DEATHLOOP Review – Here we go again

Reviewed September 13, 2021 on PC

Platforms:

PC, PS5

Released:

September 14, 2021

Publisher:

Bethesda Softworks

Developer:

Arkane Studios

Taking the currently trending time loop concept and adding some signature Arkane flair — DEATHLOOP is the new bombastic release from Bethesda Softworks and Dishonored developer Arkane Lyon that’s ready to absorb you into its stylistically paradoxical world. With novel ideas and a colourfully charismatic design, DEATHLOOP feels instantly distinctive and noteworthy. But do those novel ideas always work or does the game collapse in on its own time looping paradox?

In DEATHLOOP you play as Colt, a man with a surprising penchant for killing who wakes up on a beach with absolutely no memory of the days prior. As you explore the mysterious island of Blackreef and search for information as to who and where you are, you’re met with strange writing hanging in the air and threatening communication from a woman called Julianna. Once you start to dig deeper you’ll discover that a set of “Visionaries” have created a looping day to form some kind of bizarre, eternal utopia. Luckily for you, your memory permeates from one loop to the next, allowing you to uncover and store information to utilise on future loops. If you can gain enough info and learn the behaviours and patterns of the people of Blackreef, you can solve the puzzle and find a way to kill every single Visionary in a single loop which is said to break the loop and set you free.

DEATHLOOP provides a captivating premise and one that’s absolutely ripe for mystery and oh so juicy reveals. The Visionaries are all flamboyant and eccentric in their own ways, so uncovering details about who these people are and about the program that they’re operating within is tantalising. More than that though, learning about how you (Colt) fit into this whole equation and why this Julianna woman is tormenting and hunting you provides some good moments of narrative realisation.

Whilst DEATHLOOP’s premise and these narrative moments are interesting, they aren’t always told in an interesting way. It admittedly must be very challenging to tell an evolving story within a recurring day. But even with that said, I feel like we’ve seen it done better recently. A reliance on critical information being communicated through audio logs, emails, and notes left scattered around the world means that critical information isn’t always processed and digested fully. It’s hard to keep track of every piece of information in what is quite a complicated world when those details fall on page 2 of a journal entry or in a random line of an audio log that you’re not fully paying attention to because you’re simultaneously being attacked by enemies. Outside of a cutscene near to the beginning of the game and one at the end, there really isn’t much cinematic storytelling whatsoever and I really felt the absence. By the end of the game, the overarching story wasn’t all that impressive, but perhaps it’s those moment to moment advancements that Arkane wanted us to focus on anyway?

“DEATHLOOP provides a captivating premise and one that’s absolutely ripe for mystery and oh so juicy reveals.”

The gameplay in DEATHLOOP is an interesting beast in and of itself. This is an Arkane game through and through, and Dishonored fans will be pleased to see familiar and engaging mechanics carried over from past releases. Within the span of a day, Colt can explore four locations in Blackreef, with each new location advancing the day through four different time periods – morning, noon, afternoon, and evening. Once Colt arrives at his destination, the player will find themselves exploring a relatively small yet detailed open area that’s full of hazards and occupants who have been instructed to kill Colt on sight. Stealth is your friend as you navigate these regions, with exploration being greatly encouraged and rewarded as you uncover more and more details about Blackreef and its inhabitants, using all of that info to help you break the loop. If stealth isn’t your style you can bust out the weaponry and begin blasting, with absolutely no need to feel guilt because once the day is over everybody will be back with no memory of their grisly demise.

The general gameplay feels really good. Scouting out your enemy locations, tagging them and revealing more information, then planning your route to take them out one at a time without raising suspicion. Everything works as you’d expect and you’re given the tools to make sure you can handle any given situation with a touch of badassery and flair. Environmental hazards can be used to your advantage, stealth kills are brutally satisfying, movement and verticality allow for great pathing options and vantage points, and a range of weapons and abilities are at your disposal to be used in interesting and creative ways. The abilities really are the star of the show here. You can gain powerful abilities from the corpses of slain Visionaries that when equipped facilitate fantastic and satisfying powers. “Shift” lets you blink around the environment, reaching high spots or popping behind foes for a dastardly sneak attack. “Karnesis” allows you to raise enemies into the air and fling them off the side of cliffs or buildings. “Nexus” binds together multiple foes so that when you take out one, the rest automatically suffer the same fate. None of these ideas are necessarily new, many of them are even lifted straight from Arkane’s past releases, but all of them are undeniably fun and rewarding.

The game controls well, save for a few noticeable instances where the PC port clearly wasn’t front of mind during development. Navigating the radial menus using a mouse was frustrating, and a reliance on keys like the ‘delete’ button and ‘enter’ showed a lack of understanding as to where PC gamers like to rest their fingers. Though ultimately these are rather small nitpicks in a game that felt rather good to interact with.

Of course, DEATHLOOP is played within a time loop, which means you’ll be revisiting areas time and time again. In a past interview with Checkpoint, developers Dinga Bakaba and Sébastien Mitton explained that they wanted you to feel like a master of these areas by the end of the game, knowing them like the back of your hand and facilitating power through information. This feeling definitely rings true, and it’s quite impressive how you as the player end up living that power fantasy that culminates in one super satisfying final loop where you take out every single Visionary with perfect timing and planning. Most games allow the player to feel more powerful as the game progresses thanks to new equipment or levels, but that feeling can’t compete with the feeling of power gained through knowledge. Naturally, the downside here is that you have to replay areas time and time again to reach this feeling. Luckily though the gameplay feels so good and the times of day change up just enough in the environment that things never felt stale outside of a few instances.

“…you’re given the tools to make sure you can handle any given situation with a touch of badassery and flair.”

The time of day mechanic is an interesting one that sets DEATHLOOP apart from other time loop games that came before it. There’s a sense of freedom and choice here that isn’t present in your average time loop and it’s a fascinating solution to a common loop problem. Since you can visit four locations within the span of a day, it means you can see what one location has to offer in the morning compared to what it has to offer in the evening. This creates small yet meaningful gameplay and narrative implications and alone it turns four locations into sixteen in a relatively clever way. A building may burn down in the afternoon, making it only accessible in the morning. The tides may wane at noon, allowing Colt to explore an area typically inaccessible at other times of the day. What’s more interesting is the way Colt can impact the world. Perhaps the aforementioned burning building can actually be saved from disaster, or perhaps a Visionary can be coerced into changing their typical behavioural path thanks to Colt’s input?

Every piece of key information is documented as you play, which is how you’ll eventually break the loop and reach the game’s end. You can follow leads from one area to the next that give context and put you one step closer to solving the puzzle and breaking the loop. I say solving the puzzle, because DEATHLOOP realistically only has one solution. It really is a more linear path to success than you’d think from a game like this. I suppose I understand why the developers took this approach, it must be so hard to give the player true freedom when your world is built on a crazy string graph of cause and effect actions. But ultimately I was disappointed by how little I did felt like my own victory. Much like following a quest marker in an RPG, DEATHLOOP has you follow leads that are often spelled out for you and marked. There are a few instances where the hand was held less tightly, but much of Colt’s progression didn’t feel like my achievement, it was more a linear step taken in a non-linear timeline.

A resource known as “residuum” played a fairly pivotal role in allowing that progression, being harvestable from random glitching items within the world as well as from the corpses of slain Visionaries. At the end of a day, Colt can use any accumulated residuum to imbue his favourite weapons, powers, and more so that they permeate with him into the next loop. It’s a good mechanic that worked to facilitate progression within a loop, providing another creative solution to a common loop problem.

I do love the style DEATHLOOP emits, like a mix between 1967 film Point Blank and Arkane’s signature colourful take on an almost realistic aesthetic. There’s a goofiness to it that I like, with Colt and Julianna’s banter always feeling slightly too comical given the situation. You’ll stumble across NPCs doing really dumb things and sometimes even killing themselves in really stupid ways. The Visionaries themselves are all crazy eccentric and it creates a sense of ease and a playground of fun where another developer could have taken things in a much more serious direction.

Julianna is the most threatening of all the Visionaries because she can invade your game at any given time and try to hunt you down. What’s crazier is the fact that Julianna can be controlled by another player, and we all know there’s nothing more threatening than another player. I played primarily offline, meaning my Julianna was AI-controlled and largely manageable. Though the one time I did play online I was absolutely destroyed by another player who utilised Julianna’s disguise ability to hide amongst regular NPCs and out stealthed me for a surprise attack. It’s a really cool piece of functionality for those brave enough to turn it on, and it’s unique ideas like this one that deserve to be praised.

I didn’t always love Colt as a character. I’m still a bit confused as to why he comes across as so angry with himself (or the player) when you go to pick up ammunition or health when Colt is already at max. But I also can’t help but celebrate what is a fantastic showcase of diversity within the game’s antagonist and protagonist roles. Julianna and Colt have an awesome dynamic and it’s an absolute pleasure to watch them take centre stage in what is an overall really enjoyable experience.

8

Great

Positive:

  • A fantastically stylised world
  • Some great and engaging characters
  • Gameplay feels oh so fine
  • Power increases with knowledge
  • An incredibly satisfying final loop

Negative:

  • Narrative falls short in some ways
  • The solution to beat the time loop is overly guided

DEATHLOOP is a cathartic blend of stealth, gunplay and powers that culminate in a satisfying gameplay loop as you explore the eccentric island of Blackreef. Whilst the narrative payoffs don’t always live up to the intriguing premise, there’s an undeniable sense of style and substance that help carry the game into really favourable territory. Knowledge really is power in DEATHLOOP and there’s a pleasurable novelty to much of the game’s design that allows it to feel engaging even when the player’s hand is held a little too tightly. Even within a year of time loop releases, DEATHLOOP stands out as its own unique beast worth experiencing.