The makers of Dishonored and Prey create a Groundhog Day style adventure where you have to escape reliving the same day again and again.
It’s not hard to imagine the game Arkane Studios must’ve envisioned when they first started work on Deathloop, and the unavoidable compromises they had to make in order to turn it into a mainstream game. Publisher Bethesda has tried their best, but this is a difficult game to explain unless you actually play it and it’s almost certainly not what you think it’s going to be (which, ironically, means it would’ve been perfect for Game Pass, except it’s a timed PlayStation 5 console exclusive – one of the last deals Bethesda made before being acquired by Microsoft).
Deathloop is part of a proud tradition of video games which involve time travel, not just as a passing plot point but a key element of the gameplay. It’s essentially the inverse of The Sexy Brutale, which was a non-action game about saving the lives of mask wearing people at a decadent party. In Deathloop you’re trying to kill seven key targets at once in order to destabilise a time loop that otherwise keeps you replaying the same day forever.
With only a few exceptions, everyone restarts the loop with their memories wiped and as the game begins so do you, as you wake up on the beach of a small island in the Arctic Circle. The island was formerly a fishing community with a (not very) secret army base conducting experiments into a space-time anomaly. It’s now owned by a private company run by a collection of obnoxious and deeply immoral scientists and businesspeople and it’s they who have set the time loop in motion.
Given Arkane’s previous work on the Dishonored series and the reboot of Prey you’d assume that this was a similar style of first person action adventure (we do so hate the meaningless term ‘immersive sim’). It does have elements of both games, including a couple of magic abilities borrowed directly from Dishonored, but while Deathloop still has a heavy focus on stealth it’s much more of an action game than either of its predecessors, and with good reason as the gunplay is excellent and highly satisfying.
The key difference with something like Prey is that Deathloop provides much clearer instructions on how to progress, to the point where the only thing you have to work out yourself is the combat tactics. Your goal is to get all seven targets in the right place at the right time, so you can kill them in one loop, but rather than that being something you have to puzzle out as a player the game explains each step in detail, which is further simplified by splitting the loop up into four sections: morning, noon, afternoon, and evening.
The island is also divided into four separate open world areas, so each day you have to make a choice of which one to visit and when. There’s no time limit within an area and you can leave whenever you like, but doing so automatically advances you onto the next time period, before looping back round. The basic map is the same whatever time of day it is but things do change, including your targets being present or not and things like buildings getting set on fire.
As well as a variety of firearms, which often have unique buffs or abilities, you also have special powers gifted by the anomaly. You start off with one which grants you two extra lives, rewinding time a few seconds every time you die – with the final death resetting the loop to the morning. Others are gained by killing one of your targets and stealing theirs, which range from partial invisibility to a limited form of telekinesis and being able to link up enemies so any damage done to one is felt by all.
Ordinarily you don’t get to keep anything between loops, much like a roguelike, but you can collect a substance called Residuum which can be spent to retain a weapon or buff, which come as loot drops called trinkets. The problem with this is that it’s very easy to quickly obtain an arsenal of highly effective weapons, such that collecting more is entirely unnecessary after just a few hours.
Deathloop may have one of the most poorly balanced armouries of any first person shooter, especially if you play stealthily. Only a few hours in you get hold of a submachinegun with a suppressor that is, inexplicably, able to instakill enemies with headshots at any distance, without anyone hearing. This not only makes the actual sniper rifles, which make a noise, redundant but almost every other weapon too, bar maybe an automatic shotgun for close-up work.
Using the magic submachinegun in conjunction with invisibility and the Nexus linking ability, Deathloop – which has no difficulty options – soon becomes trivially easy. Those headshots never stop being satisfying but because the game always makes it so clear what you need to do next there’s rarely any obvious need or benefit in taking a different route or figuring out a unique solution to taking down a target or group of enemies.
A similar problem spoils the alternative game mode where you get to play as Julianna, the eighth target who, unlike the others, has a personal connection with main player character Colt and constantly taunts him over the radio. You can’t deal with her permanently until the very end of the game, but she will often invade an area and has the ability to disguise herself as an ordinary grunt (there is effectively only one enemy type). You’re warned when she arrives but otherwise she could pop out of anywhere.
If you choose to play as Julianna then you get to invade someone else’s game and are able to level her up by completing in-game achievements. And yet the gun she starts with, an explosive long range rifle, is so useful there’s rarely any need to use anything else. Especially once you start getting flooded with trinkets every time you level up. It’s not that playing as her is super easy but more so that poor weapon balancing discourages you from experimenting.
Once you’re in an area there’s no time limit but there’s also no schedule to keep up with. Unlike Zelda: Majora’s Mask you don’t see people walking about, going about their business, even though the layout of an area has often changed because of actions (some caused by you) earlier in the day. This means that there’s never any chance of missing an opportunity because you were too late, but it also means the game feels off-puttingly sterile and empty, as while it’s always filled with people you can’t interact with any of them except down the barrel of a gun.
Eavesdropping on guards as they talk is often vital to your progress, especially discovering side quests, but since everyone wears masks – often making them look like animated shop mannequins – they never really feel human, despite some fun dialogue. The masks were probably to prevent the game from being too disturbingly violent but surely the sensible option would’ve been to just have less gory kill animations.
Speaking of odd design decisions, the game is set in an alternate history version of the 60s and for absolutely no obvious reason. The art design is extrapolated so far out from reality that it could easily have been its own thing, especially as everyone talks like glib YouTubers – not someone born during the Second World War.
The way the self-proclaimed ‘Eternalists’ are portrayed also lacks bite, with the game implying that the reason the loop was created was so they can enjoy a hedonistic lifestyle free of consequences. But because this is a video game there’s no sex, only oblique references to drugs, and just very occasional drunkenness. Frankly, it’s a mystery why anyone thinks the time loop is a good idea, especially the ordinary cannon fodder who have to spend eternity on guard duty in the freezing cold.
Colt is fun but he’s played a little too broadly and it’s his nemesis Julianna who becomes the standout character of the game. The vocal performance by Ozioma Akagha is superb and gets across her complicated personality perfectly, as her taunts switch from pure hatred to sad disappointment and obvious affection in the same breath. Which makes it all the more tragic that, after an unexpected mid-game revelation, her character, and the rest of the story, end up going nowhere thanks to a highly underwhelming ending.
Given all its problems it feels like something of miracle that Deathloop is as entertaining as it is, but the intriguing premise and enjoyable action keeps you playing despite the many issues. Although it become obvious that there’s a lot less depth to the game than initially implied, with little in the way of real puzzles and most of your time out of combat spent reading notes and listening to audio logs, with the game explaining every step needed in such detail that you never really have to work anything out for yourself.
An indie game like The Sexy Brutale can afford to give up accessibility in favour of the sort of freeform exploration and problem solving that we assume Arkane was originally going for in Deathloop. Little of that has made it into the final game though and while what’s left is still very entertaining it’s unlikely to have you looping back for more after your first playthrough.
Deathloop review summary
In Short: Not quite a misfire but while the action is highly entertaining this time-looping adventure squanders much of its premise on disappointingly straightforward objectives and a curiously tame portrayal of unchecked hedonism.
Pros: Excellent gunplay and some fun magic abilities. Intriguing premise and the first half of the game, at least, is well paced and unpredictable. Julianna is so good she needs her own spin-off.
Cons: Terrible weapon balancing and little need for experimentation given how clear the game makes your objectives. Far too easy and with a story that ultimately goes nowhere.
Formats: PlayStation 5 (reviewed) and PC
Developer: Arkane Lyon
Release Date: 14th September 2021
Age Rating: 18
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