Deathloop is a game that rather does what it says on the tin. Putting players in a never-ending repeating day of carnage, Deathloop joins several other recent loop-centric games, like Hades and Returnal, but has its own very distinct identity. It’s more Dishonored meets Majora’s Mask, as Arkane Studios combine several ideas for a fresh and addictive tale that essentially creates its own genre.
Deathloop takes place on a special island – Blackreef – which contains a time/space anomaly that causes the day to loop, Groundhog Day-style. If anyone dies during the day, they loop back to the beginning once again. A significant presence has been built on the island with armed forces, cultists and partiers who want to keep their party going eternally. Cole, a gruff smartass, awakens on this island with no memory, but a goal to stop the loop permanently. He learns quickly the only way to do this is to kill eight ‘Visionaries’, special leaders on the island who maintain the loop, although the catch is he has to off them all within a single loop. The entire island has been alerted to his mission, so not only is everyone out to get him, but a rival assassin named Julianna has made it her special business to make sure Cole fails, even if that means killing him again, and again, and again.
The game over-tutorialises its opening stages to a fault. While there is a lot to come to grips with, especially in terms of the various menus, the actual concept is pretty easy to wrap your head around. To win the game, you need to kill the eight targets in a single day, but that’s a tough feat if you don’t know where they are, how to get to them, and if you’re starting with just your basic gun. It’s fair to say Deathloop is not really a rougelike, because your mission is to arm yourself with better gear, abilities and information for the next loop. In fact, developers Arkane Studios call it a ‘murder puzzle’, and that’s pretty accurate.
You have various objectives relating to the intel you discover from exploring Blackreef and finding clues. In your menu, you can track ‘Visionary Leads’, which track pieces of information you learn about your targets and how to find them, when they’re most vulnerable and they meet in groups to potentially take out more than one at a time. ‘Arsenal Leads’ let you track special abilities and gear that will give Cole an edge when facing the Visionaries – basically essential legwork to do since they include obtaining equippable ‘Slabs’ for powerful abilities like limited invisibility and teleportation (borrowed from Dishonored). It almost feels like a Sherlock Holmes adventure game, collecting details and linking them up on your little intel board.
There are four main areas to explore in Blackreef, which Cole can explore from his hideout in the subterranean tunnels, his ‘home’ which is the only place he can choose a loadout and upgrade equipment. Time doesn’t move constantly in Deathloop, but rather in sections. Cole can explore a single area in the morning, noon, afternoon or evening – taking as long as you like within a set time period, as the clock only moves forward when you return to the tunnels. Cole also has the ability to quickly revive himself upon death up to two times, Sekiro-style, which also resets each time he visits the tunnels. Normally, Cole loses everything upon his third, final, death and has to start from scratch on the next day. However, using the in-game resource ‘Residuum’ (harvested from enemies and glowing objects), he can permanently ‘infuse’ important gear to make sure it’s never lost on subsequent loops. This is where the real progress gets made.
Exploring each of the four areas and becoming familiar with enemy patterns and safe routes is vital, as you learn more from each loop. The island never feels limited in scope, and while no single area is massive, they are diverse with some truly bizarre hideouts for some of the Visionaries – one has constructed a lightgun-arena style space-themed LARPing facility, while another has holed up in an arcade-filled bar filled with traps. Your movement is quick and fluid, with Cole feeling a lot like a snarky Corvo, using a combination of super-abilities and parkour. Stealth is favoured over going in guns-blazing, though you can certainly take care of yourself in a scrap with weapons like a pneumatic nail gun and ‘pepper mill’ machine-gun.
The core single-player loop of Deathloop is compelling, because you’re always working towards an attainable goal. Small victories stack up to produce significant results, and the seemingly impossible task of eight assassinations in one day, across four areas, becomes more and more achievable as you play on. The stylish and strange world is also really fun to explore, thanks to the personality in both the level design and the banter among NPCs, as well as the general mystery that you slowly uncover. I’m a fan of both old-school adventure games and puzzle games, and Deathloop scratches a lot of itches for me, even as it’s also an FPS and an assassination-game.
The other side of Deathloop unlocks after progressing enough in the single-player campaign with Cole. Rather than trying to break the loop, you can choose to maintain it by playing as Julianna. In this mode, you can invade a friend, or a random player’s campaign, with the sole objective of killing Cole and sending him looping back in exchange for rewards. As Julianna, this makes for exciting cat-and-mouse gunplay, as you can either try to root out Cole from paths you know he could take, or wait for him to come to you – as Cole can’t leave an area without deactivating a beacon you can make sure you guard.
As Cole, Julianna is where the difficulty spikes in Deathloop, and where frustration may set in. The general level of AI in Deathloop is reasonable, but not too aggressive or dogged in their pursuit of Cole. The same cannot be said for a player-controlled Julianna, who has a vested interest in screwing you over specifically, and who you’re basically forced into a confrontation with, thanks to the beacon. That means that very often, sometimes several times in a day in fact, you’ll have to put aside what you had planned in an area and spend time dealing with Julianna’s shenanigans, and more often than not be forced to loop back if she kills you. Points to Arkane for an inventive take on multiplayer interaction, as it’s a feature that definitely keeps you on your toes. It’s just one that might have your controller flying into the screen after, yet again, being forced to lose your progress before you could spend the Residuum to save it.
Deathloop has a few visual modes on PS5 – prioritising performance with 60fps, visual quality with 30fps, or activating ray-tracing with 30fps. The visual polish on the higher end options is noticeable, and outside a couple of simple effects, Deathloop does look rather pretty, especially due to its varied visual design that feels like a mash-up of 60’s and 70’s spy movies. There’s also quite a lot done with the PS5 Controller’s haptics, with every step on every surface communicated through vibration (and running down your battery a little faster than normal).
The sound design, as well across the board, is pretty amazing with punchy sound effects and great voicework behind Cole and Julianna’s bickering, as well as among the larger NPC population of Blackreef. There’s lots of cheeky and cool little moments you can find for yourself across the island, like creeping down a back-alley of a town hearing the dissonant notes of an NPC, just trying to work out his chords on his guitar. Fun stuff.
Deathloop is one of the most creative ideas for a game I’ve seen this year, combining assassinations, detective-style investigations, multiplayer shoot-outs and, let’s not forget, time travel. There’s so many different parts that shouldn’t work together, yet Arkane Studios has found a way to make them sing. The challenge is pretty uneven due to the nature of its multiplayer, and frustration can definitely set in if you’ve had a few unlucky days in Blackreef. However, it’s still a hell of a lot of fun, and utterly unique. If you have any curiosity about the premise at all, don’t pass it up.
This review is based on code provided by Bethesda on PlayStation 5.
-Combines several genres into one truly unique game -Looping doesn't wear you down, only incentivises you to get stronger -Fun assassination mechanics in the vein of Dishonored -Weird and colourful presentation has lots of fun ideas
-Inconsistent challenge from the nature of the game and multiplayer can frustrate -You'll be seeing a lot of tutorials and prompts