There’s something fascinating about time travel that makes it a great concept for video games. Look at Chrono Trigger, for instance. Where else can you eat soup in prehistoric times and then head up to take part in jet bike races in the post-apocalyptic future in the same ten minutes or so? Time travel doesn’t always mean you’re going in one direction, though. That’s the point that Deathloop, the latest stealthy shooter from Arkane Studios, wants to investigate, since it might not be so great to travel through time if you’re just going around in circles.
What we’ve got here is basically an assassination-focused version of Bill Murray’s classic Groundhog Day. Our hero, Colt, wakes up every day on Blackreef, an island city and research complex that’s been locked in a time loop. Colt’s job is to break this time loop and get things back to normal…but there’s a problem. See, he’s the only person around who’s really interested in that, and everyone else has been given orders to kill him on sight. It’s a problem, particularly considering Colt’s rivalry with enemy assassin Julianna.
In order to break Blackreef’s time loop, Colt will need to assassinate the eight Visionaries – leaders and celebrities of the island whose continued existence has been tied to that of the loop. That’s another problem, considering there’s only so much time in a day. The bottom line is that Colt will have to combine stealth, gunplay and loads of planning ahead to figure out how to assassinate all eight Visionaries in a single loop cycle. Until he does, nobody’s leaving Blackreef anytime soon.
Deathloop’s closest cousin is the Dishonored series from the same developer. Much like those games, you’re tasked with seeking out targets and taking them out in whatever manner you see fit. Deathloop aims for a more open-ended sort of gameplay than what you see in Dishonored, though, as you’re initially just kind of thrown into affairs with no idea of how to get the job done. The player is as clueless as Colt himself, in other words, and as he explores the island and learns more about the locale, the Visionaries and the time loop, they’ll become better able to navigate around and begin to set up a plan.
Just hunting your targets down and taking them out isn’t going to be enough here. Instead, you’ll need to learn about the Visionaries, discover their weaknesses and figure out a way to kill them all efficiently. Deathloop is happy to offer assistance in this endeavor, automatically keeping track of leads and information that you dig up so you’re never just left in the cold.
Deathloop also differs from Dishonored in its focus on gunplay and lethality. While both Dishonored games focused on a morality system built around dealing with people non-lethally where possible, Deathloop dispenses with all that. You’re in a time loop, so it’s not like anybody’s really dying, right? Go nuts! There’s plenty of weaponry to wave around, from shotguns to rifles to machine guns, and you’re free to use them all without worrying about any effect on your karma. Along with all that, you can collect mods called Trinkets that improve Colt and his weaponry, along with Slabs that offer supernatural powers like teleportation and invisibility.
Colt himself is also subject to the time loop, of course, and upon passing away (three times, thanks to his own personal Slab) or surviving a full day he’s promptly flung back to the same morning as always. This has ramifications on your arsenal, since his gear doesn’t get to come along. Later in the game, though, it becomes possible to pick your favorite goodies and keep them around permanently – in turn allowing you to build your armory just as you’re building your base of information about the task at hand. It’s a cute touch and helps you feel like you’re always making progress.
All of that is great, but Deathloop’s got one last big twist. As mentioned, Colt’s got a rival in the Visionary Julianna. She’s just as skilled as he is, capable of using the same weapons and powers, and whenever you enter part of Blackreef there’s a solid chance that Julianna’s going to come along for the ride. Players can choose to control Julianna and take up the task of wiping Colt off the face of Blackreef, earning new gear with successful murders.
It’s a similar system to Dark Souls’ invasions and makes for a great cat-and-mouse experience, though players who would prefer to focus on Colt’s side of things are free to limit invasions to friends only or turn them off entirely with no consequences. Playing as Julianna’s a nice touch, though Colt’s three lives and access to equally impressive gear means she’s got a tough road ahead if she invades someone who’s been playing for a while.
This is a great set of concepts that come together really well, but Deathloop’s presentation is what really makes it all work. You don’t see a lot of games set in the Seventies, but here we are, and Blackreef is one of the more striking settings in gaming as a result with a real grindhouse aesthetic. Arkane’s dedication to the concept is laudable, from the music to the goofy Austin Powers-style tech that shows up. Deathloop also generally runs pretty well, though there might be some lag during invasions depending on where your nemesis is located.
Deathloop is one of those games that’s easy to explain in words, but that really only clicks once you’ve put a few hours into it and realized how all of the gameplay clicks. It takes the typical Dishonored immersive-sim assassination concept and flips it on its head, offering a whole new degree of exploration and adventure. There’s a little something for everyone on Blackreef, making Deathloop a definite game of the year contender.