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SummaryHave a fulfilling day!
The Good* Blackreef offers a rich and deep world to explore, with lore and interesting personalities to uncover.
* Time loop mechanics are innovative and a lot of fun to work out.
* Combat is snappy and visceral, with many cool abilities and weapons to use.
* Cool 1960's art direction and presentation.
The Bad* Repetitious structure means that the game becomes tedious at certain points.
* Unimpressive multiplayer.
* Story leaves lots of unanswered questions.
* Not as reactive or replayable as Arkane's previous games.
The Bottom LineArkane Studios is unquestionably the modern-day torchbearer for the immersive sim genre. Both the Dishonored series and 2017’s Prey embraced the twin pillars of emergent gameplay and meticulous, multi-layered level design to create highly reactive and replayable experiences that nobody else is really making. Deathloop is their latest addition to this line of games, and while it is not necessarily their strongest effort, it’s still one of the most fascinating and innovative games to release in 2021.
In Deathloop, you take control of Colt, a security guard and assassin situated on Blackreef, an island somewhere in the Arctic region. Blackreef has long played host to strange parascientific phenomena, and is currently occupied by the AEON program, overseen by society’s greatest scientific and creative minds, with their friends and followers, known as the Eternalists, in tow. Trapped in an eternal time loop endlessly repeating the same day, Colt remembers everything, except the reason why the mysterious assassin named Julianna is constantly hunting him down. On this island where unchecked scientific experimentation meets extravagant hedonism, Colt must find a way to end the eternal nightmare of "amortality" and break the loop.
At first glance, Deathloop bears a striking amount of similarities to Arkane’s past titles: you have stealthy first-person gameplay, red and blue meters for health and magic respectively, and various powers to allow the player to sow chaos within an emergent sandbox. However, it’s in the structure where the differences lie. Taking influence from titles like The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and Outer Wilds, Deathloop tasks the player with solving various mysteries within the time loop and ultimately finding a way to break it.
At the start of each mission, you’ll choose one of Blackreef’s four main districts to visit: Updaam, Fristad Rock, Karl’s Bay, and The Complex. You can visit these at four different times of day during the loop: morning, noon (although Karl’s Bay is closed during this time), afternoon, and evening, making for a total of fifteen possible “levels”. As you explore each area, you’ll gain information pertaining to things like codes for locked doors or background information on each of the main Visionaries. You’ll also be able to acquire various powerful weapons and trinkets, some of which require the completion of various challenges and side quests in order to access.
Your ultimate goal is to uncover a way to kill all 8 Visionaries in one perfect loop. While it is possible to kill each Visionary point-blank, in order to break the loop you’ll need to manipulate the Visionaries to set them up for easy kills. For example, you might sabotage something in one district in the morning so that when a Visionary interacts with it later in the day, they will die instantly without you needing to fire a shot. Or, you might change something in one district to force a Visionary to go to another district, allowing you to kill multiple targets in one mission. Leads and clues for each Visionary are tracked, allowing you to pursue these objectives as you discover them. While this may seem confusing, the game offers an extremely generous quest tracking system for each of these leads to keep you on the correct path, although some will no doubt feel this makes for a more hand-holdy experience than is typical with Arkane Studios games.
When killed, most Visionaries will drop various slabs, and this is where things start to get interesting. Each slab allows Colt to utilize a different ability. Colt has his own default slab called Reprise, which allows you to die up to three times per mission before the loop resets, and you can bring two others into any mission. The other slabs will be very familiar to fans of the Dishonored games. Shift is this game’s equivalent of Blink, allowing Colt to quickly teleport a short distance up to ledges and across large gaps. Aether turns Colt almost invisible (unless you happen to get really close to someone). Nexus links multiple targets together, when you kill one, all others will die along with it. Havoc increases your damage output and defense for a short time, Finally, Karnesis allows you to toss enemies around like ragdolls, throwing them off ledges and generally causing much insane chaos. If you manage to kill a Visionary again and you already own their slab, they will instead drop a slab upgrade, which allows you to customize the abilities of each slab power, such as increasing the distance that Colt can Shift.
All slab upgrades, weapons, and trinkets will disappear at the end of each loop unless you use Residiuum, the game’s currency, to preserve them. You’ll acquire Residiuum when killing enemies and Visionaries, but it can also be collected from various objects in the environment. Killing any Visionary nets you a pretty generous 10000 Residiuum, which is enough to preserve the most expensive items, although you’re free to sacrifice any upgrades you don’t need for additional Residiuum. If you survive a loop, you’ll need to make sure you use as much Residiuum as you can, because it will all go away once the loop resets.
Unlike Dishonored, which greatly discouraged the player from utilizing much of that game’s lethal sandbox, Deathloop takes practically the opposite approach to the problem of killing. Non-lethal options are non-existent, and since everyone’s going to be revived in the next loop anyway, there’s little moral consideration against killing them. While it is possible to play the sneaky assassin, Deathloop’s snappy combat and varied power sets practically beg you to take the guns-blazing approach. Combat can be a blast and a real power trip, as you utilize the various guns, grenades, and slabs, as well as Colt’s mighty kick, to sow chaos all across Blackreef. Most of Blackreef’s denizens are hopped up on drugs and alcohol, so they don’t exactly make for much of a threat: you’re more likely to die from accidentally falling off of a ledge or getting trapped in certain areas rigged to explode or flood. The Visionaries can at least take some bullets and utilize their various slabs against you, but even then they’re not especially difficult to kill outright.
That is, apart from the most important Visionary, Julianna. In a twist that the immersive sim genre has never seen before, Julianna can be controlled by either the AI or a human opponent. On the main menu, you can choose to “Break the Loop” or “Protect the Loop”, and if you choose the latter, you can invade single-player games and try to take out a fully equipped Colt. The person playing Colt will be trapped within the district until they can hack the antenna which will unlock the exits. Meanwhile the invader’s goal is to attempt to kill Colt. Julianna’s slab ability allows her to mimic various characters. It makes for a cool cat and mouse game, although with Reprise, the deck is still heavily stacked in favor of Colt. Julianna has her own progression system, where playing through matches and accomplishing various feats earns you rewards, allowing you to go into future matches with a more powerful Julianna. Having a human opponent does make things a lot more interesting from a combat perspective, as fighting Julianna will only be as difficult as the player controlling her. Finding other players is relatively sparse at this point in the game’s life, and when I did manage to connect, the match was either over too quickly, it was too difficult to find Colt, or I suffered from extreme lag which made Julianna do the time warp all over the place. That being said, I’ve never been much of a multiplayer fan, so while having this mode is nice for those who want to squeeze a bit more longevity out of the game and can put up with those issues, it’s hard to imagine many players wanting to stick with it for too long over more established multiplayer titles.
Arkane’s ability to create uniquely stylized worlds remains second to none, and Deathloop as a whole is greatly carried by its style, setting, and presentation. This retro-futuristic take on the 1960’s is just plain cool, from the Bond-style soundtrack, and the banter between Colt and Julianna, to the gloriously tacky architecture and wacky fashion statements from its many colorful characters. Blackreef itself has a lot of character as a setting with its craggy cliffsides leading down into ice-cold seas, and I love the way the game gets increasingly snowy and frigid as you progress throughout the day. You won’t find another game that looks and feels like this one any time soon. What is less impressive is Arkane’s technical abilities: Deathloop runs on the same Void engine used for Dishonored 2, which was already rather shaky tech to begin with. While Deathloop runs better on the PS5 than Dishonored 2 did on the PS4, there are occasional flickering issues with shadows and performance dips when too many enemies are on-screen hunting down Colt. I’ve heard things were much worse on PC which is why I opted to play this on PS5 instead.
As you can imagine, visiting the same four districts can become a bit tedious after a while. Each area is quite sizeable and packed with activities and lots of little secrets to find, some of which can only be accessed at specific times of day or after other tasks have been accomplished in other districts. It’s a lot of fun seeing how each district changes over the course of each day, as the Eternalists get more rowdy and ready to party. Still, compared to Arkane’s other games, the footprint of Deathloop remains relatively small, and it’s hard not to feel at least some tedium through the late stages of the game, especially when you figure out exactly how to accomplish the perfect loop. That also means that there’s not much replay value when all is said and done. Yes, the codes will change to different values following your first playthrough, meaning you’ll need to go through the steps to acquire them all again, but otherwise things will mostly end up being the same apart from choosing one of three endings. The story, while certainly more interesting than in Arkane’s past games, also feels very incomplete, with a lot of unanswered questions and unexplained phenomena left over once you finally break the loop.
Overall, Deathloop is a fun time, but I personally feel it’s not quite as good as the Dishonored games were. Its world is invigorating to explore, the characters are fascinating, and the powers and weapons are all incredibly fun to play with. The art design is remarkably distinctive throughout and just screams cool. However, its relatively small footprint and repetitive structure can make for a slightly tedious experience in some instances, but a brilliant one at other points. The multiplayer is innovative but personally unimpressive, although your mileage will vary. That being said, if you’ve already gone through Arkane’s previous titles and are in the mood for more of that sneak and shoot gameplay that only they specialize in, this time with a time loop twist, then you can’t go wrong with Deathloop.