Oh, what a day
By the final loop of the game, I didn’t hesitate once. I was a supernatural demon, eviscerating all in my path while somehow knowing the passcode to every door and the secret of every rich arsehole hiding behind it. This was the moment I’d practised for, and while I was gutted it was coming to an end, there’s nothing better than a good plan coming together.
That plan has to start somewhere. Looping the same day over and over alongside everyone on Blackreef, it was my job as Colt to break the cycle of the First Day, either seen as immortal paradise or a hellish purgatory. I was met with sharp-tongued Julianna on my radio reminding me of memories forgotten in a wave of amnesia, a pinboard of seven targets, and a gun. I figured it was time to get to work.
The opening of Deathloop was a curiosity to me as an anticipating player studying how it might work in advance, as the concept sounded a little hard to get to grips with. With four locations to choose from that present new scenarios and activities depending on the time of day, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with where to go and what to do. Deathloop guides the player through a fairly linear series of what it calls ‘leads’, objectives to eventually herd your targets, the Visionaries, into close proximity to take as many out at once. The UI is attractive and sleek, a basic loadout system featuring ‘infusions’ to keep your goods after resets and a series of menus exploring your options of escape. Arkane isn’t afraid to tell the player via menus or pop-ups to say ‘hey, relax, you can do this later.’ It toys with the player’s expectations of the genre, and tries to steer you quickly into not just taking it slow, but often taking it really, really fast.
On the topic of UI though, Deathloop is not the most accessible. With some basic subtitle options, regularly tiny text, no alternative for the smoky text appearing in the narrative, no controller remapping and awkward menu movement, I would warn users affected by this and urge Arkane to include better systems to help this. Thanks to Courtney Craven from Can I Play That for pointing these out.
While low on guns and abilities, stealthing around to make it through the day is sometimes a necessary survival tactic, but once you get the guts to break out the expectations of a Dishonored/Hitman silent assassin mission, the real fun begins. Gunplay in Deathloop isn’t on par with your top shooters, but it opts into a loud and loose style that turns your weapons into gorgeous silent one-shot wonders, or cannons sawing through a crowd. Trinkets and tiers of weapons are used to build your arsenal up, and gold-tier guns unlocked through difficult challenges feel like a new unlocked superpower by themselves that gave me the confidence to start taking crowds of enemies head-on. Combined with a satisfying sprint, slide, dodge and cover system it holds up as a great FPS, something that surprised me from low expectations. Without the pressure to never get noticed, getting clocked by a guard didn’t feel like a failure – it felt like an invitation to go buck wild.
This of course combines with abilities you receive over time, ‘slabs’ collected from Visionaries you kill as a reward despite their deaths being pointless in the long run. This includes some inherited powers from Dishonored such as teleporting, connecting the fates of enemies, and telekinesis. You’re sadly only able to bring two each time, but each slab had an extremely satisfying feeling giving me unlimited goofy creativity to cut through enemies. Killing Visionaries multiple times unlocks new upgrades which entices you to revisit these locations, a smart way to make me revisit locations and discover new elements each time around. These upgrades felt built into the level design, with some shortcuts only accessible with an upgraded Shift ability to teleport to, or enemies tantalisingly close to an edge to be thrown off with Karnesis. It contributed to everything feeling brand new the more I learned and empowered myself.
As expected, the locations did not disappoint. Arkane is in its element with environmental design, with architecture sometimes reminiscent of Dishonored’s cities Dunwall and Karnaca with jaw-dropping interiors matching the supernatural 1960s theme throughout the game, combining beautifully with its jazzy Bond-esque soundtrack. There’s so much character in every corner and touches of colourful humour that I’d never seen to be prevalent in Arkane’s works before. It felt fun, relaxed, and cool. The neon signs, bizarre advertisements and surrealist statues made for brilliant exploratory eye-candy in itself, but are always perceived in brand new ways depending on the cold, pale mornings or the glowing, tense nights. The level design is unparalleled as always, with map layouts instantly understandable while somehow also hiding so many things a clever player assumes is empty space. There’s nothing more bewildering than finishing a game you spent so many hours exploring, going online, and finding a guide about an area you never even knew existed. If you think I’m daft – it’ll happen to you.
The time-loop cult followers, coined the ‘Eternalists’, were a big part of what made Blackreef feel alive. While Arkane excels at environments and level design, their average NPCs never shone so brightly; Deathloop gives them a whole new perspective. Through the lens of an endless time loop, enemies no longer care what happens to you or each other and just want to have a good time. Eternalists drunkenly stumble around the place, throwing bombs at each other and rambling to their friends. It felt less like an army and more like a bunch of art-house college kids whose party I just crashed. With consistently entertaining writing I regularly found myself enjoying their conversations and stupidity, and yet feeling no regret murdering them in endlessly creative ways. After all, I’d see them all tomorrow.
Most of the writing is found between the protagonist Colt and Julianna, the final Visionary whose sole purpose is to get in your way and protect the loop. With rapid-fire snark through radio transmission, she’ll reveal elements of how you got here, her relationship with you, and why you should give in and enjoy the Blackreef party. The performance of Ozioma Akagha as Julianna is one of the best in games in recent years for me, primarily because she manages to turn endless lines of insult and annoyance into something with flair, emotion or genuine comedy. With an expectation of tiring over cutesy back-and-forth quips between Colt and Julianna, Akagha transformed the script into something natural and flourishing that absolutely blew me away.
While I’d be happy with just that, Julianna also comes paired with her own mechanic and multiplayer mode that adds an extra layer of spice to a process that could have gotten monotonous. Her ability to ‘invade’ Colt’s missions locks off the exit, and forces you to hack them open or take her on as either an AI character, or an online player swooping in. This was a fun change of pace during normal explorations, but can turn your stomach when heading back with no lives left, and a whole lot of loot. Once you level up weaponry and abilities the Eternalists can be chewed through easily, and Julianna is there to keep your ego in check. As an AI she can be taken out without too much trouble but often did get the drop on me, especially combined with other guards under her control.
As an online player, I never experienced someone invading me, but I sure as hell had a great time invading everyone else. With a system of ranking up and unlocking more guns and abilities, the power I held joining players’ matches and absolutely ruining their evenings was an element of sadism I never knew I needed. It’s a heart-wrenching, tense experience stalking over rooftops knowing that a military super-powered gun nut knows I’m coming, and definitely wants me dead. Her own camouflage powers are fun to play around with, and it ended up a surprisingly easy to love multiplayer experience adding a cherry to an incredible campaign.
As you build up your leads, collecting powerful weaponry, abilities and various secrets, you inch closer every loop to where you need to be. Deathloop is not a linear experience within its levels, with Arkane’s signature simulations allowing you to approach a building in various different ways, but it has linearity in its overall structure. Every playthrough will be different, but there’s a fixed set of leads to follow and that did dampen my creative spirits a little. Don’t wake up on Blackreef with a pen and paper expecting this to be Return of the Obra Dinn: it’s not. It’s a gloriously entertaining puzzle box but one with a fixed solution the game will guide you through if you’re lost. How you get there, the journey itself, is what makes Deathloop magic.
It’s hard to play and write about Deathloop without Dishonored lingering in the forefront of your mind. In their previous rat-infested IP you finish a level with a score depending on four characteristics: stealth, chaos, lethal, and non-lethal. Similarly in Hitman, you’re rewarded for being unnoticed, for having clean kills. As satisfying as this can be, many of us find ourselves ‘save scumming’ the quick load button after being noticed and all the King’s men are out to get you. You’re either giving up that style of play, or frustratingly resetting to get it right. This mechanic is both built into Deathloop’s core, and completely different.
As mentioned, lethal and non-lethal complications are moot due to the time loop bringing everyone back in the mornings, but there’s also no binary relating to stealth or chaos. There is no scoreboard at the end of days, no playstyle to follow. You have the choice on the spectrum of quiet and sneaky to loud and proud, but can change that in one encounter. It’s no longer stealth until you’re forced into chaos; it’s a matrimony of the two working in collaboration. With segmented level design and forgiving enemy AI detection ranges, I could break every Geneva Convention in one spot and then crouch down the road while other Eternalists are none-the-wiser. A radio-signalled alarm system counters this, which adds the challenge, but even then you have the arsenal and superpowers to turn round and take it head on. Being able to blend and ping-pong these playstyles made for an experience that no title like it has been able to pull off in my virtual assassination career.
With hours of skulking around apartments and power stations soaking in lore somehow combined with an action-packed supernatural FPS that keeps your heart racing, Deathloop is a rollercoaster of accelerating progression. Whether it’s upgrading yourself, your loadout or your knowledge of this world, you’re always moving closer to the finish line feeling more empowered every minute. As you approach the final act you begin to see past versions of Colt, either in despair, heartbreak or unquenching murderous rage. You see your past mistakes repeating themselves, and it uses the worn-out time loop concept to show a man trying to break a cycle that may feel safe, but needs to come to an end.
Either it was that narrative, my advanced abilities, my insane collection of guns, my practise-perfect knowledge of what was about to come, or likely all of the above that made my final loop an unforgettable gaming experience. Right at the start of the final evening I fell off a roof and died – twice. I had one shot to get it right, and I threw stealth out the window and went in loud. The rollercoaster was almost over, and I wasn’t going to hesitate, or take it slow. Whether I liked it or not, the plan had finally come together, and it was a beautiful, beautiful thing to behold.