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*Disclaimer - This product is being reviewed on the PlayStation 5.* Gaming Instincts is an Amazon affiliate and does gain financial benefits if you choose to purchase this product on this page.
Arkane Lyon's Deathloop is a bizarre mash-up of multiple genres. On the one hand, it has the gun collecting and power buffing you might expect of a looter-shooter game, and yet it is definitely not a looter-shooter. On the other hand, it has the repetition and mechanic mastery of a rogue-like title, while yet again not falling wholly into that category either. By mixing these two genres together, however, adding a dash of shoot 'em up mayhem and stealth action, and wrapping it all up in 'Blaxploitation', the '70s, and '60s styles, what Deathloop becomes is one of the most unforgettable shooters in recent memory. Defying easy definition, this title represents just the type of shake-up the first-person shooter genre has needed in recent years, creating a satisfying gameplay loop that keeps inviting you back (and yes, the pun was intended).
Break The Loop (Story)
Deathloop didn't need a strong story to sell me on it. All I needed was to jump in and start ducking and dodging bullets to know that I was going to enjoy playing around on the island of Blackreef. Color me shocked, then, when I found that I actually liked the story more than I thought I would - a lot more, in fact. Here's what you need to know: your character, Colt, is stuck in a time loop, and the only way to break it is to murder 8 people known as the Visionaries during a single sequence. To do this, you are going to have to do your best Bill Murray impression and relive the same day over and over again as you slowly piece together just who your enemies are and how you can take them down.
Each of these people is trapped in a loop of their own, reliving the same day and doing the same thing as well. The player's job, then, is to figure out just what events during the course of the day will put these characters in the right place at the right time to actually complete the loop in one perfect run. To figure this out you actually have to - and this is going to sound crazy - learn who your enemies actually are, and this is one way Deathloop is set apart from most similar titles. You see, most games have collectible documents and audio files in them to help flesh out the world. Usually, these pickups are optional and while in Deathloop many are as well, a lot of them add more than just lore. You never know when the right piece of information will give you the right lead to follow. Of course, on any run through the loop, you can just go after these people directly. While there is value in that, getting wrapped up in your enemies' individual substories is incredibly rewarding.
One of the Visionaries in particular, Julianna, is not just sitting around hoping that Colt doesn't show up. On the contrary, she is actively hunting him down. Of course, killing Cole doesn't end his quest as it simply resets the loop, but for the player that might be controlling her to invade your game (or you, should the assassin's shoe be on the other foot), it will sure feel satisfying to end his run. The banter between Julianna and Cole manages to be some of the most entertaining in a game of recent memory. A strong antagonist always manages to elevate a game's story beyond whatever limitations it might have, and Julianna will most likely stand the test of time as one of the best in recent memory in terms of both the mechanics of her gameplay and within the overall story arc.
Of course, expect some limitations in the story. You will be doing the same things over... and over... and for good measure all over again. Does this sentiment sound repetitive? Good, because that is how the game can feel at times as well. Once you piece together parts of the narrative and have plotted out how to kill your targets, you're left with a game that retreads the same beats. If you are enjoying the experience then you have nothing to worry about - but it is very noticeable. Running the same instances with the same setup can wear thin at times. There is a thin line between the excitement of rushing into the next loop, and one loop too many.
Welcome To Blackreef (Visuals & Audio)
Right off the bat, Deathloop throws its personality right in your face. The main menu for the game features lead characters Colt and Julianna diving at each other before zooming into their guns offering you the choice to 'Break The Loop' or 'Protect The Loop'. The player makes their choice by selecting their chosen gun, and it shoots, sending them to the island of Blackreef. There aren't many games that commit to their stylization in the way that Deathloop does, and this definitely helps add to its charm even when the novelty of the loop starts to wear thin.
As even the game's box cover presents, Deathloop draws heavily from the 'Grind House' era of films, with a special emphasis on the 'Blaxploitation' sub-genre that is fully deployed through the main characters. Colt is presented as a good guy who can be a little slow on the uptake, which brings classic film characters like Dolemite and Shaft to mind. On the other hand, Julianna feels like an homage to any number of roles Pam Grier took up during the '70s. The funky stylistic lens is applied to any number of other aspects of the title as well. The over the top brutal takedowns, bombastic big bads, and waves of enemies you have to mow your way through are all emblematic of the Exploitation genre. If anything, Deathloop conjures back an earlier Bethesda-produced game, WET - except now they have finally nailed the feeling of jumping straight into Quentin Tarantino's childhood.
The strong art direction helps to excuse some poor animation and character models, as basic enemies all look like plastic dolls that you are breaking. This might be a triple-A game, but like the film genres that inspired it, Deathloop is seemingly aiming for a low-budget vibe. The game has all of the polish you would expect, but there are a lot of minor gripes I could lodge. One is the stealth kill animations, which include bizarre neck snaps and loose machete animations. It is hard to tell if these are just things the company could not get right or a conscious choice the studio made, but at their worst they feel like a poor film edit - which, ironically, one would expect a lot of in grindhouse movies.
Music also plays a large part in the game, in the best way. Not only does the score set audio cues from the aforementioned era, but it also factors heavily into the multiplayer quite nicely. You can always tell your game is being invaded by the music shift which helps to tighten tension for the showdown to come. The soundscape draws heavily from classic '60s and '70s spy movies, which was another major influence on the game, to heighten the action and raise the intensity of the sneaking sections. Expect plenty of ambiance, too, as the music on offer sets the world as one that is living and breathing, and not just an action set piece.
Die and Die Again (Gameplay)
Colt will have multiple tools at his disposal throughout his adventure, but the most important of course will be guns, guns, and more guns. Players get to build a collection of these as the game progresses, and thankfully they do not have to be constantly relocated to be used during subsequent runs. Guns come in different grades, and higher grades can see them become less prone to jamming, as well as allowing for larger clips and perks that improve your chances of survival. My personal favorite was a Raptor that came equipped with explosive rounds, though I also found a Limp-10 that healed me with every shot I landed that often found its way into my loadout. Weapons also have add-ons called trinkets that can be attached for even more of an edge.
Deathloop begins to feel close to another Arkane title, Dishonored, with the 'slab powers' that Cole will earn as he runs the loop but only takes out one or two Visionaries at a time to power up for the eventual perfect run. These powers range from going invisible to linking enemies together so you can kill groups in quick succession. The slab powers really do change the way you approach your targets. A slab called 'shift', for instance, will allow you to teleport a short distance and makes taking the high ground a piece of cake, while 'aesir', which turns you invisible, makes it easy to slip past guards on the low ground and enter places that might be harder to without it. This further expands your ability to play how you want, and offers multiple points to switch loadouts in a day, allowing you to go after targets in whatever way you feel comfortable.
The biggest selling point to Deathloop for me was the constant struggle between Colt and Julianna - the multiplayer component to the game. While these moments can be fun, they also serve to annoy the hell out of you. Julianna can invade your game at any moment, meaning that moment could be after you just stealthed your way into position to kill your target amidst tons of guards. A fantastic run can then be turned into a desperate fight to stay alive, because as soon as Julianna shoots at Colt every enemy is alerted to his exact position. You can't really blame your opponent for dropping in at inopportune times, but this became insanely annoying while I was hunting trophies that require some time waited on the map or when I was setting up a kill that required me to wait for the exact right moment. It's never fun to sit for five minutes waiting for a character to position themselves just right only to see 'Julianna is on the hunt' appear.
This potential frustration is only compounded by the fact that Julianna levels up far faster than Colt. While players might have to run the loop a few times as Colt to acquire abilities and guns that are semi-decent, Julianna will earn them within three invasions or so, even if she ends up ultimately losing all three. Sure, Julianna has one life compared to Colt having a multi life function, but her ability to alert every enemy, coupled with her superior arsenal means that players only have to stomach being ineffective with Julianna for a miniscule amount of time until she seems to have the upper hand in most multiplayer battles. I couldn't tell if it is a component of the multiplayer to pit players of similar gear or skill against one another or there is a potential option to enable something akin to that, but I definitely felt overpowered by enemy players in my first few matches. Ultimately, I made the late-game decision to switch to single player-only mode, which removes the live player option for Julianna's invasions and replaces her with AI.
Deathloop, like most the films it draws from, is not perfect. But what it gets right in its repetition is the zany over the top nature that the grindhouse was known for. Memorable moments will abound as you unleash your powers to take down the Visionaries or invade someone else's loop. The art style and direction of the title manage to overcome every issue present, though I would argue those issues are nothing too major in the first place. Tight gunplay and well-designed levels also make the exploration of each stage as you try to learn all the ways you can tackle the challenge before you all the more fun as well. Deathloop's limitations present in how often you will have to repeat events to complete certain tasks. Sadly, these moments don't change much, meaning that once you have worked out the secret sauce to handle a situation, it might lose its luster. All issues aside, though - Blackreef is definitely the place to be.