Deathloop Review: Deja vu, I’ve just been in this place before

Deathloop

Deathloop is a brand new IP from Arkane Studios, the team behind Dishonored and Prey. Arkane makes “immersive sims,” a school of game design that considers player agency to be of paramount importance. Whatever idea the player might have, in whatever way they choose to tackle an objective, the game should accommodate for it. This devotion to rarely telling the player No has earned Arkane a passionate fan base.

In Deathloop, the studio pushes its concept of player agency to the limit.

Round and round we go

Deathloop begins with mystery man Colt Vahn awakening on a beach. The bottles in the sand indicate he had a big one the night before, but his memory has failed him. Colt doesn’t know who he is, or where he is for that matter. What is quickly established is that Colt is on an island somewhere in the arctic circle. The island is home to a community of people willingly living inside a day-long time-loop. When the sun rises again, the day resets. Everyone goes back to their marks and they play out the day again.

Society on the island is broken into two tiers. Eternalists are rank-and-file citizenry. In return for an unending life in the loop, they serve as an ad-hoc militia. Visionaries are a cluster of eight influential people who run the island and maintain its time loop. They are the brains of the operation, though it is unclear from the outset why they created the loop and exactly what they stand to gain from living within it.

As Colt begins to piece the mystery of the loop together, he resolves to bring it to an end. The spanner to his plan is Juliana, a sniper whose goal is to protect the loop at all costs. She bird dogs Colt with the menace and zeal of an aggrieved ex, ready to pounce the instant Colt puts a foot wrong.

Pieces of Eight

Your primary goal in Deathloop is to assassinate all eight Visionaries in a single day. If even one survives, the loop will be preserved and the day will reset.

The basis for Deathloop‘s core design is that of the roguelike, games built around perpetual loops. You dive in, you try different things, you see how far you get, you die, and you try again. This is in many ways the perfect genre for Arkane to adopt because it aligns so neatly with this studio’s established comfort zone. All of Arkane’s previous games are, at their heart, an invitation for players to test a theory. Their games encourage the player to push at the boundaries and see where they stretch.

The other roguelike fundament is the adage that knowledge is power. The further you get, the more knowledge about what is coming you gain. This means you can better prepare for each run and give yourself a greater chance of success. Deathloop makes this a core part of its design. Every run will add bitesize chunks of information about each of the game’s four maps, the people found there, and opportunities you may be able to capitalise on. What starts as a working knowledge of how each day plays out increases in resolution until it becomes a detailed day planner, and finally, an intimate portrait of destinies intersecting.

All of the information you collect is filed under a few easy-to-reach submenus and an array of possible leads. What you do with all this information is, in the main, entirely up to you.

Your day at a glance

Colt’s recurring day in Deathloop is broken up into four distinct time periods — morning, noon, afternoon, and evening. The Visionaries move around during the day. Some have a full docket, with work in the morning and a party to attend that night. Some only stick their heads out at one particular point in the day. The island’s four primary districts can be explored at any time of day, and things — events, people, opportunities — will change depending on when you decide to roll through.

Despite being a game about a time loop, there is no time limit on how long you can spend in any district. You’re free to explore for as long as you’d like. The day will only move forward if Colt returns to his bunker in the tunnels under the island. Using a few runs to poke around, even if you don’t have a clear plan, will pay informational dividends. With enough information at your disposal, you’ll start to piece together your perfect run of murders.

Infuse it or lose it

Deathloop wouldn’t be an Arkane game without superpowers. Following Dishonored‘s lead, Deathloop is replete with situational abilties. Some are crucial, particularly if you’re fond of the stealthy approach. Teleporting and burst invisibility are ideal for creeping about or getting out of danger quickly. The Nexus power, which links enemies together so that damage done to one affects the other, is perfect for rapidly clearing whole areas of Eternalists. Each of these powers is held in a pale grey stone rectangle called a Slab. Each of these Slabs resides in the pocket of a Visionary. You’ll need to kill them all to collect the whole set.

Your powers, like your weapons, won’t carry over from run to run unless you “infuse” them. Throughout the island, Colt will find objects that have been infused with a mysterious resource called Residuum. These items glow and flicker with a strange light, attracting attention. The more residuum you have, the more items in your inventory you can infuse. Infused items — powers, weapons, and weapon trinkets — will remain on your person when the day resets. Fail or forget to infuse them, you lose them for good — except for your powers. Lost powers, of course, can be regained by killing the Visionary that holds them.

Early on, Colt gains access to a power of his own called Reprise that allows him to survive death — twice. Dying creates a residuum-infused Colt corpse, and winds the clock back a short distance so you can try again or change your approach. If you can make it back to your body, you can reclaim your dropped residuum. If you die a third time, the day restarts and you lose all your residuum. The impetus is clear: infuse it or lose it.

I think that I will cause problems on purpose

You’ve spent half the day meticulously planning the perfect Deathloop run. You know where the Visionaries will be, and when. The order in which they are to die has been established. All that remains is to pull the trigger.

Yeah, not so fast. Your dogged nemesis, Juliana, is here to cause problems on purpose. If you are in a district with an active Visionary, and you stuff the run badly enough for the alarm to go up, there is a chance Juliana will appear. From the moment she arrives, Juliana will begin to stalk you, looking for clues and slowly closing in on your location. There is a hard limit on the number of times Juliana can appear during any given loop, so she won’t always turn up. But when she does, she throws your entire plan out the window.

To make tracking you easier, Juliana will lock the doors to your escape tunnels. You’ll need to use a device called a Hackamajig on a satellite computer to unlock them again. This computer is often placed in an exposed location. You won’t be able to leave or proceed until Juliana is eliminated, and this won’t be easy. She’s a crafty little shit.

How to solve a problem like Juliana

For the most part, Juliana will be controlled by the computer. There will, however, come a moment where you are invaded by a Juliana that is altogether more dangerous — a Juliana controlled by another human player. This is Deathloop‘s x-factor. Juliana will be the direct spanner to your plan. She will show up at the worst possible moment every single time. Combine this with the troll-tactics of a human player worth their salt, and your golden run will almost certainly be ruined.

This is the part of the game I fully expect to divide players. Some will love the thrill of the hunt, and of being hunted. Others will resent the intrusion on their carefully formulated plans. I fall directly into the latter camp. I hate being interrupted. I’m the kind of player that will spend three hours planning the perfect murder in Hitman. I enjoy carefully arranging the dominoes before giving them the casual flick that sends the plan into motion. Thus, Juliana’s intrusions, especially when they came from a human player, were a frustrating distraction.

This irritation is, of course, entirely consistent with Juliana’s character. The annoyance you feel at having to deal with her is the same annoyance that Colt himself is feeling. Like I said, on this particular point, your mileage will absolutely vary depending on the kind of player you are. You can turn player-controlled invasions off in the options menu, but you’ll never truly be free of Juliana. The computer-controlled version will always be there, waiting for her moment.

Final thoughts

Deathloop is perhaps Arkane’s highest-concept pitch to date. It stitches multiple genres and ideas together into a cohesive whole, one with something to say about its own inspirations. The pulsing blaxploitation-era soundtrack propels you ever onward, determined to nail that perfect run. It offers something more modern than Dishonored‘s low-fantasy setting, and faster-paced than Prey‘s sustained dread. It’s a game that rewards exploration and experimentation, even as it gleefully throws wrenches in the works. Behind the 70’s-era shucking and jiving is a game that asks you a single, earnest favour: if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Highlights: Great worldbuilding; Smart tweaking of the roguelike formula; Open-ended design
Lowlights: Juliana invasions will be the great divider; Repetition may turn off those unfamiliar with the genre
Developer: Arkane Studios
Publisher: Bethesda
Platforms: PlayStation 5, Windows PC
Available: 14 September 2021

Review conducted on PlayStation 5 using pre-release code provided by the publisher.

David Smith

David Smith is the former games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously written for PC World Australia. You can find him on Twitter at @RhunWords.

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