Arkane Lyon’s successor to Dishonored and Prey, while heavily marketed, still struck me as a bit of an enigma prior to my hands-off presentation of the game. It’s hard to know exactly what it is. I had so many questions: Is it Arkane’s take on a bombastic, action-packed shooter? Is it a departure from the intricate sims they’re so known for? What even is Deathloop?
Fortunately, the hour-long look I had of the game answered much of this and I’m here to clear up just what exactly to expect from Deathloop when it finally launches exclusively for PlayStation 5.
As Colt, a temporarily amnesiac and temporally confined everyman, players wake up hungover on a beachfront in Blackreef with no recollection of anything. He’s led along by the broadcasted, taunting jibes of Juliana who, apparently, is acutely aware of the time loop Colt is stuck in and the challenges it presents. To escape the island of Blackreef and the day that never ends, Colt must break the loop.
Arkane has never failed to present players with an engrossing, imaginative world to dive into and Deathloop is no exception. The curious thing about Colt’s conundrum is that the loop isn’t a space-time anomaly, it’s actually by design.
Blackreef is home to eight bright-minded scientists, artists, and party animals called Visionaries who all had a hand in creating the loop, and to break it, Colt has to find a way to kill them all within the span of one loop or else he’s forced to start again. It sounds roguelike in concept, though it isn’t really that. It plays out more like an intricate game of chess, Deathloop appears to be a puzzle full of moving parts. Much like Dishonored values the slow burn of observation and working out what makes targets tick to catch them unaware, Deathloop’s goal is to collect intel on the Visionaries to create loopholes in their schedules and discover where in Blackreef (and when, most importantly) they’ll line up like little ducks in a row, creating Colt’s perfect loop to freedom.
Though it sounds like a one-and-done effort time and time again where Colt is doomed to repeat the same day endlessly, he discovers a way to break the rules of Blackreef and bring weapons and abilities with him. More than that, all gathered intel carries over meaning Colt is armed with the most important weapon of all: the right know-how to break the loop.
Of course, Colt’s challenging hunt is made harder by Juliana — the rival assassin from his previous grisly demise — who is hellbent on protecting the cycle and maintaining the status quo of eternal life on Blackreef. Not only is she a deadly assassin in her own right, she marshalls the indoctrinated inhabitants of Blackreef, the Eternalists who unsurprisingly do not fear death, to shoot you on-site and not allow the ultimate taboo: the death of a Visionary. Unexpected and often unannounced, Juliana will try to catch players off-guard in an attempt to bring an end to the loop. Deathloop has a great invasion gimmick — which is opt-in and can be turned off — that lets players, as Juliana, enter other player worlds with no other aim than to fuck shit up. Free of incentive or objective, players can act as an agent of chaos and hunt down their friend’s Colt and create great watercooler moments that harken back to classic 1v1 duels.
Deathloop is an entirely non-linear ‘murder puzzle’ and its targets can be found in the four districts of Blackreef in four different time periods, all different in very subtle ways. This creates what is essentially sixteen different playgrounds in which to solve the puzzle, and although no manual save is available in Deathloop to prevent ‘save scumming’, the game will auto-save whenever Colt enters a new place or time so that players can opt-out mid-run if life gets in a loop’s way.
It sounds complex and clearly is an extension of Arkane’s intelligently designed ludography, so those expecting a linear, ‘brain off shooter are going to be disappointed, as well as a little perplexed. I expect players to break out their notepads and scrawl notes in greater excess than seen with Phil Fish’s head-scratcher Fez in an attempt to crack the sequence of how to kill all eight targets in a single loop. The mechanics of shooting like pretty much what you’d expect from a game that was described by its designer as “Dishonored with bigger guns.” The combination of big, modifiable guns and the powers gifted by ‘Slabs’ — which can be found and carried throughout loops — gives Deathloop a real BioShock flavour, and I can see a lot of creativity in combat stemming from the many options offered by the two-handed ‘might and magic’ approach.
Deathloop has a particular art direction that is definitely informed by, and true to, the style and identity carved out by previous Arkane productions like Dishonored and, as far as the vintage art decor goes, especially Prey. Blackreef is staged as a remote, northern European island littered with concrete bunkers and sci-fi facilities that wouldn’t look out of place in what was considered by many to be Arkane’s BioShock in space. As a studio, their world-building is unparalleled and Blackreef is further proof that the choice doesn’t need to be style or substance — with Arkane, you so often get both.
Although we got to only see multiple loops in one particular district, so much of Deathloop’s presentation is top-tier. It has the high-stakes intrigue of a classy spy film, right down to its sultry James Bond-esque theme song “Deja Vu” which was peppered throughout our presentation. It does wonders to give Deathloop a real sense of place in a twisted version of the 1960s, and it’s a world I can’t wait to sink my teeth into and uncover all the curios of the world, from the Eternalists flagrantly disregarding and gamifying death — knowing full well they’ll live again when the loop resets — with contests of who can best leap to a spectacular death to the very nature of the loop and its workings.
Deathloop looks like another hallmark Arkane experience that marries all of the team’s best proficiencies — world craft, traditional immersive sim exploration, sound combat, and buckets of flair. Despite incredible polish, Arkane titles don’t ever seem to enjoy resounding mainstream success and, despite not shying away from the intricacies that are intrinsically Arkane, all Deathloop needs is the right push to break through that ceiling and, most importantly for the studio, break their loop of weak sales.
Deathloop launches on PS5 and PC on September 14th.