasions, giving it that Dark Souls live service mechanic. But on my own? Why can’t I stop the flow of in-game time if I need a pit stop? I found this out the hard way when I went to make coffee and found myself back on the beach. Swears were uttered.
Contentious point number two: giving it a bloody mouse-style cursor system in menu screens. I like box selection. There’s something safe in knowing you’ve moved a button/thumbstick down to the next highlighted selection. Faffing about with a cursor on a controller is just such a massive, massive pain in the ass.
And rounding up the grumbles, although I’m sure this will be sorted in time, is the occasional framerate-killing stutters the game experiences. Whether it’s running on its 4K/60fps Performance Mode, or 4K/30fps with Ray Tracing Visual Mode, it doesn’t matter. There are times when it may not even be something intense happening, yet still makes the game stutter like it’s imitating Cyberpunk’s disastrous launch.
However, astute reader, bear in mind that these are my personal gripes. You may not care for the things that I have listed, and think I’m just nitpicking. Maybe I am, but for me, those above are things that lose the immersion of my experience. Take this as you would any other review: as you will.
Let’s Do The Time Loop Again
Minor, personal niggles aside, I absolutely love Deathloop. Considering I wasn’t a fan of the repetitive roguelike/lite genre until recently, I’m glad my opinion has changed. In the past, I would have been pissed off about dying without achieving at least one dead Visionary. I gave up on Returnal for a similar reason: I felt like I was achieving nothing, barely incremental bits of wall chipped away with repeated banging of head on it.
Here, I don’t feel that. I don’t care that I die, because I know I will just explore another lead, or avenue, or tidbit of information and organically stumble into something I haven’t seen before. At present, I haven’t managed to kill even half of the Visionaries in one loop, but again, I don’t care. I’m having fun finding out. When I got nuked in a reactor explosion, I laughed it off as I started afresh on the beach once more.
It’s hard to quantify Deathloop considering how vague I’ve been about most of it. Sure, I could wax lyrical for a thousand words about my individual experiences, but I don’t want to colour yours. I’ve given you the main gameplay tenet, even more so if you’re at all familiar with any Arkane games.
The best way to go into Deathloop is semi-blind. I’ve fed enough to pique that interest, it’s up to you to go and craft your own experiences. Then, when you’ve done something different to how I or any of the FG team did, let us know how you took out Aleksis or Wenjie, see how it differs to us.
Prepare to die, sure. But this isn’t a From Software game. You’ll only come back smiling and formulating a new plan on the next day. I mean the same day, damnit.
A concept that originally seems daunting, once you get into the central mechanic of Deathloop, it all makes sense. Be prepared to die again and again, remapping the same perpetual day out in a variety of different ways to hunt your targets. Arkane have refined their craft once more, delivering a densely packed world with so, so much to do. And as always, an insane variety in how to kill and look good doing it.
Deathloop is available now on PlayStation 5 (reviewed on) and PC. An Xbox Series S and X version is planned for a later date.
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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