Game Recs

Deathloop is 2021’s most intoxicatingly frustrating game

Inverse score: 8/10

How many times have I killed Harriet?

I’ve got no idea. Dozens? Feels like hundreds. Could be thousands, because time is a stack of paper.

This is the conceit of Deathloop, Arkane Lyon’s latest foray into the action-stealth genre for publisher Bethesda Game Studios. If you are even vaguely aware of their earlier work on Dishonored then Deathloop will be familiar territory. You play as Colt, an assassin on a mission of revenge with a bevy of supernatural powers at his disposal, traipsing about ruinous wharfs and booby-trapped warehouses killing, killing, killing, while trapped in a 24-hr time loop.

Deathloop keeps a bundle of mysteries wrapped in a bloody bandage. Layer by violent layer, you uncover clues and unlock skills that push you towards the truth. You may not like what you learn, but you’ll savor snooping and shooting your way there.

Bethesda Softworks

Die, die again

It was easy to lose track of Harriet’s brutal ends. Deathloop settles you into the cycle of violence effortlessly. There’s so many options! Nailgun to the head. Lucky grenade throw. Button mashing machete frenzy. Eventually, shotgun to the head becomes the default.

I always knew where she was. I knew what she was going to do before she did it. I have lived Harriet’s last morning many, many times.

If that sounds confusing, it’s supposed to. Deathloop is a game fixated on making you squirm in your gaming comfort zones. At a glance, it’s easy to boil it all down to “Dishonored with guns.” But some key changes make this more than a franchise formula tweak.

First and foremost among the changes is the timeloop gimmick. Colt must relive the same day on Blackreef Island over and over — until he kills the eight Visionaries. They are somehow crucial to the giant time-space bending machine that makes it all possible. Harriet was among them, but she was easy.

Killing all eight on the same day requires a lot of planning — and a lot of grindy deja vu.

To make things more complicated, Deathloop has no saves. Colt has a total of three lives on each run, but there is no autosave waiting when you mishandle your teleportation power one time too many and slip into the icy sea. Instead, you simply wake up in the same spot on the beach outside Colt’s bunker and relive the day.

Bob Dylan once said “to live outside the law you must be honest,” and Deathloop is not honest. It does dumb game things like have bosses drop important loot off cliffs or through floors. In a typical game this is a momentary inconvenience. In the plodding carefulness of Deathloop, it’s an hours-long setback. The prospect of yet another do-over isn’t always inviting, since it gets tedious AF to kill Harriet for what feels like the billionth time.

Ultimately, the trade off is worth it. Sometimes it's just nice to feel something from a game, even intense betrayal and blood-boiling frustration. In these moments, Deathloop will either break you or get your attention. Save scumming would diminish a unique experience that is mostly a lot of fun, even if it does mean you get screwed.

Herding cats

So what’s fun about Deathloop? Almost everything outside the save mechanics. The combat can be a bit floaty, but the highs are high whether you’re a white-knuckled sniper or run-and-gun bulletstorm. The major abilities, called slabs, borrow heavily from Dishonored with gimmicks like the aforementioned teleport, and a power that links enemies together so killing one kills them all.

This is very much an “ain’t broke don’t fix it” situation. These mechanics are top-notch and its a joy to revisit them in a more modern, gunslingy scenario. You don’t earn experience, instead Colt absorbs an energy called Residuum from objects and enemies. These points allow him to upgrade and “infuse” weapons and items so that the inventory stays with him after he wakes up at the start of a new loop. This is as close to a progression system as you get in Deathloop and since Residuum points don’t carry over between days you can spend wildly if you survive to the end of the day.

There are also no difficulty settings (another bold choice) but guards on patrol bob and weave with natural rhythms as they move, making for harder targets. Guards on the attack have great aim and the fearlessness of people who know they’ll wake up tomorrow without memories or scars. Thankfully, Visionaries are about as vulnerable as guards, and can even be stealth killed.

This is a blessing, since you have to kill each one multiple times to earn and upgrade slabs and uncover information. They’re spread across four maps during different times of the day (morning, noon, afternoon and evening) so it’s impossible to get all eight at first. Your ultimate goal is to learn what they’re up to so you can sabotage their routines and shepherd multiple Visionaries into one place. It’s trickier than it sounds.

Bethesda Softworks

Party like it’s 1963

The investigative side of Deathloop is its strongest, and it’s buoyed greatly by the rich atmosphere Arkane Lyon has created on Blackreef Island. It’s an alternate version of 1963 where sci-fi feats like bending time into a single, eternal day are possible. The retro vibe hints at the Fallout series’ feel-good dystopian energy. Denizens of Blackreef Island are there to party their lives away and experience all manner of scintillating thrills. Unfortunately for most, this means guard duty to protect the Visionaries from Colt.

The party and playground attitude bears fruit in some deeply detailed, well-designed maps. Each Visionary is a dynamic character with big, bold ideas for what this “First Day” should be like. Some see it as an opportunity to do reckless, cutting-edge research; others want bacchanalia. You’ll find yourself in small, dense locations like sterile scientific facilities, strange arthouse exhibits, armed hide-and-seek in a funhouse and much more. There is no minimap to make things easier (seeing a pattern yet?) so learning the secrets of each district takes time.

The maps in Deathloop are dense urban and industrial environments, as opposed to sweeping vistas full of grandeur. Short sightlines are a must when you’re putting players in the same spaces over and over and over. While Deathloop doesn’t look bad by any means, this isn’t a game you can point to and say “look at what the powerful PS5 can do!” either.

Bethesda Softworks

There are multiple mystery stories at play in Deathloop beyond Colt and Juliana’s. All the Visionaries have secrets, and secrets make them vulnerable. These playfully noir-ish tales prove instrumental to the success of the overall premise. Games often struggle with impactful revelations, but Deathloop does such a superb job of bewildering and frustrating you that when the threads start to come together, it's intoxicating. You start the story with absolutely no idea what’s happening and by the end you’re damn near omnipotent. And best of all? You feel like you really earned it.

Deathloop playfully bends the rules of its genre, thanks to being steered by the steady hands of the people who helped write those rules in the first place. Action-stealth games tend toward homogeny, but Deathloop wisely forces you to play smarter — and feel smarter as a result.

A few rough edges disrupt an otherwise polished experience packed with pulpy violence, gripping mysteries, and the unluckiest Harriet you’ll ever meet.

8/10

Deathloop comes to PlayStation 5 and PC on September 14. Inverse played the PlayStation 5 version for this review.

INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: When it comes to video games, Inverse values a few qualities that other sites may not. For instance, we care about hours over money. Many new AAA games have similar costs, which is why we value the experience of playing more than price comparisons. We don’t value grinding and fetch quests as much as games that make the most out of every level. We also care about the in-game narrative more than most. If the world of a video game is rich enough to foster sociological theories about its government and character backstories, it’s a game we won’t be able to stop thinking about, no matter its price or popularity. We won’t punch down. We won’t evaluate an indie game in the same way we will evaluate a AAA game that’s produced by a team of thousands. We review games based on what’s available in our consoles at the time. And finally, we have very little tolerance for junk science. (Magic is always OK.)
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