Death is not the end in Blackreef… it’s simply a doorway to the past. Or the future. Or both. Or neither. Who in the AF knows, because all the characters in Arkane Lyon’s latest sandbox playground certainly don’t. Well, nearly all. Bethesda’s penultimate PlayStation appearance (if the fanboys are to be believed) was always one to watch coming from a team that’s brought us the intricate Dishonored series as well as the wonderful remake of Prey. The shift in style, if not mechanics, promises a raucous adventure as they move away from a stealth vibe; and DEATHLOOP is an audacious, complex, and entirely satisfying attempt at telling a story across a repeating loop of time. Its key challenge though is to make it approachable for the most casual of casual gamers, yet not dumb it down for those looking for a more cerebral challenge. Have Arkane Lyon managed to pull off becoming the Christopher Nolan of game development?
Colt Vahn isn’t having a good day, over and over again. We join him as he’s getting a machete thrust into his chest by Julianna Blake for no clear reason, though it’s pretty obvious this isn’t the first time they’ve stared into each others eyes whilst dying. Fade to black. Wake up on a beach. Understandably, Colt’s a little perplexed and the jarring nature of his demise and awakening aren’t doing much for us as the player feeling like we’ve a handle on the events. What’s going on? Where is he? Why are there giant words appearing over the world? How come Julianna knows him, but he doesn’t know her? These are simply the first mysteries that DEATHLOOP introduces, and it doesn’t really slow down from there. The island of Blackreef is stuck repeating the same day with every inhabitant losing all knowledge of events when the clock ticks over at midnight and returns to the previous morning. Strangely, Julianna and Colt don’t, and it’s the latter that has an imperative to break the loop and escape this nightmare existence to drive him on. The only problem is that he’s no idea what has caused it or how to stop it.
After some gentle introductions to what is available in Blackreef, and a few people trying to kill him for being a “traitor”, Colt figures out that the only way to escape is to kill all the visionaries on the island, who comprise of the founder and leaders of this strange cult of AEON. There’s a catch though – there are four areas they’re based in, and four time periods in the day to visit, effectively making sixteen potential locations, but he can only visit one place in each time period. This means that tackling eight bosses is going to need a little more than rocking up on each of their doorsteps with a grenade… he’s going to have to find out where they are, what they like, and organise their diaries. It’s true, DEATHLOOP’s core concept is a unique interpretation of trying to organise a team meeting with the world’s most antisocial work colleagues. This is going to need cunning and guile, and not falling foul of the fact that all of them have some form of mystical power that makes them particularly tough to beat. Oh, and Julianna’s not going to sit back and wait for Colt to come for her, she’ll spend her time hunting him down and make him reset his day.
Herein lies the beauty of DEATHLOOP – it’s an unexpected puzzle game. Arkane’s previous fare has always had elements of figuring out how to solve various riddles, yet here Blackreef itself is the conundrum. That’s not just in working through how to manipulate where all the targets are going to be, but in the island itself. As Colt explores it starts to reveal more of itself and drops in a lot of incidental detail that reveals the history. AEON aren’t the original occupiers, HZN were and they’ve left locked off areas dotted around that can’t be accessed. The time loop might be caused by the massive machine in the centre of the island, or that might be containing it locally, or it might have nothing to do with it at all. Even the people who volunteered to live there have their own stories and things going on during the day to be discovered and exploited. It’s like a constant drip feed of clues that need arranging and piecing together, then followed like breadcrumbs until there’s a coherent answer that can be used as part of the escape plan. Each area changes depending on the time of day too, so visiting in the morning will be very different to the night, with alternate areas and routes becoming available. Blackreef might initially feel quite small and limited on the first day, but that soon expands as the loops get more intense.
Part of the progression is knowing in which time period to visit each area, and using the reset of the day as a way to access things that have already been missed. There’s a really good storyline structure that keeps the momentum up, and it rarely feels like there’s a dead end. If one path is being followed to deal with a visionary, it’s possible to focus entirely on that and skip forward between morning, noon, afternoon and evening to get to a conclusion. Or, and my preferred way, move with the flow of time and work out multiple little vignettes throughout the day before looping back in again to tackle the next steps. Or die to wake back up on the beach. That is likely to happen at some point because a) whilst there’s lots of places to visit and root through, they’re also riddled with Eternalist cult members who are desperate to shoot you on sight; and b) the story forces it to explain the mechanics. Get your head around how this works and what the game is trying to get you to do, and it becomes a a joy as your mind joins the dots for what you’ve seen and are going to see. It really is a novel way of making people replay levels repeatedly without them feeling repetitive, and still delivering a sense of continual discovery. Don’t think this means there’s only one specific way of taking out a target though. Finding them or getting them where you want them is one thing, relieving them of their lives for the day can be done in any number of ways.
A large part of DEATHLOOP’s appeal is the sandbox nature that Arkane have built their reputation on, and fans of their previous work are going to feel right at home, even down to the combination shooter/power uses. When Colt takes out a visionary he can collect their slab which imbues him with a power to cause mayhem or help in his traversal of Blackreef. There’s also a default slab he obtains first called Reprise which lets him have two extra lives. Get wiped out in any way and he’s reintroduced to the area a short distance from where he fell, which is handy for getting immediate revenge and recovering what he’d collected. Have death visited upon him three times and it forces a reset of the day and to lose whatever he’s scavenged up to that point, and stops him from completing his objective. This is why Julianna is tracking him down – to cause as much disruption as possible – and she’s arguably harder than all the other visionaries to take out, but not impossible. Take her down instead and Colt can refill his Reprise meter, snag a random slab, and prevent her from appearing until the following day. Handy. As the knowledge of the world increases it’s possible to infuse items with Residuum which acts as a currency to carryover powers, weapons and upgrades into subsequent days, and this is what ends up unlocking the biggest progression leap as Colt (and you) learn how to use the loop against the rest.
All items can be procured on site during each loop, and as much as the trinkets and slab upgrades add bonuses to a loadout, DEATHLOOP keeps the armoury tight so that you’ll not mourn the loss of something. Of course, with the day repeating you can just go and get it again at the same time in the day, so nothing ever really dies. This makes most hoarding behaviour obsolete, and you’re only really hunting through nooks and crannies to find more Residuum, or selling off the surplus items to gain a bit more. Firearms-wise, there’s a couple of each class: pistol, submachine gun, shotgun, rifle; and all have benefits and drawbacks depending on your playstyle. The pistols are usually silenced and good stealth weapons, though pretty useless in a full fat firefight, whereas the shotguns are chunky damage dealers as long as you don’t mind drawing an audience. An ever present machete works as a decent melee attack, and makes short work of anyone silly enough to keep their back to you. Dual wielding the one handed guns is a perfectly valid way of increasing your fire rate, and there’s even an option to have them independently aiming if you’re so inclined. Combining the ballistics with explosives is always a nice touch, and each day starts with an allotment of multipurpose grenades that lets traps be laid and enemies dismembered. Really though, it’s when you pull all the different offensive abilities together that the fun starts in earnest.
Whilst there are powers that have clear attacking opportunities, like Nexus linking multiple foes so that what happens to one, happens to all; the traversal ones can be upgraded to become more lethal. Take Shift which teleports you a short distance to where you’re looking. Get the Swap upgrade and the teleport will let you target a foe and change places instantly. Were you stood by one of your proximity charges perchance? Or in front of a hacked turret? Or maybe you were mid-jump over a chasm? There are a tonne of possibilities to explore with the likes of Karnesis that lifts and throws enemies, Havoc that reduces damage taken whilst increasing damage dealt, and Aether which will make Colt invisible. Every one can be used at the same time as a weapon, and all can be improved in some way. The only restrictions are the number of upgrade slots (only two per power) and your own imagination. It’s a bit Hitman-like in its revisiting a level approach, and I’m pretty sure we’ll be seeing all sorts of impressive clips of how to knock off the AI, and other players. If you fancy a break from playing as Colt then there’s Julianna to jump in with and invade someone else’s game, creating a deadly version of cat and mouse. Taking care of the single player game version can be tough, having to manage another person likely to be more unpredictable makes things far more tense.
With DEATHLOOP being a full next gen release there are all the extras you’d expect – fast loading from the SSD, increased graphical fidelity, 3D audio, and use of the haptics and adaptive feedback. The vibration settings are really good for feeling the weapons trigger pull and recoil, and pick something with full auto and you’ll be dealing with jams that lock up the trigger buttons until you clear them. It runs comfortably at 4K with raytracing, though will be locked to 30 fps, and it looks pretty spectacular like this. If you want the responsiveness that comes with 60 fps there are two other modes that dial back on the 4K lock and remove the RT, and each still looks very pretty, though you’ll probably notice some texture and shadow impact. No matter what framerate it’s running out, there’s no getting away from the late 60’s/early 70’s vibes that make up the world, and it’s this that makes it feel distinct from the majority of other first person titles. Our two main characters are extremely well voiced as well, and there’s a hefty dose of grindhouse/exploitation language to ram home the 70’s cinema aesthetic. If you’re offended by bad language then I suggest you play with the volume off, as well as the controller speaker because that drops just as many F-bombs as the TV.
There is almost nothing to dislike about DEATHLOOP, it’s a hell of a good game, and constantly impresses with the wide scope of the story and the immaculate attention to detail. The predictable nature of the loop and the familiarity it breeds make it comforting to revisit, and the way you change it through your actions always delights. Even dying isn’t problematic, it just means starting the day again and trying something different. We’ve seen quite a lot of the mechanics in previous titles by the studio, where Shift and Nexus are direct lifts from Dishonored, and the shooting and upgrading has a lot in common with Prey, but in no way does this feel like either, nor is it cobbled together from their leftovers. It’s a well polished sci-fi puzzle hiding inside FPS clothing, and it’s that fact that brought the smiles when it revealed itself. As a showcase for next gen capabilities there are better out there, yet I can see myself spending much more time revisiting Blackreef and uncovering all its secrets, it’s simply that entertaining. Add in the pleasure inherent in jumping into a Codec Moments team member’s game and disrupting their progress, and I’ll be laughing all the way to this morning.
A PS5 review copy of DEATHLOOP was provided by Bethesda’s PR team, and it’s available now on PS5 and PC for around £55.