Mastering the creation of the proverbial "gameplay loop" should be the penultimate goal of nearly all games, second only to crafting an enjoyable experience. In some games, it's possible that the creation of a gameplay loop can come from the title's replayability. From new game plus to teeth-gritting difficulty spikes, there are many ways to make a game replayable, but so very few titles make a loop satisfying enough to warrant a second playthrough. For developers Arkane Lyon, replayability is less of a commodity and more of an expectation; carefully crafted variances in gameplay approaches can be thanked for this.
Games like Dishonored and Prey, critically acclaimed titles from Arkane, have been praised far and wide by fans and critics alike for their open-ended approaches to play. Deathloop, Arkane's newest murder-puzzle shooter, sets out to cleverly weave the concept of a gameplay loop into the narrative of the game. With an idea as exciting as this and a long-revered studio at the helm, it's disappointing to witness Deathloop's failure to deliver on its promise of continuing Arkane's gameplay philosophy by missing the mark on the precedent of freedom laid down by previous titles.
Virtues of Blackreef
Deathloop is a brand new IP set on the mystifying island of Blackreef, where one day loops continuously for everyone involved in the new "eternity." You play as Colt, the jocular hero who is tasked with ending the loop by uncovering the story behind Blackreef and assassinating eight "Visionaries," all of which being keys to ending the loop. Colt's understanding of what is really going on in Blackreef is as limited as the player's, but the story's uncovering leaves a satisfying bread trail that keeps you engaged in the mysteries of the island. The island itself, Blackreef, is themed as a retro-futuristic '60s locale akin to Bioshock and Fallout. The game graphics uphold well and, aside from a few frame hiccups, I found the world to be visually pleasing.
As with most Arkane titles, Deathloop entertains Arkane's distinct gameplay that offers a fair amount of playstyles for players to mess around with. From the get-go, Colt is equipped with his hacking tool, the "Hackamajig"; his machete, which offers the ability to kill anyone instantly through stealth; and the "Strelak Sapper Charge," a bomb that triples as a tripwire, proximity charge, and grenade. All three of these tools come in handy and can be wielded in any of Colt's hands alongside a gun. All of these tools aid Colt in his mission to take down Visionaries while evading (or killing) the Eternalists roaming the island.
Deathloop's weapon pool is a bit small, but the way guns can be tailored to any distinct playstyle makes their usage unique. Guns come in four flavors: grey, blue, purple, and gold; offering more perks as the weapon rarity increases. These perks are randomized, but attachments known as Trinkets can be slapped onto any weapon to further customize it to your playstyle. Weapon Trinkets acted like any attachment you'd see in a shooter game; speed reloading, increased magazine sizes, and reduced recoil are some of many attachable Trinkets I came across. My favorite weapon (which was conveniently included in the deluxe edition of the game) is a silent, golden pistol that made me feel like I was replaying GoldenEye for the first time. I created a more stealthy Colt but kept a powerful shotgun in my back pocket on the off-chance that my surreptitious behavior was noticed.
Despite its glaring flaws, Deathloop has a strong cast of characters that are equally as entertaining as they are fitting in the enigmatic world of Blackreef.
Slabs, Deathloop's abilities, also allow you to build your character the way you like to play. The abilities can range from psychokinetic powers to a shifting teleport, but since Colt is only allowed to equip two Slabs at one time, you have to weigh the pros and cons of which are worth keeping and which are worth tossing aside. These Slabs, which are attained from Visionary assassinations, can be modified with various different upgrades. These upgrades can really up the ante when it comes to what Slabs you're taking with you versus which you're leaving behind. For my playstyle, Slabs sat in the backseat while I let my weapons do work, but that's the beauty of Arkane's games: you can choose how you play. Unfortunately for Deathloop, though, choice in playstyle comes to a halt with that note on what gear you bring to the table. In regards to exploration and choice of infiltration, Blackreef island feels as ineffective as the deceptive freedom of choice being offered.
At the end of any given loop, which lasts for four time periods of the day spent between four regions, all of Colt's gear will disappear. Fortunately, Arkane knew this route would only detriment their game, so the Residuum system exists. Residuum is a currency that can be harvested through various Residuum-infused items around the island. Additionally, Residuum can be harvested from the remains of Visionaries. This system allows Colt to "infuse" guns, Trinkets, and Slabs so they're kept for all future loops. Building up my Arsenal and finding out which weapons worked best with how I wanted to play was the most fun I had with Deathloop, as the combat that is included has satisfying potential. Unfortunately for Deathloop, this is where most of the "choosing" occurs, with the rest of the game being mapped out for you.
The Illusionary Freedom of Choice
Perhaps one aspect of Deathloop that truly holds it back from the greatness that is Dishonored is its limiting explorable space. There are only four regions that Colt can sneak his way through (and most areas are on the smaller side). Why only four? Well, as previously mentioned, Deathloop puts on a guise of deep exploration by having four periods of time throughout the day. It's expected that each area has different things going on throughout the day, so four areas become 16. In reality, the different regions still fall flat and limit explorability. New pieces of the map might be available, but for the most part, the only real reason Colt needs to visit different areas throughout the day is to follow Visionary Leads.
Deathloop's main "quests" are known as Visionary Leads, with side quests being Arsenal Leads. Arsenal Leads allow you to collect Slabs and rare weapons by taking down Visionaries, while Visionary Leads have you learning the schedules of Visionaries in an effort to herd them all into the perfect assassination. The idea that the Arsenal Leads provide additional content is an illusion; Visionary Leads eventually result in you assassinating Visionaries, which in turn, completes most of the Arsenal Leads. The product here is a game that, when completed, truly feels completed - it doesn't make you want to replay, removing most of the supposed replayability that is included. "Discoveries," which are mental notes Colt will make as he learns more about Blackreef, offer a minor incentive and reward to exploration, but these Discoveries largely lend themselves to the main story rather than the side content, which is much smaller in scope. Discoveries also provide context for what is going on on Blackreef through audio logs, terminals, and notes - if you enjoy piecing stories together on your own rather than having it explained, then Deathloop is perfect for you. If not, you might have trouble making sense of the story that is told.
The idea that you have to create a master plan and execute it perfectly is nothing but a fallacy, it's a promise left unfulfilled that mislead me into believing this game was more than what it is.
As previously mentioned, the real distinction of play here comes from your character's build rather than your approach to an assassination. In fact, Deathloop's saving grace is the building of Colt's kit - without this key feature, including the Residuum system, I don't think I would have enjoyed the game much at all. That's not to say Deathloop doesn't provide unique ways to kill the Visionaries - they do, it's just that the inclusion of a "golden loop" means, by the end of the game, everyone will be shuttled into doing the same path. Narratively, a perfect loop makes sense, but this aspect of the game totally throws mud in the face of everything that was marketed for Deathloop. Instead of a shooter that demands critical thinking and creative approaches to the problem of killing eight people in one day, Deathloop ultimately leads with a carrot on a stick to the only way to kill eight people in one day.
I'd argue that this is Deathloop's most head-scratching blemish. Up until I played the game, I was under the impression that I had a substantial amount of agency in regards to when I killed someone and how I killed them. After my 25ish hours with the game, I've come to the conclusion that this promise was only a half-truth. The idea that you have to create a master plan and execute it perfectly is nothing but a fallacy, it's a promise left unfulfilled that mislead me into believing this game was more than what it is. Colt makes a plan and every single person playing Deathloop will go through the exact same plan. It's disappointing, but most notably, it makes me want to go back to Dishonored, where my choices had weight, and the story was told beyond discoverable notes.
By the end of Deathloop, I had a small idea as to who Colt was, why Julianna wanted to kill me, and how I got into the position I was in. Still, I had hundreds of questions that are still left unanswered. The answer most likely comes from the notes scattered throughout Blackreef, but this threadbare methodology of storytelling left me feeling like I went through a half-baked experience. The ending(s) to Deathloop are equally as half-baked as they are abrupt. I didn't even realize a choice was being presented to me until I had already completed the game, which meant I had to do my golden loop again to experience the other ending to the story. While I didn't originally mind experiencing another day of killing on Blackreef, I was fairly bothered by the fact that a menu bug forced me to soft reset and play through the ending a third time.
Hunter vs. Hunted
Despite its glaring flaws, Deathloop has a strong cast of characters that are equally as entertaining as they are fitting in the enigmatic world of Blackreef. Julianna, the smart-mouthed rival whose voice plays out of your DualSense controller's speaker, is an assassin hellbent on taking down Colt and preventing him from ending the loop. The humorously written veiled threats between Colt and Julianna are supplemented by superb voice acting, but the complimentary multiplayer that comes with this vying relationship leaves much to be desired.
The injection of multiplayer into Deathloop, at first glance, seems to add a novel distinction to the game. This distinction, though, seems to be moored in as a selling point rather than a carefully considered and developed system. At random points during any of Colt's explorations of Blackreef, Julianna has a chance to appear and terrorize the player. If you're playing as Colt, the immediate pressure makes the game more intense and throws a wrench in your plan. This pressure is quickly disseminated thinly by poorly optimized PvP mechanics. Even when you're fighting in PvE, Deathloop harbors some idiotic AI that can make combat drag out to drabness.
The pressure Julianna's presence introduces to any one of Colt's outings can make the game exhilarating and adrenaline-inducing, especially when you've got the multiplayer option turned on, but the reality of these interactions is a poorly-designed PvP system. Trying to shoot at Juliann (or at Colt) is clunky and substantial choppiness makes this whole aspect of the game something I set out to avoid. Ultimately, playing as Julianna or defending against another player as Colt is more frustrating than it's worth.
From climbing through cliff-side windows to dashing across overhanging chandeliers, the castle in Updaam accomplishes everything that the rest of Deathloop doesn't.
On the main menu, you can choose to "break the loop," or "protect the loop,"; Playing as Colt means you're going in to break it, and protecting it is up to people playing as Julianna. Julianna's invasion aspect of this game suffers heavily from the same clunkiness that comes with defending the loop as Colt. Once you load into another player's world, you're tasked with finding Colt and killing him. One thing the game does which I actually appreciate is how it rewards Julianna players for being creative with their approach. Various challenges provide points towards Julianna's "Hunter Rank," which unlocks new items for Julianna to play with. This system encourages creative killings and fun assassinations, which is something that, for the most part, Deathloop failed to do.
Deathloop's most well-crafted area sits atop the city of Updaam. It's no surprise that this area is an easily comparable callback to the regions of Dishonored - it's all about how you decide to approach the building. Colt has to make his way into a masquerade party to assassinate one of his targets, sneaking (or shooting) his way past dozens of wolf-masked Eternalists. Each time I approached the building, I found a different way to enter, allowing me to perfect my plan based on my build and take down the target in the most effective ways I could think up. From climbing through cliff-side windows to dashing across overhanging chandeliers, the castle in Updaam accomplishes everything that the rest of Deathloop doesn't. Assassinating the target is equally as fun as is your character's grand arrival at the party. Learning the enemy's personality and behaviors is how you can pull off the perfect execution. If you don't like that, though, feel free to build your Colt as a tank and mow down the place. It's up to you how you infiltrate the party in Updaam, as it should be, as the whole game should have been.
I have a love-hate relationship with Deathloop. Despite my critical look at the game's flaws, I found enjoyment in my time on Blackreef. With superb voice acting and exceptional combat mechanics, it's hard to say that there isn't fun to be found in Deathloop. With that being said, it's not fair to ignore the glaring flaws that plague the game's systems. The PvP is jarring and half-baked, the regions are small and few in number, and the lack of agency involved in the overall mission to assassinate everyone feels lackluster. If you haven't played an Arkane game before, Deathloop might be more fun than you expect, but if you have, then you'll probably be left wanting much, much more.
TechRaptor reviewed Deathloop on PlayStation 5 with a copy provided by the publisher. It is also available on PC.
- Outstanding Voice Talent and Dialogue Writing
- Exceptional Arsenal Mechanics
- Pleasantly Themed Retro-Future '60s Setting
- Enjoyable and Responsive Gunplay
- Linear Path to Assassinating Every Visionary
- Jarring and Clunky PvP
- Limiting and Small Map Regions
- Buggy Menus
- Unintelligent AI