Originally announced at E3 2019 before making a big appearance at Sony’s PlayStation 5 event in June 2020, Deathloop is a game that has been enticing me from the first time I laid eyes on it. I’ve had a pretty good run with Arkane Studios, developers of Deathloop, over the last few generations – their new Dishonored franchise being one of the best to emerge towards the tail end of the PlayStation 3 era. I wasn’t a massive fan of Prey on the PlayStation 4, but with its critical reception and the praises of some close friends, I’m more inclined to believe that I just wasn’t in the right headspace when I tried it out. With a growing trail of critically praised games behind them, it’s a shame then that Arkane’s releases never quite seemed to match that with commercial performance. Sure, their stealth-oriented gameplay might make them a little niche, but there’s nothing too wild or out-there on display that I could imagine would be off-putting for the average gamer. Things feel a little different this time around. Deathloop feels like the move of an under-appreciated studio finally making its big move for the spotlight.
Where Dishonored was slinking through the shadows, all dark and mysterious, Deathloop’s pre-release trailers felt like a departure, trading in Arkane’s traditionally slow and considered approach for a guns-blazing, breakneck experience. Its 60s-inspired world harkened back to Bioshock’s Rapture (albeit much brighter and more colourful) more than it did the steampunk Dunwall. The main character, Colt, felt more in line with the wise-cracking protagonists of Uncharted than the serious Corvo.
While it might have been a stylistic departure, one thing the trailers did make clear was that the slick movement and smooth action from Arkane’s previous games would be making a comeback. While Dishonored was marketed as a stealth game, the combat was designed so that the experience was thoroughly enjoyable even after your cover was blown. The traversal system was another highlight as you could teleport all over the map with the ‘blink’ power up. I was overjoyed to see it making a comeback in this new release.
I ended up getting my hands on Deathloop as a Christmas present from my family. It had been a long wait to finally sit down with what was undoubtedly my most-anticipated game in the autumn to winter release schedule, and it was made worth it when I booted it up for the first time and fell in love with it pretty instantly. That first experience of the game, as you wake up on the beach and take your first few steps truly feels like the moment of calm before the storm. We’ve all seen the trailers, we all know how action-packed things could get, so having this moment of quiet to kick things off felt quite eerie indeed. It was a great way of building anticipation of what was to come.
As with many games these days, Deathloop has no clearly defined ‘tutorial’ section, instead opting to teach you its mechanics and systems as it goes. In the aforementioned opening, the player encounters a locked door requiring a code to open. You can find the code close by, but it’s a good way to teach you the ropes of how to search for the information required to progress through the game. Deathloop has a variety of different rewards for accomplishing tasks, from additions to your growing arsenal of guns, to a range of new superpowers known as slabs, but in similar fashion to Mobius’ seminal 2019 release Outer Wilds, it’s the information you earn along the way that is most valuable.
The whole premise of Deathloop is that you find yourself on an island where time loops around, causing everyone on it to relive the same day ad infinitum, with the goal of breaking the loop once and for all. In order to do so, you’ll need to kill the ‘visionaries’ dotted around the island – each one with their own timetables and openings for you to kill them. The real puzzle is that breaking the loop will require them all to be killed in the same day, meaning you’ll need to search the island for information about when and where you’ll be able to find two or three of them together. As you experience loop after loop, each time digging deeper and deeper into the island’s mysteries, you’ll get a clearer picture of what’s going on and how you can manipulate the visionaries to your own ends.
Of course, as you try to gather information or explore enemy bases, things are bound to go wrong from time to time and end up in a firefight. It’s here that Arkane’s superior combat design keeps things thoroughly enjoyable. When I first watched the trailers for Deathloop, I was won over by the high-octane action, but I also felt a little cautious – I’m not the best at FPS games, and so while it looked exciting, I doubted whether I would really be able to pull off any of the quick-firing moves on display. However, thanks to generous aim assist and suitably fragile enemies, I was greeted with an positively gleeful experience as I barrelled my way out of tight spots where it looked like almost certain doom ahead. To put it simply, Deathloop made me feel like a badass in a way that very few other shooters have.
What Arkane has managed to create in Deathloop is a masterful experience that cleverly builds on everything they’ve made in the past few years. You can see remnants of Dishonored’s traversal system littered throughout, the time loop premise itself borrowing heavily from the developer’s Mooncrash expansion for Prey. It’s a shame that with Microsoft’s purchase of Bethesda that Arkane’s games will likely not be coming to PlayStation in the future, but with the level of excellence on display in Deathloop, Arkane might be one of the most convincing reasons to pick up an Xbox in the coming years. There is also the possibility that the financial safety net being a first party Microsoft studio offers could allow them even more creative freedom to explore new worlds. For now though, let’s be happy that we have Deathloop, a wild thrill ride of a game from start to finish.