After having just played through both Dishonored 2 and 12 Minutes in the past month alone, the concept of the former’s nervously sneaking through levels with the latter’s repetitive time loop head bashing wasn’t seeming like the most appealing idea. However, Arkane Studio’s new high concept action-shooter Deathloop is an absolute riot of fun ideas that innovatively fuses together the perfect blend of stealth and action, all in a gorgeous jazz-funk setting and soundscape.
Deathloop revolves around the main character Colt, waking up on a beach with his only recent memory of him being brutally murdered. Mysterious words literally materializing from thin air clue you in on your name, your background as ex-military (explaining your proficiency with firearms), and your singular goal; “BREAK THE LOOP”. The island, you realize, is stuck in a time loop that resets at the end of the day, or whenever you die too many times, a la Edge of Tomorrow or Groundhog Day. Breaking this cycle involves assassinating 8 targets called “Visionaries” in a single day, and if even one is left alive at midnight the loop will remain intact and begin anew.
The day in Deathloop is divided into 4 times periods (Morning, Noon, Afternoon, and Evening), and you must commit to visiting one of the 4 colorful districts in each of these times. However, by default, the Visionaries will usually only appear once per day and in separate districts, so simply barging through levels and gunning one down will mean someone else will always get away, failing the loop. It’s thus up to you to collect clues on how to manipulate the schedules of these Visionaries to break social distancing guidelines and kill multiple targets in a single final loop.
With so much information to juggle, a premise involving limited time, and districts rich in detail, you may be forgiven for thinking this sounds like a recipe for overwhelming information, mistakes causing you to repeat whole sections (looking at you Hitman/12 Minutes), or maddening dead-ends as you search for that one clue or piece of the puzzle you missed. Several gameplay choices help to solve these issues in clever ways, resulting in a final product much better off for it.
Leads for Visionaries and special gear are recorded in your interface, keeping track of which clues you’ve found and a general hint of what you need to do to progress forward with each Visionary or quest. It doesn’t exactly hold your hand either, offering a satisfying amount of challenge as you try and interpret the hints, chasing that “ooooh” moment as all the pieces start to click into place. More active assistance is provided by the messages that materialize literally in the game world, alternating between helpful hints, warnings, or just reminders to go stab someone.
Whilst there are only 4 times phases to the day, you have unlimited time to explore and time only passes when you go between locations. This takes the edge off leaving you enough time to explore and experience everything in an area to your heart’s content. Visionary lairs ranging from laboratories to mansion parties to bunkers containing art and recording studios are their own unique mini-mission areas full of opportunities, with the style of each corresponding to their personalities.
Despite being limited to 4 zones, Deathloop is absolutely packed with stuff to do and explore. Each district also changes massively between the 4 time zones, effectively expanding the settings into 16 different maps. An armory may open up in the morning but be looted if you get to it at a later time. A blizzard that blows in the evening blankets the area in snow, freezing bodies of water and making new locations available.
The island’s festivities descend into full chaos by night, smashing cars into buildings, burning buildings down (unless you can prevent it), or going to parties leaving more remote areas of the island guarded by automated turrets and mines now instead.
Deathloop’s setting and presentation are also top-notch. Going for a delightful 60’s aesthetic, vibrant streets and interiors are dotted with colorful masked enemies for you to snap the necks of or blast through. These contrast well with darker underground labs and bunkers, projecting looming shadows as you sift through classified documents on the dark history of the island. Gorgeous island cliff vistas, sleepy sunrises, rolling hills, and occasional fierce blizzards give the larger outdoor areas much variety.
The soundtrack and sound design deserve special mention on their own. During sneaking sections, music is a mix of smooth jazz and what can most accurately be described as James Bond music, making you really feel like a super-powered secret agent infiltrating deep into enemy territory. When things get loud during action sections, it shifts gears rapidly to a frantic jazz-funk soundtrack perfect for you to make your escape into a ballet of death and destruction. Sound cues also subtly let you know when you’ve discovered an area or room with special importance, or when important resources are nearby.
You navigate these areas using a variety of stylized weapons, hacking, skill perks, and supernatural powers, with the option to sneak or blast your way through areas. Like Dishonored and Prey, these are not unlocked by XP or levels, but rather through assassinations and exploration that are a part of the natural gameplay loop encouraging you to see all the sights and sounds. Whilst the loop reset mechanic may make you think of rogue-likes where you must recollect weapons every restart, you instead can use a special resource called Residuum, a by-product of the time tampering on the island, to “infuse” some items, abilities, and upgrades you find which allows you to equip them in future loops from the very start. Residuum will always be spread around in each level and loop, ensuring a steady escalation in your powers and strength.
And it’s great that you don’t have to necessarily part ways with these weapons because the sound and feel of the weapons make them all a joy to use. From the punchiness of the Fourpounder heavy pistol to the rattle of the Pepper Mill machine gun. These can be upgraded and customized using swappable mods like faster reloads or more accuracy to suit your style, but the real variety comes from rarer guns with unique perks. Some give life steal, or have silencers, or cause explosive headshots, whilst more exotic legendary weapons have their own fun clues that need to be tracked and solved in mini side-quests similar t how you track Visionaries. These add yet another dimension to change gameplay loops in surprising ways and finding a new weapon always triggers dopamine in my hoarder reptile brain.
The powers are another major change to your playstyle. Shift and Aether give a short-range blink and temporary invisibility respectively, allowing you to traverse and sneak through whole levels unnoticed. Havoc literally has you seeing red, turning you into an unstoppable enraged tank for a while. Nexus links crowds of enemies that then share all the effects, leading to interesting combos. A guaranteed source of simple fun is Karnesis, allowing you to force fling enemies in any direction, and synergizes well with Nexus to comically fling whole rooms up in the air.
Stealth is encouraged especially when going through areas for the first time. This is because getting close to targets and NPCs allows you to hear about new opportunities. More importantly, there is no quick saving and quick loading system, dying will instead teleport to where you were a few seconds ago. Dying 3 times will end your current run and you’re sent back to the start of the level losing any gear you didn’t infuse. Areas with a lot of enemies can often blow through your ammo reserves and overwhelm you fast.
Whilst these design choices on the surface seem controversial (limited lives and no quicksaves in 2021? Seriously?), these are instead perhaps Deathloop’s most welcome new features. Arkane’s previous titles; Prey and Dishonored series, as well as so many stealth action games, seem to segregate the player base to either go purely stealth or purely combat builds. People playing the game for stealth would constantly reload till they got their perfect run, inching through levels slowly and constantly repeating segments if they were getting spotted. Those playing for the combat would at times complain about its shallowness or the lack of incentive for stealth.
In Deathloop, the lack of unlimited lives provides some incentive to play carefully, allowing you to discover opportunities to take out your targets in a myriad of fun ways such as luring them into hacked turrets or sucking the air out of a lab. If you make a mistake and are spotted, you can then experience the excellent and satisfying combat. Usually, only a small section of the map will be alerted (even if you’re throwing grenades a street over), allowing you to return to stealth once you dispatch your enemies. This is all further reinforced by the complete lack of non-lethal weapons or takedowns (you literally snap everyone’s head 180° every time). In short, the game wants you to crack a few eggs to make a glorious omelet.
A final effect of these mechanics is that they make you genuinely feel like a speedrunner. The first time you go through an area you may be much more careful as you’re on the lookout for opportunities, or don’t know what’s around the corner. But in subsequent runs, as you learn the level layouts, guard patrol routes, and target locations, you’re able to recreate those satisfying videos of people who navigate through Dishonored levels in a careful ballet of precise death and destruction.
Once you complete all Visionaries leads and learn the best time and way to take all of them out in one day, you’ll have one glorious day where you genuinely feel like you’ve mastered and are using all the game mechanics, which is what amazing and memorable end game levels aspire to achieve.
All this and we haven’t even mentioned the second character on the cover, the ever-charming Julianna. Julianna is the head of security and can spawn randomly during any level to act as your direct foil throughout the campaign. Possessing the same high health pool and supernatural abilities set, her job is to throw a serious wrench in your carefully set up plans and cause those three deaths, bringing a swift end to your day. When played by the AI, she usually makes a beeline for you and causes a lot of enemies to become aware of your position. But the real challenge and memorable moments are usually had when she’s controlled by another human.
In that situation, an invasion becomes a cat and mouse chase as this unpredictable mini-boss can be holding a sight line with a sniper rifle around any corner, or even be anyone with her Masquerade ability allowing her to take the form of any NPC. Julianna can plant explosive traps and mines in areas where she knows Colt might be coming from, simply lying in wait in the shadows as your prey becomes even more nervous from constantly checking every corner, rooftop, and their backs. Killing Colt in a variety of ways improves your Hunter Rank, unlocking more weapons, skills, and perks for Julianna, and unlocking stylish skins for both characters.
Whilst some may immediately think of the invasion mechanic from Dark Souls and be put off by the challenge deleting a lot of progress, it can be toggled to a friends-only mode or switched off entirely. However, I would seriously recommend against this as these times are some of my most memorable encounters, both as Colt and Julianna. The feeling of springing the perfect trap on Colt, or conversely turning the tables from being hunted to becoming the hunter during an ambush through clever use of abilities, Deathloop is a game about the rush of adapting to unforeseen situations and coming out on top.
The story of Deathloop is largely told through brilliant environmental storytelling in overheard NPC conversations or messages on computer terminals scattered throughout the island and especially in the lairs of the Visionaries. These are all filled with dark comedy moments and brilliant writing, and great voice acting all around. You also slowly uncover the mysteries of what happened on the island and how things didn’t go exactly as planned leading to the current state of things.
A much more personal and surprisingly more compelling mystery is working past your amnesia to figure out how Colt fits in with the history of the Visionaries, the island, and perhaps most importantly Julianna. She constantly teases and patronizes you over the Radio, and their constant back and forth gives the game a charming and endearing human touch as Colt comically attempts to figure out witty retorts of his own.
Finally, it must be mentioned that the experience does have some major reports of technical issues. Many are reporting issues with different graphical cards, with massive frame drops for some and constant crashes in certain menus for others. Networking issues also seem to be an issue during online matchmaking, sometimes causing a really great session with mind games and perfectly set up traps to suddenly end in a connection lost screen. Hackers on PC are also fairly rampant, with both invincible Colts and Julianna’s ruining the experience for everyone. For now, quick fixes such as tweaking specific settings like ray tracing seem to sometimes fix these problems.
Despite its host of overlapping features and mechanics, Deathloop uses clever design choices to make sure each of its individual mechanics perfectly complement each other. Engaging in stealth segments gives way to explosive action segments, all wrapped up in a stylish package. It knows when to make you think before you leap, as you try to solve the clues and navigate the levels with limited lives, and when to let loose with a power fantasy as you finally execute a perfectly made plan with punchy gunplay and powerful abilities. And all the while the story of the island and Colt is a mystery that keeps you engrossed throughout. Deathloop is a powerful statement that creative ideas will always make big splashes in the video game industry.