Why you need to dive into Arkane’s back catalogue before ‘Deathloop’

Looking back on the studio’s most essential games ahead of its latest murder puzzle

Let me check my bias at the door. I am fascinated by Arkane’s body of work. Even before I started writing about games, I hotly anticipated projects like Dishonored 2 and Prey. And for a good reason: nobody makes games like Arkane anymore. It’s why many of you may be attracted to the studio’s next game Deathloop, even if you aren’t familiar with Arkane’s rich back catalogue. My argument is that you should be.

Let’s start with some context. Big-budget immersive simulators and stealth games are extremely rare in the modern games industry, and it’s unfortunate, but single-player FPS RPGs are becoming a stretch. Hate it or love it, Cyberpunk 2077’s systems at least felt somewhat novel in a genre-saturated landscape.

Authenticity and commitment to old-school immersive sim game design philosophy is just as fleeting, which is what makes Arkane so unique, as they double down and focus on it, regardless of whether it’s trending or not. Employees of Arkane include alumni of the impossibly influential Deus Ex and countless creatives inspired by series like System Shock, Bioshock and Thief. The thread that ties all of these games together is that they refuse to betray the player’s imagination. They won’t say no to you, no matter how wacky your in-game plan is.

Deathloop
Deathloop. Credit: Arkane Studios

Despite how much I care about Arkane, I wouldn’t begrudge you for not knowing about immersive sim history or the studio’s impact. The major immersive sims like Deus Ex and System Shock 2 were before my time, so it took some research to appreciate them properly. And let’s be honest, new IPs like Deathloop are a scary thing in an industry obsessed with looking backwards. It’s easy to be sceptical of games that claim to offer so much freedom too.

Freedom in games marketing has become such a trite topic lately, with many developers claiming that players can “do anything, and go anywhere!” even if the conclusive experience is hollow. But instead of giving players freedom through massive but soulless open-worlds and artificial variety, Arkane does it through systems and mechanics that the player can feel. Deathloop is undoubtedly embracing this ethos.

The game is about solving a “murder puzzle”, where you have to scope information and use combat to figure out how to string together several successive assassinations and escape. All the while avoiding a multiplayer invader, mind you. It’s ambitious and challenging to parse, which is why it might be a good idea to check out Arkane’s older games to understand where Deathloop is coming from.

Deathloop
Deathloop. Credit: Arkane Studios

I promise you it’s worth the effort! To play a game like 2012’s Dishonored or 2017’s Prey is to be back in the preschool sandpit again, affronted by toys and possibilities. Dishonored gives you an atmospheric, lore-rich world and another powerful assassin to play with. Using an arsenal of weapons, tools and magic, the average level saddles Corvo Attano with a single living target.

How you manage to get to that target and what you do with them is entirely up to you. Your choices along the way ripple out dynamically through the rest of the game, affecting how other players see you and limiting or expanding your abilities. Will you poison your target and leave without a trace or carve a path of blood to their bedroom?

Even to present it as a binary stealth or action choice like that is a disservice, because of all of the ways your mileage can vary. If you leave a guard’s body on the floor, the rats might eat it and ruin your ghostlike approach. But what if you possess the guard and lead them to a rat swarm of your creation? Check out this high-level gameplay from StealthGamerBR to get an idea of how deep the rabbit hole goes.

In Prey, you’ve got an open-world space station to explore rather than linear levels, but there’s similar satisfying freedom. To deal with puzzles and enemies, you inject Neuromods into your eyes to gain several skills. One gives you the power to mimic objects, from coffee cups to turrets and explosive canisters that can become deadly traps.

Another ability lets you turn corpses into friendly aliens that fight for you, and tinker-friendly tools like Recycler Grenades remove aliens and assets from the game world, turning them into valuable resources and ammo.

It’s a game that lets you prod the boundaries of its game design, and it will often poke back. The beauty is that hiding beneath all of its systems is an intelligent narrative you might expect from a linear action game, but the “do anything” design adds more depth to it, making every playthrough unique.

However, if you pick one Arkane game to play ahead of Deathloop, it would have to be Prey: Mooncrash. This standalone DLC is cheaper than the rest and easily one of the most inventive games Arkane has ever made. It also feels like the testbed for the ideas Deathloop is bringing full circle, so it would be the best way to get your head around the game ahead of launch.

In Mooncrash, the gameplay is a lot like Prey with several exciting twists. You start as one character stuck on the Moon trying to escape, but as you play, you’ll begin to unlock other characters, too, with different abilities, strengths and weaknesses. The kicker is that when you escape with your first character, the game doesn’t end. You’ll then have to escape with the next character, but everything you did in your first run carries over.

By the end, you’re trying to escape five times in a row, while a Corruption Meter is constantly ticking upwards, throwing hazards, tricky enemies and debuffs into the mix if you take too long. And to make it worse, there are five escape methods and only one correct solution, so you have to figure out who goes where and why, all the while trying to stay alive.

It’s a staggering achievement in ambitious game design from Arkane. An immersive simulator with a sequential roguelike structure, where death is always a lesson. Sounds familiar, no?

Deathloop launches on PS5 this September 14.

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