Deathloop Hands-On PS5 Preview – A Time Capsule

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“Repetition is the mother of learning, the father of action, which makes it the architect of accomplishment.” – Zig Ziglar

After speaking with Arkane themselves and seeing the game in action, I thought I had a pretty good handle on what Deathloop would be at its core. I expected an intellectual balancing act of the three concepts in Zig’s triple-pronged quote above.

Learning, action, and accomplishment. 

Although my preconceived notions were mostly right, Arkane has executed this balancing act with such confidence, which shouldn’t be a surprise from the team who’ve brought us excellent immersive sims like Dishonored and Prey. Were it a mindless shooter, Deathloop would still be a tight experience, but the well-deep narrative and world-building has on it more layers than an explorer scaling Everest.  

It’s insanely clever, it’s unique, but most of all, Deathloop might be the most simultaneously genre-bending and genre-defining shooter I’ve played in a long, long time. 

Learning

Like a lot of games that have implemented time loop systems, acquired knowledge fast becomes the most important thing in your tool belt. Sure, the big guns and borderline sorcery are cool and they make for a fun experience, but give me an expository tape recorder and a retro-chic cathode-ray monitor, littered with damning email chains, over those any day. 

Deathloop handles progression extremely well. 

There’s a guided intro for the game that sets in place the stakes, the rules, and the consequences that come with trying to upset the status quo on Blackreef, an island paradise caught in an endless, infinite time-cycle where decadence and perversion rule because nothing matters. Though unpleasant, death and violence have no real consequence, as every dying breath is followed by the next morning’s yawn. The great reset to do it all again. 

Once that’s dealt with, the game gives a few reassuring pats on the back and sends you into its world, a playground of intrigue and mischief as if to say: “Okay, go play now.” I had a pang of panic at first, fearing Deathloop might be exactly what I feared from a game described as a ‘murder-puzzle’. 

To break the loop Colt must kill the island’s eight Visionaries all in a single loop. It all comes down to ‘right place, right time’ as each loop takes place over a single day. A loop is broken up into four time periods: morning, noon, afternoon, and evening. At these times, you’re able to explore four distinct and ever-changing districts of Blackreef. Although it’s the same day time and again, Colt will be able to intervene and change the course of the day through some of the choices he makes. 

I had concerns it’d be clever to an inaccessible extent, however, I was relieved to discover that Deathloop’s campaign unfolds in a pretty traditional sense. The game isn’t linear by any stretch of the imagination, there’s a lot of room to experiment and explore Blackreef. But once you unearth a piece of vital information on a Visionary, be it their schedule or their interests, you’re able to pursue that lead to its end and surmise the optimal point in time to catch them in your murder trap. 

So far, it’s fascinating to see how often character’s paths overlap and how entangled their lives are. There’s a real sense of place that seems painstakingly crafted, I can’t imagine the work, and triple-checking, that went into building a single, cohesive day in Blackreef.

Action

Along with being a spectacularly clever time-romp, Deathloop is a tremendous first-person shooter in its own right. It’s easy to recognise the fingerprints of past works here, as it’s got the sense of scale and verticality that Dishonored’s parkour introduced while bringing along the big fucking gun feel of Prey.

It plays it a little straighter than Prey did, there are no experimental sci-fi foam hoses, but they absolutely nail the game’s satisfying, weighty combat. As I crash through the streets of Blackreef, I’m often reminded of my experience with BioShock Infinite. Whether it’s the two-handed, might and magic trope that calls to mind such comparisons, but I can’t speak highly enough of Deathloop as a shooter alone. 

Obviously, it gets even better once we’re introduced to Slabs, Deathloop’s analogue for BioShock’s Vigors. 

Like Dishonored before it, Deathloop’s Visionaries are susceptible to death in a great number of ways. Through the use of Slabs, we’re able to let our creativity pull the trigger, whether or not it’s the right outcome to solve the ultimate ‘murder-puzzle’. They’re a lot of fun, though I was constantly tripped up by Slabs being mapped to the same trigger, though divided by a single-button toggle, as Colt’s grenades and his trusty Hackamajig.

Like Hades, which was something of a game-changer for a lot of roguelikes, progress is handled sensibly in Deathloop. Once your adventure building out the edges of the Blackreef puzzle begins, a quantum material known as Residuum becomes the key to Colt being able to free objects from their temporal imprisonment. By imbuing guns, trinkets, and even the Slabs of fallen Visionaries, Colt can bring them with him to the other side of his spacetime slumber that sees him, once again, wake up on the shore.

Though you’re going to find the lion’s share of your Residuum in the matter residue of slain Visionaries, it can also be displaced from shimmering items throughout Blackreef. If you don’t spend it by the time the loop closes, or if you die, it’s all lost to time so there’s no reason to squirrel it away. 

I’ve spoken at length about how satisfying a shooter Deathloop is, but stealth, as it has in a lot of Arkane’s back catalogue, remains a very viable option. It might be because Deathloop doesn’t punish the player for taking the hammer approach as Dishonored might have, which makes fast and loose more appealing, but for those who enjoy being sneaky, Deathloop still honours their roots.  

Deathloop, as it should being a timed PlayStation 5 exclusive, makes great use of the DualSense’s features. I go into a bit more detail on that in the Q&A piece, but on the whole, I think Deathloop certainly benefits from the console’s power. Once loaded into a district, which is certainly snappier than I expected, there’s no area that’s gated behind a loading screen. The game’s art style is enhanced by gorgeously detailed textures that can certainly be appreciated through any of the screens throughout the article, and the map’s draw distance is no joke.

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Granted, though they’re detailed, the maps aren’t enormous and I imagine there’s a lot of trickery that’s allowed by the city’s cliffside terrains and uneven skyline.

Accomplishment

Its sublime game design aside, Blackreef is standing out so far as Arkane’s magnum opus world when it comes to scope, presentation, and personality. I think Dishonored and Prey did it well, but with how multifaceted and layered Blackreef, its people, and its history are, I put it a rung above.

Furthermore, I adore the team’s decision to lean into the grindhouse vibe of Deathloop that absolutely captures the 60s. The upmarket art deco aesthetic that made Prey’s Talos I such a memorable space makes a comeback and brings with it the period’s sexy style, beginning first and foremost with the fashion. Colt’s slick jacket is bound to be a cosplayer’s delight, while the rest of the Blackreef populous is partial to a nice, wide lapel. 

In more ways than one, Deathloop is a time capsule.   

Deathloop, through its first six hours, feels like a ceaseless confidence boost for me. It establishes itself early as a thoughtful, mind-bending experience that is, in no way, content in sticking to an expected formula. As a ‘murder-puzzle’, it’s really the first of its kind—at least on this blockbuster scale. With every moment of revelation, and with every lead I see through to its end, I feel that little bit smarter. Of course, that has nothing to do with me, I’m just the guinea pig for this insanely clever premise that Arkane has realised here. Each time I learn something I can apply to a future loop, it’s their accomplishment rather than mine.

THE PLAYSTATION 5 VERSION OF THIS GAME WAS PLAYED FOR THE PURPOSE OF THIS PREVIEW. A DIGITAL REVIEW CODE WAS PROVIDED BY THE PUBLISHER.