For as much as Deathloop presents itself as a complex game, asking you to work out how to break a time loop upon the island of Blackreef, it's actually a somewhat simple one. Arkane Studios has designed the opening hours of the game it made after Dishonored and PREY to be overwhelming, introducing mechanic after mechanic and sprinting through its four main areas quicker than Usain Bolt on steroids. It's a lot to take in at first, and you'll likely fear working out how to escape the rock will be just as much of an uphill battle. But it won't be. Deathloop will always be there to hold your hand.
Objective markers clearly signpost where to head next, quest lines make light work of tracking overall progress, menus map what stage the time loop is at. It's attentive to your needs to an almost surprising degree, providing information by the bucket load. The solution to this Groundhog Day conundrum is the same for everyone, but what gets you there represents a leap forward for the developer; never has it seemed more confident in its craft.
In fact, so self-assured is the team that it has explained the game's set-up ad nauseam in pre-release trailers. Colt Vahn is trapped in a time loop that repeats the same day over and over again on the island of Blackreef, and to break it, he must kill eight targets (known as Visionaries in-game) within a single 24-hour stretch. The leaders just so happen to be celebrating their achievements on the day chosen to repeat itself, and Colt is the party pooper.
Once the game opens up, you're free to visit four different parts of the island at various times of the day: morning, noon, afternoon, and evening. The eight Visionaries can only be reached at certain points in specific locations, many of which double up so you have to pick and choose your battles. And since you can't be in two places at once, the day starts over again. The early game largely revolves around learning how to kill a handful of the targets in isolation, but if you're to actually eliminate them all within a single loop and thus escape the island, a different approach is required.
Here's where you begin to learn more about the Visionaries and their backstories; what are they doing on the island and how can they be manipulated into meeting up with the others so Colt can save time? You'd expect Deathloop to leave you to your own devices at this point, freely exploring the island to work out what makes the targets tick. However, it does anything but.
The game tightly guides you through this process, sharing linear pathways to having targets meet up with one another or join the party that concludes the night. There's not a lot of freedom to it, to the point where Deathloop may not be exactly what you thought it was.
Another expectation that may need readjusting is that the game isn't a rogue-like. All of the information you gather and progress made through quests is retained at the start of a new loop, and you can get right back to whatever point in the day you need by simply fast-forwarding time back at base. What you may lose access to is the weapons, powers, and perks collected during a loop, but there's even a system in place to prevent that. Residiuum — picked up off the dead bodies of Visionaries and spread throughout the four maps — can be spent to infuse all your gear, making it a permanent part of your arsenal for future loops.
It's going to feel familiar in parts, then. We could take the reductive route and describe Deathloop as Hitman meets Dishonored meets Returnal meets Outer Wilds meets Dark Souls. Oh yes, rest assured there's a feature or two pulled from the FromSoftware locker. However, to do so would ignore what really makes the title work. It's a fantastic experience largely thanks to the wonderful, experimental gameplay
While Arkane Studios' Dishonored series had room for chaos, it was always designed around stealth. Deathloop borrows many of those systems and then refines what happens when you choose to go loud so much that it becomes just as much of a tantalising option. Fast-paced and explosive gunplay means there's no need to save scum (you couldn't anyway due to the lack of manual saving), turning those moments when you are spotted into an opportunity to show off Colt's firepower and prowess.
Both approaches are more than viable now: lay low until you've located the Visionary and then go loud to make a statement, or stick to the shadows at all times and learn of unique opportunities from nearby NPCs and documents. For example, life of the party Aleksis loves his chocolate beer. Should supply of that particular alcohol be severed, he reveals himself by ranting to fellow ravers. Then take to the rafters and eliminate him silently with a pistol or let everyone know you mean business by dropping a grenade into his lap. Play the way you want; there are no holds barred this time around.
It wouldn't be an Arkane game without some powers, however, and Deathloop comes packing with abilities that greatly expand gameplay possibilities. Once again sourced from the dead bodies of Visionaries, the game has its own version of Dishonored's Blink and then a carbon-copy power of Domino from Dishonored 2. Fleshing out supernatural possibilities are Aether, which temporarily turns you invisible, Havoc increases damage dealt, and Karnesis throws enemies about the place.
Astonishing is the word we'd use to explain the impact these abilities have on interacting with the environment. On your first few visits to the four areas of Blackreef, you'll be hamstrung by your powerless loadout. Enemies will have to be largely avoided and the location scanned for points of exit to keep your lives intact, of which you have three before the whole loop starts over. But the more powerful you become, the more options open up. Rooftops become much more viable options for traversal and invisibility makes escaping engagements and sneaking past enemies a streamlined process. They can turn what was a meticulous and carefully planned route through the level into a five-minute sprint to the objective that cares little for discreetness. The former will always remain an option for stealth-minded folk, however.
Throwing somewhat of a spanner in the works is Julianna, a Visionary who is actively hunting you down. Controlled either by the AI or another real-life player who selects "Protect the Loop" from the main menu, her job is to do exactly that: prevent Colt from breaking the time loop Blackreef is currently stuck in. Much like the protagonist, she retains her memories and knowledge across loops, making her a constant threat throughout the roughly 12 to 15-hour campaign.
With her on your tail, Deathloop is pushed even further into that experimental territory. The game is about knowing when to take things slow and stick to the shadows, but also learning when is the right time to go loud and get the hell out of there by any means necessary. Arkane Studios is now at a point where it can fairly balance both styles, making for a sublime experience that allows you to mix and match your approach seamlessly.
Holding all this together is the story of Colt, Julianna, and the island of Blackreef itself. The revelations behind the time loop and everything going on are somewhat interesting, but the main driving force is the two main characters. Colt and Julianna just love to banter and argue over the radio, explaining how they're going to kill one another and exploring their personality and backstory. It's funny and consistently touching, particularly in the latter hours of the narrative. The other Visionaries have their own stories to tell, but they're explored through collectibles, voice recordings, and files rather than face to face dialogue. As such, nothing else can quite touch the charismatic duo at the heart of the plot.
Off the beaten path are optional leads that help to open up more of the maps once solved, or you could go after the Visionaries repeatedly to cop upgrades for your powers and find the game's most powerful guns. The structure of the time loop actually enables this freedom because it never feels like you're wasting hours; going from morning to evening focusing purely on upping your loadout can bear fruit in future attempts at escaping the island. With the infusion system saving gear for another time, a run is never wasted.
Some stumbling blocks do hold the game back from reaching higher heights. A few tedious objectives outside of killing the Visionaries demand you constantly restart the time loop in order to progress, leading you to essentially speedrunning proceedings if you want to further the questline. These tasks could have been implemented better to ward off players switching their brains off and sprinting to the objective three times over so headway can be made.
And then there's the poor enemy AI, which has to be the game's biggest low point. Blackreef's inhabitants must have their blinders on because you can get up close and very personal with them and they won't notice a thing. An alert system operates on the usual caution and danger mechanics, but it hardly matters when it affects so little of the actual map. Three enemies can be alerted to your presence on one street, but turn a corner and anyone in the alleyway in front of you will be acting like nothing has happened. That is despite all the shouting and gunfire. It's quite bad and makes a bit of a mockery of the overall gameplay loop when enemies can be manipulated and taken advantage of so easily.
As a game that skips the previous generation of consoles for a PlayStation 5-only release, you'd also think Deathloop would make proper use of the new features and horsepower at its fingertips. In some places it does. It feels like the slightly stylised look may be holding it in back in some spots, but the title overall has some nice visuals and vistas. While it's not on the same level as Demon's Souls, Returnal, or Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart — far from it, in fact — Deathloop can look good when it wants to.
The PS5 DualSense controller also receives some love with haptic feedback replicating Colt's footsteps through vibrations and the adaptive triggers lending some weight to gunfire. The resistance isn't as varied as what Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War has to offer, but what's there feels efficient enough. The widely advertised feature where your gun jams has been completely over-marketed, however. We encountered it quite literally once; it's never going to be a problem for you when better gear is on offer almost instantly.
Few games have the confidence and swagger of Deathloop. Packed full of charisma and wit, it's a game that can be played your way, with your own style and cunning. A very accomplished package of gameplay features supplies the goods, and the time loop delivers fun and deceitful opportunities over and over again. Deathloop may be the final game out of Arkane Studios to hit Sony consoles, but the developer goes out with an undisputed bang.