DEATHLOOP Review: "Even When Things Don't Go Your Way, You're Left Wanting To Try Again"
If someone told me that DEATHLOOP was actually a spiritual successor to the Dishonored franchise, I'd be hard-pressed to disagree. While the time-loop concept is a unique and creative storytelling tool that allows Arkane to create something truly brand-new to video games, the moment-to-moment gameplay in DEATHLOOP is so evidently a development on the success they hit with Dishonored.
Colt, Julianna, And The Visionaries
DEATHLOOP sees the player wake up on a deserted beach, with little to no recollection of who they are or what they're doing there. You'll quickly come to learn that you're Colt and you have one goal in mind: Break the loop. Every time you die, or the day ends, time resets to that morning. Sound familiar? It's essentially Groundhog Day, but this time you are Bill Murray and you know what you need to do to break the time loop.
There are eight targets, known as "visionaries" in-game, and killing all eight of them in one day will break the loop. The problem is, one of them is also hunting you down. You meet Julianna early on during the tutorial, but just as she ends one of your infinite lives there and then, she's constantly pursuing you, like a quick-witted and charming Predator from Alien. She can drop in on your game at any moment, equipped with an arsenal of weapons and tools to stop you from breaking the loop.
It's evident from the get-go that Colt and Julianna have a complex history, because in a game with next to no backstory and lore that is told only through in-game findings, their back-and-forth banter over the radio is some truly terrific writing. There's no clear right-and-wrong here either; Julianna is simply fighting for what she believes in, while Colt is doing the same.
Pacifist Run? Never Heard Of Her.
With the Dishonored comparisons in mind, where Arkane's pride and joy shone is unfortunately where its latest endeavour falters. Sneaking around Dunwall - or Karnaca, if you played the sequel - and killing as few foes as possible, instead opting to pacify enemies and go by undetected, is an almost-unrivalled stealth experience in gaming. DEATHLOOP offers stealth options, but not to the same degree; avoiding being seen only helps you in the short term by avoiding combat there and then, rather than having any longer benefits.
After all, the entire premise of the game is that you need to kill eight targets to break the "loop" that you're stuck in, but after seeing so much success with an incredibly similar game when it comes to movement, gunplay, and abilities, it's disappointing there's such a lack of non-lethal options. To fly through each level, all you need is a silenced weapon; the LIMP-10 machine pistol with a built-in suppressor I acquired near the start of the game carried me through right to the end, because one-shotting enemies in the head from any distance became such a breeze.
On the same note, DEATHLOOP can't overcome a common problem with games of this ilk: oblivious AI. Every foe has the same problem, in that they will spot you from a country mile away, yet their vision cone is so ridiculously narrow, and they seem to all have earplugs in, because assassinating someone two feet away will leave them none the wiser. You'd think the noise caused from a body dropping to the ground like a sack of King Edward spuds would prompt some reaction.
All of this combined leaves the combat in a strange predicament; engaging in head-to-head combat feels satisfying thanks to the slick gunplay, but being hit leaves a serious mark and going into all-out warfare will see you churning through Reprise (the ability to respawn twice in a district) like Winnie the Pooh goes through jars of honey. Alternatively, trying to sneak by undetected has no discernible benefit, which means your best bet is to play each encounter the same: silenced weapon, meet head.
Wait, Have I Been Here Before?
Thanks to the nature of DEATHLOOP being quite repetitive - you're stuck on an island called Blackreef with only four different areas to explore - you can quickly memorise optimal routes to your objective. Even though enemy locations and behaviour will change depending on the time of day, knowing the layout of the environment makes things much simpler. This is intentional, because you'll often be backtracking to open a lock or kill someone that you didn't have the means to the first time around. Everything you complete is working towards the goal of breaking the loop and saving the people of Blackreef from this eternal life, which hardly anyone is aware of actually happening.
Each day on Blackreef is split up into four periods - morning, noon, afternoon, and evening - and with four districts, you need to plan each day carefully. Certain events happen at specific times in the day, so you need to make the most out of your time on the ground. Exploring every nook and cranny is vital though, because notes and audio logs are littered everywhere, giving clues to things in other districts. You could be roaming around Updaam at night and find a note with a passcode for a locked safe in Fristad Rock that is only there in the afternoons - take that knowledge and return the next day to see what the deal is.
Whenever you end a loop - or die with no Reprise left - you start the next day with the knowledge of everything you've learned, but none of your belongings... unless you've infused them with residuum. This mechanic is what allows you to take loadouts into each objective; collect residuum from highlighted objects in the world and by scrapping items in your inventory you don't want, then use it to infuse the things you do want to keep. At first, this becomes sort of a min-max game as you do the mental maths to work out what you need to get rid of to keep your favourite weapons, trinkets, and abilities, but before too long you'll have residuum coming out of your ears.
The primary thing you'll want to focus your residuum on is abilities, known as "slabs", and their upgrades. You can only acquire the five abilities by killing specific visionaries - the eight targets you have to kill to end the loop - then to keep them permanently, you need 10,000 residuum. Want some upgrades for each ability? Kill the same targets over, and over, and over again. These are by far the hardest object to obtain in the game, but they're more than worth the investment.
The Illusion Of Choice
Much like most of the big Arkane releases in the past, DEATHLOOP gives the player a lot of choice in the moment in terms of which path to take, who to kill, and what loadout to use, but those choices are only surface level. You won't find any moral choices here, no multiple endings, nothing that has much weight behind it. Not to say that's a bad thing because after all, Colt and Julianna's story is ultimately one that Arkane didn't want the player to have any narrative control over, and it's probably better off for it. It's important to point out though since it's such a far cry from the usual Arkane approach.
Despite the aforementioned drawbacks, DEATHLOOP is one of the most innovative and, ultimately, fun games to come out so far this year. It essentially becomes a detective game when you're exploring each district, jotting down passcodes for locked doors and finding crucial information that can help you discover how to break the loop. All four environments are utterly gorgeous, injected with heaps of colour and personality, as are all of the main characters. Even if you'll force them to see the end of a bullet over and over again.
Once you know every corner of Blackreef like the back of your hand, you can start to treat it like a sandbox. Find the Swapper upgrade for the Shift slab for example, and you can swap places with enemies, killing them in new and creative ways. Set Karnesis to fling enemies skyward and add the Slam and Flesh Bomb upgrades to bring them crashing to the ground amidst all their pals, like a human grenade. Combine that with Nexus, which links all enemies together so what you do to one will affect all of them, and you've essentially mastered the power of the Force. You just don't get to use these powers until you've killed the same visionary time and time again, by which point you're already extremely powerful because you know the layout and patrol path of every single foe.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of DEATHLOOP is how multiplayer works. Whenever Julianna invades your game, there's a good chance it's actually another player trying to stop you from escaping with your hard-earned loot. She has abilities and powers available to her too, although Colt only has to kill her once since she doesn't have the benefit of Reprise. It becomes incredibly tense, especially if she starts hunting you down as you're on your way to the exit. Whenever she does invade, you need to go to another part of the map and hack an antenna to gain access to your designated escape route again. I was caught with my pants down more than once as another player absolutely ruined my day and caused a long stream of expletives, kissing goodbye to my slab upgrades and unique, not-yet-infused weapon.
I Don't Want To Leave Blackreef
Even though I may have an affinity for stealth gameplay and the first Dishonored still sits in my list of all-time favourite games, I do not want to leave Blackreef. I wish DEATHLOOP had more Colt-content for me to explore, perhaps another district or two and a few more visionaries to hunt down, because the core gunplay and traversal is so enjoyable. From the We Happy Few-esque masks to some of the quirky interactions - shoutout to 2-BIT - and simply how polished the game is, it's impossible not to recommend. It embodies replay value and even when things don't go your way, you're left wanting to try again rather than walking away frustrated.