Deathloop Review: Arkane sets the bar high

Every year there’s a certain game that sets our expectations. It’s the game that upcoming games have to beat, in order to be considered 9s and maybe even 10s. It’s the game reviewers benchmark. And Arkane has set the bar high this year. Deathloop is the kind of game that when booting up the campaign will makes you go: “Yeah… yeah, this about to be good.”

Colt while in the planning room

Deathloop is quite bold in a release sheet full of RPGs that look unremarkable. It’s as recognizable as Borderlands and BioShock were back in the day. Flipping through the screenshots I took of this game, you’ll never have to wonder “Damn, what game is this from?”. You already know.

But enough foreplay. Let’s get right to it.

TL;DR

You’ll love it if:Not for you if:
– You want a booming adrenaline rush
– You like solving mysteries– You’re looking for cinematic storytelling
– You’re looking for a narrative that’s full of plot twists– You have no patience whatsoever
– You plan ahead of every move

The following review contains no important spoilers for Deathloop.

Visuals

The isle stuck in the loop

The island of Blackreef during Noon
Blackreef island.

Just like in Prey, even when you’re close to the game’s finale, you’ll keep on discovering secrets in every district. At the same time, each area is available at four different times of the day. Apart from the lighting and the weather effects, the decoration (layout) of each area also changes significantly. Each area’s decor seems to be inspired by a clash of many different ideas that make up a unique aesthetic. Graffiti, 60s’ furniture, and decorations, and a host of other elements that thematically match each area’s vibe. Deathloop’s aesthetics are supreme. It’s like a mind full of scattered thoughts, trying to create something coherent. It’s striking visually, even though you may not always understand everything. Eventually, all the pieces start to fit together.

View of the Mansion

Bold 60s’ aesthetic

The first thing you notice in Deathloop is definitely the distinctive art style. It’s an eye-catcher for sure. Whether we’re talking about the colorful design of the 60s’ inspired scenes, or the pop art style of the cut-scenes and the UI, Deathloop has a very intriguing design. Each plot point is visualized through short and to-the-point cut-scenes. The most important in-game events, however, take place in real-time, not in cinematics. The characters have intricate designs, they’re all very diverse. Designs like these could very well be seen in a Disney movie. A very twisted Disney movie, but still. And all the characters have all the vintage drip you’d hope to see. Their outfits are on point. The goons you’ll have to take out along the way, all sport colorful clothing and wear masks on their faces.

Deathloop's Frank

However, Deathloop’s most interesting design choice is by far the floating text that constantly pops up in front of you. Like floating graffiti, it’s like you’re reading through Colt’s thoughts. It repeats plot points, warns you of impending danger, or simply gives you the ‘ok’ to relax. But like on the internet, you have to keep in mind, that not all you read is true. It feels like an inner dialogue with yourself. Deathloop is full of double entendres. Keep your eyes peeled.

"Romance isn't dead YET"

The thing is, playing a fast FPS like Deathloop will rarely give you the time you need to take in everything around you. Time is of the essence and, no matter how many times you loop, time will never be enough. Just like in the gameplay, you will only get to glance through what Blackreef has to offer. Maybe it’s better that way, because in short bursts, you’ll never notice the game’s weaknesses.

Animations & Performance

The in-engine animations during the various in-game events are really beautiful. The main characters are very expressive, even outside a cinematic environment. The animations of the various enemies you encounter are rather simplistic though. Weapons present a satisfactory variety, and although the animations are well made and smooth, they don’t need much to become repetitive. The same is true to a large extent for executions and assassinations. You will see the same stuff again and again as you stab hundreds of enemies from behind. The effects of the special abilities you acquire during the game, however, remain impressive.

Encountering Colt... wait, what?
Colt meets Colt… wait, what?

Deathloop is a very nice looking game, but it’s definitely not one of those worth playing in max settings. There is a RayTracing mode, but it’s locked at 30fps. In such a fast-paced shooter, Performance mode and 60fps are practically one way. Fidelity mode does offer better visuals, still aiming for the 60fps mark. I found that generally speaking, Performance is the way to go as the experience is very smooth. Fidelity still needs further optimization. Arkane does cheat a bit here and there with some lower quality textures, that will rarely catch your eye. There’s also some glitchy textures here. This is primarily the occasional texture flickering: nothing game-breaking and nothing that can’t be fixed in the next patch.

An eternalist playing his guitar on the cusp of a cliff
Lonely guitarist on the cusp of the cliff.

At the same time, the PS5’s SSD helps the game have as few loading screens as possible: something that goes wrong when considering the fact that Deathloop connects to Bethesda servers to store your progress every time you travel between districts. The absence of locally stored saves is a design choice, so that death acts as a punishment, and you really lose what you haven’t Infused. Here you can’t just go back to the previous save, only to the previous day.

Plot (spoiler-free)

Aren’t all days the same either way?

Deathloop’s story starts off with Colt waking up on a deserted beach with no recollection of where he is and how he ended up there. He doesn’t even remember who he is. Following the instructions of the floating graffiti that pops up in front of him, he is led to meet Julianna, who apparently has a an axe to grind with him for reasons he doesn’t quite understand. She tells him that they’re frozen in time and without answering any question, she just kills him. Colt wakes up again, on the same beach, surprised he survived and follows the same routine he followed previously, this time having memories of what happened before.

First encounter with Julianna
The first encounter with Julianna.

Putting all the pieces together, he finds out that he is on the island of Blackreef, which was the site of a scientific experiment that has “frozen” the island in time, with everyone on the island doomed to relive the same day over and over again without having a clue about what’s going on. The only ones who seem to remember them are Colt and Julianna. He is determined to solve the mystery and break the loop, while she intends to stop him and maintain the integrity of the loop.

Every day, over and over.

It is a seemingly simple setup. But things get complicated quickly. Those who ensure the integrity of the loop are eight inhabitants of the island, and in order for Colt to restore the flow of time, he must kill all of them. These eight characters have their own guards and their own schedule during the day. At the same time, they’re aware you’re out to get them, so they’re always on high alert. You need to study their routines and plan very carefully how to get rid of them. But even if someone dies, restarting the loop, it’ll be like you never killed them. The same goes for you of course, so don’t fret too much about dying.

"Break the loop"
Yeah, yeah, we get it.

Most of said characters have special abilities – like superpowers – which they drop when you kill them. Acquiring the powers of some of them will help you defeat others. You can start your killing spree from whoever you want, the game does not indicate which is the best way to tackle your objectives. But do keep in mind that you will not be ready to face all the enemies from the get go. At the same time, Julianna will show up every now and then, trying to stop you by shooting you in the face – a timeless tactic.

You’ll soon realize that killing 8 people in one day is not as easy as it sounds. Especially when they are all in different places, at different times. You’ll need to prepare a solid plan in order to get them all together, in the same loop. By researching each character, you’ll uncover some pretty spicy secrets about them, about the relationships between the characters, as well as all get all the tea. Make no mistake, Deathloop is an elaborate murder mystery, only this time you’re the one doing the killing.

60's spy theme galore

No time to explain

The story has the same flow as Deathloop’s gameplay. Short bursts of chaos that are broken up by exploring and puzzle-solving. There’s not always something shocking on your screen, there will be many moments when you are just trying to solve puzzles, find an item you need, or looking for a button you need to press. But when something happens, shit really goes down. The action is so chaotic that sometimes even the dialogue has a hard time catching up with all that goes down.

Challenge room
Thanks for the tip.

In reality, the plot takes some time to really get started. As in any Arkane game, things do not go exactly as you expected in the beginning. In Deathloop in particular, after a few hours you will start experimenting with the butterfly effect. The plot here, however, carries with it all the baggage of writing a story about time travel. Surprisingly enough, it’s tackled well enough here.

Gameplay

Pick your poison

Deathloop’s gameplay mechanics are very tight. There are many different ways you can approach each situation, and this is something we are used to seeing from both Dishonored and Prey. You can go from Point A to Point B unnoticed like a ninja. Or you can simply fill your enemies with bullet holes. Usually, games give you some sort of moral excuse to go down the stealthier path. Deathloop, however, doesn’t even bother. The enemies are wearing masks and in the following loop, they’ll be alive again and won’t even remember you killed them. Unlike Prey, there’s no shortage of ammo here, so you can spray as much as you want. Either way, you have to kill the main characters (many times) whether you like it or not.

You decide.

Admittedly, the stealthy route is the easier one more often than not. AI controlled enemies are not the hardest to trick. It helps that the goons have a goldfish memory and forget that you even exist after a while. With your trusty hackamajig (that’s how it’s actually called) you can turn off all the sensors and go in unnoticed, while there is nothing better than kicking unsuspecting enemies from rooftops and cliffs or appearing behind them with your knife and whispering them the song of your people. Collecting slabs containing the superpowers of the bosses you kill will make it easier to move around the map and go all ninja on their ass.

Shotgun goes click-clack

Going in guns blazing is arguably the most fun tactic. The gunplay is at very satisfactory levels with each type of weapon forcing you to change your approach to each gunfight. There is a strong emphasis on movement, as dodging is one of your most basic moves. Enemies may not be a bright bunch, but they sure know how to aim. At first especially, without any upgrades, do not be surprised if you find yourself struggling. Gradually, you will start to expand your arsenal, both with new weapons and with slabs (abilities) and trinkets (perks & attachments).

Eternalist chilling at the arcade
An eternalist chilling in the arcade

In Colt’s hideout you can customize your loadout. You can carry up to three weapons, which are divided into rarities depending on how strong they are. You get your hands on new, stronger weapons through side-missions. There’s two slabs you have at your disposal, which you can shift through on the fly. Reprise is Colt’s slab that cannot be removed. It allows you to die up to three times before restarting the loop. Trinkets give you smaller boosts, such as the ability to double jump or run slightly faster. Each weapon gets three attachments. During combat, of all these, you can only change your weapons. For further modifications to the loadout, you’ll have to return to your hideout.

Menu screen before entering a district
Prep-screen before going in a district

There’s also a lot of mishaps here, although I can not tell if they are due to lack of inspiration or lack of time. Many of the slabs present in Deathloop are the same abilities as the ones found in the Dishonored series. Even the animations look the same. There’s some slabs that are completely overpowered, and you’ll limit yourself to only using those, because they’re the most effective.

With some interesting additions

Mishaps don’t detract from the overall gameplay experience though. Deathloop introduces through narration some very interesting mechanics that really make it stand out. At the end of each loop, Colt may retain his memory, but he loses everything he has accumulated during the day. That means guns, slabs, trinkets go down the drain, right? Well, not exactly. By spending Residuum, a substance you find scattered throughout Blackreef, you can keep as many things as you choose from your loadout between loops. Of course, each item has a different cost, depending on its type and rarity. By spending Residuum, you can Infuse whatever it is you want to keep. But you can only Infuse while you are in your hideout and when you die, you lose all the Residuum you had collected.

Pop-art cutscene in Deathloop

Much of the game requires solid puzzle solving. The puzzles you will need to solve are not that hard, but they make you feel that you are indeed solving a mystery. There will be times when what you’re looking for blends into the background and it’ll take you a while to find, but fortunately, you’ll have both the floating text and Julianna to guide you. In all honesty, what stands out is the freedom you have in tackling each situation. You have 4 areas to visit all in all, but thanks to how much they change depending on the time of day and the ways in which you face each obstacle, gameplay is rescued from getting repetitive.

There are points where you can’t really escape the feel that you are really doing the same thing over and over again. But we’re talking about a game based on the concept of repeating the same day indefinitely. When you die, you really have to redo all the progress you made in the previous loop.

Fia's room
Nice.

The other side of the coin

Deathloop also has Multiplayer elements, although it is entirely PvP. Playing as Julianna, you can enter the game of a random person who’s playing as Colt and kill them. This is the only way to unlock different outfits for your characters, although it is recommended to do so after finishing the campaign with Colt, to avoid spoilers. As Colt, not all encounters with Julianna will be other players. More often than not, you’ll be fighting against the CPU. And when you’re going up against other players, it’s quite obvious. The biggest problem I encountered playing as Julianna is the connection. Deathloop uses a peer-to-peer connection, and that’s not the best experience. It does add an interesting dynamic to the game, although I suspect that most people won’t even bother with this mode.

Audio and music

Dialogue is on-point

The voice acting in this game is truly something. The two protagonists are greatly embodied by Jason Kelley and Ozioma Akagha respectively. You’ll never get tired of them constantly taunting one another. Every time you enter a district, Julianna will call you up to make fun of you. There’s some top tier banter for you to enjoy. The dialogues are so well written that they sound natural, something we rarely see in a video game. Colt’s little inner monologues every time you find a new clue are sharply written, and sound like something you’d think to yourself. And they’re just as expressive. The other characters are equally well voiced. Through the audio logs you find scattered around Blackreef, you learn a lot about the backstory. Some of them are very emotionally charged: that’s where the voice actors excel.

Never a dull moment indeed
Never a dull moment indeed.

Eternalists also talk constantly. They have these nervous and at the same time awkward dialogues with each other, which add intensity. Bizarrely enough, I noticed that no matter how far they are from your character, their voices always sound like they’re standing next to you. It’s not clear if this is due to a mixing error or it’s just the 3D Audio of the PS5, but it could be fixed in a patch.

Jazzy gunfights

The soundtrack is also awesome. It has this jazzy vibe that fits perfectly with the aesthetics and art style of the game. And who the hell doesn’t like jazz? The combat theme is truly a feast for your ears. It is of course accompanied by the corresponding sound cues, so that you can tell when the last enemy falls. As you walk around the environment there is relaxing music, with some artifacting thrown in, reminiscent of Remedy’s Control. Ambient sound is also used wisely, especially in tense situations.

Passive-aggressive writing on the wall
Passive-aggressiveness at its finest

Sound effects and DualSense go hand in hand

Pretty much what you read. On the PS5 these two components are now inextricably linked. It’s nice to see more and more games adopting Sony’s haptic feedback engine. Okay, the integration may not be as seamless as in the first-party titles (especially in Ghost of Tsushima and Miles Morales), but it’s definitely one step above the traditional haptic feedback.

The guns sound real nice as the controller vibrates in your hands. Those woosh-es that slab make when you use them is really addictive to hear, and they act properly as audio identifiers. The sounds change depending on the area you’re in, with the echo being represented very well. This is especially evident in the voices. When Colt is in the tunnels, he sounds very different from outdoors. Similarly, if you shoot a shotgun in a narrow aisle, your headphones will make a very different sound than if you were shooting outdoors. Spatial audio done right.

Verdict

Deathloop is one of those games that go straight in the love it or hate it category. Arkane has made some interesting choices regarding the design of the game. The art style and graphic presentation are on a completely different level, with the game clearly having its own artistic style. Then, the plot looks like out of a Nolan movie, full of twists and turns that will have you going with the flow, even if it doesn’t make sense at times. The gameplay gives you a lot of freedom in how you deal with every situation, but the narrative of the game prevents it from having great variety.

Pop-art styled cutscene

But mostly Deathloop will catch your attention for its impressive style, its apt humor and the plot that will have you messing up your sleep schedule just to find out what happens next. The gameplay is just what makes the grind from one plot point to the next enjoyable. This is one of the few games where I just hoped that there would be more after each objective I completed. Is it flawless? Definitely not. Bottom line is, however, that Deathloop is a very fresh FPS, in a release period where all the upcoming titles of the genre seem too much like they’re coming off of the same, risk-free, production line.

Huge thanks to Bethesda Netherlands for providing the review copy we used.