“What is Deathloop?”
Before Arkane Studios’ time-travel shooter Deathloop was released in 2021, the question persisted. Reddit, Youtube and Twitter threads were filled with people scratching their heads after each stylish trailer was released into the wild. Is it a rogue-like? Is it multiplayer? Am I on a time limit? Half the internet seemed totally clueless. The other half became self-styled quantum mechanics experts, claiming that lacking understanding of Deathloop’s premise was the mark of a simpleton. People had faith in Arkane Studios, known for their thrilling cult games Dishonored and Prey, but the concept seemed outlandish and hard to evaluate. Could Arkane make a timeloop-roguelike-adjacent-assassination-puzzle-mystery-cat-and-mouse game work?
Let’s rewind a moment and answer that very critical question:
“What is Deathloop?”
Deathloop is a first-person shooter about an assassin named Colt trapped on an island with a hazy memory, a wicked hangover and a population of masked hedonists called Eternalists – all of whom are armed to the teeth. It’s also a stealth game about snapping the necks of a double-quartet of charming psychopaths who want nothing more than to party for eternity. There’s also a compelling mystery about the titular time loop. Deathloop is a complex game, but each of its component parts works really well!
Deathloop’s main attraction is that it plays with time. The island of Blackreef is subject to something called “The Anomaly”, a mad science experiment gone wrong (or right?) that locks the entire area in an eternal 24-hour cycle. Essentially, Colt has one day to break the loop before the cycle resets and he’s sent back to a black sand beach. An uphill battle for sure, but Colt has a couple of advantages. First of all, he has his memory.
While every loop might un-kill all of Colt’s enemies and un-acquire all of his guns, he still knows where those enemies will be and where those guns might be kept. Deathloop keeps track of these discoveries in a handy journal system that acts as a sort of conspiracy-style pinboard. A special gun is only found at a certain time of day? Pinned! A cannibal millionaire only makes himself visible at a nightly masquerade? Pinned! Deathloop prides itself in rewarding the pursuit of knowledge, summing up new finds in stylishly animated cutscenes. It also ensures players aren’t always starting from scratch by introducing the “Residuum” system, a currency that allows Colt to save weapons, upgrades and supernatural powers between loops when they’d otherwise be lost. It’s a powerful boon that gives Colt access to high-tier gear early on, but I felt a little guilty when I saved a boss’ unique weapon on the first go-around. As with most Arkane games, though, the onus is on the player to find these things. Blackreef is littered with documents, audio recordings, side-stories, conversations and vignettes to collect. So many, in fact, that the first few hours of the game feel overwhelming.
Compounded by the dense level design and number of moving pieces, this information overload somewhat soured early impressions. New checklist boxes were being added faster than I could check them. Is this door important? Is this note a clue? Deathloop is a little hard to digest at first, but its world is incredibly unique and I always wanted to know more, even if I didn’t understand it all.
A Playground of Violence
Just as Deathloop is filled with notes, clues and recordings, it’s absolutely brimming with ways to murder the hell out of everyone you see. Dishonored was previously the king of stylish first-person violence, but I think Deathloop has it beat. Colt can snap necks, shatter spines, blow out brains, lop off limbs or just give people a kick in the ass. The latter is immensely satisfying, as its combination of distance and power produces some hilarious ragdolls from poorly located Eternalists.
Colt also has access to supernatural powers looted from the corpses of the eight Visionaries, or bosses, in the game. Some will be familiar to fans of Dishonored, such as “Shift”, a short-range teleport, and “Nexus”, a linking power that allows Colt to kill five birds with one stone. Each power is suitably punchy and impactful, but I found myself gravitating towards two favorites instead of sampling them all. “Shift” seemed absolutely essential, leaving me with less flexibility in the field. This isn’t a fault of Arkane’s, but I imagine it’s a trap many players fall into.
Combat in Deathloop is a mixed bag. While Colt feels extraordinarily powerful, he’s also a fragile meatbag vulnerable to the superior numbers of the Eternalists. While trailers made combat out to be a veritable ballet of bullets, I found myself running and hiding more often. Rather, Deathloop seems to prescribe a hybrid approach: stealthily assassinate a couple of enemies, then engage when the herd is thinned. Enemy AI is also a toss-up. The elite Visionaries are competent enough, augmented by their powers and enhanced mobility, but the regular goons slide between being absolutely dumb as rocks or engaging in vicious pack tactics wolves could only dream of. On one hand, this helps sell the power fantasy of being a supernatural assassin kicking ass and chugging Fizz-Pop, but on the other hand, it’s a little ridiculous when an enemy doesn’t notice Colt eviscerate their buddy two feet away. Maybe they can’t see or hear very well through their creepy masks?
Run the Jules
Imagine this: You’re Colt. You’ve already killed one Visionary and you’re hunting down another. You’ve looted a new power and hope to infuse it with Residuum at the end of this time period. The Eternalists are clueless and your escape tunnels are open ...Wait. Why aren’t the tunnels open? Suddenly you hear a rifle crack and the last thing you see is the shine from a sniper scope on a roof where you’re sure there wasn’t anybody a minute ago. The next loop you wake up and hear Julianna, your chief rival, gloating over the radio.
One of Deathloop’s many curveballs is Julianna Blake, assassin extraordinaire and nagging voice in your ear. Unlike the other seven Visionaries, each with their own schedule and preferred location, Julianna’s mission is to hunt Colt down. Controlled by the AI, she’s an aggressive, but manageable nuisance. When controlled by another player, however, she’s an absolute nightmare to face. Deathloop’s enemies are mostly simple agents with limited intelligence and attention span. They’re predictable. They’re exploitable. They’re killable. Julianna really only fits that last one, and with some big caveats. Humans are cunning. Humans are cruel. Human Juliannas can appear unpredictably, use guerilla tactics, unleash devastating frontal assaults or alert Eternalists to Colt’s location. Julianna has access to all of Colt’s powers and even has one of her own: “Masquerade”, which allows her to swap her appearance with anyone on the island. While Deathloop isn’t the first game to include an invasion mechanic, it is definitely one of the best implementations of the system yet.
To be honest, I’ve had more fun killing Colt as Julianna than I have playing the main story. Schadenfreude! There are some glitches that can be frustrating (poor network implementation which causes painful lag), and some strategies can be absolutely backbreaking (I prefer staying invisible until a hapless Colt saunters by, giving me the opportunity to stab him in the back or snipe him from afar), but invasions are a thrilling experience from both sides.
The story and writing of Deathloop is as exceptional as the game is mechanically and conceptually dense. Each target has a personality and background that shines through dialogue, notes and emails. I found myself chuckling at chatrooms where targets hassled and taunted one another like real online users. Julianna and Colt in particular have great banter over the handheld radio embedded in Colt’s hacking tool, with Colt replying dryly to Julianna’s incessant pestering while also injecting a bit of humor into his interactions. Blackreef feels lived in, even if we only ever get to see a single day of it at a time. It’s also relentlessly dark and frequently hilarious, while also maintaining a consistently vibrant 1960s style that oozes James Bond and other works.
Deathloop also takes advantage of its hefty system requirements, presenting a colorful and crisp environment that bristles with flair and grandeur. From the costumes to the architecture to the top-tier soundtrack, I found myself saying things like “funky” or “groovy” under my breath as I kicked a fool off a cliff for the third time. Deathloop is just so damn groovy!
Deathloop has flaws. Its combat isn’t amazing. Its first few hours gave me a headache from all the information being thrown at me. Getting killed by a laggy Julianna makes me want to tear my hair out. But – and it’s a big but – it has done what very few games have been able to do: Surprise me. In the first few minutes, I widened my eyes at something I hadn’t seen in any trailer. I gasped when I learned the first boss’ gimmick, then the next, then the next. I nearly chewed my nails down to the nib during my first player invasion. Deathloop took every risk it could, and it succeeded at a core level at every single one of them, even if it had to sacrifice some convenience to do so.
Deathloop ended up winning several Game of the Year awards in 2021 and both of its leads, Jason E. Kelley and Ozioma Akagha, were nominated for Best Performance at The Game Awards that same year. Deathloop ended up winning Best Game Direction and Best Art Direction, with Creative Director Dinga Bakaba accepting the award.
Deathloop may have already had its 30 seconds of fame, but I’m going to return to it again, and again and again.
Thumbnail credit: Bethesda Softworks / Arkane Lyon