Time has been one of mankind’s oldest enemies. It leeches days from us, propelling us towards a future we cannot see, and slips through our fingers far too fast. In Deathloop, a group of scientists and artists have finally beaten time, trapping a day in an eternal loop and giving them an endless playground; a way to experience the same day without consequence for all time.
Of course, it’s up to you and our protagonist Colt Vahn to smash that loop to pieces by killing all of the people keeping it going. Your hands will be stained with blood many times over by the time the end credits roll, but it’s worth it…isn’t it?
Deathloop is an intricate clockwork puzzle of a game, with a rogue-like beating heart pumping with intense action spaced out with periods of quiet exploration and tense stealth. It’s an absolute triumph on nearly every level and one of 2021’s best games.
Back in Blackreef
The game starts with you as Colt Vahn waking up on a beach. No memory. No inventory. No clue where you’re there.
You find out very quickly that the island of Blackreef is stuck in a loop; that one day will repeat itself forever until eight corrupt, partying, amoral Visionaries are killed. As you begin your exploration of the island Colt learns how the world works, about the loop, and that if he dies he’ll be back on that beach again. Though this time something’s different – he can remember his previous loops.
If you simply played through the game’s opening sections you’d be forgiven for thinking that – apart from the framing device of the time loop – Deathloop is much like Dishonored or Prey, Arkane Studios’ previous games. After a little while, however, the game opens up and you get full control over what Colt will be doing over his looped day, and it’s then that the game truly begins to shine. You’ll gain weapons, powers and knowledge which help you to become a bit of a force of nature on the island, and that’s all before you start using the game’s looping system to your own benefit.
It’s the game’s usage of time that makes Deathloop so special, which is good because it takes centre stage. You have a day to kill all eight Visionaries; fail to do so, and the day will reset. The day is split up into four time periods in four locations around Blackreef, with certain actions, targets and opportunities only available during certain times and places. Juggling what you’ll be doing, when you’ll be doing it and how is the absolute core of the game. You and Colt will learn more about what’s going on together, which changes and twists as you progress through Blackreef.
Having only a day to get your act together and kill eight people may make it sound like you’ll be in a rush but thankfully when you’re out and about in the world, time stands still. This gives you ample opportunity to explore, learn and approach objectives in a way that best suits you. Even though there’s only four areas to explore, there’s tonnes to see and do, and with each one changing depending on the time of day you’ll have plenty to dig into.
Where the game gets really special is when you start messing with causality. For example, a house in one area burns down at noon, meaning you won’t have access to it that afternoon and also draws many enemies to stand outside it, watching it burn. Knowing that, it’s possible to stop the fire from taking place. But what does this mean for the afternoon? You’ll have access to the house, but where will the enemies be, what other consequences will it mean? It’s finding this out and experimenting with an optimal path for yourself that gives Deathloop such an intense sense of satisfaction when your time-spanning plans work out.
Of course, it’s possible to fail too, though in true rogue-like fashion even failure isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Putting the death in Deathloop
An immersive sim may be brilliant when things go to plan, but speak to any fan of the genre and their best stories will be when something goes wrong. Deathloop, like Arkane’s other games, is no different. Whilst enemy AI may be simplistic it’s very easy to get out of your depth. You’ll often find yourself under a hail of fire, frantically searching for a way out. Often, you’ll simply die.
The game is fairly lenient in that regard. Whilst your health is low and you’ll often feel like a stray bullet can take you out, you get three attempts at a day with Colt rewinding to an earlier location if he should die. However, die thrice and it’s back to the beach with you.
But death in Deathloop isn’t the end for Colt; quickly enough you’ll unlock the ability to keep a few items, upgrades, and weapons with you after the day resets. Even without taking anything with you, you’ll have learned some things on your adventures…and knowledge is the most valuable currency on Blackreef. It’s knowing where enemies are, where Visionaries lurk, and where you can nip into an alley to lose your pursuers that makes all the difference, and you’ll swiftly accumulate a treasure trove of knowledge.
But then, Julianna strikes.
Don’t call her Jules
The first face you see in Deathloop belongs to Julianna who’s encountered at the other end of a blade, stabbing you before you wake up on the beach. From then on she becomes a constant companion, threatening you or joking with you over your radio. It can’t be understated how good the voice acting and writing is when Colt and Julianna start needling each other, they have a shared history that only one remembers, and Julianna has been repeatedly killing Colt for what might be aeons.
The other times you’ll see Julianna is when she’s in your game, hunting you down across an area. This is where the game’s multiplayer comes in, as she’ll be played by an invader to your game, Dark Souls-esque, trying to put you down before you escape the map or get the drop on her.
Whilst this can on occasion be an irritant – especially if you get invaded as you’re completing a tense objective – it adds a much needed breath of chaos into the game. As Colt you can become a god on Blackreef, knowing all the secrets and holding all the cards. Julianna, though…Julianna you can never predict or account for. She’ll appear when you least want her to and be played by someone either better than you, or simply more unpredictable.
It might seem counter-intuitive, but the invasion system is the making of Deathloop. Without it, you’d be in a straight-up power fantasy, using the island as your own sandbox of murder. That’s still very much there; you’ll quickly know much more than the enemies and be able to exploit them easily, but you’ll have to keep an eye out for Julianna at all times. You never know when she’ll ruin your day, or when you’ll ruin hers.
Alright, but how does it play?
If you’ve played an immersive sim like Dishonored 2, Prey, or even the latter-day Deus Ex titles, you’ll have the measure of the moment-to-moment experience of playing Deathloop. You have weapons, you have choices of how you want to approach encounters, you have magic powers which can propel you forward or cause enemies to be linked together. It’s familiar stuff but it’s pulled off with the same panache and attention to detail as in Arkane’s other works.
It’s that combination between the overarching looping system and the actual gameplay that makes Deathloop the triumph it is. At any point you might be sneaking up on an enemy or opening up with an SMG to blow away a crowd of foes but in your mind you’ll be planning your moves a moment down the line, ten minutes down the line, and in the other time periods in the game. You’ll be thinking “if I do THIS then it’ll do THAT and then THIS might happen, but WHAT IF…”. It’s that “what if” that leads to experimentation and the sheer joy at the heart of Deathloop – the joy of planning something, failing, and then succeeding.
There are a few little niggles. Loading times can drag out, there are some reports of FPS issues on some systems (which are under investigation), and the menu system can be a little counter intuitive, feeling too PC-centred for consoles and too console-y for PC.
Those little issues aside, Deathloop is a masterpiece. And we haven’t even talked about its stunning art style and timeless 1960s visuals, or the sound design that makes the island feel alien and familiar at the same time.
Deathloop gives plenty to get your teeth into if you’re an immersive sim veteran and provides an accessible way into the genre if you’ve never played one before. It’s a thunderous achievement for Arkane, and a game I almost wish I could erase from my mind to experience afresh all over again.
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