Deathloop Review

September 23, 2021
Also on: PC
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I’ve been thinking about Deathloop a lot lately: on my way to work, walking the dog, in the shower. My days have been punctuated with burning questions, new theories, potential routes through levels, so much so I’ve been writing notes — seriously thorough notes. You know that famous meme of Charlie Day with his conspiracy theory board covered in red string? That’s been me throughout my entire Deathloop playthrough, and all I want to do is play more.

See, whilst Deathloop will guide you by the hand to a certain extent there are myriad ways to play Arkane Studios’ hyper-stylish new shooter. Encouraging players to experiment with the variety of systems, upgrades, weapons and more, finding your own way to solve the task at hand is all part of the fun. Hang on, let me loop back to the beginning here.

Deathloop puts you in the shoes of Colt, a man who wakes up on a beach not knowing where, or even who he is. As it happens, he’s on Blackreef — a mysterious island where every day is the same and has been for some time. The island’s purgatorial state is just one of the many mysteries I was dying to uncover from the very beginning, and the journey down that rabbit hole is one that you're not likely to forget. Thankfully, neither is Colt. Despite waking up with amnesia and himself living the same day again and again, he can actually remember new discoveries from each loop. Herein lies the main conceit of Deathloop; the more days you play the more knowledgeable and, to some extent powerful, Colt becomes. Greeted by the voice of the equally cryptic Julianna every time he wakes up, Colt slowly realises that he must kill the eight Visionaries to ‘break the loop’ and escape Blackreef.

The view is beautiful. It would be a shame if something bad happened...

No, not even death will give Colt what he wants. The loop simply begins anew. And Colt will die a lot. However, whilst describing Deathloop as a roguelike is accurate, it also feels incredibly reductive. Yes, dying (or completing a full day cycle) will result in Colt returning to the start with nothing but a rusty submachine gun and his trusty Hackamajig (yes, that’s what it’s really called) — a hacking device that allows Colt to hack his way through a number of situations that comes in handy all too often.

Quickly you’ll discover that today (and every day) Blackreef is hosting a huge party. And you’re going to crash that party over and over again. Each of the game’s four environments is preparing in a different way and visiting them at different times of the day — Morning, Noon, Afternoon, Evening — will lead to different discoveries. Throughout the day these environments will alter and your windows of opportunity will change as time progresses. So simply running up to a Visionary’s secret lair first thing in the morning may not be enough for some. They’re busy, they have things to do. However, a hastily left note or a message from one of the eight to another may reveal all. Progressing through the day, done by switching environments or manually from your safe house, may be the only way to catch them.

So, Deathloop is actually more like a puzzle game disguised as a shooter than anything else. It’s also somehow inspired by old school adventure games and ties its story into the gameplay very neatly with the roguelike mechanic. 

Every piece of Deathloop’s sprawling action-packed puzzle resets at the dawning of a new day, every enemy in roughly the same place, every item back where it belongs. All you need to do is figure out how you want to solve it. The realisation that all the pieces of the puzzle are in play and you just need to figure out the steps to get things to line up to create the perfect day was incredible. It was upon this discovery that Deathloop clicked and I fell head over heels. However, Just thinking about killing one Visionary was hard. “How am I ever going to take them out in a single loop?” is a question that lingered for a long time. 

It turns out that a high-powered nail gun can be incredibly stealthy.

The sheer amount of information, systems, add-ons and upgrades was initially overwhelming but, thankfully, Deathloop also has a great guiding hand feature to steer you along the path and make switching goals and returning to a thread very easy. Although the menus are a little cumbersome, this was particularly helpful in the early game where adding to your options is key.

Following ‘Arsenal Leads’ on the menu will lead you to Slabs — powerful ingots carried by Visionaries that Colt can wield for himself. These include the ability to kill multiple enemies with a single strike, telekinetic powers to ragdoll enemies across a room, simple teleportation, and will also help to inform and augment your playstyle. Killing a Visionary will allow you to collect their Slab, alongside a whole load of Trinkets. Trinkets allow you to upgrade Colt’s weapons or perhaps even Colt himself. Just like your weapons, Trinkets come in a variety of colour-coded grades and can be found in the world. They can do things like add some extra speed when aiming, make your health recover faster, or even be as vital as a double jump.

‘Visionary Leads’ on the other hand will help you to kill each Visionary individually. These paths are often a series of smaller objectives that will help to connect the dots between each of these eight island-dwelling oligarchs, progress the story, and work towards building the perfect loop. I recommend following these ‘critical paths’ in the early going as they can help you find your feet and get you used to how the game plays. The game’s ‘tutorial’ section, for lack of a better term, leads you to your first which also results in Colt being able to collect Residium — a pretty vital substance that allows him to ‘infuse’ weapons and Trinkets to keep them with him in the event of death. This one helps a lot and Colt will need all the help he can get.

That’s because Blackreef is not a friendly place; especially if you’re Colt. As well as the eight Visionaries, the world is inhabited by The Eternalists. Julianna has spread the word that you’re coming, so these nameless and faceless violent mannequins are often your first obstacle. In the beginning, Deathloop will encourage you to take them out quietly and proceed with caution — sometimes even written as messages that both the player and Colt can see. This tentative and vigilante approach gives off the impression that Deathloop is all about stealth. Whilst being sneaky does pay dividends, allowing you to learn more about the world through conversations and other environmental cues, or perhaps discover alternative routes through each environment (I’m still discovering new ways to traverse each environment now), it’s not one that you have to take. 

Did you hear something?

Admittedly stealth was my preferred way of playing the majority of the game, and choosing tact over firepower makes a lot of sense in the early going. After all, Colt has very little at his disposal. However, stealth often became merely a precursor to a firefight. As the bullets start flying, a cacophony of jazz kicks in and it's time for fight or flight. If you feel like you have the tools, then the gunplay and movement is similarly satisfying. Each weapon feels distinct and the haptics and adaptive triggers of the DualSense controller elevate that even further. Colt’s almost superhuman kick also needs to be highlighted. Not only is it an excellent parry during heated one-on-one combat, but the satisfaction of booting an unsuspecting enemy off a cliff or a pier, or anywhere is so gratifying. There's more than a little old-school action movie style to combat too, so you can go full James Bond if you have what it takes. Turning Colt into a tank is an equally viable option though, and you can mow down enemies in seconds with the right tools, Slabs, and Trinkets at your disposal. However, if you find yourself woefully unprepared, as I often was, running for your life and making it back to safety, either elsewhere in the level or to the true safety of Colt's tunnel system, is equally thrilling.

The Eternalists aren't shaken easily either. Hyper aware and bloodthirsty, they'll spot you from a fair distance if you're not careful and taking out large groups of them is virtually impossible without a huge amount of firepower or some clever use of your abilities. Watching windows and doorways is so important, with the potential for eyes to be on you everywhere you are. The first time an enemy spotted and began shooting at me through an open window was such a surprise I panicked and died — back to the beginning for me. This tiny moment encapsulates a lot of what I love about Deathloop. The level design and clever enemy AI combined to create something that I’m still thinking about now. The fact Deathloop can do all of that whilst spinning the plates of different Slabs, Trinkets, weapons and more whilst still providing a challenge is important. The game teaches you that the right tools combined with the proper insight could result in some really special moments, be that a perfect stealth run through an environment or all out chaos. Can you game the system a little? Sure. However, this layered and varied approach to gameplay is crying out for you to not just break the rules but make your own.

So much for keeping quiet.

Knowledge is the true power in Deathloop. The more I played, the more I learned. This made revisiting levels multiple times refreshing, not only because I could approach them multiple ways each time, but also because new discoveries could be made with each repeat visit. As you add more powers and to Colt's infinitely customisable arsenal, the more new ways you'll find of achieving your goals. One particular example involved confronting Charlie Montague — a Visionary who designs live action games. Upon first approaching his cleverly designed mansion, which he had turned into a game for Eternalists to play, there seemed to be only a couple of routes through with plenty of resistance. However, upon killing him and returning to do the same again for an upgrade, the encounter was much more brief thanks to both the understanding of how to approach it and my new found teleportation Slab.

It’s as if each environment was designed with the philosophy of “What if?” As such, no two runs will ever feel exactly the same and multiple players could get to the same point having had vastly different experiences. This makes return visits just satisfying (if not more so) than the first. Perfecting that gameplay loop — excuse the pun — is Deathloop’s biggest achievement. Without being able to make each run feel fresh it would lose its appeal very quickly. Thankfully, each return visit often presents a new discovery or potential to upgrade. Plus, these self-contained sandboxes are packed with hidden secrets, easter eggs and other things to discover. Not all of them will help you towards your end goal, but it was fun all the same. 

Fun is something that very much seems to inform a lot of what Deathloop is about. This is not a game about punishing the player or frustrating you until you eventually succeed. Arkane invites every player to mess with its systems, explore the environments and try everything once. Death is frustrating, but it rarely feels like failure. I always felt like I’d picked something up along the way or learned something new, and it never takes too long to get you back to where you were last. The game even starts you off with a failsafe in Colt’s very own Slab, offering two chances to revive without resetting the world. Everything about Deathloop and the way it’s put together feels thoughtful and polished in a way that few games ever do. 

Hi Julianna! How are you? 

Even the soundtrack is superb, underscoring both the stylish art deco and brutalist concrete of the world with a blend of jazz and funk that also serves as a gameplay device, letting you know when you’re spotted and when you’re off the hook. It melds perfectly with Deathloop’s achingly cool aesthetic that clashes Goldfinger and grindhouse — with Colt the perfect protagonist at the centre of such a mashup.

The other core tenet of Deathloop, aside from addictively good gameplay, is personality. Deathloop would have been a very different game if it wasn’t for a focus on not only characters but the personality of the world too. Colt and Julianna as the game’s main pair have a relationship built on one upmanship and the pair will banter back and forth regularly, their verbal sparring filling in the gaps in both of their stories whilst also adding a little extra fire to the game’s multiplayer elements — more on those later. Although they look and feel like crash test dummies, The Eternalists also have plenty about them. They’ll stagger drunkenly through environments as they get caught up in the Blackreef festivities, others will fight to the death as things get out of hand, whilst conversations between groups can often be both entertaining and informative. The environments themselves are incredibly dynamic, changing drastically and becoming more debauched as night draws in. The phenomenal blend of jazz, funk and soul in the soundtrack providi  The neon colours and art deco design choices are front and centre, but Blackreef is also home to a grey militaristic underbelly. The smaller interactive buildings each tell their own stories, whilst the larger spaces are almost overflowing with identity. That identity is often linked to the Visionaries who you’ll find in a particular area, and you’ll learn more about them as individuals as you play. It’s safe to say that none of them are particularly likeable, but the way their stories are drip-fed so you learn more about them from each new loop is also pretty exceptional.

The way the story of Deathloop is told is also fascinating. Like a 1,000 piece jigsaw of a plain blue sky, it comes together piece by torturous piece through snippets of conversation, audio logs, notes, and other environmental tells. The risk versus reward of scouring the environments, hoping that an Eternalist doesn’t spot you and raise the alarm is all part of the thrill. The discovery of one of a new thread, whether it's part of the critical path or not, feels like a huge deal. As such, there’s a real sense of achievement and plenty of eureka moments to be had. However, if your focus is elsewhere then it may be hard to make sense of and I could see some feeling like they’ve not quite gotten the full story by the end of the game. However, in a game that is all about discoveries and research I thought it was excellent. Did I ever wish they’d given me a little more? Of course. But that just kept me motivated to play. 

I can feel how satisfying this kick was

Slowly but surely, you’re solving this puzzle and seeing how the sections connect to one another. Once a section is complete you can continue building out the next until you have the right tools and know-how to take out the visionaries and break the loop. But what if someone was to come along and impede your progress? Perhaps taking you out just before you escaped with that new Slab you’ve been working towards and a pocket full of Residium that you really could have used? That’s where Julianna comes back into the fray; not just as a voice on the other end of a radio but as another player with their own set of skills and upgrades.

Deathloop’s multiplayer may be the only time the game truly starts fighting against you; allowing Julianna to be the thorn in your side that she tells you that she is. So yes, the other side to Deathloop is a multiplayer melee that pits two players against each other where the goal of whoever is playing as Julianna is to invade your game and ruin your day. And whilst playing as Julianna is fun and she has her own set of upgrades and a separate loadout to Colt, offering new life to players who may have finished Colt’s story (or not; it’s not required) as a tormentor to others. Getting invaded is incredibly stressful but, just as with any big firefight in Deathloop, escaping with your life and the spoils — either by hacking a beacon and regaining access to Colt’s tunnels, or killing your pursuer — is such an adrenaline rush. And, because Arkane knows that multiplayer isn’t for everyone, you can avoid these encounters by locking your game. 

“I have the power!”

Yet again, it appears Arkane has thought of everything when it comes to Deathloop. It’s a roguelike that gives players a second chance from the off, that allows you to play almost however you please, will guide you by the hand or let you explore at your leisure and will even let you enjoy it without having to worry about spontaneous multiplayer bouts. Deathloop feels like the culmination of years of hard work, of trial and error, and of listening to players. That’s incredibly important and goes a long way with me. There are elements in Deathloop that can be found in Prey and both Dishonored games that have been polished and perfected here and the results of all this work are astounding.

Deathloop is an exceptional game and discovering everything about Colt, Julianna and Blackreef has been fascinating. Sneaking through an area undetected and pulling off the perfect Slab heist is as equally satisfying as a chaotic firefight where I only just make it. It’s a roguelike where death is so rarely frustrating and where progression comes from every new run. It does so many things at the same time and it’s baffling that it does them all so well. You simply have to play this game.

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Everything about Deathloop is so clever and well balanced. Discovering Blackreef and all of its mysteries will stick with me for a long time.
Ant Barlow

Started with the PlayStation, now I'm here... with a PlayStation. Once skipped school to play the Metal Gear Solid demo repeatedly. I love stories big and small. Trophy hunter. Recent VR convert. Probably a hipster.