September 20, 2021
Stuck in a time where so many days feel all-too-similar to the one before it, Arkane's Deathloop arrives at perhaps the perfect time in modern history. A stealth-action game with heart and spunk, Deathloop is a game you should consider getting to know on your platform of choice, and the first entry in our Recommends series.
(PhillyVoice Recommends is where we'll spotlight things we enjoy across the pop culture spectrum, but also inclusive of gadgets, gear, and spots around Philadelphia, answering the critical question of today: what is worth your time and money? If you have something you think we should take a look at, feel free to shoot an email or slide into my DMs on Twitter.)
Deathloop ($60, PS5 & PC) is the story of Colt Vahn, the wise-cracking, slightly unsure protagonist players control in first-person. We begin our story — and, it's worth noting, continue his story — with nothing to work with except for the clothes on his back, as Colt (and by extension the player) is tasked with answering a few questions, "Where am I, who am I, and how do I get out of here?"
"Here" is a place called Blackreef, but "here" is also one particular day in Blackreef. Colt is stuck in an endless cycle of life and death, destruction and chaos, living through a retro-themed Groundhog's Day scenario that he can only break if he is able to murder the game's eight primary targets (referred to as Visionaries) in one loop. Simple enough on paper, this turns out to be a trickier task than he bargained for, and the game's central task is figuring out how to arrange the four periods of your day to complete the task.
Colt's quest for the perfect murder spree is accompanied by taunts over a walkie-talkie from Julianna, a Visionary with whom you appear to have an especially touchy relationship with. His female frenemy mocks what you think you know even as your wisdom and arsenal expand over time, and the rapport between a would-be escapee and a supporter of the status quo is unmistakable. In spite of her mockery, Colt zooms through day after day in search of answers, hoping to book a trip off of the beach and out of this strange predicament.
"How did I get here and who am I?" is not exactly uncharted territory in film or video games, and the dialogue style initially feels like it could wear out its welcome when you first fire Deathloop up. But Arkane ends up hitting all the right notes, using just enough absurdist tint to give the game some levity.
As for how it plays, Deathloop straddles the line between stealth and shooter, best described as an action game where methodology is in the hands of the player. A small but mighty weapon pool ranges from silent nail guns to oversized sniper rifles, and anyone who has played the Dishonored series will recognize powers borrowed from Arkane's beloved stealth series. Initially, the player's powers and arsenal will reset with each day-and-night cycle that goes by, but the player quickly gains the ability to retain abilities between runs, growing more powerful as they spend more time in the game world. It doesn't reinvent the wheel mechanically, but it does just about everything well.
Dumped onto an unknown beach with nary a clue, the start of Deathloop is an extended hand-holding session, gently guiding you through the game's mechanics over the first hour or two. But the moment the game's pseudo-tutorial ends, you have damn near limitless paths in front of you to explore Blackreef and untangle the mystery for yourself.
Consistent with the story's structure, you can learn (almost) as much or as little as you want at any given time. Feel like rummaging through every last building and turning over every stone during a morning in one location? You can do that, provided the buildings you want to get to are accessible at that time. There's nothing stopping you from accomplishing a lot in big chunks, save for your own competence at evading or killing the "citizens" of the world.
The joy in Deathloop, though, is in the natural progression you make responding to the game world. Everything from notes on a desk to random conversations on the street can potentially steer you toward a goal, though it's not always clear which of each will be important at a given time. Some of the email correspondence between Visionaries are inane ramblings that exist to simply flesh out the personalities of your targets. A huddled chat in the street is more likely to end with a bad joke punchline or complaint about the loop than it is to provide you with the answers you seek, but there are just enough clues sprinkled in those talks to make you stop and listen to a few more discussions than you needed to.
It is just different enough from the average fact-finding process in modern games to actually feel like detective work, which is a credit to Arkane's design. In the modern world where solutions and secrets are only a Google search away, the temptation is always there to opt-out of the puzzle process altogether. Deathloop gamifies breaks in the case in such satisfying fashion that there was never a moment where seeking outside help felt necessary or even rewarding. In fact, the fact-finding process is enjoyable enough to inspire a slower, more deliberate playthrough of the game, giving yourself time to appreciate each new eureka moment before searching for the next.
It helps that Blackreef is an interesting world to explore, structurally if not thematically. The connective tissue between Deathloop and Arkane's Dishonored series is most apparent in its level design — each hanging chandelier and patch of sheet ice is placed purposefully, an invitation for players to take (or at least consider) the number of paths available to them. The verticality of all four primary maps is impressive, even when it occasionally means you're hanging with your toes over the edge of a windowsill or cliff. You will undoubtedly take the wrong step or teleport yourself into an explosive mine at some point, but the game is relatively forgiving for traversal mistakes, provided you don't toss yourself off of a ravine or into the apparently unswimmable waters.
Each of the levels looks and feels different depending on the time of day, too. A sleepy town during the day turns into a bustling party location at night. A busy workstation eventually becomes an isolated playground of destruction for one particularly self-important Visionary. As you whittle down the possibilities, you'll become more familiar with some iterations than others, honing in on a few select times and locations, but each has the mark of TLC from the developer. Good things come to those who wait, even if the "good thing" is as mundane on the surface as leaving a garage door open for a brief moment in time during the afternoon.
When you do things matters as much as where. At first, the game's primary task seems impossible because of how the Visionaries spread themselves across the four maps and time periods. It's up to you to subtly manipulate their days in order to move the chess pieces into a position that suits you, and that process rarely involves guns and ammo.
Embedded within this puzzle is a Dark Souls-style invasion system, a feature that by default allows human invaders to enter your game to hunt you down. Should you choose to, an option can be toggled to only allow an AI version of Julianna to tamper with your run. But the gulf between the experience with a human invader vs. the computer Julianna is so vast that the latter should not even be considered, and I would argue the human invader mechanic is transformative for Deathloop, taking a good overall product to the doorstep of greatness.
A stealth action game with an occasional AI invader is nothing more than a brief annoyance in pursuit of your goals. Hand the same tools to someone with a human brain, and suddenly you're tasked with besting someone who has traveled the same paths and understands each period as well as you do. And some of these opponents are armed better than you are — one of my earliest battles with a human opponent opened before I realized I was dealing with a real human, and my naivety was immediately punished when they teleported behind me and opened up my jugular before I realized what happened.
One encounter with an enemy player over the weekend lasted a solid 25 minutes, a game of cat and mouse that pushed both of us to our limits, ducking behind chimneys and darting through open windows in constant pursuit of the upper hand. When I finally landed the killing blow with a souped-up shotgun in an underground Updaam passageway, I could think of nothing else but to pump my fist, only to realize the goals I had before starting the mission had still not come close to being completed. These encounters only figure to get more exciting over time, with players maxing out their kits and developing playstyles all their own.
Drip-fed over the course of many loops, Deathloop is rock solid in most ways that matter for a video game, delivering a strong story in a unique fashion within a fun sandbox. It will almost certainly contend for GOTY honors in 2021.
Arkane has a knack for making games that are beautifully crafted, filled with possibility, and at least semi-broken on release. Prey, running on CRYENGINE, had numerous issues (including some egregious cases of input lag on console) on release. More pertinently, the Void Engine — which Arkane developed/spun off of IDTech6 for Dishonored 2 — returns for Deathloop and has not gotten any less problematic for users in the meantime. Menu crashes on the PS5 version led this writer to purchase the PC edition instead, only to run into more extensive crashing than was reported in pre-release previews. I was running this on a pretty beefy setup (I'm one of the lucky few with an RTX 3080 graphics card that isn't using it to mine crypto) and still ran into semi-frequent crashes, including one that rendered Steam unusable until I restarted the PC altogether.
The good news is that Deathloop's auto save system was proficient enough to avoid lost progress, keeping me in the same spot with the same gear I had before getting the boot back to my start screen. The bad news is this wasn't the only issue I ran into during my time with the game. Stuttering and frame slowdown were fairly common, and at times my exploration of the world was cut short so I could get to a game break and give the game a chance to "refresh" and deliver the crisp experience it had at its best. Tweaks to graphic settings didn't do much to offset these issues, with performance fluctuating on Ultra and Medium settings alike.
Insofar as there are complaints about the end product, it is slightly disappointing that there only seems to be one ultimate setup to solve the loop and "win" the game. Your ultimate methodology might change — a machete for you, a sniper rifle for me — but you ultimately have one path that allows you to execute your mission in one shot, which is somewhat of a bummer in a game that thrives as a result of choice. But given that the search for this path is essentially the driving force of the game, I'm not sure there's a way to tweak this without changing what makes the game so good in the first place.
And there's no way around the fact that the game's A.I. is downright bad. You're often able to string together kills in quick succession without detection even when it feels obvious that someone should have been tipped off, a problem that grows worse as you fill up your arsenal over time. One could argue the freedom you're afforded is the point of the game, and thus "challenge" takes a backseat, but I doubt Arkane deliberately set out to offer braindead enemies, especially given the tactical awareness of enemies in their other games.
If you can forgive those flaws, Deathloop is well worth your time. These issues leave it short of 10/10 masterpiece status, but imperfect greatness is greatness all the same.
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