“If I’m not dead, then what the bleep am I?”
Well if it’s 2021, then probably caught in a time loop.
Expanding on a mechanic seemingly at peak popularity, Deathloop is the latest time-bending title to be set in a never-ending cycle that resets upon ending. And it’s a seriously good one, even if its punchy gameplay, clever level design and crafty progression aspects mask its fatal flaws such as lack of variety, uneven ability usefulness plus an unsatisfying story arc. Moments of excellence only highlight its potential for greatness, as it doesn’t quite reach the lofty heights it so stylishly attempts to grasp.
I adore so much about Arkane Lyon’s creation, which doesn’t fit neatly into current genre conventions. It’s a first-person action game with shooting, exploration, puzzle, stealth and run-based elements that presents as a sandbox immersive sim then really ends up being more linear and restrictive than it initially promises. Its timeline is out of order, a nifty way for the team to tell a narrative primarily by slowly dispensing information then allowing the player to manipulate outcomes within this overall framework.
The tricky part with a game as ambitious as Deathloop is certain parts feel lesser when compared to superior ones, like a full course meal where the main dish is exquisite yet the appetizer and dessert are unfulfilling.
That mysterious, quick-witted woman is Julianna Blake who acts as the main antagonist. While mercilessly heckling Colt via the radio, her goal is maintaining the loop’s integrity. Which means hunting Colt as he tries to kill seven other fellow Visionaries. She can invade mid-run, controlled by either AI or a person online. This sort of multiplayer is a novel concept where it’s much more fun to be Julianna of course, busting up a run as opposed to losing. Visionaries themselves have key roles in the history and management of Blackreef, and the loop ends only if they are taken out in a single day.
This place is meant to be a utopia for most inhabitants dubbed “Eternalists” as they are experiencing a form of amortality, effectively being unable to die. To Colt, it’s a suffocating trap from which he must be freed. He and Julianna retain knowledge across loops, an important distinction compared to most everyone else who are experiencing the “First Day” indefinitely.
During a tutorial that’s a contender for longest ever because it takes a couple hours to get one’s bearings, the game spills its general structure and gameplay tips. There are four different areas across Blackreef: Fristad Rock, Karl’s Bay, Updaam and The Complex. Each can be accessed via a menu at four times of day: Morning, Noon, Afternoon or Night. Time doesn’t move forward while at these locations, only in the menu between them. And order doesn’t matter, Colt can wait until a later time of day if needed. It’s a smart way to allow players to take time devouring each map, learning the intricacies without the pressure of a ticking clock. Once nighttime is over, or Colt perishes, the loop resets back to dawn.
Which means there are 16 different combinations, all of which take place on the same base area yet showcase a variety of scenarios. Places look fresh in the early sunrise while everyone is waking up, possibilities supposedly endless to all. By sundown, the worst are battered or blown up. The best are ready for a snazzy masquerade ball or big environmental puzzle. It’s through these mechanisms that Colt influences the world to precisely line up his kills. The player’s main goal is to figure out how to either manipulate characters or leverage their movements across areas to achieve an “ultimate” run where every single one doesn’t survive.
Objectives in Deathloop are organized using a system of leads: One is a set of Visionary storylines, mapping out where each individual starts and the most relevant information learned to bring about their demise. What’s curious about these is they don’t actually end the first time Colt kills a given Visionary. He has to do it the correct way for the lead to “complete”, which means it’s then ready to be a part of his master plan.
For instance, the first big lead during the tutorial phase is Doctor Wenjie Evans at The Complex. She’s actually the one responsible for the loop, her hope was to have an eternity to learn about it and while studying she realizes she comes to the same conclusions each day. Thus realizing she forgets each night. Her major contributions are related to upgrades I’ll discuss later. Her main ability is duplication, pulling in copies of herself from other timelines. While one way to kill her is taking out each of her copies, that might not be the optimal outcome.
The other objective type is a set of Arsenal Leads. These aid in learning how to acquire Slabs, unique powers from most Visionaries, plus select elite level weapons. Slab acquisition happens naturally while targeting the Visionary Leads, then high-level weapons act as a sort of side quest within the guidelines of each run. This is essential in my opinion, especially given the game’s limited arsenal.
There are also menu options for Discoveries and Documents. The former shows action items that build up over time as the player explores. The latter is anything related to character journals or audio logs. Some are essential to move the narrative forward, others reward with bits of lore and help round out what the heck is going on while some explain minor systems. All of this is a lot to take in and was overwhelming for a while.
From this menu navigation to moving around the world and engaging in combat, Arkane has made a core experience where almost everything has such a great feel. Controls are snappy and always responsive. There’s this tangible feedback, partially due to technology in the DualSense controller, that bolsters immersion even in the most basic of interactions.
Gameplay for the most part is predictable for a first-person game, especially in the Arkane lineage of Dishonored and Prey. There’s walking, traversal, climbing, shooting and grenade tossing. Stealth is viable and I’d argue essential in the first half of the game’s 20 to 30 hours. A “focus” button can mark and examine a certain number of enemies, which is helpful when gauging the layout of a new area. Then there’s hacking of sensors and turrets via the Hackamajig, an on-the-nose gadget which somehow also acts as a radio.
Weapons fall into traditional archetypes: pistols, shotguns, submachine guns and rifles. There really aren’t that many different options. Long range is particularly lacking. And early on, rarity is low. Colt finds a base level gun early to practice target shooting. Every other piece of gear is picked up from defeated enemies. Visionaries and Arsenal Leads having the highest quality. Crappy weapons can even jam, “because they are old” the game argues, which is quite literally the opposite of fun. I wish it was never greenlit. It’s the type of system clearly added to encourage stealth in the early parts, even though the player’s low health and minimal ability suite already does that. Luckily, the best weapons won’t jam which leads me to wonder why have it in the first place.
Each Visionary has a role to play, a distinct personality, individual relationships and most even have fancy powers to steal. These are called Slabs. They offer up core abilities, which will be familiar to fans of Arkane’s earlier works. The first of which is Reprise, a slab intrinsic to Cole’s loadout which can revive him twice. There are five others: The teleporting Shift from Charlie Montague. Aether from Egor Serling offers invisibility. Nexus links foes together so hurting one does the same to everyone else, held by Harriet Morse. Fia Zborowska has Havoc, basically an enrage cheat code. Then there’s Aleksis Dorsey’s Karnesis, a form of telekinesis that can throw enemies around. Julianna can actually use any of these abilities, so she’s another source. Using these takes a regenerating resource called Power.
A nice system around these slabs is upgrading them. The first time a Visionary is killed, Colt earns the base slab. Each time after that, he can collect an upgrade linked to their particular ability. It’s an incentive to finish out portions of a run or to take down Julianna when she invades. For example there are slam and area-of-effect options for Karnesis, while Shift can reach further or hover in mid-air. Very much welcome, especially the latter for rapid traversal.
Enhancing Colt and his gear are items called Trinkets, customization options that have a notable impact. These are pieces “imbued with Blackreef’s temporal anomaly” and can either be made in certain locations or picked up from enemy drops. Character trinkets are general buffs like boosted health, more power, faster movement and the like. Weapon trinkets can improve accuracy, damage, rate of fire or reload speed. Combining these helps beef up Colt to take on a more run-and-gun approach, or spec towards stealth with more silent alternatives.
So, how does the player retain things other than knowledge across runs? A mechanic called Infusion, originally discovered by the aforementioned Dr. Wenjie. Using Residuum, a resource collected from items throughout the world or by killing bosses, the player can carry over weapons, slabs and trinkets from one run to the next. Anything in one’s current inventory can also be sacrificed for a select amount of Residuum, which means duplicates or unused items can be useful. Especially because Residuum itself can’t be carried over at the end of a night and is lost upon death, so it’s essential to hang onto it and allocate towards becoming more powerful.
Regrettably the rules of Infusion are confusing. Presentation in the menu is messy. It takes a while to understand what carries over and why, resulting in missed infusions or precious lost items. The best approach is to infuse anything and everything because there’s a risk of dying and losing everything that isn’t locked in. There’s filtering options which can help a bit, it’s still not the most intuitive upgrading path.
The ultimate problem here, and it’s one of my major gripes with Deathloop, is the limitation of its loadout system. Having three weapon slots is perfectly fine. That works. It’s the slab and character trinket options that hurt. Colt can only have two slabs equipped at once. Shift alone is almost an essential power, therefore always taking up a slot and making it so that there’s one spot for four other slabs. If Colt can have all these slabs at once, why can’t he use them? I mean Blackreef is this special temporal location where time is clearly special. Isn’t there a lore workaround that would allow him to alternate between more than two slabs?
Similarly character trinkets are limited to four. Double jump is classified as a trinket rather than an inherent skill. So it’s really three slots as far as I’m concerned. Double-jump is a ridiculous video game thing that most characters have by default. Colt should too. I assume Arkane wanted to streamline these systems so as to not confuse players, since their prior games had a ton of different skills. So then let us pay Residuum to unlock additional slots as we get to know the game. It could focus attention during the early portion then add to character growth later on, and by the end both Colt and the player would understand how to leverage them together.
The tricky part with a game as ambitious and feature-packed as Deathloop is certain parts feel lesser when compared to superior ones, like a full course meal where the main dish is exquisite yet the appetizer and dessert are unfulfilling.
Setting up these loadout setups and character systems is well and good. I’m surprised to report that the best moments happen when it all goes to crap. Which is often in Deathloop. At least for me. It’s the exact opposite of something like Dishonored in that regard, where I never had any success with combat. Shooting hits hard here, and it’s the most enjoyable and effective strategy other than the first few times through each level. Assuming the player has powered up. Downside is stealth is much more of a slog than arousing the sort of tense dread that’s key for such sequences. I just didn’t feel as compelled to take my time when the alternative felt that much better.
Tying into the location mechanic mentioned earlier, a most genius move from the development team is its take on progression. The player chooses where and when to start a given go, whether it’s for key information gathering, targeting a Visionary’s unique power or focusing on an individual weapon lead. It’s the type of rewarding feedback loop that makes a player feel smart and more enabled, both from a knowledge standpoint plus actual in-game capabilities. Colt as a character is growing as he’s remembering why the heck he’s on Blackreef.
There’s also progression baked into levels. Certain collectibles talk about the player’s prior actions. Enemy placement also changes based on time of day. Some denizens are drunk and easy to kill. Others have geared up so they are much stronger. Visionaries can move around and be manipulated. The most glaring instance here is a big party thrown by Visionary Aleksis Dorsey taking place at his mansion in Updaam. It’s really the biggest singular event during the loop. Depending on what Colt does during earlier phases of the day, major characters will attend the event which makes it easier to take them out in succession.
Contributing to a sense of place and aesthetic, Blackreef has its own distinct look plus history to discover. Aesthetic does a ton of heavy lifting in Deathloop. Style is uber slick, a 60’s jazz-spy vibe complete with war-torn trappings, scientific experiments, pop art decor, a soundtrack full of piano chords with blaring horns and even animated sequences straight out of a noir cartoon thriller. This is totally enhanced by ongoing banter between Colt, his inner voice and Julianna’s constant poking fun.
The famed Arkane level design and environmental expertise is solid in this sort of setting. Cold War era industrial buildings allow for labyrinthian corridors and subterranean passageways. The Complex is Blackreef’s research center, where Dr. Wenjie and Egor Serling conduct unconventional tests in sterile laboratories plus outdoor satellite arrays. Fristad Rock houses an intricate upscale dance club and mysterious underground bunker. All locations have various locked doors and un-powered levers, clearly indicating the need for further information. What’s cool is most access codes are randomized, meaning they change for different players and even across loops. It’s a crafty way to change things up.
Updaam houses a handful of its most stellar areas, mainly because that’s where gamemaker and Visionary Charlie Montague operates plus Aleksis hosts the aforementioned mansion party. Montague has built these live-action games scattered throughout different maps which he calls “Charlie Challenges.” The Moxie is a set of laser and pressure plate challenge rooms. Condition Detachment is the name of his space invader type of game, which houses his personal lair and one of the main areas where he’s vulnerable. There’s also Charlie’s robot called 2-Bit, made from half of his brain and one of the few sentient beings that remembers things across loops. It’s crucial to explore these areas.
This is all to say one of the things Deathloop does best is make Blackreef as memorable for its character as its practicality, namely in offering alternate route options for Colt. It’s a bizarre place where intriguing scientific questions are asked and not many answers are needed by most.
The run-based nature here and neat side activities lends itself well to quick sessions as much as marathons. Someone can play strictly for the purpose of gathering information. Others are used to take out Visionaries. Even get in on some invading. Within the industrial shore town of Karl’s Bay, there’s an unconventional way to make trinkets. An amatuer science team sets up a failed experiment to harness Blackreef’s temporal power. There’s a machine that exposes the area to “visitors” from other timelines, which Colt has to kill quickly in order to collect enough Residuum. There’s plenty of individual tasks to complete, even if some aren’t necessarily as rewarding.
Speaking of rewarding optional content, I have to give a special shout out to Heritage Gun. It’s a top-level Arsenal lead reward from arguably the best side event in the game which spans an entire map. While technically a shotgun, it has a slug round mode with incredible range. Fans of The Chaperone in Destiny will agree.
I mentioned the feedback and general feel before. A major component is sound design in Deathloop. It’s straight up mean. Pure. Colt’s boots crunch across the hard cement. Julianna’s radio chatter emanates from the DualSense controller speaker. Announcements from Visionaries blare through the streets. And the kill sound when using a weapon is up there with the best shooters of all time, crunchy and violent. It’s especially satisfying when using a rifle.
Tying in with the audio design is how voice acting, dialogue and writing is top-notch. Especially the two main characters. It’s amazing to see black leading characters and actors in a triple-A game of this caliber, both of which are exceptional performances. Jason E. Kelley plays Colt and Ozioma Akagha features as Julianna, each getting the best out of the other. It helps that their writing is savvy, and I looked forward to hearing their quick antagonizing at the start of each sequence.
Unfortunately, the distinction within Deathloop for its most fatal of flaws is rigidity of effective play styles and lack of variety hidden beneath the veil. Weapon archetypes are restricted to just the handful I mentioned before. And there’s at most a couple within a given type. Especially long-range. Other than a sniper hidden behind an Arsenal Lead, there’s a single rifle to find. Some of its best top-end gear is locked behind the Deluxe Edition.
The decisions around loadout options are most restrictive and unfortunate. Certain powers feel essential, like Shift allowing teleporting and quick movement especially vertically. Others are flat out inferior or hyper-specific for more hardcore fans. Like Nexus, the one that can tether enemies together, is fiddly and unreliable.
I was hoping Arkane kept with its tradition of giving players more credit in our understanding of how abilities can synergize. I know Deathloop leans into action elements more than its predecessors. The beauty of an immersive sim or sandbox game is still flexibility of choice. Limiting the use of various hard-earned powers feels like an unnecessary constraint. Hand the player tools then let them decide, rather than forcing them to pick.
Elsewhere there’s superfluous features that didn’t jive with so many other smart decisions. There’s a sort of cosmetic outfit system for Colt and Julianna, which doesn’t mean much when everything is first person. These are mostly earned by protecting the loop as Julianna, which I guess is some incentive to play as her. Then there’s dual wielding weapons, a setup that’s against the very framework of having a weapon in one hand then a power or hacking device in the other. The only time I used it was with one of the special weapons that transforms from dual pistols to a submachine gun, because there’s a damage boost associated with doing so.
In terms of opposition to Colt’s bloodbath, most enemies are flat-out dumb. The main challenge comes from overwhelming numbers rather than savvy tactics. Difficulty levels in this context would be very much welcome. It’s so easy to trick or lose Eternalists. At least it can be hilarious!
For the most part, Deathloop avoids the deathtrap of most time loop games: Repetition. That is until the endgame, when there’s little else to figure out or discover. When the targets are all lined up. There’s really only one way to finish the game properly. So it comes down to execution. It’s demoralizing to be invaded or make one mistake busting that final run. Losing time towards the finale is what hurts most, not materials or upgrades because the player is swimming in them by that point.
Arkane shows its more level-based roots here in guiding toward the optimal run, less akin to moving chess pieces on a board and more like finally seeing the solution in a board game with a predefined path. No matter what one has done before, conforming to the “right way” is the only option. Which is why I consider Deathloop to be ultimately a linear narrative jumbled up to make it seem otherwise, which is excellent during the discovery phase then traditional once the picture clears up.
I will say its final gauntlet of ripping through the Visionaries was admittedly intense the first time I did it. Like a boss rush. It was amplified because Julianna showed up at night during the last push. I wonder if the game’s programmed to do that. If so, kudos to the team for ramping up that adrenaline. Subsequent tries are much less so, because the player already knows what to do. It’s the problem of knowing a solution before being able to finish a puzzle, leading to an anticlimactic situation.
Quality of life features and various options are a mixed bag. The tutorial menu is exceptional. All of the game’s mechanics and systems are organized in a single spot, which is convenient. Heads-up display has a ton of flexibility. There’s not much in the way of dedicated accessibility options beyond text size. No colorblind considerations or detailed controller mapping. There’s no actual map or waypoint system, which could be helpful even considering all the hand-holding it does documenting everything the player finds. Plus there’s no photo mode, for those that might be curious.
Visual options on console are more varied. All of them have dynamic 4K scaling. One mode favors resolution, a second is where performance prioritizes a steady 60 frames-per-second then a raytracing mode. Naturally I played in performance mode, which was flawless. I have read about certain challenges on PC, which Arkane is addressing.
Sad to report I did experience certain technical issues on PlayStation 5. The game hard-crashed twice, causing me to lose progress since it saves only at the start of a given area. I had one instance where the menu overlay froze and wouldn’t leave the user interface, making the game unplayable without restarting. The most weird of all was on the controller side, losing control of the character, dropping inputs and not being responsive. I’ve never had that happen with any other PlayStation 5 game since its launch. I even updated the game pad to the latest software, it continued to happen occasionally.
Ultimately Deathloop feels like the foundation of an incredible game most notably in its structure, systems and level design. Its style is impeccable, which only carries it so far.
Here’s the toughest part of Deathloop. Maybe this is personal, though I bet I’m not the only one. It can be tiring playing a game where you have to be “on” all the time. When everything is out to kill you. It would be ideal if there were ways to guard against being seen. If cosmetics actually acted as disguises or deception came into play. Maybe more eavesdropping and investigation. Learning information by pretending to be an Eternalist. Using a mask to mingle at Alex’s party then isolate a target. The “sneak around until caught then murder anything that moves” mentality is much more basic than comparable assassin simulators like Hitman. It can feel just as badass to execute a clinical misdirection, and it’s often more efficient.
To act within the constraints of Deathloop takes a lot of experimentation, patience and time. One early tool-tip pops up to say “don’t just shoot everything.” Once Colt is powered up, it’s quite literally a feasible option, if not the best path, to do exactly that. Why slow and steady when there’s a much more effective strategy? There can be fun in experimentation I guess, though is that a good enough motivator for most players? Not those like me.
Up until this point, I haven’t included much about its narrative. It’s tricky to avoid spoilers in the context of a time loop game, and honestly the story isn’t anywhere near a highlight. There’s random tidbits of history and lore told via collectibles. Julianna drip-feeds certain points of Colt’s past during dialogue. I think the story itself is less important than the manner in which it’s told here. There’s also the ending, of which there are multiple versions, all of which are disappointing and ambiguous. I’m alright with open-ended conclusions. This just isn’t a partially good one of those.
Ultimately Deathloop feels like the foundation of an incredible game most notably in its structure, systems and level design. Its style is impeccable, which only carries it so far. It’s truly a more constrained, even linear experience disguised as something with more options and possibilities. Story is jumbled by its nature then even when it’s mapped out, it’s mostly middling.
It claims to offer a lot, then limits how the player uses its tools. This makes it tricky to describe Deathloop at its core. First person action? Puzzle murder sim? Run-based shooter? Semi-sandbox stealth? If this were a test, the only answer would be “it wants to be all of the above which means it ends up being something else.”
Some of these make it amazing. It’s a heck of a lot of fun in the heat of battle, hip-firing shotguns and clearing baddies on the way to a boss room. Then slows to a snooze, walking the same looking rooms for crumpled papers or recorded logs. There’s rewarding side content, then optional exploration that just isn’t worthwhile except for the most diehard of lore fanatics.
It’s a conundrum. In some ways more ambitious than predecessors in Arkane’s heritage, yet the result is just as focused. Jumbling the timeline is a clever presentation style. Like a murderous Memento or even more bloody Pulp Fiction. The journey of getting there is where true genius is revealed, because the final revelation is much more pedestrian than it could have been.
It’s presented as having freedom and creativity mixed within a loop concept. It ends up being closer to a linear shooter campaign with a handful of powers and select hacking capabilities all jumbled up a la Source Code, where the goal is to figure out how to execute the right outcome rather than an outcome of one’s choosing. There’s fun in getting there, it’s a fantastic game. There’s just a handful of elements that miss the mark, enough not to dub it a masterpiece.
Release Date: September 14th, 2021
Developer: Arkane Lyon
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Platforms: PlayStation 5 (Timed Console Exclusive), PC.
Recommendation: It’s an odd one from a platform standpoint, the rare PlayStation 5 console exclusive published by a company now owned by Microsoft. Deathloop itself is up there with Arkane’s prior releases, especially better on the action side. Definitely a must-play for PS5 and PC owners specifically those that prefer shooters as opposed to pure stealth games. Don’t expect it to say much thematically or in the way of a riveting narrative. It’s purely a fun time figuring out puzzles, select side content and blasting through maps full of enemy fodder. Worth it!
Sources: Bethesda Softworks.