Tuesday, November 8, 2022.
by Josh Morgan

DEATHLOOP Box art Simply calling DEATHLOOP a Roguelike is an unfair labeling of one of the most original games I’ve ever played. Sure, it shares some DNA with Roguelikes, where you repeatedly play the same areas over and over while collecting weapons and upgrading them to carry to the next run. You learn from your mistakes, grow stronger and then use those tools on the next run, and that part of Roguelikes has always intrigued me. What always lost me was that I would constantly focus on upgrading and never progressing the story, and I would do 100 runs and then burn out of the game because I am playing the same thing over and over and over. It’s my own fault, I know, but it happened with Dead Cells, Rogue Legacy, Hades and many more. I would put a good five or so hours into them and then my interest fizzles out and I move to something else. I am glad I gave DEATHLOOP a chance and stuck with it because it quickly rose to the list of the top games I’ve played this year.

DEATHLOOP is full of collecting, upgrading and repeating, but it has a straightforward way of presenting the story path that really kept me focused on following the threads of the narrative until each of them ends. You play as Colt, the head of security for the company that has taken over the island of Blackreef, and that company and its scientists are responsible for the technology that lets these characters live forever repeating the same day over and over. You wake up on a beach and you have no recollection of how you got there. Shortly after waking you find a walkie-talkie and you receive a call from a cocky woman named Julianna, and it’s obvious off the bat that you have some history with this woman despite not remembering anything about her. It’s through this walkie-talkie that a lot of the story is delivered. The banter between Colt and Julianna is some of the best dialog I have ever heard in a story, and it kept me laughing and interested from beginning to end. You find out quickly through conversation that she knows you want to break the loop and end their immortal fun. In order to break the loop, you’ll have to kill all 7 Visionaries in a single day and it will not be an easy task. They are scattered across the island and only appear during select times of day. At first this was extremely overwhelming, and I was hit with a deep regret and began thinking about what I have gotten myself into. Thoughts started swirling through my head about having to replay these loops a million times trying to work out how to kill these 7 psychopaths in a single day all by myself. There are 4 times of day, and 4 districts where these Visionaries reside. I’m not very good at math, but I do know that’s a lot of options and I’m not lucky enough to find the solution by myself right away.

Luckily for me, the story paths in DEATHLOOP are so easily followed and tracked that it made it incredibly easy to stay focused on the tasks at hand and not stray too far from the main story path. Each visionary has a storyline and how you can force them to a certain place and time so that way they can be killed alongside another Visionary essentially giving you the chance to take out multiple targets at a time. Honestly, if the story was not presented and tracked in this way, I would have given up on it almost immediately. Each Visionary has a five or more step quest line that has you performing tasks to set them along a specific path. You might have to kill each Visionary multiple times to reveal that path, but you are rewarded every time you kill one. Each of the Visionaries carry with them what is called a Slab. It’s their special power and it’s what makes them essential to the loop that they are trying to protect so they can live forever.

Once you kill a Visionary you can pick up their slab and add it to your own arsenal. Slabs come in six flavors; telekinesis, teleport, and invisibility are the easy ones to describe. Nexus is another and it gives you the ability to link multiple enemies together, dishing out damage to a group of enemies with a single bullet. Havoc is a berserk mode where you dish out increased damage and can take more damage during its duration. The final Slab is exclusive to Colt since he is a Visionary, called Reprise, and its power grants you two additional deaths before the loop starts over. You can upgrade and swap out any of the Slabs except Reprise, giving you lots of options on how you can approach a level. If you are looking for more of a stealth approach you should equip the Aether (invisibility) and Shift (teleport) Slabs so you can easily move around undetected. If you are looking for more of a guns blazing approach you might want to equip Havoc (berserk) and Karnenis (telekinesis) so you can give yourself offense and defense boosts while being able to throw enemies around with telekinesis.

Another way to earn slabs is by killing Julianna when she invades your loop. If you take her out she will drop a random slab for you to collect. Julianna can invade your loop at any time, but I found that she mostly invades when an Eternalist spots you and sounds an alarm. Julianna will enter your loop, lock your tunnels (how you travel from district to district) so you can’t escape, forcing you to hack an antenna to open them. Julianna and the other Visionaries will also drop a hefty amount of Residuum when they are killed. Residuum is the currency that you will need to upgrade your slabs, guns, trinkets (more on those later) and it’s also how you can keep your guns and slabs across the many loops you will run.

Every time you die and restart the loop you lose all of the items you picked up during that loop, that is, unless you have infused them with Residuum between districts. I found a set of Akimbo pistols that I absolutely loved early on and infused them with Residuum to ensure that I start with them during every loop. Trinkets are small boosts and perks that can be applied to weapons and Colt. Weapon trinkets focus more on reloading, damage dealt and ammo amounts, while the Trinkets that Colt can equip focus more on traversal, health, and energy (slab power) consumption. You can swap trinkets, slabs, and guns out when you travel between districts and it’s also a good idea to spend all of your Residuum to infuse these good items just in case you die in the next district and have to start the loop over.

DEATHLOOP tells all of its story from the first person perspective, there is no cutscene aside from the small comic book-like storyboards that play out on screen as you unlock another clue to ending the loop. Much like Bioshock, the backstory is told through audio logs and sheets of paper on desks, and these are scattered everywhere on the island. It’s almost too much, and I am a collectible nut. But something about the way they are highlighted on the screen made them very easy to miss. There were multiple pieces of paper I found on a desk that I had not read, but I know I was in that location many times before, I just must have missed it. I wish there was a different color glow around the object, or that it would shimmer sporadically to draw your attention like other games do. These hidden clues scattered all over are what help you put the pieces together of how to guide the Visionaries to the specific locations needed to kill them all and break the loop so it really benefits you to read every note or listen to every audio log, it might just be the clue you are missing!

There aren’t just main story missions, there are also a lot of smaller side quests that you can find while exploring, and these can be delivered by the collectibles listed above, but also by listening to conversations between the Eternalists. There was one that I overheard some goons talking about a present for Colt in the middle of a town intersection. I just know it’s a trap, but I like presents, so why not? I sneak around and scope out the area and sure enough I see a sniper in a window camping the present, and I take him out. In that room was a map showing all of the ambush spots surrounding the present. Oh man, this should be something good if they are going through all this trouble to protect it, right? Once I clear out all of the ambush locations I go to the intersection to open my present getting ready for another high level gun, but nope it’s a low level gray trinket called Poison Chalice and it drains your health constantly in exchange for... 'jack shit'. Their words. You have to love the humor in this game.

The gameplay is another area that DEATHLOOP really shines. I was concerned about the shooting mechanics because their past game, Dishonored, felt kind of floaty with the aiming, but they really tightened it up in DEATHLOOP. It’s not as tight as Call of Duty or Destiny, but it’s a definite improvement over their previous games. You equip guns in your right hand, leaving your slab powers to be in your left hand. This gives you the ability to create a symphony of chaos and fun shooting and dishing out your abilities at the same time. There are so many fun combinations of powers and guns that you can approach any situation any way you want, and I’d often switch things up just for a different experience, and by the end of the game I had some great loadouts built for any situation. It’s a lot of fun using Karnesis to lift an enemy and hold them in the air watching them flail about in fear and then unload your machine gun into them as they float. Re-reading that sentence it makes me sound like a psychopath, but hey, that’s DEATHLOOP, it’s encouraged. One thing that I absolutely loved was that the game will not allow you to switch to a gun with zero ammo. When the shit hits the fan and you have a dozen Eternalists chasing you down it’s nice to know that you can’t accidentally switch to a gun and just hear the dreaded clicks of an empty clip and then see the death screen pop up. Things can get pretty hectic in DEATHLOOP, and that would have added another level of frustration, I wish more games did this.

The enemy AI can be very dumb in most cases. Sometimes they will spot you from two buildings over and will rush to your location to investigate, but then sometimes you can be standing 10 feet away in their peripheral area and they won’t spot you at all. Even worse, they are completely oblivious to sound at times. If you are walking or running, they will hear you and come running, but if you shoot a mine with a silence weapon, they won’t even notice the explosion and will continue just patrol as if nothing happened. Someone can drop dead from a silenced head shot right next to an Eternalist and they won’t react until they see the dead body. It’s a small gripe, but I definitely used this to my advantage as the game went on and I was trying to get to the end. Once you encounter enough of them, you’ll really know how to maneuver around them without having to engage them and the game gets a lot easier if you focus on stealth, almost too easy.

The more I played DEATHLOOP the more I noticed that something was off with the sound and the positioning of objects and people in relation to your character. I tried using both headphones and my home theater system and both had the same results. There were so many times while sneaking I would hear footsteps coming or an Eternalist talking close, so I’d stop, turn on my Aether (invisibility) and nobody would ever come. I’d slowly creep around ensuring not to make any noise or peek around anything too fast, but it turns out they were on the floor above me walking their normal routine completely oblivious of my presence. The sound of their footsteps, or their conversation with someone else, was so close in my ears I would have sworn they were in the room with me. Problems like this really take you out of the experience because you quickly learn that you cannot trust the audio in the game. No matter where you think the sound is coming from, it’s never correct, so you have to always be ready for someone to pop around the corner. Mix that in with the spotty AI and I ran into a lot of scenarios where I thought I killed everyone in a building after a loud gun fight and I was exploring for collectibles only to find some random enemy in a room nearby just hanging out. He should have heard the very large gunfight that just took place minutes ago, and I should have heard him walking back and forth, but neither happened and we were both startled when I opened the door. Its especially frustrating when you are tying a stealth run and because he gets alerted and shoots his loud gun all the other enemies come running and Julianna invades your game. Things can go downhill very fast.

The voice acting for Colt and Julianna is some of the best that I have ever experienced in a game. Their banter back and forth is absolutely hilarious and I looked forward to it between every loop or when traveling between districts. Their chemistry was a big reason that the story worked so well. They did a great job of being both friendly while also threatening each other to show that these characters had a long history together that was both good and bad. I was very eager to find out where the story was going all the way up until the end. I love how Colt talks to himself and it seems organic and not forced to advance the story. Colt just seems like a person who would talk to himself. He even gives himself some attitude when trying to pick up ammo and health when he doesn’t need it. He’ll spit out “Don’t get greedy, Colt” when full of ammo and when full of health he’ll say, “I’m fine, I don’t need it!” like a kid telling his mom he doesn't need a band-aid after scraping his knee. It’s all very funny, and fits in perfect for the character.

DEATHLOOP runs at 4K and a very solid 60 frames per second on the Xbox Series X, and there is a Ray Tracing mode with 30 frames if that tickles your fancy. I am an adult, so I chose the 60FPS option and I am very happy that I did, as it ran flawless. From a distance, DEATHLOOP is a very pretty game. The environments are lush and full of color and textures and you can see forever with the draw distance. Up close is where the game gets a bit muddy and textureless. It’s not a big deal when you’re running and gunning through the levels but when you stop to sneak around and get up close and personal with some of the scenery just seems flat and lifeless. Colt's arms, hands and the guns he’s holding clearly got all of the attention, rightfully so, and the folds on Colts jacket and metal of the guns all look stunning and real. But the enemies all have faceless masks or wear helmets with shields so the artists didn’t have to worry about modeling faces. It’s a great tactic here and fits the story because the eternalists are all no named villains whose sole purpose is to die and repeat their loop.

The environments of the four different districts all look very similar but different enough that you can tell them apart as you travel from location to location, and after a few hours I was running through the areas without being lost due to the easy to spot landmarks to keep your bearings. Throughout the environments you will notice some text overlay that appears everywhere like little notes from your subconscious. Make sure you pay attention to these notes, they give hints to enemies ahead and provide some details about the story as it progresses. I really like when games place objectives and plot devices on text as part of the scenery. It was a cool effect in Splinter Cell Conviction and it works really well here too. Colt constantly asks if he’s the only one that sees the words questioning his sanity throughout the game.

There’s a lot to love about DEATHLOOP, from the characters, the powers, and a story that is just asking to be made into a movie. There are some audio hiccups that hurt the experience, but they are easily overlooked because the rest of the package is extremely entertaining. I put just under 40 hours into DEATHLOOP before I rolled the credits and I plan on going back to knock out some achievements and side quests. I am very excited to see what the team at Arkane is putting together for us early next year with Redfall. DEATHLOOP is and will always be a part of Gamepass, the best value in gaming today and it should not be missed or passed up. Play this game!

**DEATHLOOP was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall: 9.5 / 10
Gameplay: 10.0 / 10
Visuals: 9.0 / 10
Sound: 8.0 / 10


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