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As I surveyed the mustard coloured dance floor, my target swung his shoulders and gyrated his hips to the music. Totally out of time. For a good few seconds, I was hypnotised by his flailing. Following him with my eyes from corner to corner like a cat follows a bird. I lined up my sights and waited for him to wiggle back.
Shrouding myself with an invisibility power I'd looted from his frenemy, I dashed out of the door and onto the snowy balcony as his guests screamed and scattered in panic, trying to find his killer. This is Deathloop.
Blackreef: the year nineteen sixty... something. This is the stage wherein our story unfolds. An unpleasantly cold island located somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, a former fishing outpost now soaked in glitter, graffiti and blood. The Visionaries - hedonistic and narcissistic "experts in their field" with far too much money - are the ones who started the AEON Program, co-opting the remnant research technology on the island to ensure that time loops forever.
Check out Deathloop's stylish hack and slash combat in this snippet of gameplay below!
Thanks to the Visionaries, pesky things like doing the dishes and moral compasses are out. Destruction and disregard for life is in. Rather than relying on the flimsiness of fossil fuels, the energy powering the time loop is detached and reattached to the Visionaries themselves. Ergo, if our protagonist Colt Vahn is to break the loop and restore order, he has to kill every single one of them before the sun goes down.
Colt himself has access to the four zones of Blackreef - The Complex, Karl's Bay, Updaam and Fristad Rock - through a network of tunnels. As the day progresses, the player will return to the hideout, refer to their accumulated notes on his targets, select from their arsenal of guns and powers, and go on the prowl. Different things will be happening at different times, yet an action in the morning might have considerable impact on the events of the evening.
Ah, it sounds so straightforward when I say it like that. Deathloop is a game that will challenge you and humble you in one fell swoop. For the swiftest path to success, you'll need to know these Visionaries inside out (occasionally literally) and the streets of Blackreef like the back of your hand.
That means a lot of digging through drawers, waiting and watching for a crucial conversation to play out, eyeballing every scrap of paper, and pressing big red buttons to see what snaps. And there are floating glowing words that tempt you into action, advise you to stalk your prey quietly, or let loose with a bunch of insults and expletives against the inhabitants of the island. The sheer volume of writing that has gone into Deathloop is incredible, and it's so very appreciated that the game sorts these scraps by Visionary, location, and time of day. However, it isn't half like shovelling snow while it's still snowing.
A couple of times I had stumbled upon something important, but hadn't twigged that this was my new objective and not a wee bit of world-building, because the game didn't signal this to me. Was I not paying enough attention? No, ask anyone - I'm always absorbed by an Arkane game. Deathloop would have benefitted from some sort of colour-coding or a response or comment from Colt to tell the player, "Hey, good going, that's something important you found there."
Again, I appreciate that wrangling this level of writing into a non-linear game with lots of options for the player is no mean feat. And, the moments when your plan does pull together feel ever so cool. I'd argue getting three Visionaries to turn up at a party together trumps whatever rush the first person who killed two birds with one stone felt.
Influences like Tarantino movies, James Bond, and the Avengers pop and punch their way through the screen, as hefty guns that have "BLAM!" written on their barrels make short work of the goons. The soundtrack is so choice, too, kicking up a gear and a half when things get hairy. But, it's the supernatural powers that anchors the gaudy and shocking '60s aesthetics with a darkness that you're sure to find in an Arkane game.
Shift is very like Blink from Dishonored, Nexus is very like Domino from Dishonored, even the upgrades to these powers are very like the Bonecharms from Arkane's original assassin sim. Here's the thing, though. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Reusing these likely allowed Arkane to spend time on other exciting things that I'm not going to spoil here. Moreover, unlike Dishonored, gone is the easy breeze save system. If you mess up and bring Eternalists down onto your position like hungry dogs to a cheesesteak, you will die. And it will be embarrassing.
Fortunately, everything loops back to the start of the day anyway, and our guy Colt is a pleasure to travel with. Voiced by Jason Kelley, Colt is initially bemused by Blackreef, but as he gets acquainted with his enemies, a sarcastic yet optimistic personality comes to the fore. Julianna, the Visionary who is dead set on protecting the loop, speaks to him through a radio they share and her voice actually emerges from the DualSense's speaker. "Speaks to" is a little light here, actually. She berates, compliments, chats, ridicules, challenges, rants, and jokes with him. Whenever she got an especially scorching burn into their conversation, I silently cheered. Not a spoiler, but I was silently cheering a lot.
The dynamic between the two is underpinned by the fact that Julianna may pop up in one of the four zones of Blackreef, taking matters into her own hands to kill Colt there and then. This is an open invitation to anyone who's planning to play Deathloop - please let me jump in your game and murder you. The sneaky cat and mouse situation that Deathloop sets up is certainly aimed for players, not AI, to challenge each other in a deadly duel.
So, when Deathloop works, it really works. Whether you're sticking to the sidelines setting up trip mines or pelting through the streets shoving baddies back with telekinesis, the story of why, when and how you are stuck here solidifies like a shattered vase bouncing backwards through time before the fateful blow struck it.
However, there's a segment of the early game that feels like you're trying to form a sonnet from words on a fridge in a language you haven't learned yet. And, the cool factor becomes tepid when an Eternalist is trapped on a wall spinning their arms above their head, or someone on the floor below Colt somehow hears the stealthy kill and tells all of their mates. Even one of my encounters with a Visionary was spoiled when he had no interest in killing Colt at all. Dude, the bodies have hit the floor. Literally.
Glitches like these will be ironed out with a patch, luckily, and Deathloop is definitely for the gamers who rootle around for the secrets in games. Here, though, every scrap of paper and scoop weakens the chains that keep Blackreef suspended in time. As your experience grows of the ins and outs of the island, you'll maximise the hours you have and become a force unto yourself, shuffling Eternalists off their mortal coil in creative ways. All of this feels fantastic, so hats off to Arkane for setting themselves and the players an exciting, rewarding, and ambitious challenge that they won't forget.
Pros: Awesome art and sound direction, Colt and Julianna, combinations of guns and powers makes you feel very cool
Cons: A lot to keep track of, glitches
For fans of: Dishonored, Prey, Hitman
Deathloop is available September 14 for PC and PlayStation 5 (version tested). Code for review was supplied by the publisher. Find a guide to GAMINGbible's review scores here.