Games

Slick But Gimmicky Shooter From Arkane

Video games are inescapably intertwined with iteration and do-overs. It’s written into the technology that builds them, the development practices that craft them, and often the very rules governing how they work: win-lose, trial and error. Some games have tried to mask this artifice in the service of more naturalistic storytelling. Deathloop embraces it. Up to a point.

Dying fuels its story and propels its fun. Not to a satisfying conclusion, but one I couldn’t turn away from. Like its tragic hero, Colt Vahn, I also wanted to break the loop, if not so I could escape the purgatory of 1960s pastiche, then at least so I could put the game down, content in the knowledge that I had exhausted most of its possibilities. What felt like a blank canvas at first turned out to be a paint-by-numbers one, and the image eventually revealed felt like one I’d seen plenty of times before. Deathloop’s fundamentals are so strong. I wish the rest of the game was too.

Arkane Studios’ latest immersive murder sim plays like its predecessors but with an important new twist: you’re trapped on a mysterious island in a repeating 24-hour time loop. Colt was originally chief security officer for the AEON Program, a group of eccentric societal elites who call themselves Visionaries and command a cult-like army of masked lackeys called Eternalists. They took over the island of Blackreef to leverage its anomaly for the shallow immortality of the time loop, and now Colt has betrayed them because he wants out. Julianna Blake, the only other Visionary whose memories carry over day to day, wants to stay, so she spends every day trying to hunt him down. The setup is high-society James Bond meets the paranoia of The Prisoner with A Clockwork Orange’s hyper-violent menace coursing throughout, which is to say an excellent premise for a video game as long as you don’t think about it for too long.

A building in Updaam with the word "Loop" written on it.

Screenshot: Bethesda / Kotaku

Voiced by Jason E. Kelley and Ozioma Akagha respectively, Colt and Julianna are the heart anchoring Deathloop’s heady conceit. In between bouts of killing each other they joke, they curse, and occasionally they make themselves movingly vulnerable with one another. They’re two of Arkane’s best characters ever, elevated by two of the most memorable game performances in recent years, and aided by one of the period’s least cringy video game scripts to boot. Where other games might have veered into a ditch of grim melodrama, Deathloop swerves, holding just enough back to preserve the independence and richness of its leads.

To escape eternity, Colt needs to kill the AEON Program’s eight remaining leaders, some of whom have gained strange powers thanks to the anomaly powering the loop. Unlike Arkane’s previous Dishonored trilogy, in which assassinations typically play out sequentially, Colt’s project requires learning about his targets’ routines and uncovering their secrets until he can come up with a way to murder them all in one day.

It can be exhilarating, even daunting, but Deathloop is not as ambiguous or free-flowing as it first appears. There are four separate, sprawling levels which can each be played at four different times of day. Each time you complete one, time moves forward a notch. When you die, the day resets. When you survive, the day resets. The result is 16 slightly different levels you can scour for clues and objectives on repeat, until you acquire enough information to execute the murder spree that will take out all your targets in one fell swoop.

This information sticks with you loop after loop, and while there’s not a strict order of events for accumulating it, once acquired, its applications are disappointingly linear. There is only one order in which you can kill everyone, and if you leave the objective markers on, the game will methodically funnel you toward the one true way to break the loop. The game had a plan and it made me stick to it. The time loop doesn’t create new possibilities. It just jumbles up the old ones.

Deathloop gets going for real a few hours in, after a convoluted opening that mercilessly bombards you with explanations and on-screen tutorial prompts. At this point you earn the ability to infuse guns, upgrades, and powers, called Slabs, so you can carry them over as part of your loadout from one loop to the next. Absorbing glowy psychedelic material from random objects and dead Visionaries nets you Residuum, a resource which you can then spend on building out your arsenal.

At times it’s like playing a full-fledged loot shooter, albeit one that feels cleaner and more tactile than the convoluted transactional experiences that label usually conjures up. Intricately rendered guns pop and vibrate with an intense, distinct recoil when fired, occasionally jamming when you’re in the middle of getting killed, each suspenseful click and clack of the hot metal pleasingly relayed by the haptic feedback of the PS5’s Dualsense. Arkane worked with Machine Games on Wolfenstein: Youngblood and that series’ weighty and pristine shooting has been admirably recreated in Deathloop.

Less thrilling is what Deathloop has borrowed from loot shooters to pad out its progression. It has random drops. It has colors to denote rarity. It even has epic loot you get from dedicated side-quests. There are no stat sheets but guns do roll with special perks. The Rapier scout rifle can drop with a buffed zoom or with shorter range and quicker reloads. A vampiric submachine gun will restore some of your health every time you deal damage. And then there’s my favorite: a hand cannon with bullets that spawn poisonous clouds of flammable gas, blowing up mobs of squishy Eternalists in just a few shots. Each gun can equip extra perks called Trinkets as well, with higher rarity weapons granting more slots.

There is no skill tree, but Colt can equip a range of Slabs and personal upgrades once they’re acquired. Your first Slab, which stays equipped at all times, is Reprise, which revives you twice per level. Others include familiar Arkane abilities like double-jumps and the teleporational Blink (called “Shift” here). There’s also Aether which lets you turn almost completely invisible, and of course the endlessly gratifying Karnesis with which you can toss enemies off their feet and through the air and, with the right upgrade, make them explode like a grenade when they hit the ground again. I wanted there to be more of these powers (there are only five Slabs in total) or at least the ability to equip more than two at a time (I could never bring myself to unequip Shift). Having my loadout limited in this way didn’t inspire more targeted strategies; it just left me constantly pining for all the Slabs I’d chosen to leave behind that time around.

You get these powers and upgrades by killing Visionaries over and over again until they drop, which isn’t the worst thing in the world, but also isn’t nearly as interesting as a bunch of other things I could imagine doing in Blackreef. And this is one of the places Deathloop’s cherry-picking from other genres gets in the way of what Arkane games do best. There are surprisingly few permutations to this grind, since the most efficient way of going about it often includes Shifting to the Visionary’s location, killing everyone in the vicinity, and then Shifting back to the exit as quickly as possible. This sort of grunt work is standard fare for the looter shooter but feels at odds with the bespoke environments Arkane has gone to such lengths to construct. As fun as Deathloop’s shooting is, I wish its randomized progression had been built around the information you’re after rather than whether a gun is blue, purple, or gold.

Two guns being aimed at a woman standing over a mural on the floor.

Screenshot: Bethesda / Kotaku

Charlie Montague’s LARP in Updaam is a good example of how each level’s interesting edges get sanded off by repetition. Charlie owns the Slab that enables Shift, the most integral power in the game, and I’ve spent hours mugging this narcissistic programmer to complete my collection of teleportation abilities. The first time I approached his haunted house-like facility, I did so timidly, unsure of what I’d find there and cautious of jeopardizing my latest run with an untimely reset.

A cheeky computer called 2-BIT running off of a part of Charlie’s brain narrates the journey. “New player. Hi! Your character is: [THE INVADER]. A arousing choice!” it says near the start. (I am not aroused but I am in love: 2-BIT is far and away Deathloop’s best NPC). More acerbic dialogue follows as you make your way through a Lost In Space-style movie set, with Eternalists lumbering around every corner. Your prize is buried in the heart of the makeshift maze on the third floor.

Before I had the Shift power, I tried to methodically sneak up through each layer of the charade before eventually getting the jump on Charlie and then escaping out the back. It was difficult and riveting, combining the stakes of a low-health stealth game with a candy bag of grenades and machine guns for when the shit hit the fan.

I’ve been back a half dozen times since, scaling the outside of the building, disabling trip-wire explosives, grabbing the bounty and tearing back out again without taking a second look. The excitement of the first successful run has now been crowded out by the drudgery of all the others, from scared, to overpowered, to yawning between clocking in and back out again. There is a way to kill Charlie by launching the real rocket attached to his game in the center of the facility, but you can’t get the passcode to do so until much later, and by then it feels anticlimactic.

As a narrative device the loop has had its intended effect. I wanted out, just like Colt. But from a gameplay perspective it left me feeling like I’d just chugged an expensive bottle of wine. Long before you escape the loop you’ve already overcome its core dangers and complications by infusing powerful guns and Slabs. You might have to redo a level—Deathloop only autosaves in-between them—but you haven’t really lost progress, just your time. These do-overs quickly begin feeling less like opportunities to experiment than temporary reboots to the overarching grind. Deathloop’s second half is still a fun power trip, but by then its loop mechanic feels perfunctory at best.

Julianna is the one wrinkle to this. While you’re off hunting other Visionaries, she can randomly appear in levels and hunt you, setting up a radar beacon that locks the exits to your tunnels until you hack them. It’s terrifying early on. And also lucrative. Successfully killing Julianna will get you a big haul of Residuum, guns, and sometimes a Slab upgrade. It would be an ingenious wrinkle by itself, but Deathloop’s multiplayer transforms it into something more.

A machine gun aimed down the sights at someone holding a knight wearing a harlequin mask.

Screenshot: Bethesda / Kotaku

Play online and when Julianna invades she’s controlled by another player, a big upgrade over the game’s predictable enemy AI. It’s a novel approach to raising the late-game stakes, and probably Deathloop’s most important contribution to all of the genre sandboxes it’s playing in. At least when it’s not sabotaged by lag, crashes, or other bugs. Julianna has a whole upgrade path of her own, unlocking better weapons and powers the more you successfully “protect the loop” from strangers playing as Colt. It’s not as seamlessly integrated into the main campaign’s progression, or rewarding enough, to keep on when you want to finish the game for real, but it’s the first new multiplayer mode in a while that I’ve found myself going back to again and again. It’s excellent, even if it’s not ultimately enough to save Deathloop from itself.

The allure of Dishonored, Deus Ex, and other immersive sims, is being dropped into a strange place and then being left to your own devices, deploying a small arsenal of weapons, tools, and powers to navigate it. When done well, it feels like being a teenager dropped off at the mall with no responsibilities and a lot of pocket change. It feels like you could do anything, even if you’re probably just gonna buy a soda and some pizza and annoy the rentacops for a couple hours. Simply having a few options at your fingertips and no one looking over your shoulder transforms limited possibilities into an intoxicating sense of boundlessness.

Despite sprawling levels and a lack of consequences, Deathloop rarely feels so freeing. Colt’s hideout, a series of underground tunnels that let him traverse the island stealthily and at will, is home to a corkboard overflowing with his targets’ schedules, connections, and secrets, mapped out with zigzagging strands of red string. In the game’s clues menu, however, these messy intersections are carefully laid out in neat, approachable sequences. Deathloop’s biggest revelation ends up having nothing to do with its world building or characters. Instead, it’s the equivalent of turning around at the mall and realizing your parents were spying on you the entire time.

Graffiti reading "Forever Young," "Food Sucks," "Freedom is a trap," and "Eternally yours Eternalist," painted on inside of a building.

Screenshot: Bethesda / Kotaku

The island is home to gorgeous playgrounds bustling with an impressive level of detail, places that elevate killing to an art form that can be as creative as it is destructive. But I never fell under Blackreef’s spell the way I have Arkane’s previous worlds. It does indeed feel like the studio dropped some of Frank Loyd Wright’s houses onto one of the Faroe islands, inspirations Arkane has referenced in interviews. It dazzles, and some of the juxtapositions are stunning, but it occasionally feels more like exploring a billionaire’s Airbnb than slinking through the shadows of the postwar era’s burgeoning cultural revolution.

Deathloop is a deeply kinetic game where everything feels at its best and most satisfying when you’re on the move, teleporting around cover and force-pushing people off rooftops. And as repetitious as it can be, the act of moving, shooting, and engineering the slaughter of dozens of costumed enemies is so exquisitely tuned that the mischief never loses its lively spark.

Beneath its stylish mid-century modern decor and abandoned military installation intrigue, however, Deathloop can be a grindy and all too familiar affair. Its constituent parts are mostly excellent, but never cohere into something more than just a good shooter with a clever premise. This doesn’t stop it from being a good game, but it could have been a much more surprising one.

https://kotaku.com/deathloop-the-kotaku-review-1847725473

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