Image Credit: IGDB Press Kit Online
Given their past success in the stealth-simulator genre, Arkane’s newest release looked to be another hit. Set on the island of Blackreef, Deathloop tells the story of assassin Colt, in contention with rival assassin Julianna, who remains stuck in a time loop where the same day repeats without change. When the player takes control, Colt has been stuck in this loop for an unknown amount of time - twenty years is suggested, but it could just as easily be an eternity. To destabilise and end the cycle for good, all nine ‘visionaries’ who created the loop must be killed in one day.
As the marketing made clear, the concept of Deathloop is its greatest strength. In contrast to the current abundance of time-bending, high concept science fiction - with Netflix’s Dark (2017-2020) and Housemarque’s Returnal (2021) coming to mind - the game navigates its temporal conundrums with flamboyance. The final product doesn’t take itself too seriously, combining the campy espionage of classic James Bond with the philosophical framework of a Christopher Nolan film.
It’s a fascinating new direction for the developers of critically-acclaimed titles such as the Dishonored series (2012-2017) and 2016’s Prey reboot. Staples of Arkane’s design persist - sandbox levels, player agency, complex mechanics - but are developed in accordance with the game’s unique setting. The gameplay, in particular, is where Deathloop finds strength; learning from past mistakes, Arkane does not deter the player from taking a violent approach, allowing you to go all guns (and bombs) blazing without the risk of a ‘bad ending’. All weapon builds are viable, creating a multifaceted experience that rewards player creativity.
With that being said, the variety of weapons is somewhat limited compared to past Arkane releases, restricting the core inventory to four choices - a handgun, assault rifle, sniper, and a knife. Although Colt possesses supernatural powers harking back to Dishonored and Prey, there is ultimately a small range of tools. Instead, variety is constituted through weapon upgrades obtained from defeated enemies and the game’s environments. The sheer amount of upgrades, however, means they quickly become negligible in the long run, the player soon discovering that some work better than others.
More disappointing is the constrictive world design. While the emphasis on quality over quantity is a welcome change from the bloated levels of Prey, Arkane fails to explore the full potential of this realisation. The playable areas of Blackreef are split into four domains - Updaam, Karl’s Bay, Fristad Rock, and The Complex. The thing that brings these locales to life is not so much their biodiversity, but the way in which they transform depending on what time of the day Colt visits. Hence, the player has no choice but to retread familiar territory, creating a fitting parallel to the spatiotemporally frustrated protagonist who perpetually navigates the world. Rather than building upon the organic level design found in the Metroidvania genre, however, this dynamic quickly becomes repetitive, working far better in theory than execution.
Furthermore, there is a lack of player agency in contrast to Dishonored, or even the recent Hitman series (2016-2021). Although the visionaries can be assassinated according to individual playing style, the loop can only be ended by killing them in a specific order. What appears to be a mind-blowing premise is subsequently let down by linear execution. In conjunction with the lack of map and weapon variety, Deathloop begins to promise more than it can deliver.
Despite these faults, the game still has a lot going for it. Playing on the PlayStation 5, Blackreef’s diverse colour palette is a welcome change from the visual realism found in most contemporary AAA games. In addition, the Souls franchise’s invasion system is successfully integrated within its core gameplay dynamics, whereby Julianna invades Colt’s world to (further) complicate his time in the loop. Real-life players occupy the role of Julianna in what makes for a thrilling game of cat and mouse.
What has the potential to be an enthralling experience is ultimately let down by a surprising lack of depth. The concept behind Deathloop is strong, but the end result is more of a learning experience for Arkane than a grand culmination of their past efforts. Regardless, it’s hard to deny the craft which goes into a project like this, and the risks taken will undoubtedly lend lead to a greater sequel.
Editor’s Note: Deathloop is available on PC and PS5