Platforms: PS5, PC
That Deathloop is dazzlingly cool is immediately evident – its hybrid aesthetic of 1960s chic meets 1970s exploitation cinema evokes a glorious mash-up of Bond villains’ secret lairs, stylish Soho nightclubs, and a direct visual link to 1967’s crime noir flick Point Blank, all fuelled by a phenomenal soundtrack merging jazz, funk, blues, and more. Quite what Deathloop actually is, though, is a bit tougher to pin down.
Play Deathloop long enough though and it clicks – it’s essentially a roguelike. Admittedly, it’s arguably the glossiest, most impressive, biggest-budget roguelike ever seen, but developer Arkane Studios’ deathly-cool timeloop thriller hits all the hallmarks of the genre.
Consider: protagonist Cole, an amnesiac assassin, finds himself caught in an endless cycle of violence where death is no escape, but where each ‘run’ may yield valuable new information or powerful new abilities to better tackle the next attempt. Like many roguelikes, all gear and powers are lost when Cole dies and the loop resets – early on at least, until you figure out a way to hold onto them across loops. Then there’s the setting. The vast and desolate Blackreef Island that Cole first wakes up on lacks the ever-shifting chambers of more traditional examples of the genre such as Hades, but instead offers areas to explore at different times of its single looping day – morning, noon, afternoon, and night – with the events, people, and facilities accessible shifting, while geography remains fixed.
Yet to entirely reduce Deathloop to a glossy roguelike would do it a grave disservice. While that is without doubt the core of its central gameplay premise, Arkane is far more ambitious than that, filling its strange new world with big ideas that massively expand its scope in terms of narrative, mechanics, and even design.
It’s all brilliantly high-concept, forcing players to think four-dimensionally about how to manipulate time.
It’s ultimately something of a detective story, with Cole piecing together his own identity and the origins of Blackreef. Secrets can be uncovered by exploring the various districts in each time period; indeed, this is frequently required – picking up a code that can only be found in the afternoon to open a safe that’s only accessible in the morning, for instance. The big mystery is how to nudge the day’s events to line up all eight of the “Visionaries” responsible for creating the timeloop to be in the same places, allowing Cole to kill them all in one run and break the loop. It’s all brilliantly high-concept, turning Deathloop’s story into a sort of piecemeal epistolary centred on Cole’s investigations, while forcing players to think four-dimensionally about how to manipulate time along the way.
Blackreef’s mysteries also include the existence of ‘Slabs’, metal totems that gift Cole powers such as short range teleportation, or telekinesis to sling objects or enemies around. Slabs are wielded by the eight Visionaries, requiring you to hunt them down to take their abilities for your own. In a clever twist though, the very timeloop they’re so proud of – one created to cheat death with a twisted form of immortality, allowing them and their Eternalist followers to live an infinity of debauched partying – allows you to kill them again and again, taking their Slabs over and over to multiply their power for yourself.
Most important though is Cole’s connection to Julianna, a rival assassin out to protect the loop. Also one of the eight Visionaries, Julianna openly mocks Cole over the island’s communications network each time he revives, helping forge a brilliantly antagonistic yet oddly personal relationship over the course of the game. The voice work of Jason E. Kelley as Cole and Ozioma Akagha as Julianna is hands down some of the best we’ve encountered in years, too.
Julianna can also invade players’ games, locking access to safehouses until she’s been dispatched, forced to restart her own timeloop – or until she kills you first. Smartly, this also serves as Arkane’s twist on online play, with players able to take on the role of Julianna to invade other people’s games. It’s not just a chance to troll others – it creates sharp moments of cat-and-mouse chases as players try to outwit each other, all while offering in-game rewards, including new costumes for each character.
For a game literally on loop, there’s an awful lot of player freedom to be found in Deathloop, from going in all-guns-blazing, to skulking around rooftops and gutting enemies with a machete from the shadows. Yet whatever your preference, the timeloop mechanic also allows the chance to experiment with approaches, knowing that you’ll have effectively infinite chances to try again if something doesn’t work. It’s the culmination of all of Arkane’s best game ideas, from Dishonored and Prey to even the over-the-top weapons and satisfyingly weighty shooting of Wolfenstein: Youngblood.
While the early hours of the game can be frustrating since you lose everything on new loops before unlocking the ability to retain upgrades, the trick is to get beyond the frustration of dying, of failing, and to see each loop as a chance to explore further and learn more about the mysteries of Blackreef. Do that, and you’ll find this is a timeloop you’ll be reluctant to break – simply as you’ll be having too much fun to want to leave.