Geek Preview: Embrace Failure With Deathloop’s Groundhog Day-Like Gameplay

“If at first you don’t succeed, die, die again” describes perfectly the premise of Deathloop, the upcoming time-bending, action-adventure first-person shooter (FPS) from Arkane Studios, the minds behind the Dishonored hit series. Playing as the assassin Colt stuck in a time (and death) loop, players will have to kill eight key targets – known as Visionaries – within a day to escape from an island called Blackreef, failing which causes the day to repeat. Your biggest rival is fellow assassin Julianna, who lies in the shadows for a chance opportunity to take Colt out.

But that’s textual knowledge that can be gleaned from the official game website, where game specifics have been laid out in fairly great detail. What’s more exciting and interesting is to see all of that in action, and the team seems to be living up to expectations thus far, with its teaser trailers showing plenty of rousing effects, adrenaline, and potential.

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In an online preview held for selected media, Arkane dropped two additional new reels that delved deeper into the world of Deathloop: a brief story play through, and a mission loadout. Geek Culture was fortunate enough to receive an invite, and come out of the guided preview with some first impressions.

Kicking things off was a PlayStation 5 beta build of the game’s opening scene, which shows Colt waking up in Blackreef with no previous memories of what happened prior. The retro, ’60s-inspired aesthetic is evident from the get-go, with the rugged, harsh portrayal of climatic conditions, loud graffiti, and the dim glow of lights bringing a dystopian, sci-fi touch to the table.

It all looks pretty great and realistic, if bleak, especially where the mystique of the island is concerned. According to art director Sebastien Mitton, the fictitious location is a product of borrowed inspiration from the Faroe Islands, alongside other real-world influences. “There are a lot of 1930s/40s-era influences on Blackreef, with its bunkers, abandoned labs and rusty structures,” says Mitton in an article on the official website.

“We pulled from locations like Prypiatt in Ukraine, Hashima in Japan, and Pyramiden, which is an abandoned Soviet coal mining settlement on the Norwegian archipelago. Then we dipped into the Cold War and looked to the show Lost and its DHARMA Initiative. This source of mystery was a huge inspiration for our artists.”

Elsewhere, Colt encounters illuminated floating notes – think the messages left in FromSoftware’s Souls series – that act as fragmented hints and answers to his queries. Things happen, and the man soon finds himself stuck in the loop once more, but with more information about Blackreef than the previous day. This information will stay with players between days, and they’ll have to use it to their advantage and plan their escape.

Playing the role of an assassin means stealthy and brute-force kills galore and unlike other stealth titles like Assassin’s Creed or Hitman, slain bodies disintegrate when the death blow is dealt, so there’s no need to hide or stash them away. At the start of the opening scene, Colt starts out with only a knife and remote control in his possession, the latter of which can be used to disrupt signals and hack enemy droids. There’s also a grenade that can be picked up along the way, which acts as both a proximity sensor and landmine.

To become stronger, he’ll have to collect slabs that grant him supernatural powers, such as the ability to die and revive (known as the ‘Reprise’ ability). That’s when Deathloop will feel a lot like Dishonored, though it’s not known if the game will have a mechanic similar to the latter’s Chaos system, where the choice to kill in plain sight or go stealthy results in different consequences that affect certain side quests and mission endings.

Because perma-death is part and parcel of the looping gameplay experience, it may be common to think that time is the player’s greatest enemy. On the contrary, time is, in fact, your best friend here, for you’ll always come out of a loop with more details about the targets than before, making it easier to know their routines and corner them in the subsequent runs. There won’t be one fixed way to go about the mission, either – individuals are offered the freedom to figure things out at their own pace, and choose how to assassinate the enemy with style.

That flair was best demonstrated via a mission loadout during the preview session. Before getting into the heat of the action, the gameplay reel dished out the reminder that Blackreef is divided into four areas, where each district can be visited at four different parts of the day (as previously announced). Deathloop‘s time-specific mechanics mean that newly-unlocked areas or Visionaries will appear at different hours even within the same location as well, so players need to be attentive enough to capture such details.

Leading into combat, various firearms were shown and listed, including handguns, SMGs, machine guns, shotguns, rifles, and silent nail guns. These bad boys can be customised with trinkets that each brings unique buffs, such as improving Colt’s jump height, or other physical feats. Players will be able to slide and take cover behind obstacles a la Apex Legends and Borderlands; all of these firing and movement action are later translated into haptic sensations with the PS5, such that each weapon feels different in the hand.

A PlayStation blog article by publisher Bethesda Softworks explains, “When a low-tier weapon is jammed, your trigger button will be blocked halfway, giving you instantaneous feedback even before the animation notifies you. It’s a momentary setback that could force you to retreat for a beat while you fix it. As you’re watching your character on-screen punch the gun to get it in working order, you’ll feel a correlating strike in your controller, activating the mechanism to unjam it.” 

As every run in Deathloop will be a clean slate for players, Residium would prove to be a precious find. The video explains how it allows them to hold on their favourite weapons and powers permanently, granting them an edge over the enemies right from the get-go. Perhaps more importantly, ammo is in infinite supply in the world of Blackreef. Unlike titles like Borderlands or Bioshock, there won’t be any shops or pay-to-use ammo-dispensing machines, so money isn’t an issue here.

In combat, Colt’s supernatural powers are a sight to behold, especially when used in tandem with weapons. There are five abilities to master: Shift, which is essentially teleportation (think Blink in Dishonored); Aether, that grants temporary invisibility; Havoc, which triggers an area explosion via the damage absorbed from enemies; Karnesis, that uses telekinesis to slam or throw targets around; and Nexus, which subjects hostile personnel to a shared killing treatment by linking them to one another (read: slay one, slay them all).

There looks to be a lot of room to mix and match the powers and combine them with close-combat finesse, allowing for a great deal of creative exploration and exhilaration. But it’s also possible to go about the mission in other ways, such as infiltrating specific locations, eavesdropping on conversations, or listening to audio recordings to gather more information on the Visionaries. In most cases, you may very well die, but you can always head back and exact revenge in whatever method you deem fit the next run.

Of course, it’s difficult to comment on the overall quality and narrative elements without having seen or played the entirety of Deathloop, though it does appear to be very promising, if ambitious, thus far. From the dilapidated, ruined architecture to the dim neon buzz of Blackreef, the visuals bear traces of considerate and detailed thought. The ’60s-inspired setting was further accentuated with smooth jazz music in the preview; suffice to say, great-sounding soundtracks are to be expected.

Gameplay, meanwhile, should prove to be the biggest hit, with the do-it-your-own-approach encouraging plenty of replayability and creativity in both combat and campaign progression. According to game director Dinga Bakaba, the total playtime ranges from 15 to 20 hours, where there’s “only one solution to break the loophole”.

The multiplayer aspect wasn’t shown, but individuals can look forward to live battles in the game, in which they can play the role of Julianna and take out Colt, who will be controlled by another player. As Julianna will drop sweet rewards like exclusive weapons and revive replenishments, assassinating her will be a nice incentive for players. Bakaba has also confirmed that it won’t be possible for players to leave floating notes for others as with the Souls series, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing – if anything, that only allows them to truly enjoy the unpredictability of Blackreef.

Deathloop will release on 14 September 2021 for PlayStation 5 and PC.

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