Deathloop, especially for fans of Arkane Studio’s recent output, doesn’t offer up the best first impressions. The opening two hours – of maybe 25ish if you follow every “lead” to completion – are designed to bounce you between several maps: highlight the shifting time of day, weather, and threats; and serve as a tutorial for basic gameplay mechanics while introducing the concept of restarting “the loop” with the knowledge you’ve gained. In retrospect, it’s a superficial introduction that undersells the narrative and mechanical depth on offer but also reflects the limitations of the repetitive structure and relying on the player to control the pacing.
Now before I get on with criticising Deathloop, it’s worth clarifying I still think it’s a good game on balance, with novel gameplay mechanics that synergise with the narrative premise. Despite being built in the Void Engine, the shooting is solid and complemented by the same fluid traversal abilities and “slab” powers – essentially Void powers – that made getting around in Dishonored so satisfying. Deathloop also has a striking visual style, runs well on all next-gen consoles, and sounds great with particularly excellent voice work. That said, I suspect the “next-gen only” release was a publisher decision rather than a technical one. As a result, I’d consider it one of the few essential “next-gen” games, so long as you’re looking for interesting mechanics. It still stands out after two years dominated by visually-enhanced cross-gen games or visually spectacular but mechanically-familiar sequels.
Dishonored – now in 4D!
Starting with the good – Deathloop can hit a fantastic groove that surpasses the exploration, clue-gathering, and world-building elements of Arkane’s prior immersive sims. Sifting through the lives of your targets, secondary characters, and even strangers was always a compelling part of the experience. In Deathloop, this activity now has a temporal component as you stalk your Visionary targets and their Eternalist followers through what they believe is their “first day” in the Blackreef anomaly. Another highlight is how “Visionary” and “Arsenal” leads reveal ways to manipulate events early in the day to set up new events later – easier assassination opportunities and new gear respectively. Progress is tracked for both and gives you motivation to fully explore each map to its fullest at different times of the day. Your reward is an unexpectedly dense backstory, insight into turbulent relationships, and discovering new locations that make each map feel much larger than first impressions suggest.
The Visionary leads – which culminate in a final day of carefully planned mass murder – offer a glimpse into how the AEON Project was established, funded, and staffed. Investigations into Juliana – Colt’s primary antagonist attempting to stop him from breaking the loop – offer insight into Colt’s past and slowly reveal the source of their conflict. Outside of these leads, there are a ton of documents to find, audio recordings to listen to, and conversations to overhear that highlight both the rampant corruption in the recruitment process and the conflicting goals of the project’s staff. There are also strong hints of Bioshock’s Rapture, as the AEON Project represents another convergence of the world’s leading minds while forgetting intellect and talent do not equate to emotional intelligence or humanity. As a bonus for those who’ve played the Dishonored games, you also find dozens of subtle clues – and one not so subtle – that Deathloop takes place in the same universe – long after knowledge of The Void has faded and science has replaced mysticism.
Killing time, killing pacing
Unfortunately, Deathloop has pacing issues that crop in the mid- to late-game. The most obvious is the narrative pacing that relies on killing each Visionary at least once to discover more about their routines and making progress along their respective lead. It feels organic as alerted Visionaries often converse with Colt about their past relationship (while trying to kill him), and a successful outing triggers mini-cutscenes as Colt pieces together a plan, along with fresh dialogue over the radio from Juliana. With eight visionary leads you can pursue simultaneously, you’d think there’d be no downtime and constant narrative beats but several design choices impact the flow – even before you consider player agency.
The first problem is that several leads are shorter than others and quickly resolved, increasingly leaving gaps in each day that encourage you to just skip past time periods. The second issue is that some leads only allow you to achieve one objective per loop – even if it’s a multi-part quest spread over different time periods during the day. The third problem is that several objectives have fail-states – usually requiring you to maintain stealth or avoid damaging a target – that, when combined with the lack of a manual save system, can force you to repeat a loop thanks to a simple mistake like missing a jump or forgetting which slab power you had selected. Both these issues are compounded when you need to repeat a morning event to set up a later one – a degree of repetition Deathloop strives to avoid through most of its playthrough.
The inherent problem with player choice
For better and worse, player agency is an even bigger issue than the aforementioned design issues. Aside from the introduction and a tense final loop – which you can fail and have to restart – progress is dependent on the player making informed decisions, ideally based on the available leads. However, the longer you play, the more gaps there are in each loop. Even if you’re fastidious about tracking leads, you’re going to eventually make mistakes that might set you back on more than one track and throttle the pacing.
Of course, this is not a problem unique to Deathloop and the infuriating thing is I’m not sure if it’s a structural problem that can be tweaked or “fixed”. It’s an essential part of the structure and you have to take the good with the bad.
When multiple leads converge to create a busy and fulfilling loop, the experience is easily on par with, if not better than the best missions in Dishonored, its sequels, and Prey (2017). Many games have played with the idea of a time loop, but only Deathloop has managed to intertwine the narrative with mechanics so expertly. On the other hand, when you make a mistake or find a lead clashes with another, you can find yourself experiencing actual repetition, completing the same objectives, skipping time periods, and breaking the narrative pacing in the process.