Deathloop Hands-On Preview – Another piece of the puzzle

Posted on August 27, 2021

After a long time theorising, watching gameplay videos, listening to the developers and trying to piece things together, it’s been tricky to understand just exactly what Deathloop really is. Usually, video games fit into a particular genre, sometimes more than one, but remains relatively easy to describe. But a first-person adventure game, with supernatural abilities, a time-looping narrative with a mystery to unravel, and 8 bosses that need to be assassinated in a single run? Well, that just sounds absurd.

But, we’ve spent a few hours playing Deathloop for ourselves, and finally, things are starting to make more sense.

As bold and extremely likable protagonist Colt, it’s your job to figure out why you’re trapped in a time-loop in the first place, why the day keeps resetting, who this aggressive Julianna character is that seems to know your every move, and ultimately figure out a way to take down 8 Visionaries, all of whom have their own quirks. It’s impressive how instantly relatable and compelling both Colt and Julianna are as characters; their back and forth banter is some of the most enjoyable moments of the game so far, with teases of a deeper connection that begs to be explored.

In theory, Deathloop is a game about exploring environments, stalking and killing as many Visionaries as possible before you once again wake up on the beach, starting your day over. In practice, the game quickly presents layers upon layers of mysteries, small threads that you just want to pull at to unravel more of the story and find your way back to reality. There are four times of the day, and four key districts to explore; what starts off as a simple and linear task of getting your bearings, all of a sudden becomes quite complicated. Indeed, you will become quite familiar with these districts, and even in my limited time with the game so far I’ve started to map out each of them in my head with points of interest, key locations and vital weapon pick-ups.

The time of day dictates what activities take place in each location; Visionaries will only be accessible to assassinate at certain times, enemy routes change and other intriguing plot points take place during different time periods as well. It didn’t take long for my in-game notebook to fill up with lots of intel about the ins and outs of Blackreef – but that’s where the experience becomes all the more intriguing.

Considering the nature of a time-loop mechanic, where you replay the same day over and over again, you are not only forced to become a “master of the island” as the developers are hoping, but you learn interesting pieces of information along the way to take from one loop to the next. Whether it’s a code to a safe that is only available at a certain time of day or the knowledge that a certain character will only be available to reach in specific districts, it doesn’t take long to feel like you’re a detective with one of those complicated cork-boards covered in leads and theories that connect everything together.

“To make it clear… Deathloop is not a roguelike.”

To make it clear as well, if I haven’t already: Deathloop is not a roguelike. You do not start each “run” with nothing from the previous day, encountering different procedurally generated levels with enemies… none of that. It’s a methodical mystery, and every district – at each specific time of day – has been meticulously crafted so that you can spend the game figuring it all out. Plus, you have three lives in each district, which resets when you move between them, so it’s much more forgiving than a roguelike with that concept alone.

Additionally, you’ll early on learn the ability to harvest Residuum from shimmering objects and from slain Visionaries, which you can then spend in order to bring items with you from one loop to the next. This means that you must be choosy initially about what weapons you want to keep with you, and even the major abilities (called slabs) that you earn from killing a Visionary need to be banked in the same way.

One loop you might only kill the one Visionary, which compared to the eight that you’re aiming for does not seem a lot; but if you’re able to spend that extra time exploring your surroundings, collecting Residuum, saving their ability for later use and gathering information that you can use to your advantage in the next loop, time never feels particularly wasted. Sure, there might be times you’ll follow a dangling thread to a location and not find anything meaningful that you can use yet, but you’ll likely find something else that can aid your quest instead. It’s hard to say whether or not Deathloop can sustain this level of intrigue as you follow the breadcrumbs throughout the entire adventure, but so far I’m feeling progression from every little piece of the puzzle I’m able to gather.

What has impressed me the most is the flexibility. All four districts are available to you to peruse at your leisure, and the non-linear style really has empowered me so far to follow my investigative instincts, as the sign-posting of what to do next is not always spelled out for you in an obvious manner. Additionally, Arkane are known for their ability to create a structure that is very much “play it your way”, and this is no exception. The access to particular abilities (like chaining together enemies so you can take multiple out at once or even just some good old-fashioned invisibility) gives everything a weird supernatural vibe, and lets you take things on in a stealthy manner if you wish, or guns-blazing if that’s more your style.

One thing that does ring true in Deathloop for you roguelike lovers out there is that knowledge is power. What you learn from each loop (and, from each death) is incredibly valuable to take with you into the next. Sometimes just being aware of which path is likely to work for you and which one won’t at specific times can go a long way, and I imagine by the time I’m feeling confident enough to take on all 8 Visionaries in the one loop, it’s going to feel incredibly satisfying as all the information I’ve gathered comes together at its conclusion.

There’s still questions I have and elements I’m looking forward to uncovering as I play more of Deathloop. For example, I have only checked out the single player component so far, so have not dabbled in how Julianna can impact the game world when she is controlled by another player (nor have I played as Julianna myself). There’s also at least half of the Visionaries I’m yet to encounter altogether, so I hope that they live up to the expectations I have after battling the limited few I’ve managed to assassinate in my playtime. Entering the same locations time and time again could also become taxing if you’re not able to capitalise on the clues, so what is new and thrilling to me now might be less so after another ten hours of game time.

Still, I’m incredibly optimistic; Deathloop so far feels like a polished, well thought-out experience that has been crafted excellently, from its colourful 60’s inspired visual aesthetic to its intriguing, constantly evolving narrative. With many tantalising twists and turns likely still to come, this is one mystery I can’t wait to solve.

Deathloop releases on PlayStation 5 and PC on September 14.