Deathloop (PC) - ReviewPaul Broussard , posted on 19 September 2021 / 1,621 Views
There’s been a trend in recent years of games depicting characters relieving themselves. From Kano in Mortal Kombat 11, to the various horses one can ride in Red Dead Redemption 2 and Metal Gear Solid V, to the utterly bizarre Pee World VR, and more. I’ve been curious about how this gets decided; is there someone on the development team who thinks that taking the effort to depict people or animals urinating will improve the game? And how must the artists responsible for rendering the act of an individual pissing on the ground feel? When their kids ask them what they did at work that day, do they dance around the issue or just make something up?
The addition of Deathloop to this esteemed club means that there’s another group of artists who now know the answers to these very same questions. Perhaps more relevantly, though, it’s a new member of another, just as prestigious club, that being the latest title from the venerable Arkane Studios. From the well-received Dishonored titles, which placed an emphasis on first person exploration of semi-open environments with a mixture of stealth and action, to the 2017 reboot of Prey, which featured an emphasis on exploring semi-open environments from a first person perspective and a mixture of stealth and action, to now Deathloop, which is actually a gardening simulator.
Not really though. Deathloop is very much in line with the signature exploration, stealth your way around and eventually resort to combat when you inevitably make the one mistake that alerts half the surrounding enemies type of gameplay that has defined Arkane since 2012. That isn’t to say that it’s entirely derivative, though. Deathloop certainly has a lot that sets it apart from prior Arkane entries.
Let’s start with the biggest way in which Deathloop separates itself from its predecessors: the roguelike mechanics. Deathloop’s story follows a guy named Colt, who wakes up on a random island to find himself reliving the same day over and over. After a bit of exploration and getting murdered by a very vitriolic woman, he discovers that he is trapped within a time loop. After dying, or when the day ends, he wakes up back at the start of the previous day, in the same place he was, with everything he did before having been erased and the only thing available to him being his memories.
A little more exploration reveals that the loop is being held in place by eight individuals called visionaries, and if they are killed the loop will end, and Colt will be released from his temporal prison, free to go binge Baywatch or something. And thus the main challenge of the game is laid before the player: figure out how to kill all eight visionaries, without dying yourself, before the day ends. Get killed, or fail to kill all eight before running out of time, and it’s back to the start of the day to try again.
What’s curious though is that despite the roguelike mechanics, Deathloop seems hesitant to embrace the full concept of a roguelike. Roguelikes are usually marked by procedural generation and a heavy helping of randomness, and both of these elements are largely absent here. The various locations on the island remain exactly the same from run to run which, in fairness, would have probably been pretty difficult to randomize. But even smaller elements like enemy placement remain constant between runs as well, which does make revisiting the same areas over and over feel kind of samey.
But perhaps that misses the point. The core of Deathloop is less of the traditional roguelike challenge where you attempt to construct a build with whatever random materials you can come across, although that does happen a bit at the start. Rather, the challenge is more about learning the layout of the island and planning out a route that will let you kill your eight targets within the necessary timeframe.
The time limit itself isn’t really so much a pure countdown as it is a restriction on how many areas on the island you can visit. There are only four time slots during a day, and the game advances from one to the next every time you leave an area. This means that the player needs to spend multiple runs observing and figuring out where the visionaries will be until they can map out a route that will allow them to kill all eight while only switching areas four times.
It’s a really engaging concept; having to track down your targets between time loops, observing where they will be, and then piecing together a plan to take them all out in one go. A few hours in and I found myself writing down notes on a separate word doc about what I had discovered and what my tentatively planned route would look like. I can’t remember the last time I did that for a game. Deathloop has an exceptionally solid core that really sucked me in. There are few enough titles on the market that actively trust their players to be intelligent, let alone that demand it of them to succeed. In many ways Deathloop feels too good to be true.
Oops, sorry, I miswrote that. It is too good to be true. Yes, sadly, Arkane doesn’t quite have enough faith in its players to fully leave them to figure things out. Instead, once you observe each of the eight visionaries and finish the quests dedicated to following them, the game just flat out tells you the answer; where to go at what time in order to kill each target. And this is probably Deathloop’s biggest failing; it doesn’t trust its players to let them figure the ultimate answer out for themselves. A title ostensibly designed around observation and planning doesn’t ultimately require the player to do either of those things. You can get through the whole game by just following objective markers and then killing whoever shows up at the end.
Some of the quests near the end start to feel like they’re more just padding the game’s run time as well. One of the more egregious examples was a quest to obtain a series of passwords necessary to break into a vault. Each of the passwords is located in a separate bunker in various locations around the island. Fair enough. But then it turns out that each bunker won't open without power, and the only way to restore power is to visit a generator at the start of each day. And the generator only has enough power for one bunker per day, meaning that you have to make the same trek to the generator for three straight days. I guess the idea was to make Deathloop seem longer by making players revisit the same areas, but that feels like trying to make it seem like you’re getting a longer Bon Jovi concert by waiting in the parking lot for an extra hour afterwards.
This isn’t to say that there’s nothing for the player to discover. The biggest and juiciest objective of exploration (outside of the kill route) is discovering Deathloop’s backstory; why the timeloop exists and who you are. Deathloop is thankfully much more hands off here, with the player largely left to piece together what’s going on, how Colt fits into all of it, and why that woman (name: Julianna) who murdered him at the start of the game and insists on calling him up every five minutes with some “witty” (massive air quotes) dialogue has put killing him at the top of her New Year’s resolutions.
I wouldn’t normally take this long to discuss the core gameplay, but there isn’t a lot here to discuss. It’s the same mixture of stealth and action that have marked Arkane titles before, only without the morality systems found in Dishonored and Prey, meaning that you’re free to kill as many people as you want without consequence. Which does rather cheapen the stealth; while I certainly wasn’t a fan of Dishonored’s chaos system, it did provide some incentive for being sneaky.
Theoretically, the danger of having to engage in combat should be the incentive for using stealth. While Deathloop gets part of this right by giving Colt the durability of a wet piece of paper, the stealth AI hasn’t improved at all from 2012, meaning that it’s incredibly easy to just outwit the game's enemies. They will never call in back up from more than a short distance away and will often just forget about you if you sprint a block or so away from them, meaning that the most effective strategy is usually to just snipe everyone from a distance and then stroll on by with no risk of being caught. Even if you do get hit by some stray return fire, you can pretty much always just guzzle down some nourishing soda and get by just fine. And failing even THAT, the game gives you an incredibly generous two “get out of death free” cards whenever you visit a new area. In other words, it’s usually pretty hard to die.
The exception to this is the occasional less-than-friendly visit from Julianna. Deathloop possesses a multiplayer mode not too dissimilar from a Souls title where you can play as Julianna and invade another player’s world, attempting to track down an unsuspecting Colt and put an end to their run. This is actually a lot of fun; hunting someone down through a large environment is pretty engaging, especially when you have an idea on where the other player is and can start preparing ambushes and the likes.
Conversely, though, I feel like this is a feature I’d recommend turning off for people playing Colt, at least on your first playthrough. Being invaded is often a frustrating enough prospect in a normal game if you’re caught in the middle of exploring, and it can be controller hurlingly annoying to lose an hour plus worth of progress because another player decided to pay you a visit. When other players spawn in feels somewhat random as well; you can only be invaded if you’re in an area where a visionary is present at the time, but Julianna can show up as soon as you enter the area or right when you’re about to pick a fight with a visionary. And if you have opted for the stealthy route and just finished sneaking your way into a base, having another player suddenly show up who can alert all the guards within earshot to your position can feel a tad unfair.
I think the simplest fix for this would be to make it so that Julianna can only show up if a player is spotted; not only does that eliminate some of the randomness for things, but it gives players an incentive to use stealth when there largely isn’t one at present anyway. I’d be far more inclined to try and go about things quietly, knowing that failing to do so presents a chance for what is by far the most dangerous entity in the game to spawn in. As it stands currently, given that Julianna seems to spawn in just as consistently if I use stealth as if I don’t, I’m far more incentivized to just gun everyone down on my way to a visionary, as failing to do so means I can get surrounded much easier if Julianna does show up.
One final PC exclusive complaint that I should mention is that the PC port runs really poorly, at least in some areas. Even running Deathloop on a high end PC, I frequently encountered severe frame drops and screen tearing while exploring the Complex and Bay areas. Given that PS5s are still relatively difficult to come by, I feel like this is even more of a knock against the game than it would normally be, as PC may be the only way that a sizable chunk of people can play it at present. If you have a PS5, I’d probably recommend using that, but for those who haven’t been able to find (or simply don’t want) one, do bear in mind that the PC version may feature some notable technical issues.
Frame drops and the occasional crash aside, Deathloop is a very aesthetically pleasing title. Arkane has done a fabulous job with an art style that blends modern day/sci fi technology together well. While I personally may hate the hand-holding nature of the individual cut scenes that basically tell you when and where to kill each visionary, there’s no denying that they look especially gorgeous as well. The environments are also very pretty as well, and the way they change throughout the day at least makes familiar areas a little more challenging to navigate.
Ultimately, Deathloop is a good game that's just a little too afraid to fully take its hands off the wheel and let the player drive. As a result, there’s an ingenious and really engaging concept here that isn't quite executed well enough to reach greatness. Assuming you’re capable of running it, Deathloop is interesting and unique enough to warrant a buy regardless, but don’t expect to come out of it without feeling a little let down at what could have been... kind of like the artists who got put on urination animating duty.
This review is based on a digital copy of Deathloop for the PC