Time is not a flat circle
For one reason or another, 2021 has marked a year where a ton of games involving time manipulation released. From Twelve Minutes, to Returnal, to The Forgotten City, and upcoming Lemnis Gate, perhaps the developers of the world wanted to help us forget what a poor year the world has had with the ongoing health pandemic. Or maybe they felt like we do, stuck in a seemingly endless cycle of health crisis waves. Deathloop is arguably the most high profile and certainly the biggest budgeted release of this sudden flood of time altering experiences. It also happens to be the best of the bunch, at least for the moment.
Players assume the role of a man named Cole who awakens on the mysterious island of Blackreef, with little understanding of how or why he is there. A voice on the radio named Julianna eggs him on to try and leave the island, an attempt which ends rather unsuccessfully. Cole then awakens on the same beach, and slowly begins to realize that he is somehow trapped in this scenario. Indeed, it seems that the whole island is stuck in a time loop – each day ends, and the island resets. It also resets anytime that Cole dies. But there is hope - Cole learns that if he manages to eliminate all eight Visionaries (key characters), he may be able to break the loop. Getting to the Visionaries is a challenge in itself, but in his way also stands a myriad of cult enemies that are also on the lookout. Last but certainly not least is Julianna, who tries to persuade and/or force Cole to stay on the island.
Deathloop offers a very interesting narrative setup. Each of the Visionary characters has a lot of back story which you can discover through reading notes, observing them, or even just listening to random enemy conversations. Finding and eliminating these targets feels more personal and detailed than those in Dishonored, a game which shares a lot of similarities with Deathloop. Cole is a strong central character that goes through a memorable arc, as does his relationship with Julianna. She is also a strong character, and their relationship and radio conversations confidently drive the narrative.
While the game's characters and intriguing setup are strong points, the story does have a few faults. For one, it's very much about the journey than the destination – the conclusion is quite abrupt, and offers a weak choice of three endings that don't consider anything you've done prior. As great as the relationship between Cole and Julianna is, you'll wish there was more of it, as they only converse via the radio at the start of each level. There are also many elements that go unexplained – such as the idea of multiple dimensions (in cutscenes you will encounter other Coles, and the Juliannas you eliminate are presumably copies as well). Or why does Cole keep seeing written messages everywhere, and where do they come from. The time loop narrative is strong enough on its own, and it seems the writing was made more complicated just for the sake of it.
The time shifting of the island is at the core of how the game is structured. Each day acts as one cycle, and you get four opportunities to visit one of the four isolated locations on the island. You could go to one level in the morning, to another at noon, to the third in the afternoon, and the final location in the evening (night). After that (or as mentioned, if you die three times in the same location), the loop resets and you start the next morning again. Whatever intel you learn in each loop stays with you, as Cole and Julianna are able to remember what happens, while everyone else, including Visionaries, gets reset. You also can impact what happens in any particular loop, such as sabotaging an experiment or providing power to certain doors on the island – which opens up new opportunities, but only on that day.
Despite how the game is structured, it is thankfully not a roguelike, and instead is more like The Forgotten City, another time loop adventure from earlier this year. Each time you visit a level and complete a day on the island, you feel like you have accomplished something and the story is moving forward. You could have discovered some new intel, found how to get one Visionary to change their behavior later in the day, and so on. And even on subsequent loops, you are not dragged into the trap of repeating some actions to get new outcomes; instead you are just gathering as much information as possible to find out how to get all Visionaries vulnerable within the same day - as many are only vulnerable at a certain time. Since you can only visit one location at a time, you can't take out two which appear only in the morning, for example, within the same loop. You know which level and during what time of day you need to visit in order to complete your next goal or get the next bit of key info. Everything you do is conveniently tracked via a basic flow chart, and there is an in-game indicator that shows you generally where your objective is. Players can choose to turn this off and play entirely organically if they wish to be extremely immersed in the world.
Each of the four levels is very well designed, offering a variety of pathways, elevation changes, rooftops, crawlspaces, corridors, you name it. There's a bunker carved into a mountain on a beach, a city square with an amusement house nearby, and more. You will become quite familiar with the layout of these levels as you revisit them on multiple occasions – however the game continues to change things up by altering the paths available to you depending on the time of day you visit. Visiting the same location in the morning and (in another loop) in the evening will result in many doorways becoming open/blocked, new enemy patterns and numbers, and Visionaries only appearing at certain times of day. So not only are these decently sized levels intricately designed, they also change depending on when you visit, again helping avoid any sense of repetition, but still making you gradually learn the variations. Even the color palette changes as a snow storm comes across the island, helping alter the look of the same location between different times of day.
If you played the developer Arkane's Dishonored franchise, you will find a lot of familiarity in Deathloop's gameplay loop (pun intended). This is a first person action game that offers players a choice in how to approach any situation. The movement, shooting, and even some of your special abilities (called Slabs) feel extremely familiar. There is a bit more focus on action – you can choose to blast your way through the enemy ranks if you wish, but the shooting feels inconsistent and not always satisfying. You can also stealth your way through, and here the game feels even more so like the developers' other works.
You enter a location from the same set of tunnels that connects all four levels, and from there are free to explore. Sneaking around remains enticing and effective, as isolating and dispatching enemies is satisfying. There are turrets and cameras to be on the lookout for, but they can be hacked by getting close. The feel of stealth and movement is again very much in line with Dishonored, and you can eliminate foes from distance with headshots, or up close with a melee takedown. Keeping a low profile helps avoid enemies converging on your location, and a visit from Julianna, which we'll touch on later. After you get in, collect intel, eliminate the Visionary, and complete whatever other optional leads you want to follow up, you have to leave via the tunnels as well. Enemies often respawn (especially if a Visionary was eliminated), so your route back can also be contested.
If you set off an alarm, or just choose to play loud, you'll find the gunplay to be a bit floaty and without much feedback – again, in line with Dishonored, though mildly improved. Your weapon options include a silenced pistol, a nail gun, a few larger revolvers, small SMGs (which you can dual wield), a shotgun, a machine gun, and a sniper rifle. These same weapons appear throughout the game, and come with different effects or perks, and rarity levels. A basic grey assault gun will have no effects, while a purple grade weapon may slow down enemies or decrease their health regeneration. There are just four rarities, so it's not a looting game. You will pick up weapons off killed enemies, and some rare ones can also be unlocked from a few specific side quests. Weapons can also be enhanced by up to three Trinkets, which provide the typical bonuses, like improved accuracy, reduced recoil, faster weapon reload and switching, and so on.
You've got more than bullets at your disposal though. There are also special abilities called Slabs, which drain your Power meter when in use. Your fixed ability is having three lives, helping you push through the levels or if you get caught by surprise. Cole can then equip two other Slabs – and these include familiar powers from Dishonored. There's Havoc that lets you deal tons of damage for a limited time, Aether lets you go invisible, Shift lets you teleport a short distance, Nexus connects multiple enemies together so damaging one damages all, and Karnesis throws enemies around. You get these Slabs from Visionaries, and they can also be enhanced with mods, like Aether not draining power when you stand still, or Shift letting you teleport farther. But this is where the game can get quite repetitive – you need to kill Visionaries over and over to get their Slab upgrades, and the experience is often the same. The upgrades are usually not worth it beyond the initial one or two, so it's advisable not to chase the entire upgrade tree and refocus on the story. Lastly, like weapons, Cole can also enhance his own behavior by equipping up to four personal enhancements. These can improve your health, make you quieter, let you double jump, and so on.
As mentioned, Deathloop doesn't try to be a roguelike, but you do lose everything you've collected in a day at the end or upon a final death that resets the loop. You start each level with a hacking device (for cameras and turrets) your blade, and a grenade that can work as a mine. The rest you will find during the loop, and to keep those weapons, Slabs, and trinkets permanently, you have to spend currency called Residiuum. This substance is extracted from random objects in the world, and you get a huge batch from eliminated Visionaries. For the first few loops, you will need to be picky about what items you want to keep. But after a short while and with a built up arsenal, you will have more Residiuum than you know what to do with.
This brings us to the issue with difficulty – or rather, a lack thereof. There are no difficulty settings, and on the whole after the first few loops, the game becomes very easy. With a silent pistol and a few Slabs that fit your play style, the experience becomes a cakewalk. After getting familiar with the levels, you'll almost feel like you’re unwittingly speedrunning the game, or trying some outlandish perks (like doubling your and enemy damage) just to spice things up. Headshots remain one-hit kills for the entire game and even though enemy gunfire does hurt, having three lives makes mistakes less punishing. The enemies themselves can carry the same weapons as Colt, but they aren't effective with them, and lack variety.
Another big reason for the game's relative ease, and one of its worst aspects, is the absolutely abysmal enemy AI. The enemies that populate the island are very dense and shallow in their behavior. When in stealth, they will be completely oblivious to pretty much everything except catching a direct glimpse of Cole or seeing a dead body. Speaking of which, enemies simply disappear when killed, but leave their gun, and others are still alerted if they witness this cloud spot – another thing the story doesn't explain. But when enemies are just alerted without direct contact, they lose their minds, run around, come to investigate, and forget what happened, all in a span of a minute. They also stick to their very small areas, so after alerting one group, you just have to run around the corner and they don't give chase, nor is anyone in this other area aware of your presence. In combat they rush you, don’t know what cover to take or when, and generally behave poorly. Those few enemies that can teleport find themselves stuck in walls or on objects.
The only opponents that will give you trouble in a firefight are the Visionaries, who have a lot of health and can use their own Slabs. And then there's Julianna, who can make a random appearance in any mission, and force you to break stealth as she runs at you guns blazing. Taking out one of these tough opponents earns you a nice quality weapon, more trinkets, and Slabs – so eliminating Julianna may mean you don't have to go assassinate the Visionary for their Slab. After she appears, your tunnels also get locked, forcing you to backtrack and hack the level's guard station device.
While an entirely single player adventure, there is an optional multiplayer component. You can play as Julianna and invade other people's games. This character has her own progression track, and you basically level up by performing feats (surviving, killing Cole, and so on), which earns you new guns and trinkets to use. Your arsenal is separate from Cole's, but has many of the same weapons and items. It's a fun little way to put an extra level of challenge on unsuspecting players – but you have to be prepared, as Cole does have three lives. The encounters are usually a bit messy, and competitive shooting doesn't lend itself well to the game's mechanics. Still, it can be a fun distraction. And fear not – you can turn off this mechanic or limit it to friends-only invasions.
Deathloop shares many gameplay similarities with Dishonored, as well as its Void Engine. This means that the performance on PC can be quite spotty. The game demands a hefty RX 580/GTX 1060 at minimum, and while it uses AMD's FidelityFX Super Resolution, things can still look fairly low detail. The framerate holds steady, but there are some notable moments of stutter, especially when in firefights. There is a wealth of settings to tweak, but the general notion is that optimization has some room for improvement.
The title's art does better, offering a strange 70's vibe that's combined with some technology in the form of sci-fi generators, turrets, and cameras – and the main structure that supposedly powers the time loop itself. Still, it's a pleasant looking game with wildly dressed enemies and colorful storefronts and classy indoor settings. Audio design is also extremely detailed – you will hear enemy conversations, feel the pulse of a nearby trinket, and use cues to spot landmines. However, there are some issues with the mixing – it's impossible to tell when an enemy is walking around above or below you, and also their voices often play directly into your ear as if you are right next to them. The lack of good spacial audio would have been a bigger problem, if not for the low difficulty.
Deathloop is an entertaining take on the time loop formula, and that actually had competition this year. The strong characters, led by Cole and Julianna, help keep this adventure moving along, as does the smart design that constantly helps you feel like you're making progress. There is no sense of repetition or punishment, unless you choose to chase down all special ability upgrades, as you explore familiar yet constantly changing and varied levels. The mechanics quite similar to Dishonored, which means smooth and satisfying stealth, and while the action has been turned up, it's not all that precise. The AI is a big disappointment, and on the whole the game can become quite easy early on. The art style is nice, but the PC performance can be shaky, and the sound mixing isn't the best. Still, this is one time loop you'll want to return to over and over, even if an abrupt ending awaits.