‘Deathloop’: a classic video game resource establishes Arkane as the queen of the most strategic action
The impressions that elicited the initial previews of ‘Deathloop’ pointed to a game that could be a stylized shooter brimming with humor and violence, and with a retro feel, in a kind of amusement park for professional killers. The only thing that made those early sketches doubtful was the name of the responsible studio: Arkane, creators of both ‘Dishonored’ and ‘Prey’. Titles of enormous prestige, praised since their departure, and above all, with a good number of elements in common.
Those elements are the combination of careful setting work applied to the settings and surroundings, and highly polished mechanics, which They ended up curdling in an objective that the study has always been very clear about: that the player approaches the adventure as he wishes. While ‘Dishonored’ was more geared towards infiltration and stealth, and ‘Prey’ was geared towards direct action with multiple strategic options based on the player’s powers, there was always a margin of decision to approach the levels, intricate puzzles of violence and death to face on tiptoe or with all possible artillery. ‘Deathloop’ continues the tradition.
Only here the protagonist, Colt, is locked in a loop of continuous resurrection, style ‘Trapped in time’ or ‘Edge of tomorrow’, and must deduce clues in order to break the loop of each new life. That is to say, ‘Deathloop’ takes hold of the oldest process in the history of videogames, the continual rebirth with new “lives” and makes it part of the game mechanics. Something that we have assimilated with games of all genres (each death is not a Game Over, but an opportunity to learn and improve in the next attempt), here it is integrated into the development in a very nice way.
To break the loop you have to eliminate eight targets, called Visionaries, and do it in a single cycle. In other words, each restart of the loop is an opportunity to gather clues that allow it to be properly planned, since each Visionary is present only in one place and at one time of the day (in turn divided into four blocks: morning, noon, afternoon and night). Every life is a blank slate and a strategic challenge … that once all the necessary data has been collected to propose that strategy, of course.
An exquisite balance between the frustrating and the challenging
Arkane is famous for not making things easy for players, and this time plants a concept with an extreme point to the player, which connects in a sense with ideas of sophisticated torture as the permadeath of the roguelikes or the difficulty to the cube of the games style ‘Souls’, here with an extra point of bad milk and perverse humor. With each new loop, Colt loses all the stored arsenal and although he has managed to kill a Visionary, he is resurrected as well.
The way to progress is to locate a specific Visionary who gives the possibility to use the Residues, a way that by restarting a loop, both weapons and blocks (special powers that Visionaries keep) and wits (weaponry improvements) can be preserved. This Residue is a substance that is scattered on the maps and that permeates what you want to remain when you start the new loop. Another good reason to explore the mapping in depth.
Does it seem complicated? It is not once the action is underway, but as in ‘Dishonored’, it is advisable not to be overwhelmed by the multiple possibilities, and patiently collect clues to progress in a game that in the most unexpected moments can send us to the beginning with empty pockets. Arkane plays with the possibility of frustrating the player, but there is no loop in which he does not perceive how the game is progressing, so total desperation is always knocking on the door of the game without fully entering. A tricky balance that Arkane succeeds in thanks to the generosity of the mechanics and the overwhelming visual appeal of the game.
It also maintains interest thanks to the extraordinary level design, which although it does not reach the heights of ingenuity and complexity of ‘Dishonored 2’ (no houses that transform here, like gigantic puzzles), the study lives up to its fame, and presents levels that can be tackled from multiple avenues. The rooftops, the inside of the houses, dozens of shortcuts and surprises that are never fully discovered … the levels can be repeated dozens of times, but it is fortunate that each turn of the loop allows discovering new ways to explore them. As we say, frustration is around the corner, but it never ends.
There are still elements to unearth from ‘Deathloop’ that we have not pointed out in this introduction. For example, the character of Julianna, who accompanies Colt via radio (watch out for the PS5 version, he speaks through the controller in delicious and very immersive detail), which will make dangerous forays into our games, which has the best backstory of all and which justifies a nice multiplayer in which we can let ourselves fall for other people’s games to get other players into trouble.
Or for example, the splendid setting is very remarkable, capable of being measured in terms of ingenuity and design with the memorable fantasy steampunk from ‘Dishonored’. The carefree pop, classic spy movie parody setting has plenty of twists and dark sides, its carefully crafted levels making it easy to immerse yourself in the story and its retro philosophy fits in perfectly with the mechanics of continuous return to the past that Colt suffers. A perfect example of a perfectly blended medium and message.
Perhaps on the other side of the scale, in the aspects not so successful, it would be necessary to locate a somewhat erratic firing system that makes the confrontations somewhat chaotic. Because of that, the game pushes the player to use stealth and infiltration whenever possible, which partly betrays his philosophy of “play it your way”. As always in these cases, upgrading the weapons and finding a few powers makes the repeating areas more accessible and bearable, so it is not a serious problem.
In a personal capacity, I am fascinated by the very strong bet that a return to the past of the caliber of an adventure like this supposes, in which the main thing is to collect information that allows opening ways to carry out a mission that is clear from the beginning, that kind of speedrun which is “kill all eight targets in a single cycle”. It’s both edgy and modern, but with a delicious old-fashioned edge. I celebrate the great grades the game is receiving, but I wonder if such a risky concept camp you will find an audience with enough patience to unravel its wonderful secrets. Let’s hope so.