Right from the beginning of Deathloop, it’s already easy to see that not much has changed for Arkane Studios. To me, Arkane games have been amongst the most impressive games ever. It crafts small, playable spaces that both offer you dozens of secrets within a single room while also not compromising on the sense of place. Very few other stealth games can achieve this so fluidly, and Deathloop certainly fits the bill.
Arkane’s latest has you playing as Colt, an assassin currently stuck in a repeating time loop. At the end of each day, or when he dies, he gains a fresh start as the loop resets as well as the consequences of his actions. Seeking to break the loop for good, Colt seeks out eight individuals whom he believes are the ones protecting it. He must make sure to kill them all in one loop – that means killing them all by midnight – as leaving even a single one alive will keep it intact.
die and die, and die again
Deathloop takes place on the island of Blackreef, a former army base tinted with the aesthetics of the Swinging Sixties. Unlike Dishonored’s Dunwall, a drab city that borrowed heavily from Victorian London and Enlightenment-era France, Blackreef is more about featuring the vibrant colours and stilted hedonism iconic from the 60s. Everything from the architecture, fashion and furnishings represent this era with a perfect degree of authenticity.
As the game’s title implies, the time loop is at the core of Deathloop’s cyclical gameplay. You wake up each morning to explore any of the four districts on the island and find new ways to interact with the world. This includes learning new information about Blackreef, its inhabitants and the targets, which give you new ways to manipulate events to work in your favour.
You may find the combination to a door that grants quick access to an enemy stronghold, or information about a character’s behaviour in the early hours of the morning. Since Colt retains his memory every time the loop resets, intel such as passwords, character whereabouts and new leads persist too. This allows you to advance each lead with more knowledge to use later, without the need to repeat yourself. Deathloop is a game where the best rewards aren’t new guns, powers or money. It’s information.
welcome to blackreef
While the game only has four maps, Deathloop isn’t by any means a small game. Each area on Blackreef is brimming with secrets, and it rewards your curiosity in the most interesting ways. Secret caves, hidden puzzles and lots of unique interactions makes exploration an absolute delight. There were so many moments in my playthrough where I’d attempt to go somewhere off the beaten path, “just to see if I could”, only to make a special discovery each time.
But that doesn’t even scratch the surface. Every location is influenced by your actions earlier in the day. This gives Deathloop a ‘Butterfly Effect’, where small actions you make at the start of the loop create drastic consequences towards the end. This can cause Blackreef to change in unexpected ways, and will be key in getting targets to be in specific places at the most opportune time.
The maps also change depending on the time of day. Locked buildings become unlocked, enemies change their patrols, and key items may become unavailable. The weather even changes depending on the time. It completely changes how you approach each destination. This encourages you to be in the right place at the right time, allowing you to coordinate a plan for the current loop with the information you have. Unlike other games with the same mechanic, however, time only advances when you move between zones, so there’s no pressure to get your tasks done quickly.
When you combine this with all the other details of Blackreef – the level design, the notes and the character dialogue, the result is a world that is palpable and authentic. Each building feels lived in; a window into the lives of Blackreef’s residents. Everywhere you visit has so many layers to it, not just in terms of the secrets you can find but also how the story is presented to you.
Being able to pursue any of the Visionary targets in any order you’d like gives Deathloop a huge non-linear narrative structure. It must be difficult for a writing team to deliver on that premise, as it’s unpredictable what order players will collect the right information. However, very few story developments actually feel like they’re coming to you in the wrong order. The writing accommodates this and ensures you have all the necessary information you need, no matter what order you tackle the objectives. You’re simply never railed onto a specific path, instead encouraged to branch out and try new things all the time.
Now let’s talk about the action. Both Dishonored and Prey gave you a powerful mixture of traditional firearms, melee weapons and supernatural abilities that you could combine in multiple ways when getting into combat.
It’s the same principle with Deathloop, too. You have upgradeable guns, grenades, a machete, a hacking device and a bunch of supernatural slabs that grant powerful abilities. Each weapon fulfils a specific role that is handy in both combat and stealth, such as hacking a turret to turn on others or planting a mine in a doorway to blow up an unsuspecting enemy. Your slab powers include Shift, which lets you teleport around the map in the blink of an eye, or Karnesis, where you use telekinesis to throw back enemies.
Combat in Deathloop works best when you combine aspects of your arsenal together. Planting down a landmine and then throwing a guy into it with Karnesis doesn’t get old even after the 15th time. If you’re quick enough, it’s also fun to multitask this during combat with several enemies. Lift one guy up in the air and blast a shotgun round into his mate. Throw a grenade at a group of enemies while you hack through another with your machete. You’re encouraged to blend these different playstyles together. Diversifying how you use what’s available to you is where the fun happens.
the same dna as dishonored
When you reset the loop, everything you picked up during that day also disappears to return to where you found it. You can use a special currency called Residuum that lets you infuse pretty much anything you have to bring back with you every time the loop begins again. Infuse as much as you can, and you’ll gradually become much stronger with each new day as you’re armed with more powerful guns, slabs and upgrades.
Alternatively you can ignore this if you’d prefer to make the game a bit harder. Deathloop’s lack of difficulty options is a shame, as Dishonored 2 perfected the formula by allowing you to fine-tune smaller details such as enemy awareness and your own health points. However, if you don’t infuse weapons then this can be considered a ‘Hard Mode’ in itself, as you’ll start each new loop with no weapons, upgrades or slabs.
Speaking of Dishonored, Deathloop’s DNA shares so much more with Arkane’s flagship series. I theorise it may have even begun as a concept for Dishonored 3. While that series was enjoyed by many critics and players, it didn’t hit the critical sales it needed to justify another sequel.
Deathloop’s ties to Dishonored are painstakingly obvious, though. Everything from the supernatural abilities to the level design has that signature ‘Arkane Was Here’ vibe. Dunwall’s Dickensian architecture and the Southern European influences of Serkonos also bleeds into Blackreef’s many points of interest too, with the many clever ways of moving around a single location bringing creative opportunities each time you play.
I’m glad that Arkane didn’t stick with the High/Low Chaos morality systems of Dishonored, too. It was too binary for you to feel like you had any real impact on the world other than deciding whether or not to kill people. Meanwhile, the consequences of your actions on Blackreef are determined by every little thing you do, allowing the changes you make to the world feel a lot more natural.
runs buttery smooth
In terms of PC performance, Deathloop ran buttery smooth for me. There were a couple of minor bugs, and one crash to desktop at the end of a loop (thankfully, an autosave before the crash meant I didn’t lose any progress).
The loading times also greatly benefit from having the game installed on an SSD, allowing you to always stay in the moment. It’s impossible to predict if Deathloop will be as smooth on other PCs as it was on mine (check the bottom of this page for specifications), but I’m optimistic that it won’t be a repeat of Dishonored 2’s disastrous launch.
It’s also a perfectly accessible game, giving you many ways to tweak controls beyond just simple key bindings. It’s helpful to be able to adjust whether you need to press or hold a key for example. This thought on accessibility also extends to the game’s big tutorial at the start. You can spend a good 2-3 hours on this part alone, where it breaks down each mechanic and system in the game as easy to understand as possible. Players who are new to these kinds of games should have no problem grasping how it works.
bury the hatchet
As Colt explores during each loop, he’s also stalked by a hunter called Julianna. It’s her job to protect the loop by eliminating Colt and resetting him. She can show up at pretty much any time of the day, invading the area Colt’s in and preventing him from escaping. In order to get free, you need to kill her and hack a signal that opens up all exits.
This is also the makeup of Deathloop’s multiplayer. Julianna can be controlled by another player who invades your game. This turns it into a tense cat-and-mouse affair, where the invading player picks a spot to ambush you with their own high-end arsenal of weapons, traps and abilities.
These encounters can be drawn out into long, intense firefights where you desperately dive between cover, utilising your guns and powers to gain an upper hand over the other player. With Julianna present, no moment in the game feels safe. You’ve got to always keep your guard up, as her appearance can make or break a successful loop.
If you’d prefer not to be invaded by another player, you can disable it any time. However, an NPC version of her will still appear regularly. And trust me when I say she can be just as smart as a real human player at times!
game of the year?
Julianna also acts as a voice on your radio throughout most of the game. She taunts Colt with little observations and jokes regarding his previous actions during the loops, and he returns similar wisecracks too. The banter between the two is fun, adding a lot more humour to the game while also building the two up as great rivals. It also makes us care more for both Colt and Julianna, whose voice actors (Jason E. Kelley and Ozioma Akagha, respectively) deliver the lines with the perfect balance of wit, sincerity and confidence.
Even though we’re only just entering the Big Games Season, I am fully confident in my assertion that Deathloop is the best game of the year. With the writing being an exemplary model of how to build a non-linear narrative structure, it goes down as a true classic even with all the pandemic hiccups that have occurred along the way. Arkane once again goes all-in with the dedication to its premise, building an entire zoo of possibilities for creative murder expression and sneaky sandbox antics. I haven’t seen anything quite like it in a long time.
A PC and PS5 code was provided by Bethesda for review purposes.
Tested on a PC featuring:
Ryzen 7 3700X Processor
Corsair Vengeance 16GB RAM
Nvidia GeForce RTX 3070 Video Card
Feature Image Credit: Bethesda / Arkane Studios