October 22, 2021

Deathloop hands-on: a mystery wrapped in a shooter – The Verge

Arkane Studios is best known for its immersive sims, games like Prey and Dishonored that emphasize player choice to create uniquely open-ended action. The developer’s latest, Deathloop, definitely follows in that lineage. It has lots of weapons to experiment with, special powers that can change how you approach a problem, and missions where there are invariably multiple ways to proceed. The difference is that it takes that formula and mashes it together with a time-traveling mystery. It’s still a thrilling action game that forces you to make decisions. But it’s also a game where uncovering clues and following leads are as important as shooting. Sometimes, you’ll actually want to die and start over.

I’ve been able to play through the first few hours of Deathloop, and I’m only finally starting to understand just how well those two halves can fit together — but it’s been a lot of fun to figure it out.

Deathloop puts you in the role of Colt, a man who washes up on the beach of a strange island where, he eventually learns, the residents live the same day over and over again. And most of them, like the homicidal leader Julianna, even enjoy it. Initially, you’re just trying to get your bearings. The game throws a lot at you in the beginning. Colt will see words floating around, which appear to be notes from past iterations of himself, warning of danger or highlighting specific paths. He also has Julianna yelling in his ear pretty much constantly, and she seems pretty unreliable — at least whenever she stops threatening Colt. I found myself almost overwhelmed by information at first, especially since it’s often thrown at you in the midst of a tense action set piece. Colt mirrored my feelings; he was constantly yelling and swearing when something strange happened, usually remarking how he’d rather shoot bad guys instead.

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Here’s the gist, as far as I understand it so far: Colt is stuck on an island called Blackreef, which is run by a handful of “visionaries” who experience the same day on loop. Every time Colt dies, he goes back to that same beach to start the day over again. The only thing that carries over from loop to loop are his memories, which are the key to figuring out what’s going on and breaking the loop for good. The problem, though, is that everyone else on Blackreef is pro-loop, and so will kill Colt on sight for trying to end it. I’m still unclear on the hows or the whys, but that’s the basic premise.

Central to all of this are what the game calls leads: basically, information that points you in the right direction. Colt might read a note suggesting that he’ll find an important item in a particular building that will be helpful. One of the first leads, for instance, involves finding Colt’s apartment so that he can try to figure out who he is. You can read notes lying around, messages on computers, and more to pick up new leads and hints so you know what to do next. Whenever you’re following a lead, the game will point you in the right direction with an on-screen marker. Initially, you’re following a specific path, but soon enough the game opens up so that you can choose which lead to follow at any given moment.

Complicating matters further is the fact that Deathloop’s days are divided into four time periods and four island districts. Any time you move locations, time moves forward… and the districts are different depending on the time of day. For example, at one point I found the code for a safe, but I wasn’t actually able to use it safely until the morning, so I had to die and start the day all over again. It’s complicated, but the game does a good job of holding your hand just enough early on. I somehow never felt lost even though I had little idea of what was happening. I’m just at the stage where things are opening up, however, so that could change.

Confusion aside, what I love about Deathloop so far is its dedication to mystery. There are plenty of games where bits of story are hidden away in optional books and letters, that way players can choose how much they want to invest themselves in the narrative. But in Deathloop, those elements aren’t things you can miss: they’re integral to the experience. I found myself digging through every room just in case there was something helpful. Occasionally there was nothing, but I often came across useful details. And those details — whether it’s the code for a locked door or the location of an important person — often make things easier and faster the next loop you play through.

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That mystery is only made more interesting by a combination of a stylish world and extremely fun — and occasionally tense — gameplay. Blackreef is an island that feels lost to time, filled with chunky, retro-futuristic gadgets and vehicles, along with a vibe ripped right out of the 1970s. Huge pieces of strange technology loom in the background, heightening the mystery of just what this place is. The action, meanwhile, requires both experimentation and stealth. The island is absolutely teeming with people, none of whom seem to be on your side, so you can’t just go in guns blazing. (Although the gunplay is very satisfying.) I found myself mostly sneaking around in hopes of getting stealth assassinations, but as I unlocked new items and abilities, I was able to try new approaches. There’s a hackamajig — that’s the actual name — that lets you open doors or hack turrets, sometimes making it possible to avoid combat altogether. I’ve also started unlocking special powers that do everything from give you a double jump to let you revive yourself without restarting the loop.

So far the only major issue I’ve faced has to do with how Deathloop handles saves. Colt uses a series of tunnels to get from location to location, and these serve as a kind of safe house where you can check over your gear, plot your next move, and save the game. Once you leave the tunnels, you’ll go to a new district and time will move forward. But out in the world, you can’t save at all, which can be frustrating when you’re following leads that are complex with lots of moving parts that can take a while to finish. It’s especially frustrating given that Deathloop is launching on the PS5, which doesn’t have a quick resume feature. I’ve mostly been putting my console in rest mode mid-mission and crossing my fingers that it doesn’t decide to turn itself off (which has happened in the past). It’s an annoying design decision in a game that otherwise feels very thoughtful, and it’s reminiscent of the controversy around another big PS5 game, the sci-fi shooter Returnal.

From what I’ve played so far, Deathloop is a bit like if Dishonored was set on the island from Lost. That’s not something I ever thought I wanted, but I can’t wait to keep playing, even if it means risking losing a few loops.

Deathloop launches September 14th on PS5 and PC.

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