“I’m gonna live happily ever after, right here. Forever.”
As I finish absorbing the Residuum from a temporally-dislocated shovel, I’m told Julianna is on the hunt. What’s she on the hunt for?
Me. Why? Because I want to break the loop – the interminable hell of living the same day over, and over, and over again, on a demented island called Blackreef.
And likely for something more. Something that’s woven into every tick of every clock.
Deathloop is an Arkane Studios game from the ground up, although its identity is difficult to pin down. Part first-person shooter, part immersive sim, and even part roguelite, Deathloop is a compellingly imaginative video game, with all the detail and ingenuity that has come to define Arkane’s work. But that same evasiveness around its identity comes at a cost, perhaps robbing the game of its shot at greatness.
We’re getting ahead of things, though. Let’s wind back.
Blackreef is home to a temporal anomaly that has been exploited by a group of people calling themselves ‘Visionaries’. Their only purpose with that anomaly is to live forever. As such, they’ve created a time loop that resets every single day, taking their memories, experiences, and personal growth with it, depositing them in the very first day all over again.
They were already terrible people before arriving, but having endured the same day for what appears to be many years has tipped them well over the edge. Now this crew of entitled egomaniacs are after you, one Colt Vahn.
The good news is you’re after them, too. Kill all seven Visionaries in one day, and you can break the loop – and break free of Blackreef for good. Unless Julianna gets you first, of course.
Right off the bat, Deathloop is a lot. There is a deluge of explanatory text as the game works overtime to contextualise the nature of the loop and how it impacts weapons (the things you kill people with), trinkets (the doodads you use to upgrade weapons and yourself) and slabs (magical powers).
The feeling of being overwhelmed didn’t last long, but the inelegance of the delivery struck me. It contrasted jarringly with the slick efficiency of the Dishonored series, for instance, which benefited from more natural introductions.
It’s probably why my first encounters with the Eternalists – a cabal of idiots populating the island – were a clumsy mess (I’m also a bit rubbish as a player). I bumbled from one confrontation to the next, consistently failing to maintain stealth. I died hard and often, which took some adjusting to: I’m a prodigious user of quick saves, but no such mechanic exists in Deathloop. Three strikes and you’re back to the beginning of the loop.
But that’s all part of the game’s weird charm. As you acquire more trinkets and wield greater powers, the more lethal you become.
Never quite as lethal as Julianna in the hands of the right player, though. One of Deathloop’s more ingenious features is allowing other players to hijack your loop as Julianna. This can be quite fun, completely shifting the dial on your play-style within a single moment. I became anxious and twitchy when they appeared, slowing my pace right down – and invariably getting my arse kicked.
Eventually that slowdown became a problem and I reverted to an AI-controlled Julianna. Other players altered the experience too much, reducing my progress through the story to a snail’s pace. Once I made the switch Julianna became much more manageable, allowing me to relax a little and acquire useful slab upgrades.
Such upgrades will prove vital in your war against the Eternalists. These delinquents can proudly take their place alongside Bioshock’s Splicers as some of gaming’s most outrageous villains.
That hasn’t stopped some players bemoaning their intelligence. In his piece, our chief Chris rebutted such complaints with a novel, and accurate, counter: the Eternalists are nuts. You’re fighting a mob of drunk, high, and insane egomaniacs, not professional killers. Splashed in paint and strumming guitars on the cliffside, the Eternalists engage in all kinds of wacky activities, from shooting themselves through cannons to partaking in games of asphyxiation (what fun!).
Further, their relative lack of skill makes your repeated trips across Blackreef less of a chore. Once you’ve learned where the Eternalists are going to be at, say, noon, you can orchestrate a murderous balletic sweep to swiftly reach your goal.
Which brings us neatly to the core conceit at the heart of it all: repetition. You’re forced to live the same day forever, and your goal is to break that. Colt recognises there’s something inherently shitty about the loop, but as with all things, it’s a matter of who’s benefiting from it. Julianna is the most protective of the loop as she’s holding all the cards. The loop serves her (the extent to which that’s true is debatable, but for the sake of argument it’s what Julianna believes).
But how does it serve us, the player? Without the ability to quick save, death becomes bizarrely real in Deathloop, even though you can’t actually die within the confines of the narrative. The possibility of having to replay lengthy sections of the game, beat-for-beat if you want to tee up all the Visionaries, could feel overbearing at times.
Sure, the onus is on you to master Blackreef, but Blackreef is only composed of four locations, which open and close in different ways depending on the time of day. They’re expansive levels full of depth and hidden secrets, but I was always aware of playing the same levels, no matter how dressed up they were. Mileage is going to very on that.
This is not a slight on the gorgeous and evocative 60s aesthetic, but at a certain point I felt like I’d seen the best of Deathloop. And that point came earlier than it should’ve done given how much I had left to do. Its secrets, such as they are, are rarely all that rewarding.
I also mentioned at the beginning of this review that Deathloop doesn’t quite manage to master any of its many gameplay elements. For example, the shooting is good, but it’s never great. And when you’re committed to doing it over and over again, in the same setting, you feel the slack in the play, as it were. This is true of all the game’s other components.
More problematically, all that repetition doesn’t add up to much come the game’s closing act. It’s hard to end a story, and Deathloop proves that by failing to find a satisfying pay-off. There’s a few choices, but only one of them really makes any thematic sense, and that choice defuses much of the story’s tension to say less than it needs to.
It hits such a sour note because both Colt and Julianna are some of the best written, and best voiced, characters in gaming. Seriously, these two, and their evolving dynamic (is it evolving?) are a precious treat. I loved their caustic banter. It was always funny, but equally loaded with the weight of time and some other, darker element. Cutting through the madness of every other inhabitant on this most broken island, Colt and Julianna possess something real, something that matters. They drive the narrative forward with their struggle.
That struggle deserved a better send-off. Especially Julianna. She’s probably one of the best characters in all of gaming.
Arkane have still crafted something quite special here. My complaints over the ending are largely a testament to everything that preceded it, which is rich and distinctive, with sharp and entertaining writing. The shooting is fun, the world madly gorgeous, and it’s gratifyingly sprinkled with little bits of the immersive sim.
It’s just never quite brilliant as any one of them needs to be.
Platforms Available – PC and PlayStation 5
Review based on Steam media account copy. Please read this post for more on our scoring policy.