Deathloop is a GOTY contender that I won’t be able to fully tell you about in the time we have today. It’s too complex. Too weird for all the right reasons. Bethesda’s been advertising it like a trigger-happy, funky FPS with mad kills and mutton chops, but the truth of this game is deeper. That casual swingin’ ’60s cool with the “Austin superpowers” perks belie an utter thinking-man’s shooter with systems upon systems baked into it.
As you’d probably expect, what’s presented is a familiar Arkane Studios production that cherry-picks from the best of this French developer’s previous works. From Dishonored we have the stabtacular stealth layer that’s all about multiple pathways to target, plus a bunch of abilities that let you infiltrate or distract in shrewd ways.
You should also expect some “Prey-ja-vu” in the form of security matrix hacking, the kleptomaniac collection (and subsequent recycling) of items, and some RPG-lite personal improvement of yourself and kooky firearms. Combine that with some splashes of inspiration from Hitman, Dark Souls, BioShock and of course the titular Groundhog Day shtick, and Deathloop is quite the acid trip. I’m calling it early – this is without a doubt the best game produced by this French Studio, and that’s high praise considering what’s come before.
Only a few errors prevent Deathloop from being pure, blue-ribbon crème de le crème gaming. I’ll delve into those in a minute…
For now, we’ll talk story, but only the barest bones of it. I honestly think the less you know about Blackreef and its spaghetti noodle of scientific mysteries and conflicting weirdo sub-bosses, the more of an interactive page-turner it’ll be for you.
Waking up as an amnesic bad arse, Colt Vahn, you quickly find yourself in a bit of a two-parter situation. Firstly, you’re locked in a purgatorial time-loop that resets everything in 24 hours. Secondly, you’re apparently mid-match in a game of Spy vs. Spy with someone – possibly an ex-girlfriend – named Julianna Blake. She’s a puppet master who’s constantly trash-talking via radio and occasionally manifesting in the world to ruin your escape plans and thus protect her beloved deathloop.
Quick note: she’ll appear either as a markedly smarter and tougher AI enemy or a player-controlled invader; more on this later.
It’s easy to see why Colt wants to holiday elsewhere. Blackreef is basically an above ground Rapture, sliced up into four playspaces governed by eight Visionaries; read, dysfunctional, wannabe Andrew Ryans. Eliminating these reclusive, heavily guarded scumbags in any order you see fit will inch forward the plot and spec Colt up. The ultimate goal will become figuring out a way to slice all eight heads off this hydra within one 24 hour loop.
There’s a series of very large catches to that plan, though. Firstly, you need to do methodical, Hitman-style assassinations on eight people who have small windows of vulnerability across four levels and four specific times of the day. Secondly, unless you smear everything you acquire with a special “Residiuum” currency, the deathloop will erase your superpower perks/guns/weapon attachments. Thirdly, you’re on Dark Souls logic here – dying drops your Residiuum at your place of death, and carking it thrice will reset the time-loop.
At that point, we’ll probably hear your anguished shriek from our place. No headset required.
Factor in the aforementioned risk of player invasion, and Deathloop is never anything less than absolute edge-of-your-seat gaming. Every shred of overheard or read bit of intel could be a puzzle-cracker, every nook in this stylishly designed madhouse could be another secret route to your target, and every standard looking enemy could be a Julianna getting their mimic on.
Deathloop is never anything less than absolute edge-of-your-seat gaming
Alternatively, they could be perched atop a belltower, cloaked in an invisibility perk and waiting to Lee Harvey Oswald your arse with an epic-tier sniper rifle. I’m speaking from experience here. That was my bag when the PvP of the game opened up for me – the ability to protect the loop by ruining other player’s games. Important aside: if you trust a friend not to stab you in the back and steal your stuff, you can use same said mode as a purely co-op solution to Colt’s imprisonment.
Why do that?
Two head-shotters are better than one. And friends who slay together stay together.
When it comes to the gunplay, Deathloop is as funky looking as it is chunky feelin’. I instantly fell for the wacky visual designs and sound retorts of Colt’s ever-changing three-weapon arsenal of machine pistols, shotties, sharpshooting rifles and ludicrous hand-cranked heavy hitters. I always like when a pump-action shotgun can wreck at battle rifle range. I also love when there’s a rarity tier loot game that adds in unique perks, plus more stat-improving “trinket” slots the higher you go up.
Unlike Arkane’s previous “shooters” where it always felt like you were being heavily pushed to try anything other than firearms to succeed, Deathloop’s slicker weapon play puts gungho back at the top of the menu again. What’s here is this fascinating mixture of gleeful gun-owner empowerment versus the thin ice of only having a short, non-regenerative healthbar, along with the other pitfalls I mentioned earlier.
Basically, even if you’re rocking superhero abilities and beefy boomsticks, things can go very bad, very quickly in Deathloop.
Deathloop’s slicker weapon play puts gungho back at the top of the menu again
Part of the trouble is you’ll always need to deprive yourself of a little bit of power in order to acquire more. For example, Colt can only carry three guns and two Slabs (think: bone-charm perks of Jedi-level power). If you kill a Visionary and try to swipe their epic-tier gun and unique Slab – like invisibility, Force Push or teleportation – you’ll need free slots to house that new gear. That fact demands you go in with one less gun or half as many Slabs. Greater risk for great rewards.
Four environments multiplied by four different time periods — Morning, Noon, Afternoon & Evening — may sound like sparse content on paper, but the reality is far from that. At a base level, by default, every playspace is an absolute rabbit warren of indoor, outdoor, underground and over roof paths – what I’d call the best level design this side of a FromSoftware game.
Better yet, so many buildings open up and close down across the time variants, along with shifted geometry, extra security systems and, of course, beefier enemy patrols. The second your brain starts to think “man, this is just reused content” is probably the second an ambush comes from some new angle. Your clock will get cleaned, or maybe even reset completely.
The boss fights I’m not going to get into too much, suffice to say that they all have neat little tactical wrinkles and often amusing visual themes. A handful of the earlier ones can be felled via brute force and ignorance; the majority require a bit of study and some outside-the-box thinking. Make no mistake, this is a challenging game to complete. I’m predicting Deathloop will be either the PS5’s least finished game next to Returnal or the most searched about on YouTube for tips.
When it comes to pros and cons, Deathloop does the overwhelming majority of things right, but it’s held back by a few classic flaws. The bad stuff is easily and quickly identified; iffy AI and weird spawning bugs.
The latter I saw pretty rarely. Sometimes an enemy will be placed inside a solid wall (at which point they’ll be un-killable but will bitch when they hear you clomp past). Other times, you’ll be in a high-security area, mowing down guards as you watch yet more of them wink into existence right in front of your eyes. As opposed to behind some corner, I’m guessing.
And, honestly, these baddies really do need the strength of numbers to be effective against you, because they’re not exactly adaptive or interested in living. When at rest, their cone of vision is remarkably small and they take ages to clue into a threat. When annoyed, masses of them can be foiled with any sort of chokepoint in the level, a bit of patience, and a big gun. They’ll just conga-line in to meet the fate of their mates.
Deathloop rarely puts a foot wrong
The obvious offset to that AI problem is; thank God they’re manageable because at any point you could be stalked by a Julianna who’s either a more ‘roided up AI, or worse, a scheming human who wants your loot and tears in equal measure.
All that being said, I don’t think Deathloop rarely puts a foot wrong anywhere else. I absolutely adore the cool-arse ’60s aesthetic, the amusing VO of the deutagonists, the thumping gunplay, and the unfolding mysteries of this messed up island.
I said it before in the intro, I’ll say it again now – providing Arkane can tighten up the AI in a patch, we may well be looking at 2021’s GOTY right here. I’ve hit the end credits and have technically escaped the Deathloop, but I absolutely cannot wait to sign up for another loop, and another, and another. Most likely as an invading Julianna who’s coming to a world near you.
See you soon!
Deathloop was reviewed on PS5 using a digital code provided by Bethesda.