Review of “Deathloop” (Arkane Studios, 2021)

Written by: Anthony Bussing

As much as I wanted “Deathloop” to be the culmination of all things Arkane, I’m quite disappointed that while the sugar and spice in the kitchen are new, it’s the same old meat.  The story of “Deathloop” develops as the player explicitly learns how to complete a series of intersectional objectives throughout the cycle of a day, however lacks a severely implied amount of player choices and is executed in relatively out-dated mechanics. Despite not meeting veteran expectations though, it’s still a comedically fun first-person shooter.

Past Arkane Studios games, particularly the “Dishonored” series, have established a reputation in the genres of immersive stealth simulations for their player agencies of espionage, stylistic appearances, riveting storytelling and consequent systems of player choice(s). The “Dishonored” games contain a list of achievable endings, each manifested by a player slowly throughout a combination of large and small decisions across an entire playthrough. “Deathloop” though has a strictly linear system of consequences and the only choices provided to the player are through a quick time event — a cutscene where the player is timely prompted to press button(s) throughout —  in the final sequences of the game. 

As a game that part of its experiential merit is in discovering the mystery of the game’s story, “Deathloop” seems to reward obedience more than it rewards cleverness and problem-solving. 

Without spoiling anything relevant to the mystery of the story, “Deathloop” tasks the player with assassinating eight “visionary” targets, otherwise is heavily focused on the player preparing an informational arsenal on the targets before engaging. Players are able to explore between four locations on the fictional island of Black Reef throughout four consecutively separate times of day that alter the environment settings. At the end of the day the island and its residents “loop,” and the player must restart their pursuit, though retaining their informational arsenal across loops, granting indefinite progress. Arsenal loadouts may also be preserved across loops by purchasing found items. The mission of the player, Colt, is to break this loop, and progress is developed by acquiring instructions from a particular source and facilitating consequent actions at a specific time and place, with the exception that the entirety of the mission can only be completed in a single loop cycle.

This repetitive twist on the stealth genre rewards individual player knowledge of things like enemy movement paths, optimal routing, informed arsenal loadouts and more, so it’s very much welcome to the family of Arkane stealth games.

In “Deathloop,” the eighth visionary who invades the player while they hunt the prerequisite seven, Julianna, can be controlled by another, online player. I loved the idea of this more than I loved the execution and turned off this optional mechanic without hesitation after testing it, though.

Guns, movement, abilities, and the game’s “trinket” system of player and weapon modifications are all recognizable conventions seen — and perfected — in past Arkane games, so like usual, nothing particularly new here, but that’s the problem with the game. The story itself is distinguishable from other Arkane Studios’ games, but the faster arcade-pace to “Deathloop” doesn’t entirely feel comfortable on slow paced stealth mechanics. With Julianna able to invade the player’s loop at any moment and the consequences of dying escalating to a gamer’s worst fear of losing physical progress, the gunplay certainly doesn’t hold up to player-vs-player paced situations. Though it’s worth mentioning that the game allows for satisfying cat vs. mouse style engagements on both ends of the hunt through its defensive arsenal, instead of the impatient head-on firefights that I advise avoiding, especially when playing against an online opponent.

When I wasn’t distracted by the cumbersome player mechanics I was heavily invested in the spiritual soundtrack of player character, Colt, dropping f-bombs, the patience of sneaking into laboratories and stealing safe codes, the comic relief of kicking goons off rooftops and the mystery of uncovering the “loop.” It just wasn’t an even mix though, with the slow paced mechanics getting in the way a lot of the time, I never got lost-in-the-sauce invested and wasn’t as heavily motivated to stay in Black Reef after I had a taste of the secret ingredient, mystery. 

After unlocking one ending, the process of experiencing separate endings is exactly identical, except for the instance of the final quick time event. Having unique approaches would’ve motivated me to play past any complaints about the player mechanic systems even. Arkane games haven’t previously had a focus on replayability, or “endgame” content, as consequence of being story driven games, though “Deathloop’s” absence of progress after the mystery uncovers is shockingly frustrating.  

As much as it’s oriented around past landmark mechanics, “Deathloop” dismisses that critique through its additions of new structural mechanics. The player-paced storyline, online capability and repetitive structure, while insignificant to the presence of the past landmark mechanics, still warrant this game’s individuality to a degree. Whether that degree will be influential to this conceptual “Mother of all Arkane games” I keep hoping will come out will have to wait.

I rate “Deathloop” a 7 out of 10, for executing nostalgic and debut mechanics to present an ambitious and clever story. It just feels like playing a new game on an older generation controller the way the narrative unfolds regarding the capacities of the player mechanic systems.

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