Break The Loop, Whatever It Takes
Another day in the loop, another day of dealing with the same problems. A hangover Colt can’t quite shake, his memory a mess and everyone on Blackreef wants him dead. Within the first hour of playing through Deathloop, Arkane Studio’s latest open-world stealth-action shooter, you’ll get some gear, murder some folks and find yourself asking an abundance of questions. By the end of the day, or your untimely demise, whichever comes first, Colt will wake up once more, washed up on the same beach, hungover. Although you’re trapped in a day that is destined to repeat itself, getting new gear, murdering more people and finding the answer to one question only to ask two more becomes an irresistible gameplay loop that will enthral you until the credits roll.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve never found myself in love with Arkane’s previous titles. No matter how hard I tried to get into games like Dishonoured and Prey, I always felt that their open-world stealth gameplay just wasn’t for me. Don’t get me wrong; there’s no doubt that Arkane are excellent developers. But it wasn’t until playing the opening hours of Deathloop did their innovative gameplay philosophy finally click for me.
Deathloop not only has the sharp gameplay and intricate level design you’d expect from an Arkane game, but it introduces new elements that all synergise in ways that constantly surprised me. Over the 15 hours it took me to finish the game, I explored every nook and cranny of Blackreef’s four locations, each changing slightly depending on the time of day, and revealed countless threads to the mystery of who you are and why you’re here. From uncovering new ways to kill a target to finding clues for things I’m yet to discover, I was impressed by how gameplay mechanics and narrative threads naturally came together.
That said, some aspects of Deathloop don’t work as well as others. Inconsistent enemy AI, undercooked side quests and some tedious backtracking stop the game from being perfect, but unravelling the mysteries of the time-loop, a thrilling use of multiplayer and murdering your way through Deathloop’s methodically designed playgrounds is an absolute bloody joy. Throw in captivating voice acting, fluid gunplay, and an ever-engaging mid-century aesthetic, and you’ll get one of the most creative shooters on the PlayStation 5.
As you begin your journey through Blackreef, it becomes abundantly clear that it’s an isle of inconsequence. Why not murder, steal and party all day when you’re just going to wake up tomorrow as if nothing happened? The inhabitants of the isle, known as the Eternalists, lovingly take leisure in doing just that. From setting up elaborate traps to kill each other, or you, to that one guy that plays his electric guitar in his underwear all day, the Eternalists have the same interactions and conversations every loop. The fun comes from discovering these moments, learning from them and using them to your advantage.
While the Eternalists believe they will recall their efforts the next day, in actuality, most everyone trapped in the loop besides you believe every morning is their first one. How long have you been stuck in the loop, why does everyone want you dead, and why are the Eternalists wearing latex masks? These questions and more come up quite quickly, and unravelling Deathloop’s mysteries is as riveting as it’s gunplay, but more on that later.
Taking on the role of Colt Vahn, a charismatic, ruthless and often crude assassin, you must break the loop and claim your freedom by finding and killing the eight Visionaries that run Blackreef in a single day. This may sound simple, but locating these targets and getting strong enough to kill them takes experimentation, investigation and exploration. These elements complement each other well, with every secret path found or piece of information collected lending itself to your arsenal of tactics, and every new weapon or power unlocked offering limitless ways to commit octuple homicide. Computer files, paper trails and audio logs scattered around Blackreef add pieces to this murder puzzle and help you understand why you and your targets came to Blackreef in the first place. All these narrative devices work well to tell a memorable story that answers most of the questions asked by the time you roll credits.
There’s just one little thing to watch out for, the shit-talking but utterly charming gunslinger, Julianna Blake. As one of the eight Visionaries on your hit list, Julianna is a problem not only because she also remembers each loop, but she’s also the only Visionary that will actively hunt you. When she’s not constantly taunting you through your radio or directing the Eternalists to shoot you on site, Julianna will randomly appear to stop you in your tracks. Colt must survive Julianna’s attacks in order to escape to safety or risk prematurely waking up on that beach once more. These standoffs make for some of the most intense action in Deathloop, especially thanks to a multiplayer mode that allows real people to invade your game as Julianna. Win or lose, Colt and Julianna reference these bouts on the next loop. These interactions are among the best that Deathloop has to offer. The chemistry between voice actors Jason E. Kelly and Ozioma Akagha, Colt and Julianna respectively, is palpable and presents some of the strongest antagonistic banter I’ve heard in quite some time.
Enough can’t be said about how engaging the voice over in this game is. With each audio log found or conversation overheard, you really get to know each of the Visionaries. From Charlie, a nerdy, timid robotics expert, to Aleksis, an arrogant, self-absorbed philanthropist, getting to know the personalities and secrets of your targets piece by piece is a rewarding conquest. The more I got to know them, the better it felt to kill them. The real pull of how Deathloop uniquely engages its players with these characters is in how there are only a few moments where Colt speaks with his quarries directly, yet a relationship between them is built over time. Cutscenes are instead substituted with stylised animations that surmise the important information you gather throughout your journey.
This may be a broad way to discuss the plot of Deathloop, but when one of its main aspects is uncovering the story a little bit at a time, a lot is best left unsaid. What I can say is that although the narrative never reaches astonishing heights, the incredible voice acting from well-written characters, a stylish world with plenty to uncover and an intricate mystery that is rewarding to solve makes Deathloop a unique and engaging take on the time-loop genre.
Starting each day in the underground tunnel system he calls home, Colt must plan which loadout he is going to take with him and which plot thread he is going to track. Deathloop presents four districts to explore, and each is playable at four different times of the day. The Eternalists, Visionaries, environmental hazards, like trip mines and turrets, as well as the loot you can find and quests you can track each change depending on when you visit. What’s more, the actions you take at the start of the day can dramatically affect something later on, even in a different location. Save an Eternalist from certain death in the morning, and you’ll be able to access a locked room later on that day. Turn on a generator in one location, and it will allow you to access locked doors in another. Discovering how these systems work not only occurs naturally through core mission chains but sometimes came to me through some creative thinking and piecing things together myself.
These smaller threads involved randomly finding one piece of writing or audio log than later discovering where it leads. Though I applaud how these more minor side quests encouraged me to pursue them on my own accord, they more often than not didn’t lead to anything substantial. At best, I uncovered more lore that fleshes out Blackreef, at worst, it was a mediocre weapon. I wish that the reward I got for solving these investigative puzzles on my own was worth the time, especially when some of them had me backtracking to the same few locations over multiple loops. In either case, learning how each district changes over the day doesn’t feel like work, as I soon realised I knew each of them like the back of my hand. Discovering hidden information or experimenting with interactables to find new ways to kill multiple Visionaries at a time kept me constantly engaged in even the quietest moments.
When you’re not finding new info in your enemies emails or hacking radios to cause distractions with the appropriately named ‘Hackamajig’, you spend most of your time with Colt shooting, stabbing and blowing up the Eternalists. Starting the game equipped with your trusty machete, a couple of grenades and a gun that jams, you quickly discover that any weapon or trinket, perks that you can apply to Colt or his weapons, you pick up on any given day is lost when the loop resets. This is remedied when you unlock the ability to absorb residuum. This resource can be used to infuse the tools you collect to bring them over with you on your next loop. You lose all your residuum each morning, but by killing a visionary, finding residuum-infused items or discarding things from your inventory, gathering residuum to infuse that awesome shotgun you found, or unique trinket you earned is frequent enough that you’ll constantly be growing your arsenal.
The weapon system in Deathloop is simple yet effective. Guns come in a variety of rarities, with the rarer ones having better inherent gun perks. From handguns with built-in silencers to machine guns that heal you with each kill, you’ll find plenty of weapons to infuse and equip trinkets too. Colt can carry three weapons at a time, each capable of holding up to three trinkets at a time. Furthermore, Colt can equip up to four trinkets to himself, offering perks such as a double jump, health increases or even silent footsteps. The array of possible weapons, perks and trinkets you can find and infuse gives you a huge variety of options when planning how your Colt will play.
It’s not all just bullets and blades, however, as Deathloop offers its players an array of supernatural gifts you can use in the form of Slabs. Most of the Visionaries have a Slab of their own, and killing them allows you to take it for yourself. Once acquired, you can upgrade these Slabs by simply killing their original owner again on subsequent loops. Whether you want your Colt to be a silent assassin or a guns blazing mercenary, when combining different Slabs with different weapons, you’ll find that no two Colts play the same. Abilities like Aether, a Slab that lets you become invisible and Shift, which allows you to teleport short distances, supports stealth and mobility gameplay, whilst Slabs like Karnesis, which lets you fling targets around like ragdolls and Havoc, which turns you into a hard-hitting juggernaut can be used for a more direct approach. The variety of combinations possible allows you to experiment with which loadout works for you, and the drive to upgrade the Slabs I liked the most made the repetition of going after the same target over and over feel like a worthy endeavour.
Though he can only have two different Slabs on him at a time, Colt will always be equipped with a third Slab that allows him to die up to three times before the loop resets. If you are killed in action, you will teleport back to a safe place you were recently, leaving what residuum you had where you fell. Figuring out the best strategy to retrieve your residuum can make for a high stakes encounter, especially when your loot is surrounded by enemies.
The amalgamation of choice you can have during your time with Deathloop not only provides possible ways to tackle each area but allows you to build an ever-evolving strategy to kill the Visionaries. You can spend time quietly hacking turrets and place them strategically in a room before luring your target into them. Alternatively, you can walk around kicking enemies off cliffs. The first time you attack a particular Visionary, you may use a few different shotguns equipped with recoil-reducing trinkets and blast your way through enemies to get to them. The next time you go for them, you might use your Slabs to sneak onto a roof, teleport into a window and execute them with a silenced pistol before sneaking away only to realise Julianna is on the hunt. This may sound like it’s too much choice, but the way that Deathloop gradually guides you through its systems before letting go of the reins gives you time to work out your play style and evolve it.
Speaking of Julianna, playing as her over online multiplayer sees you step in her shoes as you invade other peoples games. Before hunting a Colt, you plan your loadout with weapons, trinkets and Slabs, unlocking new ones by accomplishing tasks that level up your Julianna. From simple things like lasting five minutes in a hunt and killing Colt with a melee attack to more complex tasks like killing Colt while sliding or not healing while on the hunt, these tasks earn you points rapidly. Levelling up not only gives your Juilianna more tools in her arsenal but unlocks skins you can equip to both Julianna and Colt. The only real downside to this mode is how long it takes to matchmake into a random game, but with the option to invade your friend’s games, you could easily spend a night creating memorable moments with your buddies. Those looking strictly for a solo experience as Colt can simply turn off this online feature and go toe to toe with an AI Julianna.
The AI for Julianna, and the rest of the Visionaries, starts off as formidable, only feeling less so as you get used to their skills and have stronger loadouts. The AI for the Eternalists, however, is less than perfect. Most enemies die in a single shot, but some feel impossible to kill. Some won’t ever notice you even when you’re right in front of them, while others see you while you’re hiding behind a wall. Some can kill you almost instantly, while others barely pull the trigger. The inconsistent enemy AI is annoying at best, gradually becoming more of a nuisance than an exciting combat encounter, especially towards the latter half of the game.
That being said, the core reason I gravitated more towards Deathloop than I have any other of Arkane’s past games is that I felt that no matter what I was doing, I was building towards my goals. Whether I was sneaking around to find vital information or just blasting my way through the streets, Deathloop never punished me for playing how I wanted to play. This is a game you can tackle in any way you’d like. Hunting Visionaries for Slab upgrades, exploring off the beaten path for hidden weapons and trinkets, and investigating threads I discovered myself always gave me a sense of direction even when I wasn’t following mission objectives.
Visuals and Audio
The mid-century aesthetic of each of Blackreefs four distinct districts not only presents a unique style seen in modern shooters but the way that each location changes over the day kept me feeling as though there was always something new to see. A military compound graffitied in bright neon paints in the morning becomes a snow-covered battlezone littered with claymores at night. Suburban streets with hungover people enjoying the sun turns into a vibrant party zone with fireworks lighting up the sky come nightfall. The sheer contrast of walking through contemporary art exhibits one moment and a gas-filled air hanger the next, with those two exact locations becoming very different experiences at different times of day, all makes the environments in Deathloop memorable set pieces for your blood-filled rampages or deadly assassination attempts.
Every aspect of Deathloop is backed by a stunning score, expert voice acting and robust sound effects. When bullets begin to fly, the music picks up. From fast-paced jazz beats to dread-inducing guitar shreds, each action sequence is only accentuated by the music accompanying it. Original songs play from speakers around each district, and some of the conversations overheard range from poetic to ridiculous. The sounds of security systems alerting Eternalists when it spots you, the clicking of a grenade and the spray of a gun, or even the more than occasional F-bomb Colt drops when under attack all work orchestrally with the score. One moment you’re connecting with the voice of a Visionary doing an interview on an audio log, the next, Julianna calls you to make fun of killing you in the last loop, both cases playing through the speakers of the Dualsense Controller. The audio design in Deathloop stands out as some of the best you can find in a first-person shooter.
Both the art direction and the score are tied together with Deathloop’s menu design. The heavily stylised way that the menus are presented not only reinforces the game’s tone but also oozes quality. Pieces of information are collected in easy to find locations, and key points that are relevant to the district you are in are simple to monitor in the menus. Even the smallest quality of life details, like how keypads can be auto-filled after learning the passcode, help keep the game moving forward. A lot of time was taken in making Blackreef as interesting as it is, and with engaging architecture, terrific voice work and consistent quality of life implementations, the isle is a pleasure to explore.
Deathloop is one of the most original first-person shooters I’ve played in years. It tells a memorable story backed by an intelligent, dark, but often funny script. The open-world environments feel distinctly designed and fleshed out, each filled with secrets to uncover. Whether it be narrative threads to follow, loot to collect or discovering new strategies to take down your targets, everything you do in this game builds towards unravelling its mysteries. Blackreef is a wildly creative world, and learning about its history piece by piece is engaging the whole way through. The Visionaries are characters you grow to love and hate, and killing them loop after loop never feels old thanks to the wide array of weapons and Slab combinations at your disposal. Though some underwhelming moments and tedious AI weighs Deathloop down, Colt and Julianna’s tale is one worth embarking on, no matter how many loops it takes.
So, why should you play it?
Fun gunplay that doesn't punish your playstyle.
An intricately designed murder puzzle that feels rewarding to complete.
Freedom to tackle the game in any way you want.
You want to play a shooter that feels different to all the rest.
A memorable story with memorable characters.
You couldn’t get into Arkane’s games in the past but want to try again.
But why shouldn’t you play it?
You don’t like repetition or the time-loop genre.
You don’t like reading most of your story.
You get overwhelmed by choice.
You may feel let down by some of its side quests.
Inconsistent enemy AI annoys you.
James is a writer, voice actor and absolute dork who is as passionate about making puns as he is about video games. From Melbourne, Australia, when he's not playing Dungeons and Dragons or rocking out at karaoke, you can usually find him engaged in some kind of story.