Introducing: Deathloop Review
Alright, I suppose I should get my bias out of the way before we go anywhere else. I was always kind of predisposed to liking this game in some way. I have been a fan of Arkane’s output since I first played Dishonored back when I was in college. Dishonored is one of my favorite series as a result and the Deathloop trailers grabbed me by the throat from the very first one that I saw and had me grinning every time that I saw a new one. I know some were bothered by the over-saturation of trailers showing up at every event, but I was always pleased by it. I understood the desire to push the game hard since their games have never been absolute juggernauts in terms of sales before. Despite delays, this has been my most anticipated game of the year so I was quick to take on this Deathloop review when I got the chance. So, let’s see if Deathloop is able to wow me in the way that I really hoped that it would.
You Spin Me Right Round
In Deathloop, the player takes on the role of Colt Vahn, an amnesiac who wakes up on the shoreline of Blackreef, an island that houses all sorts of people who are there to either party or for personal pursuits. It quickly becomes clear that the entire island is trapped in a single day time loop, the same day repeating over and over again. He quickly meets Julianna, a woman who is very eager to kill him for initially unknown reasons. Colt is none too fond of being stuck in the loop, though, and sets out to break it off and get free. This means taking out each of the seven visionaries who serve as leaders on Blackreef. These range from a few scientists who are out to figure out the secrets of this anomalous place to artists who are here to have a good time to one very annoying cannibal.
I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about the characters in this game, but I was glad to see that they all have a ton of personality and every one of them is distinct and fun to both interact with and chase down. Reading their notes and listening to their audio logs is not only a treat in terms of information learned, but also for getting to see more of their strong personalities. The masked grunts that populate the levels aren’t any slouches either. Their passive dialog can be really fun to listen to at times and all the time I was coming across these side characters doing interesting things, like waiting for a game to start or lining up boxes to make dominoes with a mine at the end. The fact that they are all aware that they are in a time loop leads to some pretty chaotic behavior because they know they’ll be back tomorrow. That being said, Julianna and Colt (recent forgetfulness aside) are the only ones who are remembering the repetition, everyone else still thinks it’s just the first day of the loop… but it’s been years.
Figuring out the secrets of Blackreef is half the fun of the game. It’s all about the journey here. However, I did find myself let down a little by the ending. It’s not that the ending is bad, far from it, but more that it feels a bit cut off. There are multiple endings that you can get depending on some final choices, each having very different outcomes. However, what comes after those final choices is devilishly short. Frequently “What comes after the loop is broken? Do you know?” is a question posed by Julianna to Colt when trying to sway him away from his goal, but the ending does not deliver on that for us. Sure, the openness of the endings means that the player can decide for themselves. However, I think that the game could have done with even a short epilogue for each ending to give the whole thing a little more closure than it currently has.
So What is the Loop?
This game is one that I think is a little hard to fully categorize. It’s not a rouge-like or rouge-lite since there are ways to keep some items from one loop to another and there is progression from loop to loop in service of finding the solution. It’s a puzzle game in some ways, though not in the traditional sense. I mean, most puzzle games don’t have this much running and gunning. It’s not a stealth game, not entirely. Stealth is a valid strategy, but it’s not the only one. It’s not a first person shooter either. If you go in expecting the controls of a Doom or Call of Duty, you’re going to end up leaving disappointed.
Deathloop is a bit of a beast of it’s own and I think that is something that could leave some coming out of it disappointed because they went in thinking it was one thing when it really isn’t that. You need to set your expectations before you start. This is a game that is in many ways, an immersive sim, though it is a somewhat more linear one than most. There is choice in tactic and in how you choose to proceed with the ending. There is choice in what information you choose to go after first and how many extra loops you spend exploring the world of the game. However, there is only one “golden loop” solution that will allow you to finally break the loop. It’s a more restrictive immersive sim than most of it’s brethren, but it is one none the less.
As Colt, you are going to be going through the same loop over and over and over again. That feels like it could get repetitive, but it’s really not. There are four different areas that you can enter and four different times of day that you can enter them. Two of these areas are always available and two of them have one time of day that you will not be able to go in (mostly because there is nothing to be done at that time). Each time that you enter one of the areas, time does not move while you are in it, but leaving will progress you to the next stage of the day. So you get one shot at Morning, Noon, Afternoon, and Evening each loop, which you can spend doing various combinations of the areas. Each of these will have different areas within the area open at different times of day depending on if one of the Visionaries is present. Each of the areas can have some big differences and things you do at one time can effect the area in later portions of the daily loop, only for it to reset in the evening.
The real mantra here is that knowledge is power. Not only is it important that you learn where the visionaries are going to be and what methods you can use to get in close to them, but you need to know the lay of the land too. Playing each of the areas so much means that you are going to get a very intimate knowledge of them and that will make all the difference. You’ll go from fumbling your way across the map to running across with ease and without alerting a single enemy.
The Real Challenge
One thing that I think Deathloop could have done with was a difficulty selection. Don’t get me wrong, the game isn’t the easiest thing in the world, but Arkane did opt for an adaptive AI. Enemies will barely notice you in the tutorial before they ramp up when the game opens you up to more choice. In the morning, everyone is drinking and lazy since nobody is aware of your assault on the loop just yet. While this is fun, those who are used to playing other Arkane titles might find that the game lacks some challenge. Of course you can always self impose rules on yourself, such as not using any of the supernatural powers or only using basic strength guns, but those don’t change how aware enemies are or how much damage they can take. They have had difficulty selection before, so I don’t know why they chose to go completely without it this time around. The difficulty curve can feel pretty smashed quickly when you manage to infuse three powerful weapons on an early loop and can just roll with those the rest of your time playing.
The one thing that might really give you a run for your money is that other players can invade your game as Julianna with the goal of just ruining whatever plans that you have going on. These players are going to be much more clever than the grunts of the game, and have a much better arsenal than them too. I am sure there are plenty of people who are going to claim that going up against another player is unbalanced in favor of one character or the other. Now, I do think that things are a little weighted depending on the situation in the level, but both characters have their advantages and disadvantages. Julianna might have a more stacked arsenal, but she only has one life and that’s it. Colt might have a disadvantage in that there are more enemies against him and his arsenal might not be as strong early in the game, but he can die three times, meaning that his players have more of a margin of error.
The real problem with the multiplayer is that matchmaking is a little bit rough. You see, Julianna can only spawn in on maps where one of the visionaries is present, meaning that some of the levels that a Colt can choose cannot have a Julianna. Currently, wait times as Julianna can vary wildly. Some days I can get into a match within a minute or two, others, I may be waiting several minutes and playing a game on my phone. It’s a matter of supply and demand and I worry that as more people finish the story mode of the game, there will be an excess of those wanting to play as Julianna without the Colts needed to match with them. That’s especially worrying considering playing many matches as Julianna is how you can unlock alternate skins for both her and Colt. Don’t get me wrong, I do really like the tension that having Julianna after you injects into the game since Julianna players are more unpredictable (and you can always opt out into an AI Julianna who is still smarter than the average grunt) but I worry about the longevity of this game mode once players have started moving on to their next game.
A Matter of Taste
Alright, this is one that I have seen people be divisive about before release, the look of the game. I have never come to Arkane for the most high fidelity graphics in the world. They’re one of my go-to examples of how you can make something look great by focusing on art style over the need to be able to see every pore in a character’s face. Nobody in this game really looks real, but they all look good. They chose an art direction and they stuck with it. The character design of the visionaries alone is stellar, all of them having a striking look that let’s you pick them out of a crowd (except for the one where they are meant to blend in until you figure it out). There are also a lot of great animations, from grunts throwing rocks when they’re bored, to characters dancing stupidly at a party.
I think that a lot of the work done with the setting was really amazing too. It’s not quite steampunk or something like that, but everything has this wonderful mod fashion inspired aesthetic. The time loop started in the 1960’s and the game wants to make you aware of it. Orange may be the color of the day, but everything about Blackreef is dripping in colors and bold shapes. It makes for an area that is not only visually interesting to look at, but also has a lot of really fun level geometry to explore. The cherry on top is the short 2D animated cutscenes that play when you figure out a vital piece of the puzzle. They’re not long at all, but they were a wonderful addition that marked progress.
Talk Talk Talk
The music is a little on the sparse side here, kicking in mostly in contextually important locations or when you start up a bout of combat with some of the NPCs. The music that is there is great, which had me wishing that there was a little more variety to it. However, this is made up for by the sound design in every other aspect of the game. Gunshots feel punchy and have impact and while I was hearing them a lot, I didn’t feel like they were repetitive. My personal favorite touch, was the way that music and voices became slightly muffled when using the power that grants temporary invisibility.
I have to give the biggest shoutout to the vocal cast of the game. Everyone does a really great job embodying the character that they are playing, but a very special mention has to go to the actors for Colt (Jason E. Kelley) and Julianna (Ozioma Akagha), The banter between these two comes off as so natural that you believe that the two of them have done this a hundred times before. It’s undeniably one of the best aspects of the game. Kelley in particular is a really fun time as Colt. He doesn’t make him into this super stoic action man that we see in so many action games. Instead, Colt feels like an average guy, one with exceptional weapons skills, sure, but more average than most in his reactions to the insanity around him. I mean, when another version of Colt tells him that he needs to be smart about what he’s doing and not just shoot everything, I believe Colt when he says “But I like shooting everything!”.
The game is technically very sound, but it’s not exactly perfect. While I never ran into any glitches myself, there were a few moments where the physics engine wasn’t supposed to fling the body as hard as it ended up doing. There’s also just some oversights here and there on how things interact. I feel like you shouldn’t be able to stun lock enemies by kicking them over and over and over again. The only “glitch” that I would call attention to in specific is the way that the lighting and shadows can sometimes get a little funny. It’s something that you’ll usually see out of the corner of your eye for just a second, but there were moments where I was able to just sit and stare at a strange dancing shadow. It’s not anything major, but it is a little oversight that likely should have been caught a little sooner.
In contrast, DualSense integration was really great, as it has been in all the Playstation focused titles that I have experienced. I think that it could have done with some options to adjust, though. While I loved being able to feel Colt’s footsteps in my controller, I know that might not be the case for everyone. However, feeling the vibrating air pressure of the nail gun was something that I adored. Not to mention the way that the trigger would lock up when my guns jammed to give me physical feedback. Just a really nice touch that had me liking it all the more.
Might be my game of the year but not yours
For me, Deathloop is a game of the year contender. It’s been one of my favorite games this year and I am looking forward to spending more time with it. There are some aspects that I am willing to personally overlook because the other aspects excite me so much. That being said, when I look at Deathloop properly for this review, I cannot let some of those same issues slide. Understand that I highly recommend this game for people who may have liked Arkane’s prior work, but you may not be able to personally overlook some of the flaws or may in fact take more issue with them than I do. I don’t begrudge anyone who would give this game a perfect score based on their personal experience with the game, but despite the love that I have for it I think placing it among Big Daddy Gaming’s favorite children rather than the golden ones is the more fair assessment.
- Fun and vibrant world to explore
- Excellent characters in both design and vocal performance
- Fun and engaging gameplay and story elements
- Interesting use of time loop mechanics
- Could use the ability to tweak difficulty
- Ending could use a touch more expansion
- Unclear on the longevity of the online aspects