WE so rarely get to see something truly innovative in a AAA videogame and it’s been a delight to experience it first hand with Deathloop.
Deathloop, developed by Arkane Lyon and published by Bethesda for PC and PlayStation 5, is an innovative and enjoyable time-loop adventure incorporating elements of games like Dishonoured, Bioshock and We Happy Few.
The game casts you as Colt Vahn, a leather-jacket wearing gent who wakes up on the beach of the sub-Arctic island of Blackreef every morning with no idea how he got there or what’s going on – except there’s glowing text floating in front of certain things giving him advice and instructions.
The plot, as it is soon revealed, is that Colt is trapped in a time-loop (created by an organisation called Aeon as part of a not-really-explained scientific experiment of some sort) and the only way out of it is to kill the eight ‘Visionaries’ (Aeon programme leaders) before midnight, when the time-loop resets.
The catch is that he’s being hunted by a rival assassin named Juliana Blake, and the two of them clearly have some history – which plays out in some delightful (and expletive-filled) banter over the radio as you play.
As Colt explores the island, he’ll find messages and observations written in glowing, floating text alerting him to potential traps or obstacles, providing clues or hints, or just seeming like random thoughts related to the area.
The aesthetic of Deathloop is really appealing, being a sort of retro 1960s/1970s style that feels familiar but not our universe at the same time – something Arkane are masters of, as evidenced by their work with Dishonoured and Prey. I really enjoyed exploring it.
From a gameplay perspective, it was similar to Dishonoured – one or two of the same special abilities including the teleport are in the game – but unlike the whalepunk stealth don’t-kill-anyone-except-the-target vibe of Dishonoured, killing enemies in Deathloop is actively encouraged.
If you want to sneak past people like a chrono-ninja you can, but if you want to kick the door in with an SMG in each hand, announce “Lead delivery, bitches!” then mow down every motherf- (You shut your mouth! But I’m talking ‘bout Colt!) in the room, then go right ahead; and also try not to slip over all the spent brass on the floor on your way out.
Colt has a ‘slab’ (magic amulet, basically) that allows him to be resurrected twice per level; if he is killed a third time then the day loops and he loses all his progress and any weapons or trinkets he hasn’t ‘infused’ with a special material (collected during levels) that allows them to carry over between loops.
Just to make things even more interesting, Juliana will periodically appear in a level and try to kill Colt as part of her mission to “Protect The Loop”. She can either be an AI player or controlled by another human (more on that later) and when she appears, Colt needs to hack her beacon to unlock his transit tunnels so he can escape the level (either after killing or or instead of fighting her).
The level design is excellent. There might only be four main levels in the game, but they feel huge without being labyrinthine at the same time, incorporating distinct areas that still manage to feel like their own level (such as a reclusive singer’s nightclub-inspired residence, or the computer programmer’s mansion which has been converted to an AR game), and even though you revisit each level multiple times, I didn’t find it particularly grindy or repetitive.
What really helps is how they change over the course of the day (morning, noon, afternoon, night) – some areas are only accessible at certain times, some visionaries are only in certain areas at certain times, some opportunities are only present at certain times.
I reviewed the game on PlayStation 5 using a Samsung QN900A 8K TV and it really was an outstanding experience. Arkane Lyon have done great work taking full advantage of the PS5’s capabilities, particularly the haptic feedback on the controller (it vibrates gently to simulate footsteps when you aren’t sneaking) and the use of the controller speaker for playing radio broadcasts or audio recordings.
Graphically, it was extremely good too – beautifully detailed, imaginative, and enjoyable to admire even when I wasn’t filling it with bullet holes or kicking people off high ledges. The town of Updaam is a curious mix of 19th century European stone houses and avant-garde 1960s/70s art, while Karl’s Bay is a former military flying boat and seaplane base so there are hangars and abandoned or wrecked planes scattered around, The Complex is a scientific base where the Loop is being researched, and Fristad Rock is the island’s welcome centre with repurposed fortified bunkers and abandoned machinery.
For a shooter game, there’s not a vast number of guns in it – about eight base guns (two pistols, a nail-gun, SMG, two shotguns, an LMG and a single-shot rifle) and a few unique/collectible guns (proper sniper rifle, SMG that can fire and reload at the same time, gun that can be transform from two pistols to one SMG, that sort of thing). The guns have different buffs (including unleashing a toxic gas cloud on impact, providing echolocation of enemies, causing bleed, returning health to Colt with each hit) and can be further upgraded with ‘trinkets’ adding expanded magazines, target-piercing capabilities, faster reloads etc. Once you’ve got an established loadout, though, it stops mattering and you’re free to get on with the ballistic chaos at your leisure.
Add in the additional slabs Colt collects from killing Visionaries, which add powers such as invisibility, teleportation and telekinesis, and things get very entertaining indeed.
The main issue I had with the game was that by the time the credits rolled, I still had a lot of unanswered questions – including several the game itself explicitly raised and then didn’t seem to address. I’m hoping they’ll be resolved in future DLC (Blackreef is a big island, after all, and we only see a small part of it), but it was still something of a letdown to see the credits rolling and still be asking myself “But what about [X]?”
The game also doesn’t really give you a strong motivation to kill the Visionaries beyond ‘If you want out of this time loop, they need to die’. Obviously excuse plots are nothing new in video games, but Deathloop tries so hard to create a compelling, interesting world but just sort of expects you to believe you need to whack eight specific people because the floating text that Colt sees is telling him to do it.
The head of the Aeon Foundation, Aleksis Dorsey, is clearly a tech-bro-esque dick whom you’re supposed to hate, but with the exception of Juliana, none of the visionaries appear to have an issue with you (except for the ‘trying to break the loop’ thing) and one of them is even explicitly described as a close friend of Colt’s.
I thought there were some missed opportunities to really play up the moral quandary of asking oneself things like “Do I want to kill someone who is apparently my close friend just to get off this island, especially when I don’t remember any of this and don’t even know what I might be escaping to?”, but instead the Visionaries are essentially targets that need to be neutralised and Colt never questions why he’s double-tapping an egotistical scientist or a weird artist – or if he does, he handwaves it away with (more or less) “I suppose whoever left me all these messages had a reason so I’m going to roll with it”.
As someone for whom a game’s story is a very important part of the experience, that aspect left me disappointed and unsatisfied.
Actually killing the visionaries provides some rewarding challenges. While you can go in John Wick style and just shoot them, if you want to get a bit more creative you can hunt around for other ways to draw them out. It’s nowhere near Hitman levels of complexity, but it does providing a rewarding alternative approach to things.
The banter between Colt and Juliana is extremely well done and humorous, but I was frustrated by how many questions I had as a player went unanswered because the two of them were more interested in swearing at each other or making snappy banter than answering simple questions like “How long have I been on this island?”
While the main focus of the game is Colt’s attempt to break the loop, there’s also a special mode where you can play as Juliana and invade other player’s games to try and take out Colt. On PlayStation 5, this requires a PlayStation Plus subscription. I was only able to do a few “invasions” during the review period due to the low numbers of people playing at the same time as me, and it left me a bit underwhelmed.
The lag was terrible and the invasions consisted of running around levels looking for Colt, who was generally being played by a skilled, stealthy player. Since Colt has three lives and Juliana has one, it generally resulted in me spending five minutes hunting around the level to find Colt, alerting Eternalists (the island’s occupants and your enemies) to his presence, then getting shredded by Colt when I attacked and that being the end of the invasion. Even if I managed to kill Colt once or even twice, the player would usually get me before I could kill them a third time, and the other eternalists weren’t a lot of help because they’re so easy for Colt to despatch.
The invasion mechanic is a great idea and one with a lot of potential, but I think it needs considerably more work.
Don’t get me wrong: I had a great time with Deathloop and really enjoyed the experience overall. It’s fun, it’s stylish, it’s rewarding, and it’s a very good game which I hope we see more content (and sequels) for in the future.
It’s not perfect but it is enjoyable and a must-play game – preferably sooner rather than later before all the mysteries get spoiled on the internet.