Deathloop review: Live, die, repeat, and look good doing it
“Deathloop is a tremendously stylish stealth-action game that builds on Arkane’s strengths, even if some of its creative gambles fall flat.”
- Creative premise
- Impeccable style
- Shooting feels excellent
- Fun powers
- Lots of customization
- Obnoxious multiplayer
- Frustrating roguelite systems
- Laughable A.I.
Every time Arkane Studios makes a game, it learns something new. Its catalog is full of intriguing titles that build off of one another’s best ideas and further refine the developer’s level design strengths. Deathloop is a fitting next chapter for the studio, thematically speaking. It may be a totally new IP, but it’s not starting from scratch. It’s the product of iteration — a process that drives creativity in our favorite games.
The PS5 timed console exclusive draws a clear line through Arkane’s history. It’s a first-person shooter that dishes out boisterous action and supernatural stealth in equal measure, ala Dishonored. It’s also a time-loop game where players relive the same day over and over again, calling back to the roguelite experiments in Prey’s Mooncrash expansion. Prey itself owes a debt to Arkane’s debut Arx Fatalis (and 1994’s System Shock, if we want to go beyond Arkane’s canon), making Deathloop feel like the culmination of several development loops. Decades of trial and error come together in a well-executed package — though one that still leaves room for improvement.
Deathloop is a stylish spy thriller that delivers excellent shooting, satisfying powers, and an enthralling mystery fueled by the game’s addictive Groundhog Day premise. Though, a frustrating multiplayer mechanic and undercooked roguelite progression systems already have me thinking about how this game will inform an even tighter follow-up. The cycle never really ends, does it?
A visionary project
On paper, Deathloop can be a bit difficult to explain. It’s the latest entry in an emerging time-loop genre, which has become a bizarrely popular video game premise in recent years. Colt, a very confused and reluctant hero, wakes up in the seaside town of Blackreef, and quickly discovers that he’s stuck reliving the same day over and over again. To make matters worse, that loop involves him being hunted down by Juliana, who seems pretty pissed by whatever past Colt did who knows how many loops ago. After a quick introduction, Colt learns how to break the loop: he needs to assassinate the eight “visionaries” who created it.
That’s easier said than done, especially because Colt only has one day to pull off eight hits. The hook here is that players need to replay the same day as many times as it takes, digging up more information about each target and building a perfect murder scheme. It’s an ingenious setup that puts as much of an emphasis on intel gathering as it does on actually executing a hit. Imagine if Hitman 3 tasked players with taking down all of its villains in one domino-like go. That’s the ultimate joy of Deathloop — a dozen hours of scouting create a sleek 20-minute scheme.
Arkane has a blast building on that spy movie premise, and that’s most apparent in the game’s sense of style. Deathloop is a 60s-inspired pulp novel filled with bright colors, creative retro-future design, and comic book-like text that pops up on screen. It’s a vibrant departure from the muted browns and blues of the Dishonored series.
The cast of characters is equally colorful, with Colt especially shining as the game’s reluctant hero. He’s hapless on his first loop, but convincingly transforms into a confident mastermind by the final one. It’s a strong voice performance by Jason E. Kelley that mirrors the player’s own journey, as they slowly concoct a plan that would make Danny Ocean jealous.
When players stop to marvel at Arkane’s level design prowess, they’re effectively casing the joint. Technical admiration doubles as a key mechanic.
Aesthetics set it apart from Arkane’s previous titles, the studio’s strengths are still very much present. That’s most apparent in Blackreef’s design, which doubles down on what the studio does best. There’s always more than one way to sneak into a location, whether by tracking down a security code, mantling onto a rooftop, breaking in through a vent, etc. I’d often find myself sneaking through a building only to discover an even stealthier entry point that I’d be able to use on my next loop. When players stop to marvel at Arkane’s level design prowess, they’re effectively casing the joint. Technical admiration doubles as a key mechanic.
Action is just as strong as exploration here, which shouldn’t come as a surprise considering the studio’s pedigree. Stealth machete kills are wickedly satisfying and guns feel downright fantastic to fire. Every weapon has a real sense of power, from a nail gun that can fire off precise one-hit-kill headshots to room-clearing machine guns that feel like operating a serious power tool. While I always tried to take a stealth route, I was rarely upset when a plan went awry — just a good excuse to show Blackreef’s residents why they should be grateful I operate in the shadows.
Speaking of Colt’s foes, it must be noted that the visionaries have hired some of the dimmest muscle the video game world has to offer. Enemies are comically oblivious, which sucks some of the tension out of the stealth gameplay. I could walk up to two people having a conversation, kill one from behind, have the body fall directly into the other’s line of sight, and still seemingly not catch their attention. Call it a Bethesda tax.
Colt also gains Dishonored-like supernatural powers, which are an absolute blast to tinker with. Colt gets slabs each time he kills an enemy, which grants abilities like a teleporting bto and the ability to multiple enemies together and take them all out by killing one. What’s more, each slab can gain multiple upgrades, expanding each power’s utility. By my final loop, I was a stealth machine who could teleport behind a visionary, quietly assassinate them, turn invisible, and escape before any guard could figure out what happened. And that’s only one play style. I could just have easily equipped more aggressive slabs and taken down swarms of enemies with the literal flick of my wrist.
Action is just as strong as exploration here, which shouldn’t come as a surprise considering the studio’s pedigree.
Weapons similarly have equippable mods, but there’s a twist to all of this: players have to “infuse” items to keep them between loops. Grab enough currency and they’ll be able to permanently keep guns, slabs, and mods … otherwise, they’ll lose it all come morning. It’s a roguelite mechanic that encourages players to explore Blackreef instead of simply following objective markers, but it can lead to some frustration. I struggled to obtain the game’s telekinesis power, only permanently locking it down on my penultimate loop. While the system makes sense for mods that drop at random when downing an enemy, it’s annoying to work through a story beat for a special gun or power only to make it back to base and not have the cash to keep it.
The roguelite dynamics can feel a little underdeveloped at times, though Arkane is careful not to make them too overwhelming. Colt gets three lives each time he enters a new area or jumps ahead in the day, so players can experiment, die, and try again without wasting a run. Deathloop encourages players to get themselves into a bad situation and test the limits of their power. When that goes horribly wrong, there’s always an opportunity to try plan B.
Disrupting the loop
The experimentation mechanics are appropriate because there’s a sense that Arkane is throwing ideas against the wall and seeing what sticks with Deathloop. Some of those ideas really land, as is the case with the game’s stylistic choices. But others aren’t quite so successful.
That takes us to Deathloop’s bizarre multiplayer component, which is sure to be the game’s most polarizing aspect. At any time, players can choose to play as Colt’s rival Juliana and “protect the loop.” When doing that, a player can literally invade someone else’s game (friend or random stranger) and try to kill them. A similar mechanic appears in some of the Souls games, though it’s a baffling addition here.
For one, the game never offers a good reason to play as Juliana. There’s little ambiguity about whether or not the loop is good or bad, so there’s no real narrative motivation to stop Colt. It’s purely a griefing tool that encourages players to sabotage a real person’s single-player experience for laughs and rewards that don’t carry over to Colt.
Playing as Juliana isn’t particularly fun either. The only core difference between her and Colt is that she can disguise herself as NPCs to trick players. I spent a lot of time aimlessly running circles around the map for minutes at a time just to try and find Colt. Once I did, we’d have a gunfight that lasted seconds. On top of that, I found it difficult to actually get into a friend’s game at all, since there are rules (mercifully) about how many times a player can be invaded per cycle. My friend kept showing up as “unavailable” even when playing an invader-free game. It hardly seemed worth all the fuss.
From the Colt side, Juliana invasions are aggravating. In one run, I broke into a house and spent 10 minutes carefully stealthing my way past cameras and guards. Suddenly, a message popped up on-screen letting me know Juliana was on the hunt. Within a minute, she burst into the room and started throwing grenades, destroying my plan. It was kind of funny the first time … and then it happened again. And again after that. To make matters worse, Juliana “locks” the level’s exits whenever she enters, meaning that Colt has to go to a location and manually unlock them before he can leave. Why would I want to put another player through this, let alone experience it myself?
It’s purely a griefing tool that encourages players to sabotage a real person’s single-player experience for laughs or minor rewards.
It doesn’t help that the mode feels ripe for manipulation. In testing it with a friend, I got some quick kills on Colt and a ridiculous amount of experience for doing it. In one game, I unlocked dozens of items, including high-tier guns and mods. It would only take a few runs like that to get Juliana to an overpowered state and wreck havoc on strangers.
There’s no way to opt out of it either. Switch to offline mode and the game just throws a computer-controlled saboteur in at random. I was only able to avoid the mechanic by switching to Friends Only mode (since I was playing an early copy, I didn’t have friends that could pop in). It just winds up feeling like a forced system designed to add arbitrary replay value to the mix.
It’s a frustrating idea, though it’s hard to be too upset. Arkane has always been known for single-player experiences and it’s clear that the studio wants to expand its toolset here. The mode is a somewhat failed experiment, but I can see a first draft of something better in it. In 10 years, I wouldn’t be surprised to find myself writing a review of a new Arkane game that expands on the ideas of Deathloop, just as I’m writing about how Detahloop expands on Dishonored here.
And the loop continues.
Deathloop isn’t afraid to take experimental swings, and many of them pay off. It’s a stylish action game that’s entertaining in every gear. Players never have to choose between stealthily exploration and hectic shootouts; they’re encouraged to tackle a situation in as many ways as they can think of to concoct a perfect crime. It’s less successful when it comes to its forced multiplayer component, though it’s hard to blame Arkane Studios for trying something new. You don’t get innovation without iteration.
Is there a better alternative?
Dishonored 2 is ultimately a little more consistent, even if Deathloop creatively outclasses it. Hitman 3 is also a killer option for those who want a pure stealth game.
How long will it last?
It takes around 10-15 hours to beat, depending on how long one spends exploring side leads. Multiplayer extends the playtime, though it’s hard to imagine many people getting too into that side of it.
Should you buy it?
Yes. Even with its uneven creative gambles, Deathloop is a confident stealth-action game with an excellent sense of style.