Time travel is a tricky thing. Not a lot of media gets it right beyond Back to the Future and Terminator but there’s no lack of temporal twisting stories out there. Russian Doll on Netflix has more or less the same premise as Deathloop – people find themselves reliving the same day over and over again and have to find a way out of the loop.
Albeit Deathloop has way more guns, the premise is the same. You play as Colt Vahn, a man with no memory who wakes up on a beach and finds he’s living the same day over and over again. Developer Arcane Studios cuts right to the chase and doesn’t ease you in like it’s Groundhog Day – you won’t mistake the same day as just a bad dream.
- Cool style, concept;
- Great art, music, level design;
- Invasions are great to play on both sides.
- Clunky, sloppy gunplay;
- Tons of backtracking;
- No set-pieces;
- Underwhelming story.
Lost in time
As you set out in search of answers, you meet Juliana who seems hellbent on killing you over and over for eternity. You two are the only people on Black Reef Island who maintain their memory between loops. The rest of the population loses their memory when the clocks reset. They do, however, realize time is repeating and, in fact, that’s exactly what they’re there for and will kill you if you try and stop it.
You see, there’s a mysterious science experiment called the Aeon Project. Its participants sign up to live life over and over again. While they don’t retain any memories, they know they’re in a repeating time loop and take full advantage to party into eternity. To some, this would be an attractive future - literally repeat a day of nonstop partying forever – but Colt has other plans.
He’s out to break the loop and escape the island. Why? He has his reasons and a mysterious past that you’ll unravel across the twenty or so hours. Let’s just say he has a unique history with the island and its time-shifting anomaly. To stop it and get time flowing normally again, he’ll have to kill eight “visionaries” who each have their own little fiefdom on the island.
Some want to create modern art for eternity, some want to spend it in a science lab. Essentially, these eight targets represent the best minds of humanity and the idea is to keep them alive forever inside of, what’s for all intents and purposes, a time capsule. Only problem is they’ve all become sociopathic a-holes.
The trouble for you is how do you track down all eight targets within twenty-four hours to break the loop? You’ll need to study each target and piece together a plan to knock them all out before you reset. It’s a neat concept that’s mostly well-executed but not without some rough edges. But before we get into those, let’s talk about the good stuff.
A spiritual successor to Dishonored
The game is very pretty and is, more or less, a spiritual successor to Dishonored. Level design, abilities, and, to a certain extent, combat will all feel familiar if you’ve played Arcane’s previous games. Their customization system is even reminiscent of Dishonored’s bone charms, allowing you to enhance your abilities if you go scrounging around for “trinkets” to power yourself up with.
It’s a very “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” type approach and while there’s nothing wrong with playing to your strengths, as a studio, it’s interesting to see them keeping so close to their well-known IP. Why not just make another Dishonored? But I can also tell the ambition is there to make more of a shooter than a stealth game.
The art style is definitely a departure from Dishonored’s steampunk aesthetics. Deathloop is all British 60’s mod style with enemies decked out in psychedelic outfits and music and furniture all from the era of the Beatles. It’s all very easy on the eyes, and if you’ve ever wanted to live in a modern home decor magazine from 1962, this will be your chance. The ambient music deserves a shoutout as it transits between exploration and combat. Moody bass lines give way to crashing drums and thrumming guitars when things get hot, ultimately winding back down with a flourish of electric organ chords. Very groovy.
The spaces you’ll explore are full of those nooks and crannies and alternate paths Arcane is known for. As your eyes adjust to the layout, and you will be seeing these maps a lot, you’ll get a feel for the fastest route to your objective once you’ve got the lay of the land memorized. To get this review done on time, I practically speed ran the last act thanks to having crisscrossed the map so many times.
Combat and fun
And while I enjoyed my time with Deathloop, there are definitely more than just a few minor things that hold it back from being a much better game. To start, the shooting just never feels quite right. Aiming on a gamepad, in particular, is sluggish and I couldn’t ever truly line up shots like I would have liked. In a world of top-notch shooting games, Deathloop feels very rough indeed when it comes to its gunplay. Guns will jam but only the most basic weapon classes will ever lock up on you.
Melee combat is also a mixed bag as your machete either immediately connects with an enemy’s face or leaves you swinging frantically at the air as you try to kill them before they can sound the alarm. There’s also an execution button that will sometimes fail to activate properly, causing you to swing your machete rather than snap an enemy’s neck. These lead to some awkward stealth failures. Though I will say kicking an enemy square in the chest and sending them flying off a cliff never gets old.
You can play the game stealthily but repeating the same tasks and retreading old ground will wear down your patience. One section has you starting up a series of generators to open a door elsewhere. However, if you get killed or the generators are destroyed, you’ll have to go right back to the start.
Getting killed will also happen fairly often. Colt is not bulletproof but even with health upgrades, you can only take a few bullets before you’re down for a dirt nap. This got a bit frustrating as it felt rather than code more challenging AI, they just decided to throw a ton of enemies at you who each do a fair bit of damage. When you get mobbed after triggering an alarm, it’s definitely a low point, especially if you lose items or progress. Die three times and it’s back to square one.
There is a pretty cool upgrading system but you’ll find yourself fighting against it unless you spend the first part of the game focused on getting and keeping upgrades. The only way to maintain your gear between loops is with residuum which you’ll get from breaking down trinkets, weapons, and found across the different zones (typically from bosses or random glowing items).
This means that if you have a trinket or weapon you want to keep, you need a certain amount of residuum to make the purchase. If you come up short, that weapon or upgrade goes bye-bye. While I didn’t fall afoul of this too much, it was pretty painful to lose a good trinket or upgrade I wasn’t able to infuse.
You’ll mainly want to focus on slabs, these are the special abilities you’ll use in combat, stealth, and movement. They’re all pretty much holdovers from Dishonored, even the blink ability - it’s a shame they didn’t apply more imagination to these. You can only equip two at a time and you can’t change any of them on the fly. This is a strange choice as it doesn’t really challenge the player but holds them back. Dishonored didn’t suffer for giving you a whole wheel of abilities to choose from, quite the opposite.
I settled into using the invisibility slab as it was the easiest to use to navigate around nests of NPCs. I can’t for the life of me understand this but there is no slab that the time slows down. In a game about time, you’d think freezing or slowing it would be a natural choice. But for some strange reason, they didn’t go for it here despite having it in Dishonored.
In terms of the flow between missions, it feels like a bit of a step back from Dishonored which typically dropped you in a location with a single objective and it was up to you to figure out the best way to achieve it. Deathloop throws so much information at you in the form of “leads” that it’s honestly hard to process it all. There are also no set pieces and rather than just tell you where to go, you’re often left with a marker that leads to a general area and you’re left to poke around for a clue.
There’s one puzzle where you’ll need to reveal an invisible computer and punch in a code to shut it down. I spent probably an hour scouring the surrounding area for the code to be scribbled on a piece of paper somewhere when it actually was in the objective prompt itself. When the answer is on a piece of paper or tape recorder, you’re going to have to look damn hard as these tend to blend into the desks and countertops where you’re meant to find them.
There’s even a section where the entire zone is at risk of exploding due to a reactor melting down and I had no idea what triggered it or how to avoid it. It’s fine to tell players to pay attention to their environment to solve problems rather than just guide them with waypoints. But there are also limits to how much to their own devices and wits you should leave them.
It feels sometimes like Deathloop couldn’t decide what it really wanted to be. Stealth game? Bullet opera? Retro-cool ‘60s spy romp? Mind-melting time travel story? When it tries to be all of these things at once, it ends up not being very much of anything. I liked the core concept but after twenty hours I didn’t feel like I knew more about how an island could get stuck living the same day over and over than I did at the outset.
The characters are also fairly thin with the exception of Juliana. Your rivalry and banter are what give the game some much-needed substance when most of the experience is awash in style. Dishonored wasn’t a groundbreaking story by any stretch but, at its core, it was about a man who’d lost everything and fights to get any of it back.
With such an open-ended concept as time travel, you would think Arcane would have delivered something a bit punchier story-wise. The 60’s spy movie camp is fine but I would have preferred the game fully commit to one approach rather than double-dip by trying to make it a science fiction drama on top.
The final result is something like Groundhog Day crossed with Smokin’ Aces. In my final hours with Deathloop I wondered how successful that synthesis really was. If I’m honest, I’d have to say “not very”. With mechanics reminiscent of their better games and what’s clearly their first attempt at designing a shooting game.
Deathloop lacks in areas that could have been improved with more development time and some better ideas. Tons of backtracking could have been replaced with memorable boss fights and set pieces. Tight gunplay could have shown the studio can branch out and do more besides swords and magic. And an interesting time travel concept could have reached for more of its uncapitalized potential.
The one thing that does stand out is the invasion mode. After playing as Colt for a few hours, you’ll unlock the option to jump in as Juliana and hunt down players in the middle of their story. It’s fun, tense, and got my heart racing whenever I ended up getting invaded. I just wish I’d had more control in a gunfight instead of the spray and pray design Deathloop nearly demands you adopt.
By the end, I could appreciate Deathloop’s style but not the sacrifice for substance. Better abilities, better gunplay, and more thoughtful ways to drive the player through the world would have made this new IP one to look out for. Casual shooter fans will likely have a decent time with this, but it’s not the game you’d want to be stuck playing on a day that never ends.
Alexander Eriksen | Gamepressure.com