Deathloop is a hell of a thing. It’s an immersive sim from Arkane, a studio that’s doggedly pursued making the very best one of those for decades now. It’s also…wait no, let’s try this again.
Ahem. In Deathloop, you use an arsenal of familiar powers with cool new weapons to navigate the island of Blackreef, its history and its fucked up residents and you…No, that wasn’t it either. Okay, once more from the top.
Deathloop is an incredibly fun game to play, a hell of an immersive sim with an expansive playground and toolset to play with, an entertaining series of mysteries to solve narratively and….nope, it’s actually getting worse. Alright, screw it.
Deathloop is a game about being trapped in the throes of a capitalistic nightmare island prison and getting the hell out however you can. It’s about sneaking around and breaking the necks of a crass, hedonistic and shallow upper class, or blowing their brains out all across some sweet mid-century modern decor, all in the service of finding deeper meaning to a shallow existence. It’s also uneven in places where it should otherwise shine, but for the most part, boy does it shine.
Alright, I feel good about that one.
The conceit of the game, if you’re lost or know nothing about it, is this: You are Colt, who wakes up hungover on the shore of Blackreef Isle every morning. Over a radio a woman named Julianna informs you that, try as you might to break the time loop that makes you wake up on that beach every day, you will never succeed, and she’ll kill you herself to make sure of it. Your inner dialogue is scrawled onto any surface that can support it as you try and make sense of your role in this loop. In the meantime, there are eight people scattered around the island called “Visionaries” who boast powers that can help you break free. As you kill them, the Anomaly holding the loop in place destabilizes, meaning that once you kill all eight targets in one loop you will successfully break it and be able to escape. And thus the stage is set for a sprawling mystery and one hell of a party.
If you’ve played an Arkane game, you’ll be pretty familiar with Deathloop’s minutiae. Everything from Dishonored’s abilities and overall layout to Prey’s retro aesthetic and DLCs, which are in retrospect clear predecessors to this game’s mechanical twists, makes this game feel like the culmination of years upon years of design choices, mechanics and ideas finally gathered into one place.
Deathloop is most different in that it’s a roguelike. That means that details shift between runs. Sometimes a trio of killer turrets won’t spawn on that same street where they killed you before or a room will have different puzzle solutions. Mostly what affects you is that your powers and weapons reset the next day unless you use a material called Residuum, which you’ll mostly collect from killing Visionaries, to build a permanent loadout. You can use it on weapons, weapon trinkets (think attachments), character trinkets (think perks), or Slabs and Slab upgrades. Slabs are the magical abilities you can pick up off the Visionaries, and the only way to upgrade them is to continually hunt down and kill the Visionaries they belong to. Countless of these abilities will be familiar to Arkane fans, and just like their past games you are completely free to ignore any power you don’t want in favor of what works for you. While I tried my hand with everything the game offered, I mostly settled into my typical role of a stealthy assassin, favoring Shift and Nexus, this game’s equivalent to the Dishonored abilities Blink and Domino. If you value raw strength, the buff Havoc and the force-throw Karnesis might work out better. Mix and match them to discover the fun of these games: throwing shit together and seeing what turns out.
Julianna, that voice I mentioned that wants to murder you, spices things up in a further deviation from the form. She actually invades your game in plot-sensitive areas and times of day, as either an AI or another actual player, determined to hunt you down and kill you. Gotta admire someone who keeps their word. In my experience, a run in with Julianna, AI or not, is an inevitability, and a fun one at that. Manage to kill her and you get her loadout, including whatever Slab she might have been using at the time, which helps you load up on more Slab upgrades. The alternative is you die and start the loop (which becomes short once you’re a well-oiled machine) all over. Deathloop does away with the tired and frustrating sense of death in most games by doing what all roguelikes encourage you to do: die over and over again. While you don’t technically need to die-since surviving a loop will reset you in the same way a death would-the game makes pretty clear you’re not going to see it all in a single run and you certainly won’t succeed every single time. Take the risk and eat shit if it doesn’t work because you’ll be able to try again almost immediately afterwards.
Deathloop is just one big murder puzzle, made up of even tinier murder puzzles, and it’s an absolute delight to solve. Loops are broken into four parts of the day, and depending on what time of day you visit a section, it might look very different. Your targets also move between zones, spending the morning in one part of the island, and the evening in another. Huge in-game events only happen at certain times and it’s on you to stumble around, tugging at threads that will reveal exactly when and how to best kill the Visionaries. In the midst of these mysteries, the game begins to feel more like an adventure game, sort of in the vain of 2019’s hit Outer Wilds. While not nearly as obtuse, and tons more violent, I couldn’t help but note how much of this game was a mystery begging me to figure it out, especially how to take out the Visionaries. Each of them is some kind of artist or “genius” who, beyond being given supernatural abilities, has laid claim to land on Blackreef and transformed it into their own lairs. For Ramblin’ Frank Spicer, a former rock n’ roller, his lair’s an exclusive club where he blasts his own music and becomes a living Genius lyric explainer video. Fia, a narcissistic artist, has turned a bunker into one giant easel for her artwork—none of it terribly good, but somebody lied to her enough to make her filthy rich and self-obsessed. Solving what makes them and their lairs tick is some of Arkane’s most layered and sprawling design work yet, which makes it all the more rewarding when you clean house on them a few loops later and move on to the next challenging piece of the equation.
While later loops will hopefully see you clean up your method, things will probably be a mess at first. Unfortunately, because the Visionaries are superpowered, it’s worth noting that some of these run-ins can turn into unintuitive and ultimately clunky boss skirmishes. One in particular, which takes place at night in a camp, is especially guilty of this. In designing for as many outcomes as possible, it’s no surprise these exist as a last resort, but they really do come across as a hasty afterthought rather than a well implemented route and emphasize the need to play by the game’s rules to have the most fun, even if the fun often had with them involves breaking as many as you can.
If you’ve done the quick math, you’ll probably realize that you have to figure out how to kill multiple visionaries at once in order to successfully break the loop. Though the Visionaries are almost never in the same place at the start of the game, quests known as Visionary Leads will not only guide you on how to kill them but also push all these folks together. There is a right way and order to kill them in, though you are free to experiment up until the very end as much as you want. From there, it’s your say how it all goes down. Much like Dishonored, stealth is seemingly designed as the de facto route, but you’re free to go in guns blazing if you see fit. While you can spec yourself out to do that, and it’ll feel good, it never felt as great as it could; for all their design ingenuity, Arkane has yet to make what feels like a genuinely satisfying first-person shooter, although Deathloop is admittedly the closest they’ve gotten. Maybe you’ll want to set up traps instead of shooting your way through, or be a tech wizard and turn your enemies’ defenses against them. Personally, I want to use some of my upgraded abilities and pull off the most unorthodox kills Arkane planned for. All the familiar options and the tools to work outside those loose boundaries are there to allow it, and I reckon the fun of this game will, as always, come from being in the hands of nimbler and more inventive players. I’m looking forward to the clips in the weeks to come and the inevitable high-octane speedruns that this game’ll spawn.
Blackreef isn’t just a playground to wreak wanton havoc in; it’s also a complete enigma as I’ve mentioned. Colt is an amnesiac who’s been trapped in this loop for a long time now, but he’s only just now becoming capable of remembering things across loops for some reason. So as you step foot in any of Blackreef’s districts and figure out why that stranger is screaming at you on the PA system or how to get a particularly deadly weapon while playing a particularly deadly game, Colt is figuring it out too. More than any other setting in a recent Arkane game, Blackreef is begging to be uncovered, making it all the more disappointing that while it’s occasionally fun to take detours in, it doesn’t come across as nearly strong enough a setting for an otherwise great game, and particularly an immersive sim.
Arkane is a studio adept at realizing the settings of their games in a stylish manner that obscures their depth, which makes Blackreef a bit of a disappointment compared to Dunwall and Karnacas from the Dishonored series, and especially Talos I from Prey. Blackreef feels noticeably bereft of the same wealth and richness that Arkane’s past settings have thrived in. While I’ve mentioned that the lairs of the Visionaries are dense and satisfying to work through, not to mention stylish as hell, a lot of the surrounding areas felt not only plain but sparse. Deathloop’s an obviously pretty game, and it’s got a strong sense of style, but it just feels like in places that’s the bulk of what it has. What lies underneath isn’t a mess, so much as it is just slightly undercooked. What you see is mostly what you get and I couldn’t help but come away from Deathloop disappointed that there wasn’t more to meaningfully explore, which can also be said for the story.
This too is disappointing, though perhaps to a lesser extent since it isn’t usually the main draw of these games. While the act of solving the larger puzzle piece by piece makes an enthralling race, things kind of peter out in the last leg like Arkane games usually do. All the while the game gestures at history and character development that should draw you in but is so scarce it hardly scratches the surface. Where Deathloop’s story does shine lies in the characters and their interactions. Colt and Julianna’s constant back and forths remained lively and fresh through my dozens of hours with the game, and the way that Julianna came through on my Dualsense controller like a walkie talkie helped their banter flow smoother than just about any dialogue in any game ever. Their respective actors turn in great performances that capture the mania they both seem overwhelmed with. Colt is the most jovial protagonist I’ve played in a long time and a kind of lovable cocky asshole, while Julianna’s playful tone hides a sharp wit and bitterness I wanted to get to the bottom of. The Visionaries, all mostly caricatures of upper class stereotypes, seem deliberately shallow but are fun to observe in their respective environments. Their storylines, mostly intertwined with one another, provided glimpses I wouldn’t have minded more of, but everyone turns in serviceable egomaniacal, or just maniacal, performances that make them satisfying targets in the end, and the rowdiest bunch of assholes I’ve encountered in a game in a long while.
The game’s story toys with notions of free will, the damage of unchecked capitalism, and resisting the temptations of a morally bankrupt society. It “explores” these themes in the complicated relationships Colt has with all the Visionaries and they have with one another. But again, these threads feel so barely touched on that I can’t really say the story cares about these topics. Rather, the script touches on these concepts, and the game absolutely has ideas of what it wants to say in regard to some of these issues, but it’s hardly interested in inspiring a dialogue or grounding itself enough to have one. Deathloop prefers to use this all as context while you run in literal and metaphysical circles.
At the end of the day, the loop is all that matters. Deathloop leaves it all out on the table, reconstructing the immersive sim a few different ways in order to pull you under. Luckily for the game, it’s a damn marvel and works like a charm. While I can nitpick about Deathloop’s shortcomings, I’d rather just point you to a game that’s a joy to play, confident in itself, touts two wonderful Black leads, looks wonderful, and rewards you for thinking outside the box. While it doesn’ quite feel like an evolution of the formula, it’s almost assuredly Arkane’s most feature-complete and refined take on it. Like I said at the top of this review, Deathloop is countless things, and most of them are great.
Deathloop was developed by Arkane Studios and published by Bethesda. Our review is based on the PlayStation 5 version. It’s also available for PC.
Moises Taveras is a former intern for Paste Magazine. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.