Release Date September 14, 2021
Reviewed on Playstation 5
For the veteran single player gamer, some of the most rewarding parts of a great sandbox game are when it uses failure as a teacher. A bad one often berates failures of execution and strategy mercilessly, in a manner that discourages ingenuity and innovation (see: Fallout 4). But properly executed immersive sims – such as the Deus Ex series – nurture through experimentation and clever tactical iteration, helping players evolve into better ones and better appreciate the art and craft of gaming itself.
Deathloop, the latest offering from Prey and Dishonored developers Arkane, takes this notion to the extreme, dispatching with both manual and autosave options throughout it’s branching, layered levels while introducing roguelike elements. It adopts a timeloop structure, as players repeat different versions of the same day incessantly, sectioned into four periods. The principle is a tricky one, both in design and execution – eliminate a series of high value targets in the space of a single day to break the loop, while fending off attacks on your own life by another powerful assassin along the way.
All of this transpires on a remote resort island during the early 1960’s, revelling in the gaudy aesthetics and freewheeling hedonism of the era. The island’s hostile denizens operate freely, devoid of the morality imposed by permanent consequence, frequently indulging in nihilistic behaviour (and plenty of liquor), all in the knowledge that the slate is wiped clear by dawn. It’s a spy movie by way of an acid trip, the bastard lovechild of Goldeneye and Bioshock raised on a steady diet of early Kubrick films and avant garde 60’s pop rock.
The locations of your quarry (referred to as Visionaries) are slowly deduced through environmental exploration, as they are only available at certain times of day in specific locations. The catch is that the default locations and times of day are not always optimal for the execution of all in a single loop, and thus a tangled web of misdirection must be weaved over the course of several, even many loops as multiple Visionaries must be lured into specific places and times simultaneously.
You will kill the same people multiple times, mostly in multiple ways and places, inheriting specialized weaponry, powers and upgrades along the way. Those are lost after the initial loops, however. Eventually, through the ability to harness residual energy from inanimate objects and dead visionaries, players are able to retain some of their acquisitions from loop to loop and customize their loadouts – albeit with only two powers and three weapons at a time. Loadouts can be switched between levels, and the levels themselves can be subject to drastically different weather conditions, population density and security measures depending on the time of day.
There are times the repetition does get a bit exasperating, as a somewhat messy and often intrusive menu system bewilders the player with objectives and information, not all of it entirely pertinent to the jobs at hand. The ability to highlight multiple objectives is handy, but it can get confusing when they are not cleared in the game world on discovery, but instead recategorized in the game menus.
The gameplay itself flows much better though, rewarding stealth and cunning but also catering nicely to more obvious tactics, with both weapon and melee combat packing a satisfying heft and responsiveness. On the flip side the AI (capped at a single difficulty) can be comically vague, blind and deaf, the partying seemingly taking it’s toll as the colourful sitting ducks seemingly beg to be dispatched. Between a machete, a standard but small assortment of classic firearms and a devastating teep kick, player character Colt Vahn is already a dangerous proposition, even before all the ethereal abilities. Add partial invisibility, short distance teleportation and various kinetic attacks, and it turns into a downright power fantasy at times.
That fantasy is balanced by rival assassin Julianna Blake, possessed of those same abilities and also that of being able to enter levels at random. Chances are she will do so at least once per loop, and while engagement is ofteb avoidable with a stealthy approach or just running like hell, most of the time she ends up getting between the player and the primary level objective. Once killed in a loop, she is absent for it’s duration, and the tense rooftop skirmishes and cat-and-mouse corridor battles with her were easily the highlight of my playthrough.
A worthy adversary in both wit and will, she taunts and teases Colt as each level begins, sometimes goading him playfully, others disparaging viciously. The option exists for player controlled Julianna invasions, (which I did not partake in), but I found the CPU version to be a formidable yet usually beatable opponent, with diabolical timing.
With the absence of traditional game saving, leeway exists in the form of Reprise, an ability that literally rewinds from the point of death to a safer place in the level, with a limit of two uses per level. I found myself dying from environmental hazards more than being murdered, and as such the reprieve is welcomed. It resets between levels, and between this feature and the AI of regular enemies, I found Deathloop to be a much more forgiving experience than advertised.
Unlike Arkane’s other sims, the run and gun approach is often viable, and even when detected in stealth approaches it’s generally easy enough to escape from most bad situations, be it by fleeing or fighting. A charging machete attack is more than capable of beating most gun toting enemies in a one on one scenario, and I killed more of them by blade than by gun even when caught.
The kick is also brilliant, and Deathloop is generous with opportunities to employ it along the many cliff edges and roof ledges of Blackreef, often to hilarious results. Guns are punchy, accurate and weighty, but subject to the occasional jam. While my playstyle leant towards sniping and sneaky pistol work, the less subtle weapons felt no less comfortable.
Blackreef itself is a beautifully crafted and cleverly layered world, each level possessing a distinct feel and focus, and for the vertically inclined like myself it’s an absolute delight to explore, especially the urban areas. It’s an oddly idyllic place for such violence and debauchery – that juxtaposition of vibrant, cheerful colour and sordid brutality gives the game a wonderfully distinct vibe that is as fresh as anything I’ve seen in years. The freshness does wear off with all the repetition of course, but not entirely.
But for me where the world shines most is in the sound design. The soundtrack itself is solid but unremarkable, however the ambient noise and environmental effects are at a level of crispness and clarity that is purely gold standard. Be it ambient explosions caused by moronic enemies, or the sound of rushing footsteps behind me as the dreaded arrival of Julianna is announced, I have never enjoyed (or relied upon) sound in a game this much, and the increased haptic feedback of the PS5 controller only adds to it.
For the first time I can recall, the new Dualsense features feel like true evolution in immersion, and not just amusing gimmickry – every footstep is felt, as is the pounding of Colt’s heart on low health under a siege of enemy fire. Julianna’s radio chatter and on foot approach are communicated excellently through the controller’s speaker.
Perhaps my biggest criticism of Deathloop is a lack of replayability – given how many times you’ll visit the beautiful locales of Blackreef, it’s hard to imagine most people doing more than a single playthrough. It’s also rather disappointing that there is literally only one correct sequence possible for completion, and while the final loop is an incredibly satisfying trick to pull off, a game with such open ended level design should really have more than one true path to victory. Given that this is the company that gave us the brilliant emergent gameplay of Prey – which I won, out of ammo, by turning myself into a banana and falling six floors to bypass an unbeatable number of enemies, before turning back into a person and shutting down a reactor – this is rather disappointing.
That’s not to say there aren’t thrilling, unique moments – I killed one extremely dangerous Visionary by accident, when a slow moving crank controlled gate crushed her as she ran under it while I darted away, knowing all too well she would kill me with one shot.
Another time towards the very end of the game, I sized up my final targets and the enemies surrounding them while hiding in a dark storeroom, before the telltale footsteps of Julianna triggered a deliciously tense cloak and dagger battle. In a furious dance of teleportation and invisibility, I tried to silence her with my blade before she could get a shot off, and alert my prey to our presence. Finally managing to do so will forever be one of my proudest and fondest gaming memories.
The drip feed storytelling of clue collecting and acerbic radio banter between Colt and his nemesis may be tedious for some, but this is a game that embraces a certain amount of tedium by design. It’s a title for the detailed and meticulous, which appeals to intelligence instead of immediacy. The more you put into it, the more you will derive, and while I could technically have broken the loop sooner, I enjoyed perfecting the master plan over a couple extra in-game days.
Playing on a PS5 there were significant enemy glitches, with soft targets frequently stuck on doors or in walls. Frame rate drops were rare and insignificant, and while the game never crashed, it did freeze once – after mowimg down a tough Visionary and on the way to a level exit, of course. Overall none of these issues ruined the total experience, and the overall handling and performance during hectic gameplay sequences was superb.
Deathloop is by no means a perfect game, but one that demonstrates the tremendous potential of maverick developers like Arkane to engage more cerebral and unorthodox gamers, and to capitalize on the possibilities afforded by advances in gamepad technology by Sony. As a timed PS5 and PC exclusive, it offers perhaps the strongest selling point for Sony’s behemoth new console as the first major release to truly leverage Dualsense. It’s a tactical playground, and a sensory delight.