Arkane pushes the boat out big time with Deathloop. Its latest carries itself with all the swagger of a developer that has perfected the modern immersive sim with the excellent Dishonored series, and the greatly underappreciated Prey. Somehow, Deathloop has more personality, style, and ambition than its precursors, and sharpens the familiar Arkane trappings to a fine point. In short, Deathloop is the ultimate Arkane game.
Deathloop puts the player in the shoes of that most relatable of protagonist type; the amnesiac. Colt Vahn awakens on an island’s beach at dawn, seemingly hungover, and very confused about how he’s ended up here. Things get a bit weird when wispy clouds of text materialize in front of his eyes as he stumbles towards the first door he sees. The words coax him into action and he continues on. Soon after, a voice on a radio begins to taunt and tease him. This is Julianna Blake, and she is going to be Colt’s endless spanner in the works.
Julianna quite violently shows Colt he’s stuck in a time loop, and the only way out is to find a way of lining up seven targets in a single day and murdering them to break the loop. That’s not as easy as it might sound because this island, known as Blackreef, is actually chock-full of gun-toting hedonists, and ruled by an elite group of rich oddballs known as the Visionaries, and they are Colt’s targets.
To make matters worse, each target is only around in one of the game’s four districts at certain times, and at first, it’s impossible to eliminate all the targets in a single loop. Each loop in Blackreef begins at dawn, and once the game’s opening has given Colt everything he needs to tackle his big death puzzle, he’s free to visit whichever of the four districts he pleases, but in doing so, locks out the other three areas for that time period. So the idea is to focus on exploring an area to uncover new information that helps the player piece together a solution for escaping the island for good, and then try and kill off a target to obtain their unique ability slabs.
To really get anywhere, Colt needs these abilities. They follow a similar pattern to Dishonored’s powers and are increasingly useful for exploring every nook, cranny, and murder option possible on Blackreef. Shift, for instance, allows Colt to travel over short distances instantly, which is handy for getting onto rooftops, and keeping out of the sight of Blackreef’s booze-addled goons, but if he returns to obtain that slab from that target again, he can get upgrades to the ability that allow him to travel further, or even stop in mid-air to choose a landing spot. You can only carry two slabs at a time, however, so planning is needed before setting out.
With information and power to obtain, no loop feels wasted, but dying does have its consequences. Die before you finish the day and the loop resets abruptly, with Colt losing anything he’s gained from that run. The permanent slab ability Reprise does at least off Colt two additional chances to cheat death, rewinding his physical form back a short distance from the point of death to avoid a quick encore. This, plus a complete lack of a manual save system gives Deathloop’s time looping quest a deadlier feel, but still allows just enough room for the necessary experimentation to learn from the experience.
While going in all guns blazing is a valid option for taking out targets, the smart way, to begin with, is to skulk in the shadows, avoiding combat where possible, and learning all you can about your target. Without Colt’s intrusion, they all follow the same patterns each time because to them, it’s still the same day it was last time, so you get to understand roughly where they’ll be and what ways you can get to them. I must have killed some of these targets a dozen times, and found all sorts of ways to approach killing them, from luring them to explosive death, to brutally turning their own defenses against them. The satisfaction of figuring out new ways to solve each murder puzzle is key to what makes Deathloop tick.
Blackreef’s ego-stroking decadence allows the Visionaries to focus on their own individual batshit plans, and put their personal stamp on each district. This is a place set in an alternate 1960s, and there’s plenty of that decade’s jazzy swing in how the Visionaries have decorated the island. Big splashes of bold poppy color adorn ancient walls. Coupled with the superb soundtrack and nods to 60s culture and history (James Bond and the space race especially), it feels very much like a particular decade infecting a different time, which really feels in keeping with the tone Arkane are going for.
The Updaam district, for example, has plenty of old housing that wouldn’t feel out of place in Dishonored’s Dunwall, but Visionaries Aleksis and Charlie have added their own mansions that fit their personalities. Charlie is a super-smart game maker who gave up half his brain to power a computer that runs his home and the tannoy system for the island. Charlie’s tower-like home gets turned into a live-action role-playing game during the day, giving Colt easier access to him. It’s full of naff cardboard cutout aliens, fog machines, and painted backgrounds, and the more you learn about Charlie and his ‘better half’ 2-Bit, the more this geeky setup makes sense. Meanwhile, Aleksis is a party animal, whose opulent, swanky mansion is absolutely made for partying, and it sticks out like a sore thumb against the largely untouched old-world buildings that surround it. It’s loud and gaudy, just like its owner, but boy, is it ever a great place to explore as you plan out your hunt.
Just when you think you have a good strategy in place, that aforementioned spanner in the works is liable to show up and ruin your best-laid plans. Julianna is Colt’s nemesis, and is out to protect the loop. She comes armed with her own weapons and slabsWhen she’s not goading Colt over the radio (the back and forth between the pair is brilliantly performed), she may jump into action and hunt Colt down. The ethereal sigh of music that announces her arrival can be positively dread-inducing in the wrong circumstances as you now have two additional jobs to add to whatever you were doing; reopen the level exits she’s locked down, and either confront or avoid Julianna. I could see how this could have been an annoying distraction as mechanics go, but for me, it adds spice to the relatively more routine nature of whatever mission you’re doing. Plus, defeating her can be a good shortcut to getting a nice new weapon or a slab you hadn’t found yet.
If Julianna had only been an A.I. foe, it might not have had quite the impact it does, but the most fascinating, and thrilling, aspect of this is that another player can be Julianna, and invade your game (if you allow that setting). Now there’s a real fear and level of unpredictability that an A.I. simply cannot instill. You don’t know how skilled this person is, what abilities they’ve picked up (you can level up Julianna by gaining points for actions in an invasion), nor exactly what their strategy and intentions might be.
The point of playing as Julianna is to ruin Colt’s fun by closing his current loop. It produced some memorable moments that you simply won’t get otherwise. One of the first times I got invaded, I went into defense mode immediately. I hid high up, just around the corner from a pair of large metal facility doors, threw out some proximity mines around the area, and waited patiently, peeking out occasionally from my secluded spot. Eventually, I hear a boom as one of the mines is set off, and I come out of hiding, gun at the ready. I hit the player once, but they quickly dart back behind the metal doors, and I dare not go after them yet. There’s a nervy standoff that seems to last forever, but in reality, was no more than sixty seconds, and it culminates in them getting knocked back by another proximity mine, ducking back into the doorway, and me finally deciding to go for broke and run after them. I get a few shots off at close range, and the encounter is over. A thrilling boss battle choreographed entirely on the fly by two human beings.
That’s not the most fascinating part of the invasion system to me. Being Julianna offers up a lot more freedom than you might expect. Yes, you’re supposed to kill Colt, and sabotage him to gain as many points as you can, but I’ve found it to be far more interesting to buck that trend and actively help Colt by taking out enemies, destroying obstacles, and even killing off his targets. Naturally, players aren’t entirely receptive to the idea of a friendly Julianna, and that added a fresh dynamic to encounters. I’ve learned to do what I came to do, and hide away until the player has left because hilariously, even running away has led to players getting killed by goons trying to chase me after I’ve done the heavy lifting.
Either approach works best when you’ve played through the game as Colt and have a better understanding of each district’s secrets, passageways, and routines. You can get the jump on Colt this way, and you’ll need to because while Colt can die a few times before checking out, Julianna has just one shot at taking Colt out. Her unique slab allows her to switch appearance with anyone else, meaning you can use it to lure Colt towards or away from where you are, and she has the same multifaceted grenade as Colt to lay tripwire and proximity traps. Having better knowledge of Blackreef means a tactical advantage in both being hunter and the hunted.
As everything started to fall together and the end of the loop was finally in sight, I felt a tinge of sadness that my first experience of Deathloop was almost over. I dragged out that finale as long as I could, uncovering every possible route, secret, tidbit on the Visionaries, Blackreef, as well as the unclear history between Colt and Julianna. As with Dishonored’s Dunwall and Karnaka, or Prey’s Talos-I, Blackreef has life to it. Diseased, hateable life that often deserves to end, but that in itself drives the grim wonder of the place, and exploring its stories never got old. It’s a place I’m absolutely going to revisit from the start again at some point, with all the accrued knowledge that matters almost undoubtedly set to make the next visit to Blackreef feel as fresh as it is warmly familiar.
Deathloop review code for PS5 provided by the publisher.
Deathloop is out now on PS5 and PC.