It recently completed the Grand Slam of PlayStation press events for the past year, well and truly fulfilling the platform’s commitment to market the game. And yet, it’d be a simple task to throw a stone into a crowd of industry folk and hit one or two who still don’t quite know what Deathloop is. The developer themselves put it as simply as they could: it’s a ‘murder puzzle’.
But it’s more than that, Deathloop is a culmination of the past decade for Arkane Lyon. It delivers on the style and intrigue that has permeated their entire back-catalogue, it iterates on Dishonored’s balance of high and low chaos—with fewer repercussions—and it brings the big, loud guns from Prey along for the ride. Arkane has applied all of their learnings, poured them into an iron-cast mold, and delivered one of the most solid first-person shooters in years.
The game opens as a hungover Colt wakes up laying in the sand, Blackreef’s last defense against the breaking waves that separate it from the outside world. Without any memory of who he is, he ventures inland to unravel the nature of the time anomaly that sees him reliving the same day over and over. Through a sharp-tongued, rival assassin named Julianna, Colt learns of the Loop and of the eight Visionaries that maintain it before ultimately deciding to break the loop and free everybody from life on Blackreef.
While linear storytelling takes a backseat, for the most part, to make way for Arkane’s peerless brand of world-building, Deathloop’s is a narrative of tiny moving parts. It culminates once all of the pieces of the ‘murder puzzle click in place, which is an immensely satisfying feeling of its own. Obviously, the mystery is the underpinning appeal of Deathloop. All of the Loop’s major players have lives that intertwine with one another, and the world itself is rife with moment-to-moment events that serve to flesh out the world of Blackreef. A great deal of Deathloop’s central conflict exists through brief radio exchanges between Colt and Julianna.
That said, there’s so much character depth to be found in every Visionary. As the most brilliant minds brought to the island, they range from mad scientists to vanity-stricken party animals, and I loved learning about each of them. Although the conveniently placed, exposition dump tape-recorders are explained away, with a wink from Arkane, by Julianna’s singular goal to fuck with Colt, there’s a lot of colour in them that truly fills in the outlines of Blackreef.
The aim of Deathloop is to kill all of the Visionaries to collapse the time anomaly and put an end to the longest day of Colt’s life. Of course, it isn’t a simple mission of ‘seek and destroy’. Because the day resets after each loop, Deathloop is as much about learning as it is about killing. Colt is able to freely explore four connected districts of Blackreef, across four different points in time, in an attempt to kill all of his targets in a single day. Though, of course, he must first learn what makes them tick—whether it’s love or the want of immortality—and influence their paths to make taking them all out in a single loop possible.
Deathloop is smart about introducing players to its systems, the stakes, and what the overall goal is. Despite the focus on experimentation and gathering intel, Deathloop is probably more linear than you’d expect once the information falls into your lap. Although they can be pursued in any order, Deathloop breaks all of your leads down into a readable flowchart. Because of this, there’s always something for Colt to go after loop-to-loop, provided he’s gathered the pertinent details, so the preconception that Deathloop is a punishing roguelike is patently false. If I failed a morning objective I was going after, I’d shift focus to what I could achieve in an afternoon or evening to ensure no day ever went to waste.
I’d sooner compare Deathloop to something like Hades which, too, finds a way for players to feel like they’re progressing run to run. Deathloop makes this leap possible through Infusion. Using Residuum, a temporal matter bound to Visionaries and some in-world items, players can see not only their guns but their Slabs and trinkets—Deathloop’s equivalent of Corvo’s powers and Bone Charms respectively—permanently bound to Colt loop-to-loop. Ultimately, things become easier the longer you persist, which I think is a great step for accessibility.
Much like Dishonored, the level design in Deathloop’s Blackreef offers plentiful options to the player. Although you’re likely to carve out familiar paths through places like Updaam in an effort to seek out Colt’s apartment, or through the prop-plane boneyard of Karl’s Bay’s morning in an effort to catch Harriet’s sermon in the hangar, discovering those routes are fenced off at other points in time is a pleasant surprise that encourages experimentation and adaptation. This spirit also extends to Colt’s loadouts. Certain Slabs, like Aether, will serve Colt well when he’s trying to ghost past enemies, while others like Karnesis serve a less subtle approach. Being able to tinker with Colt’s kit between districts gives the player a lot of freedom to try different approaches. As is usually the case in Arkane games, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.
As a shooter, Deathloop is nearly a genre-defining achievement while its concept is in every way genre-bending. It feels excellent in the hand as Arkane has struck a great balance between the player’s mobility and power. Where Dishonored might punish the pig-headed slayer who constantly goes in loud, Deathloop really lets players walk their own path for the most part. Thanks to Colt’s Hackamajig, players can still pursue the stealthier option by hacking turrets, unlocking doors, and sounding distractions to lure enemies from the path. That said, I opted for the hammer approach. There are few games that nail consistently satisfying combat throughout, and Deathloop doesn’t miss. The game doesn’t offer an endless index of real-world weaponry, it instead serves up a dozen effortlessly cool guns to play with. As a shotgun-lover, I gravitated toward the Vopat Trencher, though there are a handful of gold-tier guns hidden throughout Blackreef which can be pursued through leads, and their unique features made them a constant fixture in my loadout once I got my hands on them.
Deathloop also makes fine use of the DualSense’s features, as triggers jam when Colt’s rattier guns jam under pressure and you can actually feel the texture change underfoot as Colt explores the city. It’s a unique spin on the time loop trope, executing it in a way that’s palatable and not nearly as alienating as I feared it could be. I’d even go so far as to say Deathloop, for all of its focus on mystery, ushers the player to the revelation a bit too much. There’ll be no need to break out the whiteboard and pushpins to keep up with the intricacies of the Loop. The way the game’s Visionaries’ lives tangle and bring them together for the divine purpose of Colt’s duck hunt is compelling, though it isn’t an actual challenge. The planning and execution are impressive, but as a puzzle, it’s hardly demanding.
Julianna isn’t just a voice in Colt’s ear, she can also invade your loop at random in an effort to protect it. She can either be A.I. or player-controlled, and it’s these brief bouts of PVP chaos that really sets Deathloop aside from its contemporaries. There isn’t a tremendous amount of incentive to protect the loop as Julianna beyond causing a ruckus while unlocking new attire for both her and Colt, but as far as keeping Julianna kitted out with gear good enough to keep competitive with all of the Colts out there, the mode fastballs rewards at you. It’s interesting to see how others comb through Blackreef, and these tense skirmishes are a lot of fun and open up all kinds of multiplayer possibilities that I hope Arkane explores within the game’s universe in future.
Deathloop is a triumph of style and substance. Blackreef, as a setting, is bound to be revered alongside the likes of BioShock’s Rapture as one of the genre’s best. And just as Rapture is trapped beneath the crushing pressure of the ocean, Blackreef also feels remote and isolated. Stuck in the sixties, there’s a real sense that Blackreef is running in place. Though it’s got heavy sci-fi leanings, Deathloop definitely feels informed by Arkane’s previous works, with vintage art deco a key feature of the game’s aesthetic. Orange is a key colour in the game’s palette, and it bleeds through to the game’s UI, which looks remarkably retro-futuristic.
I love the continuation of Arkane’s penchant toward exaggerated and hyper-stylised characters, and the costume design for all of Blackreef is tremendously realised. There’s a lot of beautiful period clothing, and a lot of it even speaks to the class divide that manages to still exist in a debaucherous, out-of-time, place like this. There’s a lot of variety that separates the working class of the docks from the masked degenerates that party all night at Dorsey’s estate. It’s a very theatrical art direction the team has opted for and it manages to nail the split between grindhouse and spy-noir exceptionally well.
Deathloop is an immensely satisfying first-person shooter that combines all of the best aspects from then to now for a developer at the height of their creative powers. By the end, you’ll feel powerful, you’ll feel clever, and you’ll no doubt want more of yet another intoxicating world from Arkane Lyon. Though it does handhold to a degree, a lot of work still goes into breaking the loop. And while Deathloop doesn’t answer everything about its world, the sense of accomplishment washes over you like the next morning’s sobering wave.
It’s not an easy thing Arkane has done here in serving up a genuinely fresh take on one of the medium’s most enduring genres. Deathloop redefines what a shooter can be, and the developer has used their entire toolkit to get there. Satisfying action, world-building that’s second-to-none, style and substance, and a genuinely enthralling riddle at the centre, Deathloop delivers it all. And it’s through these triumphs that Deathloop earns its place in the first-person shooter pantheon, and puts its hand up during Game of the Year talks.
An intriguing mystery constructed through great characters
Ultra-stylish in all facets of its presentation
An extremely satisfying first-person shooter
Finds a great balance between its roguelike elements and player progression
The PVP stuff is thrilling
The game connects the dots for players a little too much in the story