Deathloop on PS5
Arkane Studios is well-known for innovative and novel game design, but it’s been forced to pivot its approach in recent years. Despite a consistently positive critical reception to several brilliant titles, including the excellent Dishonored series, interest in the first-person, immersive-sim genre of which it is a specialist just hasn’t been reflected in mainstream popularity. For its latest effort, then, an all-new IP called Deathloop, the developer has changed pace from gritty stealth action to a more flamboyant and fast-paced experience, and the result is extremely impressive.
Admittedly, I came into Deathloop a sceptic. From what had been shown of the game in the build-up to its launch, the drastic shift in tone and the greater focus on combat had me worried. The over-the-top aesthetic and style seemed as though it might feel like overcompensation, and the notion of Dishonored’s often clunky-feeling first-person combat being reshaped as a centerpiece in Deathloop didn’t sound like a recipe for success.
And, in fact, the opening hour or so of Deathloop didn’t do a great deal to convince me otherwise. The tutorial section demands concentration to get to grips with both the premise of its story and the overwhelming number of different systems to learn; there’s so much to take in, and main protagonist Colt’s audible confusion doesn’t help matters. And all the while during this initial sequence, Deathloop’s gameplay felt overly familiar.
For a brief moment, it seemed as though my fears had been realized: Deathloop was all style and the substance –the innovative gameplay– that Arkane is so highly regarded for had been diluted to appeal to a wider audience. Slowly but surely, however, those concerns were allayed, and as I began to ‘get’ Deathloop and piece together the enigma of its story and design I found myself becoming utterly hooked.
Deathloop takes place on the confines of a small island called Blackreef, where Colt is trapped in an endless cycle that sees him wake up each morning on the same strip of beach regardless of whether he lives or dies. The situation on Blackreef is a result of the AEON program, created by eight ‘Visionaries’ as a utopia segregated from the rest of the world. Colt wants out, but, as it turns out, the only way to make that happen is by killing all eight Visionaries in a single day, thereby breaking the loop.
Julianna, however, is hellbent on protecting the loop, happy in its endless cycle for reasons she reveals throughout the latter parts of the game. She will prove a constant thorn in Colt’s side, hunting him down throughout the day and killing him unless either he does first or escapes back to safety.
Blackreef is sectioned into four different areas and each day is split into four different time periods. For each area Colt explores, launched from a hub area where the player is able to choose loadouts and objectives, time progresses one period, and since Visionaries show up at different times of the day, you are presented with the conundrum of how to shepherd multiple targets into the same areas so that it is possible to take them all out in a single day.
To add to the problem, every weapon, item, perk, and special ability –called Slabs– you pick up along the way disappears the very next morning. Thankfully, by way of a process called ‘Infusion,’ you’re able to make them a permanent part of Colt’s inventory as long as you have collected enough ‘Residuum’ that day, a collectible resource scattered plentifully around each sandbox. Die, however, and your Residuum for the day is lost unless you return to the same spot and retrieve them, almost like souls in a Souls-like. You have two shots at this; die a third time and the day is over, the cycle repeats, and you gain nothing.
Deathloop, then, is a game of repetition. The more you run and rerun each area, the more knowledge you gain not just of the intricacies of each sandbox but the targets’ routines and their backstories. Throughout each area are many different ‘Leads’ and ‘Discoveries,’ which are typically presented either as notes or recordings. These are your clues as to how you can move each Visionary from one area to another. It all sounds rather complicated as I type it out, and, as I alluded to before, it is initially a lot to take in. But once you familiarize yourself with the Leads section of your UI, which on the whole is a little cluttered until you become used to it, the structure of the game feels less obtuse and much clearer.
From that point on, Deathloop is just so much fun. If you have played Dishonored, you’ll know that Arkane is brilliant at designing levels with verticality, and that traversal has always been among its very strongest suits. It’s the same here with Deathloop as familiar abilities like teleportation, invisibility, and telekinesis add a supernatural element to gameplay that is so utterly gratifying to perform. More to the point, they offer so much room to create interesting gameplay; no two runs of the same area of Blackreef feel the same. Each feels like a big playground to experiment with and explore, and as you unlock more abilities you find new ways to tackle them.
Overall, even though combat in Deathloop is far superior to previous Arkane games, the onus of its gameplay is still weighted slightly more toward stealth than action. The consequences of being caught, though, are much less this time around. You can’t take much damage, but your pursuers also quickly lose interest, and engaging in a firefight doesn’t always mean the whole area is alarmed by your presence. Sometimes this feels like wonky AI, and it’s true that enemies don’t perhaps react quite as intelligently as I would have liked, but the effect is a design that encourages you to take risks, trial and error, and generally engage with the sandbox in a way that results in a very entertaining gameplay experience.
You genuinely can play the game as a stealth em’ up or a straight-up shooter, but I found a mix of the two was the best way to go; and while you can take out your targets in a simple fashion –a stealth takedown or an aggressive firefight–, there are all sorts of clever ways to kill each in a way that reminds me of the Hitman series.
An all-new aspect to Deathloop’s design not present in previous Arkane games is a multiplayer component. Julianna will go ‘on the hunt’ randomly throughout the game, often turning up at the worst possible moments. Most of the time in my experience, she was AI-controlled, but sometimes (and I assume more frequently when the game launches and there are more players), she is controlled by an invading player. You’re able to do this also as a separate distraction from the story-driven, single-player component of the game. Successfully killing Colt nets you points, as does carrying out specific objectives, such as killing him using an ability or with a certain weapon, which goes towards increasing your ‘Hunter Level’ and unlocking cosmetic rewards for Julianna.
The few times I was able to matchmake with other players I found the experience really fun. Julianna can masquerade as run of the mill ‘Eternalists,’ the name given the citizens of Blackreef, and so you can lay in wait watching players nervously looking over their shoulders (concerned about losing their valuable Residuum and spoiling their objective for the day) before springing a trap and unleashing hell. You can either invade random players or those from your friend list. I can see myself returning back to this feature post-release and continuing to level up, which adds some extra legs to the game in terms of replayability.
Not that the single-player lacks it. In fact, even after having pieced together the mystery of Deathloop’s intriguing and well-written story, lining up all eight Visionaries for a single day of assassinations, and rolling credits after about 15 total hours, I’m still compelled to return for more runs. This even despite the at-times repetitive nature of its quest objectives and the sheer amount of backtracking which does feel a little exhausting by the game’s end. Indeed, even though after having explored each area of Blackreef to the point where I know their overall layouts like the back of my hand, they’re so intricately detailed that I just know there are hidden areas I’ve yet to see and even more clues to add further context to the story.
Also, again, it’s just so damn fun to play. And I think for a developer whose games have always been so clever and innovative to behold but not necessarily entertaining without a fair dose of punishment along the way, that’s hugely important. Deathloop is still signature Arkane in terms of exemplary immersive-sim design, reminiscent of BioShock and Dishonored, but it also puts a giant smile on your face each and every time you play. Quite whether that’s enough to see it succeed at a mainstream level remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt it’s another stellar title on the resume of an esteemed studio. It might even be its best.
There are some tedious quest objectives and a little too much backtracking, even if it forms a core part of the story and design.