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Arkane Studios has a rather unique history. Founded in France in 1999, the studio only developed a handful of games through the early 2000s. It wasn’t until they were approached (and then acquired) by Bethesda Softworks to work on the original Dishonored that they built a solid foundation for themselves. After expanding to two studios, the team in Austin, Texas went on to create Prey (and is now working on the upcoming Redfall), while the team in Lyon focused on yet another new IP, Deathloop.
Deathloop’s premise is intriguing. Taking the role of protagonist Cole Vahn, you awake on an island every morning, repeatedly experiencing the same day. You’ve apparently been doing this for a while, yet can’t remember the details as to why or how it’s occurring to begin with. To unravel the mystery, you’ll need to explore the island of Blackreef and take on a host of powerful enemies named Visionaries, all while dealing with an enemy assassin named Juliana Blake who taunts you along the way. The premise of a triple-A first-person shooter that implemented rogue-lite elements had many wondering how Deathloop would fare. Fortunately, it comes together extremely well.
You’ll spend the first few hours of Deathloop being introduced to story elements, the island of Blackreef, and the timeloop mechanic itself. The game throws quite a lot at you early-on and asks you to invest yourself into the characters and setting. Fortunately, Deathloop does a really good job of leading the player towards the most meaningful objectives and essentially holding their hand along the way. It also helps that Colt is very well written and loaded with personality.
Playing as Colt, you find yourself in the shoes of a protagonist who feels genuine and has a good sense of humor. It’s endearing nearly immediately. Juliana, meanwhile, is similarly well written, but from the counter perspective. She clearly knows the truth of what’s happening on Blackreef and toys with you frequently. To further enhance that effect, her voice comes through the DualSense’s speaker by default which makes it feel like she’s truly taunting you in-person. This continues throughout your journey, and it adds a spirit of competition to the gameplay.
Julianna is typically a CPU AI, but Deathloop also allows it to be another player should you choose. You can allow real-life players to play the role of Julianna, and you too can invade other players’ world as her. This seems like a fun feature that’s somewhat reminiscent of invasions in the Dark Souls games. To note, however, I didn’t get a chance to experience it yet as I was playing prior to launch.
While Deathloop has rogue-lite elements, which I will detail more in a moment, they feel different than the description typically implies. You are not only in more control with how you approach scenarios in Deathloop, but the concept of “dying and starting another run from scratch” without making any progress is exceedingly rare. This is due to how the story is told, which, in my opinion, is one of the strongest aspects of the game.
As you may know by now, your main goal is to eliminate eight targets in a single day to break the loop. But to do so, you will need to uncover the truth behind each of the eight “Visionaries.” This means exploring Blackreef extensively, uncovering the back-stories and patterns of its residents along with the mystery of the time looping, itself.
Blackreef consists of four main regions, and you are able to visit them at four different times of the day (morning, Noon, afternoon, and evening). Each region is slightly different depending on the time of day, with different enemy layouts, places to visit, and information to uncover. When you wake up in the morning, you’ll choose your loadout and decide which region to visit based upon your current objectives. For instance, you may learn that a character is only able to be reached in the morning in a specific region. So, you’ll want to accomplish that goal, which will provide additional intelligence and open the next steps of your journey.
Once you complete an objective, it’s up to you whether you continue to explore that region at that time of day. There is no time limit on the player, thus you can spend as little or as much time as you like exploring, tackling objectives, and discovering secrets depending on your play style. Once done, you head back to the region’s exit. This advances the day to the next time period, which will again present you with new opportunities. Once you reach the end of the full day, the morning starts anew, but you retain all of the information you’ve gathered to that point.
Every time you step into a region, you are granted three lives. Should you die three times, you will be looped back to the morning again and lose any items you’ve gathered. However, as you are in control of where you go and when you leave each area, I found this to very rarely come into play. In fact, it’s only happened once to me in my time with the game, and the reason I died was due to something that was mission specific.
If you’re familiar with Arkane’s level design prowess in titles like Dishonored and Prey, you’ll feel right at home here. It is, in a word, brilliant. You’re able to approach situations from near countless ways, and even after tens of hours I was still finding new paths and hidden routes. There’s a real sense of discovery and exploration in Deathloop, along with a wealth of secrets to uncover. It makes it worth your time as well as you’ll often discover new information (and thus missions), along with new weapons or character enhancements.
Your loadout consists of your weapons, passive abilities, and powers, known as slabs. Weapons vary in quality, with rarer weapons being hidden or dropped by late-game enemies. Over time, you’ll collect trinkets that allow you to further improve your guns’ capabilities as well. Player abilities, meanwhile, are enhanced by using trinkets that act as passive abilities. You can have four equipped at any given time, and just like with the weapon trinkets, they vary in rarity and quality.
Slabs are directly tied to the story of Deathloop and act as your powers. These can only be acquired from the Visionaries, and each gives you a unique power such as invisibility or phase-shifting. And, just like your weaponry, these can be further enhanced as well.
As you explore Blackreef, you’ll acquire Residuum, which acts as your currency. Between time-of-day periods and at the end of the day, you use Residuum to infuse your items and thus retain them permanently. Being able to sell what you don’t want is yet another way Deathloop offers the player flexibility in how they build their version of Colt.
The system of using Residuum to save the weapons, trinkets, and slabs you prefer is really well implemented. As someone who loves to play stealthily, I focused on silent weapons, quiet movement, quick hacking, and extra power for abilities. But if you’re someone who wants to run and gun, you can do that to your heart’s content as well. And as you might expect, by the late-game you have enough bonuses to essentially feel like a super-hero.
The gameplay itself is wonderfully smooth and complemented by exceptional sound design. You are able to navigate the vast environments quickly and easily, with the type of fluidity you would expect given the game’s mechanics. Using your abilities and weaponry is made more enjoyable by excellent sound effects, which allow you to easily identify enemy locations and items of interest on the map. And, once you do enter combat, you’ll be met with some of the most impactful-sounding weapons I’ve heard in some time.
The more I played Deathloop, the more it began to feel like a mash-up of some of my favorite things. The gameplay has elements of Bioshock and Dishonored, as you feel powerful but still vulnerable. But it is also very stylish and witty, with an aesthetic that makes you feel like James Bond at times as well. That design aesthetic carries through to every aspect of the game, from the UI to the story-telling, and I found it quite endearing.
I particularly enjoyed the way Deathloop tells its story, as you feel like a detective in addition to all of the above. Unraveling the mystery of Blackreef, the characters, their motives, and your relationships, feels like unwrapping a present. Each piece of the puzzle feels like you’re removing a piece of tape or wrapping as you work your way to the surprise inside. The sense of excitement and curiosity it presents the player is palpable.
While I did get stuck briefly a couple of times and also had to replay a few sections here and there, overall these are minor complaints in an otherwise well-designed system to keep the player engaged and moving forward.
From a performance standpoint, Deathloop really impresses as well. Outside of a few flashing textures on rare occasions and a handful of frame drops in heavy combat scenarios, I experienced no issues whatsoever. There are three options to choose from. The highest graphical fidelity offers 4K with ray-tracing but limits the framerate to thirty. The second setting targets sixty frames-per-second but prioritizes graphical fidelity at 4K. Lastly is a performance mode that runs in dynamic 4K but maintains sixty frames-per-second the vast majority of the time. I played nearly entirely in performance mode, and not only was it silky smooth, but I also didn’t feel as though I was missing out on anything graphically.
With Deathloop, Arkane has once again demonstrated the ability to create a new IP that is interesting, unique, and fun. It builds upon elements of their prior titles, yet feels wholly special in its own right. The way Deathloop presents the player with mystery and allows them to uncover it at their own pace is fantastic. It is easily one of the most enjoyable games I’ve played this year.