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DEATHLOOP is mostly wacky timey-wimey fun
★★★ | It's almost streets ahead, but also some streets behind.
(DEATHLOOP is out now for the PlayStation, Xbox, and PC. The distributor provided a review code)
Where was I?
DEATHLOOP begins spectacularly. You wake up on a gorgeous remote island to discover a hopping 60s locale in full swing. Almost instantly bullets start flying, and before you know it, you’re held upside down along a cliff by… yourself. Time gets all wonky, and soon you’re back on the beach, the day now restarted.
It’s a thrilling, perplexing, and utterly bewildering way to kick off a game, one that the rest of DEATHLOOP rarely manages to live up to.
As evidenced by the title, DEATHLOOP revolves around repeating the same day over and over again, usually by dying horrific and violent deaths.
Set on the island of Blackreef, where a mysterious force keeps the day in a perpetual loop, you play as Colt, a man with a mysterious past and bad attitude, on a quest to break the cycle. Somehow Colt seems entirely unaffected by the daily repeat, which wipes the memories of everyone else affected. He’s hounded by the snarky and deadly Julianna, who may have a past with Colt one way or another.
Pretty soon Blackreef turns into their hunting ground, as Julianna searches for Colt, while the latter seeks to kill The Visionaries, who control everything. Whoever gets to their target first and before the day resets, wins. What do they win? Who knows, but it must be something.
Who’s chasing who?
The first few hours of this cat-and-mouse game throughout time are utterly fantastic. Arkane is one of the best developers around when it comes to creating worlds and moods, and Blackreef does not disappoint. Split across four different areas of the island, DEATHLOOP employs a nifty daylight structure, where each visit to an area takes a portion of your precious time before another reset.
Some areas will be bustling with life in the morning, while others will be quiet as the grave. Events take place depending on what you do in select scenarios, making the entire playground a giant Rube Goldberg machine for you to mess with.
For example, a fireworks shop burned down in the afternoon. In the morning, it still stood. Inside it is a clue you need for your next mission. So it’s time to repeat the day, and arrive early enough that you can prevent the fire. But that prevention has unintended consequences, and areas that were abandoned later in the evening will now be filled with activity. Everything connects to everything.
Sadly, this early promise does not carry far. At about the halfway point of the game, DEATHLOOP starts to succumb to the deadly tropes of time travel fiction. Plot points fall by the wayside, narrative threads begin to unravel, and soon the whole thing stops making sense entirely.
Even the characters of Colt and Julianna, who so deftly carry the action early on, turn into unlikable versions of themselves, whose motivations become flimsier the further the plot progresses.
It’s not that they can’t be terrible people, there are plenty of anti-heroes in gaming already, but I never understood why I needed to empathize with or even understand them. At least not after a certain point, which I won’t reveal here.
The plot still hums along reasonably nicely to its end, which comes around the fifteen-hour mark. But unlike Arkane’s previous efforts, notably the DISHONORED saga, I didn’t have a burning desire to immediately revisit the adventure.
Similarly, Blackreef soon reveals itself to be more glitter than substance, and much of the early marvels start to grate. While there are plenty of alternate routes to take and deadly traps to set, everything feels superficial and limited. Side characters have very little to say, and the lore scattered around the island is nowhere near the quality of previous titles from the studio.
The same goes for the skills, which are fun, but similar to anyone who has played DISHONORED. Blink, the ability to teleport short distances, is practically lifted wholesale to DEATHLOOP. Getting them is part of the fun, though, and managing your inventory in a way that you pick the right skills and weapons for the job is one of the more rewarding parts of the entire endeavor.
What’s worse, DEATHLOOP struggles immensely on the PC. Now, granted, these issues are only recorded for a minority of players, but my unit happened to be one of them.
Even on a high-end system (Ryzen 9 5900x, 32GB DDR4, RTX 2080ti), DEATHLOOP struggles to hit a constant 60fps at 1080p, let alone 1440p or higher. Stuttering is everywhere, and strange lighting issues caused my copy to constantly need gamma adjustments. Arkane is looking into these issues, and a new public beta is available on Steam to fix them. But so far, the game remains unplayable in parts.
I tried out a PlayStation 5 copy to compare, and it ran beautifully without any issues. Whatever the cause of the problems, they seem limited to certain PC gamers.
But that doesn’t stop it from being hugely frustrating, and it very nearly killed the entire experience for me. Combined with the narrative issues, DEATHLOOP becomes a very hard experience to recommend.
Always be my maybe
Elsewhere, odd little details detract as well. The always-online component, where another player can invade your timeline as Julianna, feels half-baked. For me, it ended way too often experiencing griefing by hugely overpowered players looking to make life miserable. Luckily, this setting can be turned off.
But, at the same time, everything in the game keeps reminding you that you’re in a hurry, even if you’re not. Want to read a note left behind that reveals more secrets about the island? Tough, the game will continue running in the background, often leading to an NPC wandering in and spotting you. No worries, you can grab the paper along and read it later, only for the automatic notification system to spoil the content for you with a heads-up display.
Compared to the technical issues, these are not dealbreakers, but they do feel like odd oversights for a company that used to emphasize immersion above all else.
I realize I’m coming off as negative here, and it’s not my intention. When DEATHLOOP works, it is pure, unadulterated fun with a capital F. Arkane is one of my favorite developers, so there’s also a desire to expect more from them, and sometimes that might make disappointments stand out even more.
But after twenty days with the game, I can’t shake the feeling like DEATHLOOP could have done with another month or two in development. Just to iron out all the kinks. Because right now, it’s got endless potential, and most of it remains out of reach.