In a year of time-loop games, Deathloop might just stand alone. It brings a metric tonne more action to the table than The Forgotten City, and a heck of a lot more humour than the fearsome Returnal, carving out a welcome niche all of its own.
The stealth-action specialists at Arkane have seized their opportunity to break out of the Dishonored series to make a zany and rewarding puzzle box that respects its players – whether they’re cloaked-dagger specialists or gun-toting freewheelers. And it’s a total blast.
Timey Wimey Stuff
Deathloop begins with a groggy wake-up, hungover on a beach, amnesiac and confused. It doesn’t take long to figure out that you’re playing as Colt, stranded on the island of Blackreef, and forced to live the same day over and over again.
The island is home to a group of Visionaries, charismatic characters who’ve gathered here for unclear reasons to have their own deranged fun without any rules. While you’ll only start to get a handle on their individual motivations over time, one thing becomes clear quickly: they’ve got to die if you’re going to break out of this time loop.
It’s a great setup, one that rapidly sets you loose on the island’s four sections to figure out which targets frequent which areas at which times, and how you can influence those appearances using the levels themselves.
The day is broken into four time slots, and with four levels to scour you’ll swiftly realise you can’t find and dispatch all seven targets in one sweep unless you setup a complicated series of dominos to fall in the right order – and therein lies the joy of Deathloop.
A generous menu system gives you hints and guides you through the revelatory process of tracking down each Visionary, listening to their dialogue and diaries, and working out how you can get them to, say, meet up with one of their rivals – or perhaps a lover – so that you can get rid of two birds with one stone (or, more likely, two bullets).
You’ll loop, loop and loop again to work out routines and predilections. All of it will stretch out your understanding of Blackreef – why you’re there, how the island even exists, and just how weird some of its inhabitants, whether they’re Visionaries or grunts, can really get.
Cat and mouse
A significant hurdle, though, will soon crop up as you explore: Julianna, a roving rival assassin who can drop randomly into your sessions to hunt you down with way more aggression than the normal artificial intelligence. That’s just in the single-player mode though. Hop online and she’ll be controlled by an actual player.
This leads to hide-and-seek sessions of brutal proportions. Colt can generally respawn a couple of times before his loop ends completely, whereas Julianna gets only one shot, but both have access to a formidable armoury of weapons and powers that can lead to crazy situations.
You might find that a rogue Julianna ambushes you, and once you respawn she’s surrounded your old body, and its vital loot, with mines and traps as bait to see if you’ll brave the same area twice. You might find she’s swapped appearances with a non-playable character (NPC) to go incognito, or just posted up next to a resident Visionary, assuming that’s your target. It’s a brilliant tactical mindwarp.
It’s just as fun and tense to hop into Deathloop’s twinned mode to play as Julianna yourself – trying to track a Colt down, conscious that you might die at any moment, but hoping your plan comes off.
A veritable toybox
Whether you’re playing as Colt or Julianna, seeking to derail another player or avoid them like the plague, you’ll have a total smorgasbord of options when it comes to gameplay styles, and it’s here that Deathloop really spreads its wings.
It’s a shooter first and foremost, so there’s a collection of handguns, submachine guns (SMGs), light machineguns (LMGs), and shotguns to explore – but this modest arsenal is expanded hugely by a loot system that adds modifiers to your weapons.
A bog-standard grey weapon will shoot straight, but could jam at any time and isn’t going wow you. Pick up a purple-rarity variant, though, and it’ll work beautifully, with the added bonus of an effect like a toxic gas cloud on impact, or explosive rounds, or any number of other modifiers. Such modifiers can change how you play completely.
That’s enhanced further by Trinkets. You can fill weapon and player slots with these to give yourself bonuses like a double jump, more health, or the ability to hack remote mines. There are even some totally unique weapons that’ll take some investigation to find, and bring some really fun effects to the table.
But that’s not all – we’ve mentioned powers a couple of times, and you’ll quickly find a handful to exploit. Grabbed off dead Visionaries, these mysterious Slabs let you, for example, teleport short distances or grab enemies and lob them into the air. They’re great fun but also can massively modify how you go about clearing a level.
It all comes together into a loadout system that lets you completely dictate how you approach Deathloop, once you’ve got through the first couple of loops and have figured out the slightly overwhelming limits of the options.
Helping it all stick together is a resource you can collect as you move around (once the game unlocks it after an hour or so): Residuum. This glowy stuff can be siphoned into weapons, Slabs and Trinkets you’ve collected, in order to make them stick in your inventory between loops so that you don’t have to scrounge around for good gear each time.
The devil’s playground
All of this fun, and variability, takes place in a beautiful set of levels that might only total four locations, but feels like more. Each of the four areas changes significantly between time slots, after all, so you’ll see them all in different lights and with different contents.
There are gorgeous 60s-inspired clubs, funky party scenes, and industrial facilities straight out of a Connery-era Bond flick. You’ll explore mysterious scientific outposts and clamber through windows in downtown neighbourhoods, all the while surrounded by amazing designs, from posters to furniture.
Just like in the Dishonored games and Prey, Arkane showcases itself as world-builders par excellence, and the sense of place is something to behold. It’s not always quite matched by actual performance, at least not before any launch-day patch is deployed.
Three visual modes are on offer for PlayStation 5 players – a 60fps setting, another that targets 60fps but with more visual fidelity, and a 30fps option with ray-tracing turned on. We found only the first of these three was rewarding, even though it dropped below 60fps on plenty of occasions, while the other two often stuttered quite badly at times (and, therefore, we avoided).
That’s a bit of a shame, especially for a console exclusive that should in theory have been targetting this hardware for quite some time, but shouldn’t be a real issue on PC – where you can tweak more settings. It’s important to confirm, though, that despite being the lowest-fidelity option, that 60fps mode still looks beautiful, with great checkerboard 4K resolution.