…an absolutely bloody belter.
Has there ever been a more appropriate moment in history for the time loop conceit to become popular? While huge sections of Earth’s population are stuck indoors, it seems fitting that the storytelling conceit du jour should reflect that. In 2019 we had Netflix’s Russian Doll, followed last year by the engaging Palm Springs. In the world of video games, Hades recently launched to near universal acclaim and this year saw the excellent (albeit punishingly difficult) Returnal. Well, now to that august pantheon we can add Arkane Studio’s Deathloop and friends we won’t mince words, it’s an absolutely bloody belter.
Deathloop puts you in the shoes of Cole, an assassin with amnesia, who wakes up on the island of Blackreef with no clue how he got there. It soon becomes clear that he, like the rest of Blackreef, is stuck in a time loop, one day repeating endlessly. If he ever hopes to leave, it seems, he needs to uncover the many secrets of Blackreef and kill the eight so-called Visionaries (mad scientists and brainy psychos) all in one day. If he misses one? The loop starts again. If he dies? The loop starts again. And if the sassy, insane Julianna – who follows his progress – has her way? He’ll be stuck in the loop forever.
As fun as the concept is, Deathloop’s real genius is in the execution. Arkane has a great formula with the Dishonored series and Prey, but they struggled with finding a reason to go back through the insanely gorgeous, detail-rich environments they created. In Deathloop, there’s a plot-based reason to backtrack at different times of the day, after various events have occurred, and the entire process feels like a fiendishly clever puzzle rich with hidden nooks, crannies and juicy lore snippets.
Each of the Visionaries feels like a fully fleshed human being (albeit an unpleasant one) and working out how to manipulate their weaknesses to off them in clever ways is a supreme joy. It’s not an easy task, but as you kill them you’ll manage to take their powers (in the form of Slabs), which give you the ability to teleport short distances, turn invisible, link enemies and deal damage to multiple targets at once or hurl them across the map with telekinesis. Working out how to maximise the effectiveness of these powers, in conjunction with the decent-sized arsenal you can wield, offers so much gleefully homicidal variety that it never gets old in the game’s 15-20 hour playtime.
There are so many wonderful, clever eureka moments along the way that we won’t spoil, but it’s a true testament to Arkane’s skill with level design and seemingly boundless creativity. Deathloop takes a familiar premise and gives it new life, incorporating gameplay elements from Hitman, Dishonored, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, BioShock and dozens of rogue-lites/roguelikes, immerses it in 1960s spy movie kitsch, and an ironically buoyant sense of style, and delivers what is easily one of the year’s best games and possibly one of Arkane’s finest works.
The only gameplay element that feels a bit unnecessary is the PvP gimmick where other players can invade your game (and you theirs) as Julianna. Random yahoos taking the piss isn’t a particularly appealing prospect when you’re mid-run or trying to enjoy the story, however you can play offline and just face the much less ominous AI. Actually, the enemy AI is one of the few cons in this sea of pros; it’s a bit simple at times, but this is a minor quibble when so much of what’s on offer works a treat.
Look, this is one of those situations where you should believe the hype. Deathloop is a wonderfully original, singular experience, boasting compelling story, compulsive gameplay and a startlingly original aesthetic and style. If you own a PS5 or PC, there’s absolutely no reason not to head to Blackreef and start solving this brilliant puzzle, one dead body at a time.