Is it possible to make a game about repetition that doesn’t, itself, end up feeling bogged down and repetitive?
If anyone could pull it off, it might be Arkane Lyon Studios, the team whose Dishonored series of sneak-and-stab infiltration games feature some of the most beautiful and mind-bending locales in all of gaming, intricate puzzle boxes whose multiple routes of attack invite gleeful return visits from dedicated players. The fact that the studio’s latest entry, Deathloop, still sometimes succumbs to the Groundhog Day doldrums, in spite of both its ambitious ideas, and the obvious raw talent it brings to bear, suggests that the premise might have been doomed from the start.
Out this week on PC and PlayStation 5, Deathloop drops players into the amnesiac boots of Captain Colt Vahn, former security head for the AEON Project, a group of self-described luminaries who’ve stumbled onto the ultimate golden ticket to an eternity of endless debauchery: a time anomaly centred on a mysterious island, which allows them to subject themselves, and their followers, to the ostensible pleasures of a single, endlessly looping day. Colt picked up the “former” in his job title when realised he was the only person who actually remembered these infinite-and-counting loops, though, and decided it was time to return to reality the only way he knew how: By killing the eight “Visionary” leaders of AEON in a single day, shattering their garbage utopia in the process.
Working out the possibilities of that John Wick-style impossible task makes up the bulk of Deathloop, which sees Colt — after figuring out some basic tricks, including learning how to keep his precious guns and powers intact from “day” to “day” — coming to terms with the Rube Goldberg mechanisms of Blackreef Island’s four districts, most of which can be visited at four distinct times of day (changing their layouts, sometimes radically, in the process). Sneaking, shooting, and employing an evolving set of superpowers that will feel extremely familiar to Dishonored veterans, Colt (and the player) slowly assemble an understanding of where their targets will be at any given time of day, what their vulnerabilities might be, and potential ways of manoeuvring them into more convenient positions for the time-crunched killer on the go.
Solving these mysteries is one of Deathloop’s great pleasures, alongside the unchanged solidity of Dishonored’s core “stay quiet/go loud” dichotomy. (The smugly sleek feeling of slipping above the heads of your enemies, an invisible, teleporting ghost, remains exquisite; so, too, does the clusterfuck chaos that erupts when a carefully crafted plan suddenly goes explosively pear-shaped.) It’s just a pity, then, that the game has such a low opinion of the player’s ability to do that mystery-solving on its own: Rather than ask you to think through what each new piece of evidence might mean for Colt’s goals, Deathloop instead filters that information into its Leads system, a series of evolving objectives that are always on hand to tell you where you need to go at what time to put which bullets into who.
The system, paradoxically, only becomes more attention-demanding as you become more familiar with Deathloop’s rhythms, culminating in the bafflingly infuriating decision to play a full, step-by-step guide to executing your eight perfect murders in the precise moment that you’ve finally assembled all the prerequisite steps. Deathloop feints toward freedom and cause-and-effect in its design, but in practice, it’s far more prosaically proscriptive than its ambitious packaging might suggest.
And maybe that’s because, at core, there’s only so much repetition that the four core levels that make up Blackreef, and Deathloop, can support. These four districts are appealing enough on initial blush, full of all the secret passages, vents, rooftops, and other expressive little crannies that Arkane’s signature gameplay demands. The added permutations and challenges that crop up at different times of day only add to the sense of possibility that runs all through Deathloop’s early hours.
And yet, the fourth or fifth time you find yourself sneaking across the crowded city of Updaam in its “Noon” configuration, hoping to make an appointment between your shotgun and brain-damaged game designer Charlie Montague’s face — because Charlie’s got the Shift superpower, and you want to repeatedly harvest it to get your teleports fully upgraded, ASAP — it’s inevitable for a bit of “This again?” to begin to set in. In a perfect world, increasing familiarity with these levels would lead to innovation, new tricks for navigating them, faster approaches, etc. But Deathloop isn’t Dishonored 2, still the apex of Arkane’s design arts. There’s no “The Clockwork Mansion” here, or even “A Crack In The Slab,” huge, formally audacious levels designed to push players to their limits. Whether due to the freeform nature of their design, or the needs of the game’s multiplayer system, Deathloop’s levels tend toward big but surprisingly simplistic, rarely demanding that players get smart with Colt’s powers, or even providing them with adequate opportunities to do so.
The exception to this issue comes from that multiplayer, admittedly the most successful innovation in Deathloop’s myriad bag of tricks. Because while seven of the eight Visionaries you’re tasked with taking down are passive participants in the loop, computer-controlled characters locked into specific behaviours, the eighth, Julianna Blake, is not. Colt’s replacement as AEON security head is not only the one other person on the island who knows she’s in a time loop: She’s also the only other one played by another human being, tasked with hopping into other players’ worlds online in order to throw a wrench into their assassination plans. The subsequent games of cat-and-mouse between two superpowered killers whose powers include invisibility, telekinesis, disguise, and more are the most thrilling moments that Deathloop has on offer — especially for a game whose other enemy variety comes down almost entirely to “this guy has a shotgun, this guy has a knife.”
Cribbing liberally from Dark Souls’ groundbreaking invasion mechanic, Julianna’s drop-ins force Colt players to expand their repertoire aggressively and consider new avenues of attack, contending with an opponent who likely knows the map, and all its attendants tricks and loopholes, at least as well as they do. Not even occasional problems with latency (hopefully alleviated once more than a handful of people have the game) can’t detract from the thrill of getting the drop on your opponent in the midst of an invasion, or putting together the perfect build to slip lethally into their blind spots.
Julianna is also, as it happens, the highlight of the game’s writing, emblemizing a goofy, frequently funny ’60s spy pastiche that essentially asks “What would happen if the eight worst people on the planet stumbled into their own personal heaven?” Despite its sci-fi sheen, Deathloop doesn’t go in for grim end-of-the-world plots or master villains: Blackreef is a playground for stunted adults more than a lair for planet-class threats, something emphasised in all the requisite diaries and audio logs that you’ll find clogging up desks and bookshelves across the island. That being said, the game’s heavy narrative focus on the Visionaries often leaves it feeling a little devoid of the smaller stories that are usually the primary reward for poking into the corners in games like this; we get a few glimpses into the lives of the “Eternalists” who’ve signed on to be infinite lackeys for these overgrown children, but the lack of detail in so many of the games’ outlying locations is just another symptom of Deathloop’s emptier-than-expected world.
Julianna, though, is a treat, playfully bickering with Colt about his half-focused quest to smash the loop pretty much every time you load into a level. And she’s not wrong in her case for keeping eternity going: Running around this playground for broken people, gunning and teleporting and causing big telekinetic explosions, is a blast. There’s none of Dishonored’s restraint or moralising here, no “non-lethal” kills or penalties for breaking stealth. Just yelling, shooting, and success.
At its best, Deathloop is excessive, silly, and euphorically fun — the only issue being that so little of that pleasure stems from the central time loop idea, to which so many core principles have been compromised or sacrificed. Given the sheer amount of self-plagiarism on display here, it’s impossible not to wonder how a more traditional, Dishonored-style level structure could have benefited this world and power-set, allowing these characters, and that intoxicatingly addictive multiplayer, to get more of the focus. And that’s the core paradox of Deathloop, the worst game in recent memory from a studio so good at what it does that it’ll still inevitably land on our Game Of The Year list when December rolls around. It’s a great game in spite of itself, and its titular selling point; the loop might be broken, but Arkane’s grasp of its core mechanics remains solid as ever.