Colt Vahn is a man on a mission. And that mission is to blam, pew, and kaboom his way out of a time loop on Blackreef Island.
But the only way to break the loop is by assassinating the eight visionaries who created this mess in the first place. It’s gonna require some hard-ass armoury, some forward thinking, and a lot of meddling with the space-time continuum.
Oh, and while you’re at it, Julianna Blake is trying to kill you.
Deathloop is the much hyped first-person shooter from Arkane Studios, of Dishonoured fame. With multiple 10/10 reviews across the board, I wanted to check it out and see if it is deserving of such accolades.
While I don’t think Deathloop is a 10/10 game, it is a hell of a lot of fun. The gameplay is solid, but what really stands out is the mind-boggling narrative design, hilarious dialogue, and overall 1970s aesthetic.
What’s this Deathloop about?
Colt Vahn is an atypical hero – he’s not the sharpest tool in the shed, but he’s good at shooting things, and that’s what he’s going to do. With a myriad of wacky weapons – think a stealth nail gun, a pastel pink sniper rifle, and the kick-ass machine gun called the pepper grinder – Colt relives the same day repeatedly, trying to break the loop. For what reason, even he’s not quite sure. He’s just pissed off that the other visionaries, especially Julianna, are trying to kill him.
Julianna Blake is Colt’s opposite. She’s razor sharp, smart as a tack, and like to read, as she tells Colt often. She’ll also go down in gaming history as one of the great antagonists, keeping it real by commentating on Colt (and your) failures to break the loop. Think GLaDOS from Portal. Her goal is to protect the loop, and you can even play as Julianna in the PvP mode. More on that in a sec.
Part of the fun of Deathloop comes from tracking down these outrageous visionaries. They’re no benevolent leaders, rather a bunch of egotistical creatives and scientists stuck in a time loop together with endless resources and a desire for total world domination. Oh, and most of them hate each other.
You pursue these visionaries over four times of day – morning, noon, afternoon, and evening – through four different locations which change over each time period. It might sound like there are not a lot of maps here, but that’s sixteen different scenarios. Plus, there are a huge number of hidden places in each map, which open as you progress the story and your abilities.
What’s most impressive is the complexity of the narrative design. What seems like the simple task of killing eight visionaries over the space of a day becomes intricately more complex when you only have four time periods to do it in.
It’s a matter of uncovering clues, solving puzzles, and opening the map up. Some of these puzzles are quite ingenious and require multiple loops to complete. For example, early in the game you get access to a power station in the morning and turning on the generators here can open up new locations in the later time periods during the day.
Thinking about how all these threads come together from a narrative perspective is mind-bending, because you can progress each narrative in parallel, but actions you take tracking down one visionary affect the times and places others appear in the loop.
Is Deathloop’s gameplay any good?
Actionwise, the gameplay is fine. It feels like a standard shooter, which like most FPS is slightly difficult until you obtain better weapons. Once you get these, it’s easy to mow through a group of eternalists at a distance – but make sure you maintain your distance otherwise you might find yourself getting looped very quickly.
You can choose a stealthy approach, by sneaking up behind eternalists with your machete, or go in all guns blazing. The stealthy approach is made easier later in the game once you obtain ‘slabs’ or the visionaries’ special powers that allow you to become invisible, jump locations, or become super strong. Part of the fun of the stealth approach is hijacking weapons turrets with your hackamajig (yes, that’s what it’s called), and turning them against your enemies.
But in the end, it’s often quicker and more convenient to shoot your way through a map. The assisted aim feature makes shooting relatively easy. It’s much simpler to bottleneck villains at a door then pick them off one by one, and then retreat to restore your health. But it’s important to know where your nearest health station is – they’re not common throughout the maps, and without health you’ll find yourself dead and looped.
Deathloop deals with the frustration of roguelike games well (IDK, dying continuously, see Returnal), by giving Colt a slab that gives him three lives within a level. When you die, the first two times will loop you back about thirty seconds from where you were. This proves advantageous especially when going after the visionaries for the first time (and trust me, you’ll kill the visionaries multiple times each to complete the game), so that if you muck something up, you get looped back to a hopefully safer position. But in doing so, you’ll lose your ‘Residium’ – the thing that helps you retain weapons and trinkets over multiple loops – and need to collect it from your place of death.
Influences on Deathloop are wide and varied here. Apart from the obvious development from Dishonoured, Day of the Tentacle, Bioshock, Thief, Fallout, Portal, and 70s blacksploitation films all play a part here. It might sound like a fairly wacky combination of ideas, but it works.
Added to this is a strong meta-gaming element: Charlie Montague, the visionary and irate game designer, litters the world with games within games. You can participate in Charlie Montague’s live game experiences, including opening boxes that might explode on you, answering a quiz with no clear answers, navigating a cardboard space experience as the ‘invader’, and reading his world-weary complaints about his problems with game development. He’s meant to make this rewarding for you, but he doesn’t want to. Satirical references to Doom and Castlevania pepper the environment.
The game also commentates for you, with text popping up in the environment. Comments like ‘Walk softly. Follow the sound of bullshit’, are just some of the hints you’ll find – helpful or not. While I haven’t got to the end of Deathloop yet, I’ll be interested to see if this meta-gaming message continues throughout the story.
Why Deathloop isn’t a 10/10 game
But why isn’t Deathloop a 10/10 game if I enjoyed it so much?
Part of this has to do with gameplay, part visual design, and part PvP. The combat aspect brings nothing new – fancy weapons, a few handy powers and gadgets. In fact, while these powers from the slabs are great, swapping between them is tricky in the middle of a fight using the left arrow buttons on PS5 controllers. I found myself accidentally zooming into the middle of a fight or throwing a grenade when I meant to use the hackamajig. They may have been better off borrowing some tricks from Assassin’s Creed; pressing L1 to access a wheel of powers in real-time combat. Likewise, having the R3 button reserved for kicking ass feels like a waste, as funny as it is kicking eternalists into the void.
One of the other problems of Deathloop is the menu navigation and small font sizes. The font sizes are way too small to read when you’re sitting back on the couch about two metres from the screen. Information text boxes had me squinting to read them.
Finally, a note on PvP. The whole idea of infiltrating other players’ loops by playing as Julianna makes a lot of sense as an addition to the game. But I was waiting for several minutes to make a match with a random gamer. I’m playing on PS5 in Australian time zones the week the game has come out, but I’d expect a few more opportunities to play against others. So far, I’ve only managed to get in as Julianna twice – there are more times I’ve abandoned it waiting for players. So, protecting the loop is good in theory, but difficult in practice.
All in all, Deathloop is a hilariously brilliant game. I’ve been reflecting a lot on what games should be, and at heart, while games can be many things, their original purpose was to be entertaining. Deathloop is pure entertainment with a brilliant approach to narrative, and you’d be hard pressed to find a more fun PS5 release this year.