Eight targets. One day. These are the maths we must contend with in Arkane’s time-bending Deathloop. The developers is known for bringing a unique flavour to the action stealth genre (the very same genre it had a hand in revolutionising), and throwing in temporal-based shenanigans complements its flair for this style of gameplay perfectly. Couple all that with a wicked art style, interesting main characters and a focused objective, and Deathloop becomes a day in the life that everyone should experience…then die and re-experience.
The real big bad wolf has rocked up to the party
In the main story you’ll take the reins of Colt, who wakes up dazed and confused on a beach on the fictional island of Blackreef. Fumbling through the initial confusion while simultaneously being heckled by a mysterious woman named Julianna, Colt realises that the entire island is stuck in a temporal loop. Whether he survives the day or dies before breakfast, Colt is destined to wake up on that same beach, on the exact same day, doomed to live out eternity in an endless cycle. The upside is that every time the day resets he retains the information from the day he’s just experienced, which gives him the advantage he needs to break the loop and set himself free. Standing in his way are the eight Visionaries, whose very existence perpetuates the loop. While the time-based implications are obviously daunting, the objective is simple – kill all eight Visionaries in one day and escape the nightmare. There’s also the small case of Julianna, one of the Visionaries who hunts you endlessly over the day and taunts you with merciless sass over the radio. Finding out who she is, who you are and why she’s so goddamn mean all the time is at the heart of the story, and her banter with Colt is the definite highlight of the character interactions.
I reviewed another time-looping title recently called Twelve Minutes, but for anyone who has trepidations about having to solve complex time-based puzzle that make your smooth brain hurt, Deathloop is 100% not that sort of game. In fact, in terms of the major puzzle pieces that have to fall into place and make this Killtastrophe possible, the game does all of the heavy lifting. Pertaining to four specific times of the day (morning, noon, afternoon and evening) across four different maps, objectives revolving around how to manipulate your targets and get them all lined up for a one-day killing spree are clearly and cleverly signposted and tracked. The premise of the game has the potential to be super confounding, but the expert execution and clearly laid out parallel mission structure makes it nigh impossible to get lost amongst the madness. Encouraging a non-linear approach, no matter the time of day or area you find yourself in, there is always something worthwhile to do to push things forward and get closer to breaking the loop.
There’s always time to stop and admire a good snowman
Encouraging a non-linear approach, no matter the time of day or area you find yourself in, there is always something worthwhile to do to push things forward and get closer to breaking the loop
It bears mentioning that once you actually start in a specific map at one of the four times of day, you are free to explore at your leisure and need not fear the ticking clock. Uncovering Blackreef’s multitude of hidden secrets involves indulging your curiosity and wandering off the beaten path, and the game appreciates that and never places any urgency on you. Also, despite the fact that there are only four maps that you’ll be revisiting and re-revisiting several times over, they are all quite large, containing multiple self-contained areas that change dramatically in terms of visuals over the day, as well as in terms of their general threat levels. The danger of repetition in a time-looping title such as this is ever present, but Deathloop’s design is such that I loved returning and re-returning to every map, armed with the knowledge of my favourite routes or with new powers that made traversal and combat even more exhilarating. In this way, I feel like Arkane looked at games that specifically incorporate time as a main gameplay mechanic and cut out the things that most gamers hate. Did anyone enjoy Lightning Return’s real-time Doomsday clock? Did anyone enjoy performing the same repetitive series of actions in Twelve Minutes in the same bland apartment? No, those things sucked, and those sorts of anti-fun mechanics are absolutely nowhere to be found here.
In terms of gameplay, if you’ve played any of Arkane’s Dishonored games, or the recent Prey reboot, you know exactly what to expect (even the dialogue font is the same as Prey’s). It’s perhaps got a heavier focus on out-and-out gunplay, but that unmistakeable brand of first-person action stealth is proudly on display. On top of your standard but diverse arsenal of shotguns, machine pistols and rifles (and a rather tasty stealthy nail gun), you’ll also slowly gain access to supernatural powers known as Slabs. Some of these are basically ripped straight out of Dishonored, such as Aether, which renders you invisible, and Nexus (my personal favourite), which links multiple enemies together and makes them all suffer the same fate. The latter can be used to set up some creative multikills and was a mainstay in my loadout. Shift is also unashamedly Blink by another name, however where Deathloop differs to Arkane’s other titles is in that it only allows you to wield two Slabs at once. I’d be lying if I wasn’t mildly disappointed by this, as it cuts down on the available combos significantly. I imagine it is in place to balance multiplayer (more on this later), or perhaps to not have Colt feel too overpowered, but I think I would rather simply be given the keys to the kingdom and let my power lust run wild. Given that the occasionally ordinary enemy AI means they’re not the sharpest eggs in the attic, this is probably a small mercy on the developer’s behalf.
A game within a game
Slabs can be upgraded to make them even more weird and wonderful by collecting copies of the same Slab, and they’re easy to track down as they’re all in the hands of one of the Visionaries (they can be tracked as a specific objective from the mission select screen too). You’ll also come across several weapon and character mods called trinkets which can beef up your firepower, or grant abilities like a double jump or being able breathe toxic gas. There are also powerful rare variants of some of the weapons to hunt down that have interesting additional effects and more trinket slots. Slab upgrading is an absolute blast, but the trinkets system feels a little undercooked. Aside from a few standouts, I didn’t feel like they made a huge difference in the moment-to-moment gameplay, and I largely ignored them once I had a few I liked.
While Deathloop features some rogue-like elements, in that you’ll lose all your obtained loot (Slabs and trinkets) when the day resets, you very quickly gain an option to infuse desirable bits of loot with a currency called Residuum such that it will carry over to the next day. Residuum is fairly easy to come by, so it’s unlikely you’ll have to part with that Slab upgrade you loved because you’re strapped for cash. Your slowly growing arsenal and sense of burgeoning power is satisfying from a sheer gameplay perspective, but also fits perfectly with the narrative arc; every loop you are stronger, bolder, forewarned and heavily forearmed.
I feel like Arkane looked at games that specifically incorporate time as a main gameplay mechanic and cut out the things that most gamers hate
Arkane is known for its ability to craft distinct and intricate worlds, and Deathloop is no different. There’s a retro ‘80s vibe to the experience blended with splashes of futurism which is an absolute delight from start to finish. Establishing self-contained biomes within maps has allowed the developers to break up the aesthetics but still tie them thematically to the whole, and I bloody loved it. Whether it’s a live-action roleplaying setup run by a sentient enslaved AI or a palatial mansion filled with narcissists in wolf masks with poor music taste, there is no shortage of interesting and beautifully detailed locales. The soundtrack is amazing too, leaning into that ‘80s vibe and occasionally reminding me of funky self-aware blaxploitation films like Shaft.
On the other side of the coin you also have Deathloops’ multiplayer experience. Now, there is nothing that will make me push the off button on my PlayStation (or single press the PS button, navigate to power options then select power off…what a nightmare) faster than tacked-on multiplayer, so when I saw the option in Deathloop, which allows you play as sass machine Julianna and hunt Colt in the game, I was sceptical. Thankfully, my preconceived notions were dismissed in an instant, because the multiplayer is an awesome addition that even ties itself to the story. When playing through the campaign as Colt, you’ll occasionally be hunted by Julianna, and if you so choose, Julianna can be controlled by an actual random human being on the Internet (or one specifically on your friend’s list). What follows is an experience that is redolent of Spy vs Spy, where you can get down with some wholly consensual but professional-level griefing, using your guns, Slabs and cunning to put Colt down and ruin/reset his day. Killing Colt will raise your Hunter rank which will allow you to slowly unlock high-level weapons and upgraded Slabs (as well as costumes for both Colt and Julianna). But what’s in it for Colt? Well if he manages to off Julianna she’ll drop some tasty loot, most notably her Slabs, meaning hunting the hunter becomes one of the best ways to quickly upgrade them. It’s a double-edged sword though, as this latter feature will likely make it a booster’s paradise, and it’s not clear how easy that will be to curtail. Also, the integrated Julianna invasion mechanic did unfortunately break the game’s own logic in my final mission, but in general it’s a clever asymmetric multiplayer concept that is really well implemented and executed, and it’s very much worthy of a decent spin.
Do it, they’ll be back tomorrow anyway…
I will admit I was worried going into Deathloop. Mainly I feared that Father Time was going to be my enemy as I desperately tried to piece together a temporal Rubik’s cube until I started resembling Charlie from that Always Sunny in Philadelphia meme where he looks unhinged in front of a string board. But from the moment I woke up on Blackreef’s beach, the game was quick to teach me that time is not your enemy, it is your weapon. Deathloop is a game about repeating the same day over and over that miraculously avoids any sense of repetition. It is a game that respects every gamer’s innate desire to explore at their own pace and invites you to do so by presenting a vibrant, nuanced and interesting world. Deathloop above all confidently embraces its values of fun, freedom and power, and that right there, dear readers, is the gaming trifecta.
Reviewed on PS5 // Review code supplied by publisher
- Arkane Studios
- Bethesda Softworks
- PS5 / PC
- September 14, 2021