Deathloop Brings A New Definition To Deja Vu

If you have ever seen Groundhog Day and played Dishonored then you already have a good understanding of the core premise of Arkane Studios’ newest title, DEATHLOOP. The studio has been on a stride, releasing a series of well-received titles since 2012’s Dishonored. DEATHLOOP is a brand new IP, taking the formula they’re clearly comfortable with and applying it to a new setting while icing the experience with layers of unique mechanics.

When you boot up DEATHLOOP your first choice will be to either “Break the Loop” or “Protect the Loop”. These choices are more easily understood as the “campaign” and a multiplayer-like mode (more on that later). “Breaking the Loop” puts you in the shoes of Colt Vahn, a man with a mysterious past (one that he doesn’t even know) – whose only burning desire is to end the time loop he is stuck in. “Protect the Loop” lets you play as Julianna Blake, an assassin whose only goal is to kill Colt Vahn. When you select “Protect the Loop”, you will be invading other players’ campaign experiences, attempting to prevent their progress.

The entire game’s premise centers around a time loop of a single day. There are four sprawling locations on the island – and four times of the day to explore: morning, noon, afternoon, and night. Each location’s geography is static, but what is in them at each time of day can drastically change. Some targets might only be available near the town in the morning, for example. Without spoiling much about the plot, Colt’s primary objective is to eliminate eight targets within a single day. If you die or complete a day, you lose any weapons, upgrades, items, and resources you have accumulated throughout the day. However, you can spend resources to make items, weapons, upgrades, and powers permanently available through subsequent loops.

Julianna will occasionally attempt to stop you, jumping into the level to hunt you down. She serves as a difficult boss caliber enemy who can severely upend your plans if she shows up at the wrong time. As mentioned above, this hazard can be another player. But, you can also turn off the online functionality if you so choose. Julianna can still invade you, but she will be controlled by an AI instead.

The core gameplay mechanics feel remarkably similar to the series Arkane Studios is most well-known for at this point: Dishonored. The shooting, stealth, and powers are all almost identical – with a few twists to how some powers can be upgraded to give them a unique feel. If anything, some of the mechanics have been simplified from Dishonored 2. There is no longer a “non-lethal” option to take out enemies and enemy bodies disappear for reasons I don’t think the game does a great job of explaining why. Nevertheless, I think the designers intended to make the gameplay faster-paced. When you have several upgraded powers and weapons permanently within your arsenal, the game mostly flows very quickly between stealth and combat. The game does a good job of giving you the tools to improvise plans on the fly and feel cool executing those plans.

That said, the game is not without some flaws. I don’t want to get into the weeds comparing DEATHLOOP to Dishonored 2, but I can’t help but feel like the quality of AI has degraded. The first couple hours of DEATHLOOP were incredibly tense: the lack of quality weapons, upgrades, and powers coupled with enemy AI of untested limitations. However, as I unlocked powerful weapons and observed how the AI behaved in several interactions, the intensity plummeted fairly quickly. DEATHLOOP by no means has “poor” AI, but they can be very easily manipulated and they often do not react to obvious events around them. I’ve observed several cases in which groups of enemies did not react at all to one of their allies being blasted away by a shotgun only about 15-20 feet away. Once you hit your stride towards the end of the game, it gets a little too easy. Likewise, Arkane has always excelled at compelling map design with many choices. DEATHLOOP is no different, with each location on the island being a playground of opportunities. Yet, nothing in DEATHLOOP compares to the amazing creativity of Dishonored 2’s level design.

DEATHLOOP‘s presentation is phenomenal. It has a lot of advanced visuals – mostly in the realm of lighting. The texture work can be a little flat at times, but I think it fits the funky 60’s style Arkane is going for. They nail that 60’s aesthetic, from the aging Soviet military bases to the bright multi-colored vibe of the Eternalists and their locations. The music is likewise pretty stellar – a great mix of stealthy 60’s espionage that transitions into thrilling combat music on the fly.

The story is good, but its resolution is a bit disappointing given the extremely good pacing in which they spoonfeed the player information about the world. The central mysteries are interesting and compelling, and I found myself engaged with the primary mode of progression through the game: information. Yeah, you can spend resources to make weapons and powers stick with you through subsequent loops, and that is important, but discovering important information is the key to progressing through the game. That is where it shines – the more free-flowing nature of how you can choose to progress through the narrative. The beginning is linear, but eventually, you get the choice of how to uncover relevant information on how to manipulate and kill individual targets. Some of your manipulations can stick through loops in interesting and clever ways. It all builds up to a phenomenal payoff of a “final level” if you can call it that – a single day in which you pull off killing all eight targets within the same day. Also, it’s interesting that some of the game’s most important plot twists can be encountered basically whenever you come across them – so one players’ perspective on the narrative can be very different from another’s. However, again, once you get through that final day and you get to the branch of three endings – I can’t help but feel it ends a bit abruptly. Likewise, some of the reveals about characters and the game world’s lore are a bit lackluster compared to the buildup throughout the game.

DEATHLOOP is a great game, but it could have been incredible. It does take some very interesting ideas and applies them to a working framework Arkane is comfortable with – Dishonored with time travel elements. It would be a disservice to call it just that – because truly they do implement many gameplay mechanics unique to Arkane games. However, the game’s primary mechanics are ones that already exist in popular games – the invasion of players’ campaigns is from Dark Souls, the repeating time-loop has been done several times (but notably in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask), and the loss of progress unless you spend resources is akin to several popular rogue-like games. It isn’t quite fair to ding DEATHLOOP for borrowing these elements from other games, because these gameplay mechanics have never been all mixed with a Dishonored-style game as a basis. That said, the game had the potential to truly be incredible if it could just address a few things – some lackluster story reveals, a more even difficulty throughout, and better AI. Also, it just needs a thread to tie all of these various time-inspired mechanics together to make a truly unique experience. Overall, it’s great but I hope Arkane can improve on its formula in the inevitable sequel.