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Thursday, September 16, 2021

Review: Deathloop (Sony PlayStation 5)


Review by Matt R.

Ask any fan what they like about Dishonored, Deus Ex, Thief, and the like—"immersive sims", as they're often referred to, because the game industry has a weird obsession with genre descriptors that are vague to the point of being meaningless unless you're already familiar with them—and the answer will almost always be some variation of "freedom". With the right mix of intricate level design and a complex web of simulated systems that interact with one another, a degree of player choice and opportunity for creative problem solving arises that few other games can match.

Deathloop, the latest from Dishonored creators Arkane Studios, might just be the zenith of that whole concept, and it's all because of two words: Time. Loop.

Imagine, for a moment, the basic framework of an immersive sim. For each level, you start at point A and need to get to point B, maybe with a few other objectives along the way. How you get there is up to you—the intricacies of the level design mean there are myriad different routes you can take, both designed and that emerge from your own creative applications of the game's systems. The variety of different tools available to you means there's no "right" way to play: a ghost-like stealth approach, misdirection through gadgets and traps, and running in guns blazing can all be viable, with the right character build, loadout, and strategy. But despite all that freedom in playstyle, it's still, ultimately, a linear experience, in which you start at the start and finish at the finish.


Now imagine the same thing, but where each level's point A, point B, and the routes that connect them can all change based on a variety of factors: time of day, what you're actually trying to achieve in the short term, what information (and passcodes for locked doors) you have access to, the butterfly effect of previous actions. Imagine, instead of a linear journey, a cyclical one: a single day that repeats again and again, Groundhog Day-style, with each subsequent "loop" offering a chance to gather new information that'll help you influence the state of the world for future runs.

You know how, in Groundhog Day, Bill Murray's first day involves getting accosted by Stephen Tobolowsky, stepping unexpectedly into a puddle, getting taken by surprised by a cold shower, and so on, but by the end of the film he's able to avoid every mishap and bad decision with the practised expertise of someone who's seen them all coming a few dozen times over? Imagine that as one of the foundational systems in an immersive sim, and you've got a sense of what Deathloop is like.

The whole game takes place on Blackreef Isle, a secluded little place that is stuck in a time loop for mysterious reasons. But unlike most time loop stories, every person on Blackreef knows what the situation is, and is there by choice, enjoying the "amortality" and freedom from consequence that comes with being knowingly stuck in an endlessly repeating loop. Every person, that is, except Colt. Though he's clearly been looping through Blackreef a while, as he learns mostly through humorous radio interactions Julianna, one of the eight "Visionaries" who run the show—and someone he evidently has a lot of history with—Colt starts the game with no memory of how he got here or what's gone down in the umpteenth First Days he's lived through so far.


In itself, that's a neat riff on a common premise, and it's something that Deathloop leans into heavily: not just "what would you do if you had to relive the same day over and over", but what happens when everyone is doing that, and living in the absolute, unrestrained freedom that comes with knowing that even the worse consequences to any action can only last 24 hours at most? Deathloop is a surreal journey through a place of utter anarchy, taken to extremes both comical and eye-opening, although it doesn't delve quite as deeply into the ideas it raises as I might have hoped.

The time loop shtick also adds a nifty new layer to the immersive sim formula. Each loop in Deathloop is broken down into four time periods—morning, noon, afternoon, and evening—and for each of those, you get to choose one of four places to visit. That might not sound like a lot, but the time of day changes things on a drastic level, not just in terms of enemy layouts and the like, but also what's actually happening within the level at the time you visit, what sub-levels (for want of a better term) are open, and how events from earlier in the day have changed the landscape. Visit the Updaam leisure district in the morning, and you'll find its densely-packed streets pretty quiet; visit at night, and you'll be avoiding (or fighting) hordes of party-goers—with one of your most useful shortcuts blocked off, if you didn't manage to prevent an electrical fire earlier in the day.

As you relive each day, witnessing what happens and gathering key information scattered about in documents and message logs, you'll slowly build a picture of how a day on Blackreef Isle plays out: what happens when, who goes where, and how you can manipulate these situations to your advantage. In Deathloop, more so than in any of its predecessors, knowledge and intel is your most powerful tool, as the thing that lets you bend the flow of events to your whim.


That's never more prominent—or effective—than in the primary goal of Deathloop: to break the loop, by killing all eight Visionaries, all in a single day. If my math is correct (it's not my strong suit), four levels per day and eight Visionaries means you need to find a way to kill, on average, two targets per level. But they're smart enough to never get too close together, so just knowing where each of them is at a given time of day will never be enough to take them all out in time: you need to play puppeteer, and figure out how to pull the strings to get each of them right where you want them, when you want them, if you want to break free.

At their core, immersive sims are all about open-ended puzzles with myriad creative solutions. Deathloop takes that idea and, through its time loop framework, adds layers upon layers: puzzles nested inside puzzles nested inside puzzles, matryoshka doll style, with effects rippling through every level in fascinating ways.

If that sounds a bit daunting, don't worry: Deathloop strikes a nice balance between openness and laying out paths to those who prefer a more guided style of play. As you gather intel, key information gets tracked in the form of leads that function a lot like quests in a more typical, linear game, giving you paths to follow that help with figuring out the ebbs and flows of Blackreef, while also creating space for the stories of each Visionary to unfold. You don't have to follow these routes, but especially on the first time through the game, they act as a nice introduction to how all the pieces come together (a bit like Mission Stories in Hitman, if you're familiar with those). On PS5, Deathloop also makes very good use of the consoles Guides function, offering an extra level of guidance if you want it. All of these things are optional, and going off-script is more than viable—it's where the game is at its best, in a lot of ways—but the way Deathloop accommodates a full spectrum of playstyles is welcome.


The time loop effect also manifests in a light rogue-like influence, where any gear you collect—weapons, perks, special powers—are lost at the end of each loop. You can, however, spend a resource called "residuum" to infuse select pieces of gear, making them permanently available for future runs. The stuff that drops randomly from enemies is mostly trash, but puzzling out how to get, preserve, and upgrade the best pieces of gear—which largely works in the same way as the leads you can follow to track down visionaries—is where the best sense of permanent progression comes in.

And of all those tools, the special power-granting Slabs are, by far, the best. Each one gives you some sort of pseudo-magical ability, like invisibility or short-distance teleports, opening up all manner of new ways to approach problems. The catch is that you can only get them by killing Visionaries—so even before you gun for that perfect, eight-kill loop, taking out targets whenever you can is worthwhile.

That said, it also does away with some of the more "traditional" aspects of an immersive sim, in a way that won't sit right with everyone. There's no way to hide the remains of slain enemies, for example (the bodies themselves disappear, but they leave an aetheric residue that others can see), and with a greater focus on guns and no disincentive for killing indiscriminately, a pure ghost playstyle is, while certainly viable, less encouraged. These things make sense in the context of the story, but it still feels a bit like something's missing.


On the other hand, it (optionally) adds another unique twist: player invasions. While the main story follows Colt's efforts to break the loop, you also have the option of trying to protect the loop as Julianna—at which point, you get dropped into someone else's game to try and cut their current loop short. These unexpected showdowns can be intense, dramatic, and wildly inconvenient, throwing all your meticulous planning out the window and forcing you to strategise on the fly, regardless of which side you're on. They won't be everyone's jam (and you can disable invasions entirely, if you want), but the high stakes bring a rush that's unlike anything else in the game.

Deathloop ties this all together with a captivating art style that draws on Blaxploitation films, psychedelica, and '60s spy flicks. In other words, it's a game that's overflowing with style, in everything from the surreal set design to the film poster-style animated cutscenes that you get to enjoy every now and then. That sense of style feeds into all the little intricate details of each location and the bizarre costume designs that you find on the "Eternalists" who serve as the game's regular goons.

The dialogue and plot draw from those same interactions, with mysteries upon mysteries and plenty of humorous, playful banter. Again, the radio conversations between Colt and Julianna are a highlight—the history and baggage the two share, but that only Julianna remembers, paves the way for some entertaining exchanges, brought home with stunning voice performances by Jason Kelly and Ozioma Akagha. The rest of the Visionaries can be a little one-note, but their eccentricities add some welcome flavour to a world that's already more than a little bizarre.


Deathloop is a game that takes the ideas driving the immersive sim genre to new heights. Purists may take issue with the way it breaks from some of the genre's traditions, but what it offers instead is something unlike anything else out there: a cleverly implemented time loop system that feeds into everything else, and opens the doors to a whole lot of new opportunities for the creative problem solving that sits at the heart of these games. That it does it all with a sense of style and confidence that few other games can match is icing on the cake.



Matt R.
Contributor

Review: Deathloop (Sony PlayStation 5)
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