‘Deathloop’ review: Arkane’s magnificent murder puzzle is the studio’s most ambitious game

Breaking the habit

The protagonist of Deathloop starts his journey face down on a grotty beach. A mysterious woman has just buried a machete into his chest, and now he doesn’t know his own name.

As he picks up his gun, words start to fly up in front of his face, but Colt doesn’t react with the cool composure of a video game protagonist. Like the player, he’s got no idea what the hell is going on, so he yelps and stumbles through sentences, ambling into a safe house with a pinboard detailing several assassination targets, some with or without power-inducing ‘Slabs’.

This thread-covered map is the murder puzzle that defines Deathloop, the latest game from Dishonored developer Arkane Studios. Eventually, you’re going to have to kill all of those supernatural suitors in one action-packed sequence if you want to break the loop and complete the game.

Deathloop
Deathloop. Credit: Arkane Studios

But you can’t worry about that right now, because there’s a Hackamajig to pick up and a keypad to figure out. And the woman who stabbed you in the chest is now shouting at you through your controller, anticipating your every move.

Julianna is the most unpredictable ‘Visionary’ on that pinboard. She’s the only target that can hunt Colt as he tries to enact his master plan, leaping into your game to lock the doors to your safehouse, before spending several minutes trying to send you back to the beach. Julianna and Colt go back and forth throughout the game with quick spats of superbly written dialogue, their electric chemistry building a rapport that suggests there’s something more to their relationship beyond endless games of cat and mouse.

Julianna can also be replaced by another real player if you play Deathloop in online mode. This kicks off an electrifying game of chicken for the invader as they lay traps, hold disguises and manipulate the environment to try and trick Colt into a run-ending mistake. It’s evil by nature but so bloody satisfying when they take the bait. The fact you can drop into any district at any time keeps it exciting, the rain and fireworks of Updaam at night obscuring my stealthy sniper fire. The rewards for playing as Julianna are also meaningful enough that I’ll definitely be invading other players way beyond launch to keep creating those singular situations.

Deathloop
Deathloop. Credit: Arkane Studios

It’s tricky to pin down Deathloop’s genre because it pulls from so many, weaving them together carefully into a refreshing hybrid. Soulslikes, Stealth games, Immersive Simulators, and Roguelikes are a few game design schools that hold influence. If you’ve played the criminally underrated Prey: Mooncrash then Deathloop will certainly feel familiar, as it was clearly the inspiration for many of its ideas, despite taking place on an alien-infested moon. When Colt kills a Visionary he will often receive a Slab, affording him powers straight from the Dishonored universe that let him teleport, turn invisible, and link together enemies so that they all suffer damage in tandem. I found that I was constantly digging my hands into Deathloop’s toybox and pulling out brilliant new ideas that played against the complex enemy AI.

You can also find several guns and a ton of trinkets during your runs that let you modify your build as you play. But crucially, if you lose a run with any of the above items in hand, they will be sacrificed. An ‘infusion’ metagame sits on top of each Deathloop run, where you have to play boldly to collect enough Residuum so that you can spend it to keep the guns and powers you’ve collected to bolster the success rate of your next attempt. Imagine the anxiety when you’re harbouring multiple new Slabs and your favourite weapon, but a rogue Julianna joins your game before you can escape… the saving grace is that you can’t lose any information you gain, so you’re constantly building out your scrapbook, even if you get your head kicked in.

Deathloop
Deathloop. Credit: Arkane Studios

But the thing that elevates Deathloop for me is how self-aware it is. I’ve never played a roguelike game where the enemies are so clearly bored of your antics. Julianna’s jabs about it being ‘another one of those loops’ when you’re taking your time are so clever. She has a ‘Colt Watch’ checklist where she ticks certain boxes to try and find correlations between runs. Blackreef island’s random grunts are basically in purgatory, then, barking about how they hope they don’t find you ‘this time’ if you pressure them during a stealth sequence.

It’s an effective way to wrap the gameplay loop into the story, and it reverberates throughout the experience in a more holistic fashion than even Supergiant’s superb Hades. If I hadn’t alerted that guard, their boredom may have pushed them to start talking about a safe code or the habits of a nearby Visionary. You’re an assassin but you’re also an archaeologist and a detective in Deathloop, so figuring out the history of this place and getting inside the mind of each of the game’s bosses is a crucial part of the experience.

Deathloop
Deathloop. Credit: Arkane Studios

You need to know what the Visionaries are like, why they’re stuck here, and what they think of each other to kill them. The good news is that Blackreef is a 60s-themed Elysium for arsehole entrepreneurs, so there’s plenty of pettiness and bad blood to capitalise on. “Dancing is like sex, but less sticky, so I have to rock the fuck out!” is one of many fantastic lines from Aleksis Dorsey — emphasis on the last name there — the wolf-masked party animal of the group. You can think of easy foils for this kind of character, but Arkane doesn’t settle for that. Deathloop’s villains are far more complex and interesting. You’ll empathise with many of them as they run the gamut of stomach-turning billionaire banter. There are sinister influencers who Jokerify their followers and toxic gamers who deepfake their colleagues to manipulate them. The writing is remarkable throughout.

Every visionary also has an inspired lair that reflects their callous view of the world, covered in carefully crafted assets from a range of art styles that Arkane shows incredible command over. Aberrated art prints and drooping typography tease a tasteful society out of reach, with socialites lounging at bars made of human faces. They’re way too interesting to rush through, and they change as each looping day progresses from AM to PM. Visionaries gnash at each other with Gen Z slang in retrofuturist chatrooms, every log serving a purpose in Colt’s investigation.

As you try to parse it all, a sleek jazz-infused score accents every battle. The game’s overall aesthetic teases a distant past that never quite existed but certainly could have — delivering a pocket dimension of killer creatives consumed by their egos. It’s one of the most interesting worlds I’ve ever had the pleasure of getting lost in. Every first encounter with a Visionary’s quirks has given me an exciting story to tell, but I wouldn’t dare spoil them here, as I’m desperate to hear how other people dealt with these bloody conundrums once they’ve played it.

The gunplay is probably the weakest part of the Deathloop package, particularly when you’re on the back foot in a hectic firefight with another player. It feels like a growing pain of adapting so many genres into this beautiful new progenitor, especially when you have to map it all to a DualSense controller. The haptics are immersive and appreciated on PS5, but Deathloop still feels like a more refined Prey when you’re in a shootout on console. Don’t worry, the impact is crunchy and NPCs explode into the air when you string together your attacks. It’s reactive, dynamic and fun — by no means does Deathloop feel bad to play — but I’m definitely going to play it again on PC so I can be more intricate and accurate with my movements to put together some ridiculous hits.

Deathloop is out now for PC and PS5.

The Verdict

Deathloop feels like the end result of an experiment that Arkane started with the release of Prey: Mooncrash. In many ways, it has successfully nurtured that genius nugget of an idea — a roguelike immersive simulator — into a AAA blockbuster. I am once again blown away by Arkane’s ambitions in game design, and how they manage to maintain them alongside such strong aesthetics, and compelling writing. This is an essential purchase if you value video games that expand the medium’s boundaries.

Pros

  •  Superb writing and art direction carefully realise a fascinating world
  • Investigation + assassination make for a moreish gameplay mix
  • This is unlike any game you’ve ever played before

Cons

  • The gunplay when using a controller isn’t perfect
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