Leave it to Arkane Studios to create interesting levels. This studio is exceptional at developing multi-layered stages with a lot of depth that beg to be explored thoroughly. If you have played any of the Dishonoreds, you know about this. Deathloop, then, Arkane’s newest game, was expected to excel on this aspect as well. And, of course, it does. The spirit is here, intact. You can climb on rooftops, blink-teleport across buildings, jump, slide and parkour your way in cartoonish cities. There’s a sense of discovery in Deathloop’s levels, you can approach your destination by many different paths and ways, you can explore horizontally and vertically. The level design is fantastic, the controls are fluid, exploration is a blast. It’s all here, and it’s great, but it’s not the main draw.
If you play Deathloop as a standard first-person action/stealth shooter, you’re going to have a fantastic time. The mechanics are polished, the enemy AI is decent, the weapons and superpowers add new and exciting ways to play and the gunplay feels greatly improved compared to Arkane’s previous work (which was already good). You can blink-jump, you can turn invisible, you can link together your enemies to die together in a domino-like way. It’s super fun. However, the best parts of the game come from the narrative.
In Deathloop, you play as one Colt Vahn and wake up at the beach with a hangover. Moments later, you realize that you are trapped in a time loop, forced to relive the same day over and over. Taking the role of the exposition, your arch enemy, Julianna Blake, speaks to you over the radio. Through not-so-friendly banter, you understand what’s going on, or at least you try to piece together some pieces. You’re stuck in a weird island, living the same 24 hours again and again until you manage to find a way to break this never ending cycle. You see, in this island, you find a group of strange individuals called the Visionaries, who take a shot at eternal life through time-looping. If you live the same day every day, you don’t get older, you don’t die. A cool life hack, I guess.
Colt, though, is not interested. He needs to break free and to do that he has to kill the 8 Visionaries in one loop. In gameplay terms, this translates to a clockwork-like system made of different mechanics. First of all, your day is split in four different parts: morning, noon, afternoon and night. Time doesn’t advance while you explore a level; when you leave to go to another, you jump to the next time period (e.g. morning to noon). Meaning, you have four opportunities in each day to try and find all the Visionaries. You can mix and match, and explore different parts of the island in different hours of the day, but after four instances, you restart the loop.
You are free to choose: you can instantly jump into the night, for example, and then restart again. This structure tries to move away from roguelike conventions, and it succeeds. In Deathloop you don’t play the same parts over and over; you choose how you will move around. You can start your day in the afternoon in a level and then move to another in the nighttime, before waking up at the beach again, or you can start over from the morning and experience all four time periods.
The thing is, though, that to kill all 8 Visionaries in one day, you have to get them in the right place, at the right time. You have four opportunities every day, so you have to find two or more of the antagonists together. At first it seems too complex, but as you learn more about the island and its residents, you will understand what needs to be done, and how to do it.
The game guides you without holding your hand; it doesn’t throw you in its world and leave you be, but it doesn’t thoroughly explain every part of the way either. You will need to investigate. You will collect incredibly written notes, that contain messages or snipets of colourful dialogue between the Visionaries. You will hear audio tapes, you will visit their apartments, you will learn everything there is to know about your enemies’ personalities. Then, you’ll need to manipulate them. There are many methods and opportunities to do so, and the way they are discovered little by little is impeccably designed.
A house is on fire in the afternoon, but you need to go in to find a clue? Not a problem! Go there in the morning, investigate, find out the cause of the fire and cancel it before it happens. Now, you are free to explore, but only for this loop, because the next day will reset everything and you’ll need to undo the fire again. This is a simple example, but you get the gist: you will have to find connections between different times and places, and experiment to find the answers. It’s very interesting, really well-done, and a novel approach.
Mind you, it will take you roughly 15 hours to finish Deathloop, so there’s a lot to uncover and learn. When everything comes together and you live your last day in Deathloop’s world, you’ll see all the systems, characters, skills and information coming together in an unforgettable way.
The story is engaging, the actors are fantastic (especially Colt and Julliana’s), the main antagonists are exciting too -if only a bit underdeveloped. Visually, Deathloop gets the job done, without being very impressive. It’s not a game that serves as a technical showcase, but everything works as it should and looks pretty and stylish too. The music, also, is a high point. This game drips coolness and style, but doesn’t lack for substance.
Sure, the structure can get tiring after a while, but there’s enough here to maintain your interest. There are some light roguelike elements: every time you restart a loop, you lose everything. You lose weapons, powers and the only thing you keep is the knowledge you acquired. After some time, though, (pretty early on) you will find a way to keep your gear between runs. It’s really easy to do so, and soon you will not even care about an imminent death and its consequences.
Arkane has created a neat system, one that’s borrowing from roguelikes while not being one of them, and one that adds variety and personalization to a playthrough. The biggest problem is the gradual decrease of the difficulty. As you get stronger, you will start feeling like a superhero and you will stop caring about the enemy NPCs. Nobody will be able to stop you and you’ll just run around, not bothering with stealth tactics or covering yourself from bullets. It gets so easy that the sense of danger is toned down more and more, to a point of total negation.
Thankfully, there’s Julianna. In a stroke of genius, Arkane added multiplayer elements in Deathloop. It works like this: now and then, you will be “invaded” by Julianna, who is played either by the AI or by another human player (you can turn the multiplayer mode on or off). If Julianna is an AI, she is just a stronger, boss-like enemy you have to deal with in order to proceed. If it’s another player controlling her, it gets really interesting. Julianna can disguise herself, she can change her appearance to that of any other NPC. So, a guard strolling around near a gate, can actually be Julianna. The player controlling her can go about in many different ways: they can hide and attack you by surprise, they can challenge you head-on, or they can use illusion tactics and tricks.
Every encounter is an adrenaline rush: Julianna tends to appear at the worst times. You will find something important and you’ll need to make it to the end of the loop, but your arch enemy will have different plans for you. It’s hard dealing with Julianna, but Colt does have an edge over her, because you have three “lives” in each loop, while she only has one. A very well thought-out system, that works on all levels and is engaging and fun, whether you play as Colt or Julianna.
The classic Arkane formula goes to the next level with Deathloop, in every possible way. It’s a memorable experience, one that’s sure to stick with you and one you will not easily find elsewhere. Arkane manages to merge different genres seamlessly and give us an-one-of-a-kind experience, incredibly designed and constantly entertaining. Don’t miss out on this one. Pure style, with enough substance to back it.