Arkane Studios are somewhat of an industry darling, known for creating visually striking worlds adjacent to our own with intricate, immersive gameplay systems that allow the player to approach any given situation in their own way. Having brought us the Dishonored series and more recently the rebooted reboot of Prey, Arkane’s latest project Deathloop is a confidently ambitious, explosively vibrant, and endlessly engaging puzzle box that is an absolute joy to piece together.
You play as Colt Vahn a man stuck on the island of Blackreef, which is itself stuck looping the same day over and over again. The island is under the control of eight Visionaries, self-proclaimed geniuses of the arts and sciences, and is populated by their many followers, or Eternalists, as they’re called. The eighth Visionary is a woman called Julianna, who, aside from Colt himself, is the only one whose memories persist across loops. The ultimate aim of the game is to break the loop by killing all eight Visionaries in a single loop.
To do this, Colt must explore four different regions of the island at four different times of day (morning, noon, afternoon, and evening), uncovering secrets, passwords, and the Visionaries’ movements over the course of the day. Some buildings will only be accessible at certain times of day, the tide coming in will block off (or reveal) pathways and Deathloop is all about mastering these nuances to best plan your approach. Once you complete the evening section, you loop back to the morning again, losing all the weapons and trinkets you collected (to begin with), but retaining any information in the form of leads.
These leads are Deathloops version of a mission system and were one of the biggest surprises I had playing this game: there is a lot of guidance. The tutorialised portion of the game goes on for some time, with lots of text and pop-ups to go through. It’s necessary though, the mechanics of this game are unique and a lack of understanding would only lead to frustration. In this way, Arkane has done an impressive job of explaining a lot in a way that is easy to parse.
While the amount of instruction may put some off, there is definitely plenty of freedom and decision-making involved in how you approach things and in what order. The leads associated with each Visionary give step-by-step objectives (with markers), but what you do between A and B is entirely up to you. There are a lot of locations and side activities to stumble across that have nothing to do with Colt’s main mission. There is more linearity than I might have expected, but ultimately it works and I think the experience would have suffered if the scales were tipped more towards player freedom.
Whether the level of guidance and linearity will be a good or bad thing will largely depend on the player, for me personally, I found it welcoming. Exploration can be done at your own pace and you almost always get something out of it, whether it’s a new trinket or weapon, or knowledge. Then when you’ve done all you wanted to do in a particular place and time, you head towards the main objective marker which will usually uncover something new about the Visionary located in that area. Sometimes you’ll stumble across some bunker or hidden away building and have no idea what its purpose is until much later. Having these puzzle pieces fall into place is deeply satisfying.
Visually Deathloop is as gorgeous and distinct as Arkane’s other projects, with a very welcome splash of colour. The game is set in an alternate timeline 50s/60s and this aesthetic is reflected wonderfully in the architecture and interior design. Everything from the weapons, Colt and Julianna’s outfits, the various Eternalists with their body paint and masks, and the in-world art like magazine covers, posters, advertisements – all of it exudes an imaginative yet believable style.
Colt and Julianna’s dynamic is immediately compelling and is the narrative throughline that props up the story as you progress from loop to loop. Their back and forth banter is natural and fun – they feel like actual people. Otherwise, the story is delivered through audio logs, documents, and eavesdropping on Eternalists. Thankfully, the voice acting and writing are engaging enough to incentivise seeking this stuff out.
Deathloop manages to solve a number of issues I’ve personally always had with the Dishonored games, and I suppose Immersive Sims in general. The first being the compulsion I have to quicksave every five seconds just in case I get detected by an enemy and all hell breaks loose. In Deathloop, breaking stealth is not necessarily a fail state and it’s far less likely to lock you out of certain mission objectives or endings. In Dishonored, for example, the total amount of people you kill (rather than knock unconscious) will impact the state of future levels and can get you a totally different ending. Deathloop has no such burden because… it’s a loop! No one is really being killed and it will all reset come dawn.
The second improvement is in relation to a fear of missing out. In games like Prey or Dishonored I felt compelled to search every nook and cranny regardless of what my objective was because I figured if I progress the story too much I won’t be able to return and will miss stuff. With Deathloop, the levels are designed to be revisited again and again, which completely alleviates the pressure to explore everything as soon as you arrive. In this way, you can plan out your visits on each loop: ‘yesterday I went to Charlie Montague’s sci-fi LARP game house but today I think I’m gonna check out that library full of guns.’
Early on in the game, Colt will gain the ability to infuse weapons, trinkets, and slabs (magical powers like those found in the Dishonored games) using a resource called Residuum, allowing them to persist between loops. This is the other form of progression in Deathloop, finding a cool weapon or trinket is one thing, making it out alive and collecting enough Residuum to infuse it is another thing entirely. As long as you prioritise the mission to unlock the ability to infuse things early on (which the game heavily encourages you to do), you quickly gain enough weapons and powers to feel somewhat unstoppable.
Ultimately, taking out the Visionaries is the purpose of the game, so making the Eternalists challenging would get in the way of what Deathloop is about. That said, I rarely felt the need to swap out my loadout once I settled on one I liked. Having finished the story I’ve been hunting down achievements, which has required swapping to specific powers and so forth, I highly recommend doing these if you want a bit more variety and are curious about things you might have missed.
Deathloop has an online mode where you can play as the Julianna in the loop of a different Colt (played by a real person). Colt will be notified that Julianna is on the hunt upon entering a level, and they must hack an antenna in order to leave the level. As far as these tacked-on multiplayer modes go, I actually had a lot of fun with this. Julianna has her own weapons, trinkets, and outfits to unlock with a progression system that utilises points gained by doing various things like surviving a certain amount of time, getting headshots, and killing Colt in various ways.
These invasions can be occasionally frustrating, when a laggy Julianna comes at you and you suddenly die without really knowing what happened, it sucks. But Colt’s Reprise ability, which allows for three deaths before the loop is actually reset, does allow for multiple chances to defend your progress and Julianna gets points regardless of whether the loop is actually ended or not. So in the end, it’s a balanced experience. It is admittedly very fun to turn up in someone’s loop and ruin their day – and it also just happens to be the perfect antidote for the sting of someone doing the exact same to you.
My only real disappointment with this game is the ending. Naturally, I won’t go into spoilers, but I just felt that it was a little abrupt. The culmination of the conflict between Colt and Julianna is set up so well, but the payoff just isn’t there. Definitely a journey over the destination type of game.
Deathloop combines everything Arkane Studios are so well known for: a visually distinct world that takes place in an intoxicating setting, intricate level design with tons of verticality, engaging worldbuilding, and fascinating villains. However, it’s Deathloop’s undeniable commitment to its ambitious premise that elevates it. Every facet of its design from Colt and Julianna’s interplay, the connectivity of the different locations and times of day, the various ways you can kill the Visionaries to the multiple powers at your fingertips, all oozes polish and balance. Deathloop is a game that hits the ground running with such confidence that you can’t help but be swept along for the ride.
Deathloop was reviewed on PC with a code provided by the publisher.