Immersive sims have had, if not the renaissance of the retro shooter, a bit of a second wind in recent years. Gloomwood has had several great showings this year, highlighting the potential of the genre in the hands of indie developers. But nobody is creating immersive sims at the level (or budget) of Arkane. I consider Prey to be the finest title of the genre to date, and while the Dishonored series may be more of a stealth adventure, it allows the same freedom to use the physical world, and its rules, to achieve your goals. Enter Deathloop, Arkane’s second crack at creating a singleplayer game with competitive multiplayer elements.
The Crossing failed because ambition got the better of a small team — perhaps the most trite game industry sentence ever written. Deathloop takes the broader concept, player-controlled “invaders,” and strips it to its essentials. You play as Colt, a man stuck on the isle of Blackreef and in an unbreakable time-loop. Every day, you wake up back on the beach that opens the game. As I’m sure you’re aware from Deathloop’s… aggressive… marketing campaign, your goal is to break the loop, and a mysterious woman named Julianna will hunt you down in the process, “looping” you each time you die.
I’ll say it here now — the game’s introduction is by far its worst aspect. If you can handle the two or three hours it takes to explain its systems, how the time loop works, and how you’ll be permanently retaining the items you find as you explore, you’ll be rewarded with complete freedom. The prologue is understandable, because I was under the impression that Deathloop worked the same was as say, Outer Wilds or Twelve Minutes, and tracked your progress in real time. On the contrary, there are four levels and four time periods, and you can choose one level per time of day (morning, noon, afternoon, and evening). When you exit the level, time advances, and not before.
The main conceit is simple – kill all eight Visionaries before the day ends. It seems a daunting task, as these eccentric, obnoxious brats are scattered all across Blackreef at various points throughout the day. As you play, an incredibly useful and intuitive flowchart will fill out, telling you exactly what you’ve learned (literally dubbed “Knowledge”) and how best to proceed. I’ll give Deathloop this — it managed to give just enough guidance to avoid frustration without ever feeling like it was spoon-feeding me. What seemed an impossible task slowly, almost invisibly, became more and more believable with each loop. And it was always a very rewarding feeling.
You’ll be planning your days and how you’ll spend them in a simple menu between “runs,” which I’ll define as one time period spent in one location. If I go into town in the morning and stop the fireworks shop from burning down, I can go inside and search the computer at noon. Then in the afternoon I need to explore the power plant to learn the secrets of the Visionary there. And in the evening I’m free, so I guess I’ll force-push some guys off a cliff for fun until tomorrow.
In Deathloop, repetition is gratification. Every run, Julianna is on your comm, feeding you crumbs of lore or poking fun at Colt in a wonderfully biting performance. Colt grew on me, but at first seemed a bit strained. His amnesia serves up the most cliché fish-out-of-water storytelling vessel imaginable, but paired with Julianna’s wit and experience it works pretty well. Their chemistry is what breathes life into Blackreef.
The locales themselves are beautiful, otherworldly spaces that mix the aesthetics of ’60s mod culture and A Clockwork Orange. Visually, everything is stunning; the vistas, the vehicles, even things as mundane as jukeboxes are somehow given an alien-vintage tinge. All that said, none of the spaces quite hit the jaw-dropping highs of Dishonored 2’s Clockwork Manor.
The minor characters that inhabit these spaces are, unfortunately, a little dull. Masked degenerates wander the streets, all armed to the teeth and ready to kill. Their chatter is interesting and well-written, but none of them spark the same wonder as the believably miserable guards from Dishonored’s Dunwall. Luckily, there’s no ham-fisted morality system in place, so you’re free to brutalize as many or as few of them as you wish.
The Visionaries, the “bosses” of Deathloop, are all written in the most unhinged and insufferable way imaginable. From the spoiled hack artist Fia to the Carmack-esque asocial genius Egor, they all inhabit the absolute endpoints of human emotion like a bunch of fallen Los Angeles idols. You’d imagine this to be grating, but the entire game has this almost playful cadence that stands in stark contrast to the utter despondance of Dishonored or Prey. Enemies will say things like “Colt, if that’s you, don’t move.” Everyone knows you, they care about you, they don’t want you to be doing this.
Visionaries’ “Slabs” give you what are essentially Dishonored’s powers. Each time you take down a Visionary, you can take their Slab, and if you already have it you’ll get a random upgrade, further incentivizing repeated runs. You can carry a limited amount of resources into each level – three weapons and two Slabs. Choosing the right tools for the occasion made this limitation gratifying, but I didn’t enjoy the process of scrapping all the minor upgrades and weapons I didn’t need to earn the currency needed to save things I did.
“Arkane does Hitman” is what Deathloop slowly evolves into. As you attain every tool, every weapon you could possibly want, and you know exactly what it is you need to be doing, you’ll be nearly speedrunning levels. Hack this camera, push this guy off the ledge, jump down the cliff, power the generator. I found myself anticipating Julianna at certain points, setting up traps using turrets and mines and hiding out in some choice spots. Those poor players didn’t stand a chance, and I was heartily rewarded each time I took her down. Nothing beat the feeling of taking down a rival player and a Visionary or two and escaping back into Colt’s tunnels flush with loot and information.
I had some minor quibbles with the PlayStation 5 version of the game that will hopefully be fixed close to release. The framerate, even on performance mode, absolutely chugged in certain areas (namely Updaam during the evening, during Alexis’ big party). I also couldn’t seem to get my camera sensitivity to feel less sluggish, even cranked, and there’s no option to make camera sensitivities on both axes the same. Minor complaints in the grand scheme of things, but they were noticeable throughout my playtime.
Deathloop is simple. It’s also a bold vision. It’s Hitman plus Escape From Tarkov, with a healthy dose of immersive sim freedom. If you know it’s for you, rest assured it’s going to do its job and then some. Its sandbox is unmatched in scope and possibility, and I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface of its potential. I’m sure I’ll be kicking myself when I see some Twitter clips next week thinking, “Why didn’t I think of that?” And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
This review is based on the PlayStation 5 version of the game. A code was provided for review by Bethesda Softworks.
Deathloop, summarized, is "Arkane does Hitman." It glorifies its repetition, and never feels unrewarding, especially when taking down a player-controlled Juliana. I want to re-immerse myself in its world, pick apart its secrets, and master its systems. Not everything works seamlessly, but taken as a whole it's an immersive sim sandbox of unmatched proportions.