Twenty-four hours. Eight targets. It seems simple enough, but Arkane Studios isn't known for playing it safe. Following in the footsteps of Dishonored and Prey, Deathloop is Arkane's latest time-bending immersive sim that oozes style, taking inspiration from the 1960s to create a bold aesthetic not usually seen in video games.
I recently had the chance to sit in on a hands-off gameplay preview along with a Q&A from Game Director Dinga Bakaba and Art Director Sebastien Mitton ahead of Deathloop's release on the PS5. I was already eagerly awaiting the game before the preview, and this preview has only solidified my feelings. Deathloop could easily be one of the most interesting games to come out this year.
What are the loops in Deathloop?
Without spoiling anything, the gameplay preview started off at the beginning, with one of our main characters Colt waking up on Blackreef suffering from a severe case of amnesia. As he attempts to figure out what the hell is going on, Julianna announces herself over a loudspeaker and begins to taunt him. What followed was a cutscene that made my jaw drop, and it's clear that there is a lot more going on with this time loop than Arkane has let on.
For anyone still confused about the time loop mechanic, it was described like this: You start out your day in the morning and you can choose a district you want to visit. Once you exit a district, time advances (morning, noon, afternoon, evening). You can then select whichever district you'd like to visit next in any order. Bakaba said that you can choose to skip one time period and go directly where you need to be or want to explore. To keep things from getting stale, districts will be different depending on the time of day you visit, and some locations may be open or closed off as a result.
Speaking of the time loop, Bakaba was asked what design decisions were made to make sure each loop felt productive. His answer provided some insight into how the team at Arkane views the time loops in Deathloop. Instead of being a unit of progression, it's simply the state of the world.
"Actually, the way we see those loops is that they are not the unit of progression, the loop is the state of the world," he said. "And the world is like this: It's a world that loops. But the state of your progression is actually how you complete your goals."
He went on to explain how players will visit a particular district (there are four within the game) and find various leads to their next target or goal, like an investigation. As players uncover more clues, they slowly learn how the world unfolds and how each character lives their lives. This is the real progression in Deathloop, and the amount of variety keeps each loop from being repetitive.
It's a new take on the roguelike
Some would compare this type of gameplay to a roguelike, although Bakaba doesn't believe himself that it's a roguelike. He describes roguelikes where it's progression through increasingly difficult levels, and there's a repetition there as you overcome a challenge. In Deathloop, your goal isn't necessarily to make it to the end of a day — it's more of a murder puzzle. You can approach each mission as you see fit. You're allowed to spend as little or as much time in any district before moving onto the next, and you can visit each during any time of the day that you choose.
"I think it's a genre that a lot of us at Arkane like a lot," said Bakaba. "You can tell by the one roguelike that Arcane did, which is Prey Mooncrash from Arkane Austin. As it pertains to Deathloop, the approach was quite different... Because, in general, I've been convinced that it's communities who really decide what sub genre your game falls into to be quite honest, immersive sims wouldn't exist if players didn't make it it's own sub genre."
Deathloop is all about building up your mastery and your knowledge of the world around you. You'll have the ability to keep weapons, trinkets, and powers between each loop, making your sense of progression even more stark. While Deathloop's weapons and powers have been showcased in prior trailers, the inclusion of trinkets may have been easy to miss. Trinkets act a bit like bone charms from Dishonored and can buff Colt's weapons and abilities to various effect.
And speaking of powers, one of them is Reprise, giving Colt the ability rewind time on death twice before the loop restarts after your third death. I was initially worried how the game would be balanced with the time loop in mind, and this alleviates some of my worries.
For Dishonored fans out there, you've probably already noticed that Colt has a few powers up his sleeve reminiscent of Blink (Shift in Deathloop), Domino (Nexus), and Windblast (Karnesis). His others include Aether, the ability to render himself invisible; and Havoc, which gives Colt the power to absorb damage and discharge it in "an epic blast of destructive power," according to Arkane.
Arkane put great effort into Deathloop's level design to accommodate these powers and the fact that another player can invade your game as Julianna (this PVP aspect can be turned off or toggled to friends only). Bakaba noted that Arkane always tries to make their levels very open-ended so that they can be traversed in multiple ways, especially since players will be visiting these districts several times. A lot of the environment was designed by developers who have architectural backgrounds.
Interestingly, he also revealed that the number of AI characters that can be in combat is around double that of Dishonored, thanks to the power of the PS5.
I mentioned earlier that Deathloop has a very bold aesthetic inspired by the 1960s. Art Director Sebastien Mitton said that he suggested the 60s because it reminded him of a time when people were happier and weren't worried too much about the future, barring the Cold War.
"I thought that was very interesting to create all these characters who were going to live forever, who are going to have a party forever, and be able to really go mad," he said.
These elements then informed the sci-fi aspects of the game, allowing Arkane to create interesting gadgets and weapons. Mitton also brought up how he worked on Prey and was inspired by that blend and contrast of the Russian and American eras.
"And that was my approach," Mitton said. "I thought, 'I'd like to push that even further.' And that's what we tried to bring to Blackreef. What's interesting as well is we did this with Dishonored and Ravenholm, all our previous projects. We create a big visual contrast in the environment between different things. So for example, you take an island that's isolated north of Scotland, which has an old fishing village, you add to that metallic structures and bunkers, like in Pripyat and Chernobyl, and then it takes place during the 60s, and people were going to have an eternal party. It creates a place that is completely unique."
The gameplay preview I was shown displayed all of the aforementioned design philosophies that Bakaba and Mitton discussed. The target was Aleksis Dorsey, in the midst of throwing an extravagant party at his mansion. We got to see the Reprise ability in action along with some gadgets that Colt will use to disable turrets and other devices. Very much like Dishonored and Prey, you can mix and match the tools at your disposal and approach a mission as you see fit. There are multiple ways to take out a target, so get creative.
Though this wasn't shown in the preview, Bakaba mentioned that Deathloop has a lot of side activities and missions that help build up the world, probably even more so than Dishonored. Part of the reason is because you'll be visiting these districts so much, and the team wanted the world to feel alive with a lot of small things to pick up on.
If I came away from the preview with only one thought, it's that Arkane is cooking up something special with Deathloop. It's an open sandbox where the possibilities feel nearly endless, leading to high replayability. Arkane only keeps getting better and better with every new game, and if it takes everything it's learned from the past and packs it into Deathloop, we could be looking at a game of the year contender. At the very least, it's a game that should be talked about for a long, long time.
Deathloop is set to hit PS5 and PC on Sept. 14, 2021. Though Arkane is now owned by Xbox, Microsoft is honoring its previous exclusivity agreement on PlayStation. It's unclear when Deathloop will make its way to Xbox Series X, but I would say it's very likely after six months or a year, which is standard for exclusivity agreements. If you haven't been able to buy a PS5 yet, you still have some time.
Break the loop
Twenty-four hours. Eight targets. You know what to do.
Deathloop is Arkane's most ambitious immersive sim to date. Explore the island of Blackreef as you work to eliminate eight Visionaries, all the while being hunting by another assassin. Your goal is to break the time loop, but that's going to be easier said than done.