The Isle of Blackreef is a place where lawlessness and debauchery aren't just welcomed but encouraged. It's caught in a time loop, so the events of any given day have no bearing on the next. At the end of every sex, drug, and alcohol binge-fueled evening, the slate is wiped clean so it can happen all over again. Memories are lost and harm--self-inflicted or done to others--is always undone. Blackreef changed me. It made me behave in a way that's not in my nature. Whether it's Metal Gear Solid, Deus Ex, Splinter Cell, or Dishonored, the role I inhabit is that of a ghost, entering a scenario to achieve an objective and leaving with clean hands and conscience. I'm the pebble thrown into water that makes no ripples.
And yet, in Deathloop, I murdered hundreds of Eternalists and I felt good about doing it. I tried to be true to myself--skulking across rooftops, hiding in dark corners, and carefully moving between people, but the allure of Blackreef's daily absolution was difficult to resist. I watched the first Eternalist I killed dissolve into nothingness, and a message written into the air in some ethereal ink assured me he'd return in the next loop, completely oblivious to what happened. Killing became second nature, and with no consequence why wouldn't it?
The rules of Deathloop's world created an intoxicating sense of liberation, but this leads to the game's central question of purpose: When nothing matters, how do you give your actions meaning? That is where developer Arkane Lyon's gameplay design comes into play, and killing with reckless abandon becomes killing for a reason: to break the loop. The mechanics that govern the world and facilitate your quest to upend it are constructed so masterfully that there's a tangible sense of growth both in-game and out of it. You begin your first day in Blackreef dazed, confused, and incredibly hungover, and end your final one as the unstoppable architect of its demise.
But what's most impressive about Deathloop is that it's also an introspective game. It's Arkane deconstructing its own brand of open-ended action and laying bare all the pieces crucial to it. The systems are presented as digestible on an individual level, but then the game subtly pushes you to put the pieces together so you can truly appreciate how the clockwork world ticks, before bringing a swift fist crashing down on it. Deathloop is a game where observation and dynamic thinking go hand-in-hand with shotgunning goons in the face and snapping their necks; where throwing a grenade into a soiree for sycophants counts as the right kind of experimentation and derring-do. It delivers bombastic thrills and wince-inducing kills with intelligence and elegance in equal measure.
At the heart of the game is Colt Vahn, a man simultaneously adrift in time and stuck within it. He wakes up on a beach with no memory of how he got there or what's really going on. However, what distinguishes him from the other hedonistic denizens of Blackreef is that he is able to retain his memories between loops. Dying will force him into a new loop, but the knowledge he has accrued up until his death will return with him. And very soon, he discovers that a strange element called Residuum can be harnessed to give his arsenal of weaponry and supernatural abilities permanence too.
Like Arkane Lyon's Dishonored games, Deathloop is a fascinating mashup of styles and vibes, both narratively and aesthetically. Underpinning the world is a kind of retro-future science that, as oxymoronic as it sounds, is incredibly effective at giving the world texture--think time travel by way of 1960s computers that fill a room and look like they have less power than an original iPhone. Complementing that is an element of the supernatural that is essentially time science harnessed by a genius mind to give a chosen few the ability to do things like teleport, link the fates of people together, become almost invisible to the naked eye, or throw objects around an environment with a wave of the hand. These abilities are bestowed to the Visionaries, an eclectic group of elites that the rank and file are sworn to protect so that their life of indulgence can remain eternal. Colt's goal is to kill these Visionaries and, in doing so, break the time loop that keeps him trapped there. The rub is that it needs to be done in one day--a single loop. Easier said than done given that the game operates on a day and night cycle where, over the course of the loop, each Visionary has their own routine and life to lead.
Complicating matters further is the fact that the Visionaries know Colt is out to get them and, in fact, all of them have some sort of pre-existing relationship with him. One in particular, Julianna, takes it upon herself to be a thorn in Colt's side. She serves the role of antagonist but the situation is clearly complicated between them. Their interpersonal dynamic is placed front and center to drive much of the narrative and characterization, and both characters are realized exceptionally well.
Julianna is the voice in Colt's ear and also over Blackreef's loudspeakers, and she does her damndest to get under his skin. She picks at him in a way that only someone with a deep personal connection to you can, using insight into his personality and history to constantly undermine him and poke at his neuroses. She's always one step ahead, exposing Colt's habits, analyzing his behaviors, and revealing truths about Colt that, because of his initial amnesia, he's yet to realize himself. And yet, there's also a sweetness to their interactions at times, like a couple in the heat of an argument remembering for just a moment why they care about each other. She's a confusing presence, in one breath chastising him for his actions and in another encouraging them. She guides him to objectives and then lays the guilt on thick when he achieves them.
In a very real sense, she's a pure agent of chaos and her motivations remain unclear until just the right moment. The voice acting is absolutely crucial to selling this relationship and in that regard, it is achieved exceptionally well thanks to the outstanding delivery by Jason E. Kelley and Ozioma Akagha as Colt and Julianna respectively. Some lines from Julianna have a mischievous tone while others are tinged with spite and growing frustration. For his part, Colt begins unsure of himself and unclear of why this woman has it in for him, but as he learns more, he becomes confident, choosing to engage in the verbal jousts and starting getting under her skin. The constant back and forths between the two is genuinely a joy to listen to and the writing is sharp to make the development of their relationship feel natural.
The main focus of Colt's attention, however, is the aforementioned Visionaries who need to be offed, and this is where Deathloop's open-ended gameplay does the heavy lifting. Blackreef is split up into multiple districts, and each one is usually home to at least one of the Visionaries. Colt's objective is to enter an area and figure out how to get himself into a position where he can kill said Visionary and take their Slab, an item that gives them one of the six unique supernatural abilities. But it's not as simple as running into a building and gunning them down as each of the Visionaries is… a weirdo. Charlie, for example, has transformed a part of Updaam into a low-budget escape room made up of multiple themed floors, complete with puzzles and a whole lot of weapon-wielding Eternalists standing between the entrance and him. Harriet has taken up residence in a Karl's Bay hanger, where she's hosting a group wellness session that is as sinister as it sounds. Wenjie is a super smart scientist who is responsible for harnessing the strange energy of the time loop to create the slabs and rarely leaves her lab in The Complex, but you might find yourself facing an existential conundrum when you're face to face with her.
Deathloop is a game where observation and dynamic thinking go hand-in-hand with shotgunning goons in the face and snapping their necks ... it delivers bombastic thrills and wince-inducing kills with intelligence and elegance in equal measure
Deathloop's day-and-night cycle also means that these Visionaries are only available at certain times of the day. Although you can manually progress time to your needs, there's only ever a specific window of opportunity to kill a Visionary. That means you need to play through time loops repeatedly, puzzling out a plan to execute it when the time is right. The game makes this more manageable by giving the player Visionary Leads to follow. These are quest chains that guide the player to key pieces of information necessary to pull off the assassination and will often take Colt through different environments at different times of the day. You may need the code to a door in Fristad Rock, for example, but a ledger with that information is being stored in an office elsewhere that can only be accessed when a worker leaves the door open in the afternoon.
The result of this approach is that you're slowly trained to develop a meticulous understanding of each area in the game. And as your Colt grows in strength and capabilities, so too does your proficiency in navigating them. After killing a Visionary you gain a power, which can be used in the following time loops, provided you invest in it. This growth comes by way of Residuum that can be extracted from charged objects in the environment or, in more abundance, from the dead body of a Visionary. By channeling this resource into weapons and items, you're able to hold onto them between loops. Slab powers are the most essential as they give you a significant ability, and killing a Visionary repeatedly to take their slab will evolve the power. The Shift power, for example, lets you teleport much like Dishonored's Blink. But by repeatedly killing the Visionary wielding it and collecting it, you're able to upgrade the power to let you travel further or hover in the air briefly. Aether lets you turn invisible but becomes more effective if you upgrade it so its effect doesn't wear off when you attack.
Along with powers, Trinkets are also littered throughout the world and come in two flavors. Weapon trinkets can be used to augment your combat abilities by improving stats like range, power, and aim-down-sights speed. Personal trinkets, meanwhile, enhance Colt's performance by improving health regeneration, decreasing the amount of noise he makes when moving, or adjusting how his power meter depletes and recovers, among other things. And these all come in multiple color-coded tiers of effectiveness. The presence of these is what makes each time loop consistently rewarding to play through, even if you fail to achieve a bigger objective. Sometimes it can be good to do a run through an area or even an entire loop to build your Residuum balance and collect some more trinkets, especially since it's also an opportunity to refine your chosen playstyle a bit more. There's nothing quite like deciding to run into an area with your guns blazing just so you can chew through Eternalists and a Visionary, knowing that you're doing it just to grab resources. Since Colt is able to come back from death twice, there is a degree of forgiveness in the game that really encourages doing wacky things when the opportunity arises. That third death will reset the loop entirely though, so some strategy is also required if you want to make the most of your time.
Very quickly, you'll find yourself developing a level of mastery over the world thanks to the powers and weapons that you've accumulated. A Visionary kill that initially took 20 minutes can be reduced to just a couple as you dart around environments, stealthing through one group of enemies, while laying siege to another, and ultimately cutting through your target before they've even realized what's happening. The repetition-based design of Deathloop eases you into creating a flow state that you can enter into and exit from at will. With the character development systems, it gamifies trial and error so effectively that failures almost always still feel like small triumphs. This might sound typical, given the prominence of recent roguelite games such as Hades, but Deathloop's gameplay feels entirely of its own brand, and that is because it's built on the foundation of Arkane's domino-effect design.
That is especially apparent as you uncover dead ends, of which there are many scattered around Deathloop's various environments. Documents peppered around the world will provide a small lead on something, which is then marked as a discovery, and the game does an excellent job of creating a breadcrumb trail around Blackreef for you to follow, and it always leads to something meaningful. Whether it's finding the code to open a locked door you stumbled upon hours ago or figuring out how to manipulate two Visionaries into appearing at the same place at the same time, you're never more than a run or two away from having an epiphany. And when it dawns upon you, the feeling will make you giddy. It's like using just the right wrench to loosen a nut that felt like it was impossibly tight.
In many regards, Deathloop is a game about being meticulous, and Arkane has done a fantastic job in making just being in the world, looking around, and listening to it enthralling. It should come as no surprise that Blackreef is absolutely stunning to behold, given the strong sense of art direction the studio's previous games have had. Each of the four areas of the game has a distinct style, which changes depending on the time of day thanks to lighting and even weather effects. There's a wonderful retro pop-art motif that runs throughout, with eye-catching posters and signs that not only furnish each environment to be visually pleasing, but also serve as a kind of pathway for the player to explore. Architecture is constructed thoughtfully so, in any given scenario, you can see a way in and a way out. On the ground level, a neon billboard may draw your attention, revealing scaffolding that can be clambered up to give you a better vantage point. Or a spotlight on a stone wall may gesture towards an open window, offering a way into a building that otherwise seems impregnable.
Of particular note are the '60s-esque interiors that are somehow both beautiful and utterly garish in the way only retro furniture can be. Wooden walls, shocking red pleather couches that look like they would make your arse numb after a minute of sitting on them, and oddly contorted lighting fixtures will stop you in your tracks so you can ogle how strange they are. But they also fit into the aesthetic so perfectly that you can't help but be impressed by the interior design chops being displayed. Needless to say, Arkane's sense of art direction remains impeccable and, for my money, unmatched.
And complementing it is the raucous soundtrack that is as eclectic and as unexpected as the visual stylings. Continuing the mashup of style and themes, Deathloop transitions effortlessly between disparate styles to suit the needs of the moment from a cinematic standpoint, but also has you tapping your feet along to the chaos happening on screen. One minute you're creeping through underground tunnels, backed by the bleeps, bloops, and ambient warbles of old sci-fi movies in tense stealth sections, and the next you're engaged in an all-out gunfight with hordes of Eternalists to the sound of a big band orchestra and off-the-chain sax solos. Deathloop's gunplay is weighty and satisfying, and a great deal of the thrill that comes from trading lead is elevated by the brilliant, funky soundtrack.
The final piece to Deathloop's gameplay puzzle is multiplayer, which manifests itself in two ways. The first is technically not multiplayer, as it sees Julianna invade Colt's game to try and assassinate him. This Julianna is computer-controlled but no less deadly for it. At random points, the game announces that Julianna has invaded and locked the exit points out the area. The only way to escape is to hack a specific point to unlock the exit tunnels, but to do that you have to go through her. These moments are genuinely terrifying, especially when you're on a good run. Julianna is capable of masking her appearance to look like any random Eternalist, so she could really be anywhere and anyone. And when she does have you in her crosshairs you better hope you have her in yours. She can be ruthless, but the reward for taking her out is massive. She will often drop a Slab, meaning you can acquire powers or upgrades without needing to kill the Visionary who has them. And if you're smart, you can even set up elaborate traps using turrets and grenades to get the jump on her.
Of course, a human player--someone on your friends list, a random person on the internet, or even you--can choose to protect the loop by assuming the role of Julianna. As the hunter, you invade Colt's world with the goal of taking him out before he can kill you or escape. Unlike Colt, who has that ability to undo his deaths a couple of times, Julianna has just one shot at her mark, which means you need to be much more considered. However, the ability to mimic NPCs is a devious advantage that is much more effective than you might think, especially if you have a good understanding of the world and can use a player's knowledge against them.
For example, you may know that there's a specific enemy that is always positioned in a specific spot and, if you're able to swap positions with them, the Colt player may just assume you're a harmless Eternalist, only for you to strike when they least suspect it. You can also use powers that are unlocked gradually as you continue to invade players. Julianna has her own progression tree that tasks her with completing feats such as successfully killing Colt in a specific way, surviving for a certain period of time, using a particular weapon, and so on. As you complete these, more Slab abilities, weapons, and trinkets become available, making you a deadlier killer. The sense of tension this introduces to gameplay is exhilarating as you never know when a Julianna could appear to turn your world upside down. It harkens back to the kind of hide-and-seek multiplayer introduced in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood and the PvP of the Soulsborne games, and it works really well within Deathloop. Of course, you can opt not to allow people to invade if you'd prefer a purely single-player experience.
Perhaps the most laudable part of Deathloop is how it takes so many seemingly disparate things and creates harmony between them. Gameplay systems that feel isolated become pieces of a bigger puzzle, and when you see how they seamlessly connect together, you realize how special an achievement it really is. Similarly, on paper, the different aesthetics should be like oil and water, but they come together effortlessly to be part of a greater whole, and, for me, that's what Deathloop is really about. By standing back and looking at the bigger picture, the uncharacteristic choices and unexpected behaviors feel necessary--essential even. Maybe it's just what I need to believe to give all that killing meaning, but when I began the final loop and carved a perfect, bloody path through Blackreef's Visionaries in a single day, I made no ripples.