Eight targets, one day, infinite do-overs; this is Deathloop at its core. But that time loop premise is just the icing on a much larger, more intricately designed cake. Instead, it's perhaps more suitable to understand Deathloop as a game of self-actualisation. It wants you to become the best version of yourself. And by yourself, I mean a one-man murder machine, and the most stylish assassin this side of Sean Connery's 007.
You see, the reason that Deathloop looks so damn good in action isn't just because it's running on PS5; you're watching the handiwork of a man with all the time in the world to perfect his craft. Every day in Deathloop is a chance to learn from your mistakes, get to grips with new weapons and abilities, and master your environment as protagonist Colt Vahn.
This process of consequence-free self-improvement all leads to one goal; pulling off the perfect chain assassination, so clean in its execution that it would have Agent 47 running for the hills.
Thinking outside the cycle
It's comforting to know that Colt is just as confused as we are when he first wakes up on the shores of Blackreef. Struggling to clarify his memory, he thinks he's just hungover. Sadly, the diagnosis is far more serious. That's because Blackreef isn't just an island getaway for the upper echelons of society's super rich; it's a commune that's discovered the power to reset time itself, and Colt just so happens to be stuck within their loop.
Our demo presents an early run of that loop from Deathloop's campaign, as our hero comes to terms with his predicament, and tries to figure out just what in the hell is going on. It's not long before he's dead, of course, as – for reasons still not totally clear – every Blackreef inhabitant is out to secure a bounty on his head. But then the loop resets, and we're back on that beach.
"Deathloop is an investigation," explains creative director Dinga Bakaba. "It's an inverted murder puzzle about finding out how to kill the eight visionaries responsible for the time loop before the end of the day. The player will have to explore the world to find what makes them tick to create loopholes in their schedules, and line them up for the perfect assassination, which is the only way to break the cycle of violence and madness on the island."
To illustrate, our demo jumps ahead to a later run of the loop, where Colt is closing in on one of the eight visionaries; a big pharma fat cat known as Aleksis Dorsey. Colt has learned that Dorsey is holding a party at his mansion in the evening (Deathloop's day is split up into four distinct periods of time), but – in a twist that nods to Dishonored's Boyle Masquerade level – everyone's wearing the same damn wolf mask, making it difficult to spot him amongst the pack.
Thankfully, Bakaba explains that intel gathered from an earlier loop has presented just one of several potential options for eliminating our target. Dorsey is set to give a speech at some point during the evening, upon a stage which conveniently features a trap door… Sure enough, once Dorsey reveals himself at the podium, Colt sneaks towards the trap's activation button, and the visionary is rendered into mincemeat. The rest of the guests aren't too pleased about this interruption, mind, but unlike Dishonored's Corvo Attano, Colt is more than capable of engaging in open warfare with small armies of aggressors.
"Deathloop's core gameplay is what you get if you added big guns and straightforward abilities to something like Dishonored," explains Bakaba. "It's an action packed adventure with first-person combat, mobility, stealth superpowers and probably a lot of shooting. But it's not all about the shooting."
That may be true, but it's certainly a big part of the engagement here, as Colt fires off his Pepper Grinder – a retrofuturist assault rifle which we're told makes good use of the PS5 DualSense adaptive triggers – into the attacking crowd. At some point during Deathloop's campaign, Colt acquires the means to bring his weapons, upgrades, and abilities over into subsequent time loops, allowing players to become more powerful with every new run. That's very much evident here, as Colt juggles between his supernatural abilities, such as the body-flinging Kinesis, and an arsenal of weapons to brute force his way out of trouble.
Unfortunately, a special someone has been watching our hero this entire time, and is outside ready to meet him with the barrel of a sniper rifle. Her name is Julianna, and she's not just any old Blackreef visionary; she's another player wielding a controller.
You may have heard about Julianna's presence in Deathloop. She's one of the eight visionaries who must be toppled before Colt can break the cycle, and arguably the most dangerous of the bunch. Controlled by another human player (or intelligent AI for those who don't have an internet connection), the character will invade Colt's world at random, with every intent on taking him down.
Why she's so personally invested in preventing him from breaking the loop remains a mystery, but her constant goading over the radio suggests she takes a worryingly high degree of pleasure from killing you over and over again without repercussion.
"Having a human opponent in a story driven game was definitely a lot to think about," says Bakaba. "We wanted it to be very freeform, so we knew we needed the character to have a personality that could accommodate all sorts of playstyles [...], from people who want to roleplay as her to people who even want to be friendly with Colt, because why the fuck not?"
"And then technically speaking, it's a whole different way of thinking about gameplay features. When you have one player that is going around Colt, they start to activate various systems. So having these two players on the map, awakening all those physics and artificial intelligence systems... it was quite challenging, and it still is quite challenging to this day!"
Bakaba is confident that players will appreciate both getting to play as, and fight off, Julianna when Deathloop launches this September for PC and as a timed console exclusive for PS5.
The game's recent delay from its original May 2021 release window has allowed Arkane to iron out the creases across its labyrinth of systemic gameplay features, all while maintaining a healthier work-life balance amidst lockdown conditions in Lyon, France.
"We wanted to challenge ourselves with something fresh," he concludes. "This is a rare occasion for us to be able to work on something so atypical in the AAA space. Deathloop is a project we will never forget, and we're doing our very best to make it so that players won't forget it either."
For more, check out the best FPS games to play right now, or watch more of our Deathloop impressions in the video below.