If you haven’t noticed, 2021 has played host to a lot of video games built around time loops, such as Loop Hero, The Forgotten City and Twelve Minutes to name a few. But some may argue that they were all appetizers and that now it’s time for the main course of time loop games: Deathloop. Bethesda and developer Arkane Lyon’s time-bending first-person action/shooter/stealth combo made quite the big impact when it was first announced, and be it a hefty amount of promotion or a large amount of delays from other titles, it now finds itself in the position of potentially being one of the year’s biggest games.
Deathloop centers around Colt, who wakes up on the shores of a mysterious island called Blackreef one day after being killed by a young woman named Julianna, with no memory of what happened. It quickly becomes clear to Colt that he’s trapped in a time loop and that he should be a lot more familiar with Blackreef than he currently is. He then has more concerns beyond that, such as a city full of weird cult-like figure known as Eternalists that want him dead, mysterious glowing writing everywhere that only he can see and a bizarre halo-like structure off in the distance to name a few. Colt also winds up being one of the only people who retains memories between loops, and if he wants to break this spell and free everyone, that means killing the eight Visionaries who worked with the mysterious Aeon foundation to help get things started on Blackreef, which includes Julianna, who will stop at nothing to stop him.
So our hero is stranded in a strange and fantastical sci-fi city based around some sort of gimmick, clearly intended as a paradise that has since fallen into disrepair. It then turns out that the unique properties of this city allows them to craft one-of-kind materials that can give people special abilities in various way, like teleportation or telekinesis, but the people who wield these powers have now become crazed madmen, divulging in chaotic arts and experiments while backed up by an army of masked citizens who have also gone off the deep end, all causing chaos everywhere. And so our protagonist has to fight their way through or around them, and even if they die, some method is in place that explains why they can be resurrected, and wait, was Arkane secretly making a BioShock sequel this whole time?
Okay, that can be seen as a stretch, but once the similarities were noticed, it became hard to ignore. For that matter, this was actually meant as a compliment if anything. Deathloop can easily be described as having the strengths of both BioShock and any of Arkane’s games, though Dishonored is the one that sticks out the most. From BioShock, it has the sense of mystery, world-building and art style. From Dishonored, it has the open-ended gameplay and mission design, stealth-based gameplay, and skills that allow for a variety of combat and traversal.
Let’s get deeper into those areas, though. Deathloop’s art style is striking to say the least, and much like the BioShock games, goes for a deliberately retro feel, this time evoking the likes of the ’60s or ’70s with its warmer color palettes, Saul Bass inspirations and slick streaks of vividness everywhere, not to mention the deliberately retro analog tech such as blocky CRT monitors, huge computers and even crude arcade games (notably, though, it never says what decade the story takes place in and messing with time only complicates things there). Each district has its own unique feel, be it the residential Updaam or the more work-oriented Complex. As you traverse Blackreef’s districts, you get a feel for how it all comes together as one unified city and the various attractions to be found.
The visuals are astonishing, but Deathloop’s retro tones also extend to its stellar soundtrack as well. It’s an eclectic mix of tunes reminiscent of spy films (complete with a Bond theme in the credits), slinky rock guitars, a dash of soul, pulse-pounding classic action themes for gunfights and more. It makes for ear-pleasing delights guaranteed to help get you in the mood even further. It helps that one of the visionaries, Ramblin’ Frank Spicer, is a full-on DJ and classic rock musician, giving Blackreef a nice excuse to fill itself with catchy tunes.
Speaking of Frank, Deathloop also has no problem filling itself with a colorful cast of eccentric and memorable characters as well. The Visionaries are a highlight here, be it the sociopathic masked party animal Aleksis, the egotistical game creator Charlie who’s had rather unique experiments done on him, or bizarre scientists line Wenjie who have a habit of talking to themselves constantly. Colt and Julianna, though, have good back-and-forth dialogue as well. Colt is a rather straightforward and blunt straight man, but not one above cute habits like trying to name their first gun and singing little tunes after destroying power boxes as part of an objective. Julianna, meanwhile, is always cocky, confident and knows exactly how to push Colt’s buttons, having done this dance much longer than he can remember. It makes for nice and humorous stuff.
The story is also engrossing as well, wasting no time when it comes to hooking you in and having you wonder what’s going on. Colt may only care about killing the Visionaries at first, but in doing so, they learn more about Aeon, his and Julianna’s roles in this, the twisted experiments that happened and more. It has its wham moments and unique science fiction angles, and the various documents and logs clearly paint a portrait of how Colt and the visionaries all have their parts to play. There’s not much that can be said without going into spoiler purposes, but the twists and turns Colt experiences have their highlights.
The main story also quickly establishes the gameplay formula here, where the Dishonored bits kick in. Colt may have eight targets to bump off, but it looks like Julianna already let everyone know about the Loop Protection Protocol before Colt even woke up, meaning all of the Visionaries are now holed up in their various fortresses of sorts, and the streets are crawling with lunatics who have been informed to kill Colt on sight. Colt has to find ways to sneak around the enemies, infiltrate the fortresses and make the way to their target as discreetly as possible…or they could just go in guns a-blazing.
Deathloop does mainly emphasize the use of sneakier tactics, but for the most part, it’s also refreshingly cool if you prefer the more straightforward, action-filled approach as well. That may be a tad more difficult at first, if only because you have to deal with early weapons that can jam and more relatively powerful enemies, but once you find your first rare weapon drops, sorted by color and with less chances of jamming, suddenly gunplay becomes a more viable option. The different guns are a blast, allowing for a nice variety of approaches when it comes to combat, and they have a good kick.
The bigger skills come from Slabs, though, bracelet-like objects found by hunting down each of the Visionaries that grant unique powers. As mentioned earlier, you have telekinesis, teleportation and more, but a particular highlight is Nexus, which can tag a group of enemies and make it so killing one offs all who are connected. There are also Trinkets, which can enhance your physical abilities (health regeneration, double jumping, etc) and can be attached to weapons (better aiming, penetrating bullets and more), which can be found lying about or dropped by certain enemies aside from Visionaires, and which also come in different rarities. Again, they’re fun to use, and further enhance the variety.
As mentioned, though, getting the Slabs requires offing Visionaries, and each one has their own fortress, which is where Arkane’s knack for quality level design in games like Dishonored come into play. Some targets require you to deal with possible poison gas outbreaks, some can actually nullify your Slab powers, some are just nifty in terms of themes, like Charlie’s attempt to turn his stronghold into what can only be describe as a giant live-action version of Among Us. But the key to getting through each one is exploration and reconnaissance, which is where the knack for open-ended gameplay appears as well. Among the enemies lurking about, various areas hint at different ways to get around, like the Slab-proof area having a hole in it that can allow you to bypass its security that dampens your powers.
It’s a thrill to sneak around and look for all of the weak spots, be they simple yet practical or elaborate but cooler, and it gets even more interesting when Julianna decides to hut you. In any area that may contain a Visionary, she can randomly appear, either being played by an AI or another player, if you allow for others to join your game (you can also invade others as Julianna). Now you have to deal with a potentially lethal opponent who can easily snuff you out, although most of the time, it only took a few shotgun blasts to down them.
The bigger threat from Julianna is that she sets up an antenna that blocks Colt’s access from re-entering the tunnels, which brings us to the time loop portion of the gameplay. Colt’s main sanctuary and means of traveling around the island is an underground tunnel system, and every time you leave a level, the time advances from morning to noon, afternoon, evening, then loop again, with Colt being able to change their loadouts in between and go over all their info. You don’t necessarily have a limited amount of time, but instead you have to properly manage where you need to travel when in order to do what in order to get as much done possible before the loop ends.
In order to piece together the puzzle that lures every Visionary into the spots and areas you need in order to snuff them all out in one go, you need to save certain info for later. Get a note saying you might need a code from a certain area, for example, and head to the building only to find it burnt down earlier. So now you need to come back earlier in the next loop and prevent the fire, then come back in the same loop and get the code, meaning you can now let it burn down it other loops, getting what you need. Deathloop’s developers have described it as a bit of a puzzle game, and while the main story makes most of the puzzle linear, it’s still fun to experiment with this loop in various ways, especially when you have enough Residuum.
Residuum is basically Deathloop’s currency, earned through either once again killing Visionaries for huge amounts of it, or find glitchy, hazy objects strewn about that you can harvest smaller amounts from. Using it, you can infuse Slabs, Trinkets and weapons if you have enough, allowing Colt to keep them all for their next loop, nicely encouraging players to build up a good mix of skills and weaponry while also managing what they can find. If you die, though, you have to retrieve your Residuum from your last location, and if you die three times, the loop ends for good that day and Colt loses everything not infused, which includes weapons and even Slabs, meaning one stray bullet on the way back from a successful hit can cause a major loss, which can be annoying, even if the hunt for enough Residuum for all of your loot (or at least more Trinkets to sacrifice for them) creates a good risk/reward element.
One unique notable aspect of Deathloop, though, is that it doesn’t have side quests…at least, not in the traditional sense. Instead, it has Discoveries, info that you can find via notes, interactions with new settings, enemy chatter and more, tipping you off to strange activities to monitor, which could lead to rewards or alternate solutions. You may be informed of one Discovery when you see two Eternalists attempting to break through a wall, for example, looking for something hidden behind it. What you’re not given, however, is a marker of such or any further info. You’ll just have to use the info you have to come back later and see what happens. To continue the example, coming back to the area the Eternalists were at in the evening reveals a tunnel leading to a cliff, with Colt now being too late for it, suggesting they need to come back at a different time. It further enhances the desire to explore the world as much as possible and is a clever approach to things.
While the game doesn’t mark side quests on maps, though, it also doesn’t mark…well, anything on maps. In fact, you actively have to find maps in each district, and even then, you can only access them in your Discoveries menu, showing you the bare basics at that. You can track leads on Visionaries or unique arsenal boosts, though, which create a simple distance marker when in the field, but sometimes it can still be confusing to find your way around. One particular example is when, as part of the story, you have to find a certain location with nothing but a photo and a description of it being “by the shore” to go on, and with a large amount of shore in certain areas, that means having to spend a while hunting.
The other notable problem Deathloop has is that due to its nature as a game built around a time loop and the relatively modest size of its game world, there are going to be moments where it can feel repetitive. The aforementioned Among Us fortress is fun the first time around, less so once you realize that you’ll have to find some way through it at least two or three times over the course of the game. Related, you can only take so many instances of the same enemy chatter being repeated several times, time loop or not. The game does encourage hunting the Visionaries multiple times in order to earn new Slab upgrades, and while you can have fun going after them in order to find new ways to experiment with the gameplay, you’ll only need the basics to easily complete the main storyline. While Deathloop never felt tiring, there were a few moments that at least caused a little sighing with each loop, successful or not.
Deathloop is another incredible title from Arkane, once again putting their skills in developing both quality stealth and first-person action to good use and blending it with time loops in order to create one of the year’s most memorable games. This is thanks in part to a clever twist that encourages exploration to its fullest in order to find Blackreef’s best mysteries and the most creative solutions to its puzzles. The inspired art style, mind-bending story and groovy soundtrack are all the cherry on top of this sundae of superb open-ended gameplay and a ton of skills to experiment with, the result being one loop worth traveling through again and again.