I’m an impatient gamer.
I recoil at long cutscenes. I resent being forced to approach an NPC with a speech bubble floating over their head just so they can give me a convoluted backstory to another side quest. I zealously mash buttons to skip through dialogue when the option presents itself on-screen, and grumble when I’m denied that option.
As someone who writes fiction for a living, I know I should show more respect for the craft of storytelling in all media. It’s just that as I’ve gotten older, I often treat video games as a playground where I go to briefly power down my brain off after a stressful day at work. The pandemic has only deepened that desire for mindless escapism. I love roll-jumping my way through the beautifully designed platforming of Donkey Kong Country, but do I want to reflect on Donkey Kong’s motivation for reclaiming his stolen banana hoard from King K. Rool?
That’s why I initially resisted the gravitational pull of Deathloop. From the moment you, as amnesiac protagonist Colt Vahn, wake up hungover on the shores of Blackreef, the game demands that you learn about and immerse yourself in the island’s mystery and lore. To unravel it all, you have to read notes taped to doors. You snoop through emails and group chats between its characters. You read. A lot.
A few hours in, something just clicked. I became charmed by the amusing banter between the game’s eight visionaries (the targets you’re tasked with assassinating in a single loop.) I looked forward to the daily repartee between Colt and his mortal frenemy, Julianna. For a game with such an astronomical body count, there’s something unexpectedly good-natured about the world of Deathloop. It rides the line between optimism and nihilism in much the same way as HBO’s superlative Peacemaker series. And much like Peacemaker, Deathloop is relentlessly funny and lighthearted even as the bullets fly.
Despite being a first-person shooter, Deathloop shares a lot of DNA with the third-person Hitman series (of which this author is also a huge fan). Just like Agent 47, you’ll spend a lot of time as Colt just eavesdropping on your targets, studying their routines, and learning their sins. Character standouts include Charlie, a neurotic teleporter whose daily LARPing game you invade, and Aleksis, a coked-up playboy who throws Blackreef’s climactic nightly party and is almost endearingly invested in making sure his friends attend.
One of the most refreshing parts of the Deathloop experience is that it’s not open-world. Its four districts—Updamm, the Complex, Karl’s Bay, and Fristad Rock—are all blissfully compact compared to the exhaustingly sprawling maps of games like the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Sometimes less is more, and being able to circumnavigate each level in the course of a lunch break was a relief. The game is also mercifully more linear than I anticipated. I’d occasionally dabble in some freestyle exploring, but then I’d return to following the game’s branching story prompts, which handhold you through the plot one waypoint at a time.
The game isn’t without its faults. One of the missions, “Radio Silence,” feels tedious compared to the others. (I’d recommend saving this one for last so as not to lose momentum or interest.) There’s also some inequity in art direction between its four zones. Updamm and Karl’s Bay are so vibrant and interesting, reminiscent of developer Arkane’s similarly ambient level design in its Dishonored series. However, the Complex and Fristad Rock appear disappointingly sterile and flat by comparison. Thankfully, the game is designed in such a way that you’ll spend the majority of your playtime in its more interesting regions.
Deathloop’s busy and complicated load-out screen—where you decide which zone to tackle at what point in the day and with which weapons—also turned me off early in my experience. Eventually, it stops feeling so overwhelming and you’ll learn to appreciate the game’s unique currency system, “Residuum,” which allows you to infuse weapons and powers between loops. But I could see the RPG-ness being a deterrent to more casual gamers.
In recent years, Hollywood has seen a resurgence of truly exceptional time loop movies and series—Palm Springs, Russian Doll, and Boss Level just to name a few of my favorites—and Deathloop’s story stands up there among the best of them. Just like any good time loop, sooner or later, you can be sure I’ll reset my game file and restart this game from the beginning.
Deathloop is available now on PlayStation 5 and Windows PC. It will be released on Xbox Series X/S in the Fall.