Deathloop has a great elevator pitch. It’s a murder mystery with a touch of time travel. You are trapped on an island locked in an infinite time loop, with you and its inhabitants forced to repeat the same day over and over again. The only way out is to hunt down eight targets, found somewhere in the four districts that divide the island. Murdering everything before a loop ends breaks it for good. But while you see the loop as a curse to be lifted, your planned murders see it as a never-ending and inconsequential party. As such, they, and almost everyone on the island, will attempt to kill you on sight. And that includes your worst and equal enemy, which can be controlled by another player online. They have one goal: to protect the loop by terminating you before you complete it. Die and your day begins again.
The original concept, created while Arkane was working with MachineGames on Wolfenstein: Youngblood in 2019, would offer a diverse toolset, the freedom to experiment with players, and a complex and architecturally consistent world to explore. A continued adherence to the principles that define the studio’s previous works. The emphasis would however be on replayability. The studio soon found itself eager to include “a great story”, character development, a rich world, an adventure arc – all of which also define the hallmarks of its past games. “How could we get acquainted in a very concentrated intimate space?” rhetorically asks artistic director Dinga Bakaba. The solution: break time. The ’60s-style setting and “the impossible task” – eight assassinations in one day – crystallized shortly after.
Time to kill
Colt starts the day with little more than a “cool jacket, a horrible hangover and a rusty SMG”. The rules of the loop and your place in it are quickly and violently explained. A better arsenal, including traditional (customizable) weapons and unique powers, must be salvaged as you explore the island among those you’ve defeated in firefights or caught off guard. Finding two loopholes makes your death less serious. One will allow you to postpone certain things between the loops. The second is Deathloop’s own spin on respawns. Repeats give you three chances per loop to continue, and by finding your downcast old self, you get all of the looted items back until their (your?) Untimely death.
“He’s, I think, perpetually funny, surprising, charming,” Bakaba says of Deathloop protagonist Colt. “I think he’s a guy who faces these tragic events with self-mockery and ‘daddy’ jokes. He has flair, is very confident. He can just throw these jokes, approach the situation with a lot of confidence.
Colt is agile. Needed when the world is here to kill you and you have spaces to explore. Blackreef’s worldview clearly shows Arkane’s continued love for verticality and, by association, powers that leverage superhuman exploration (“It’s really important to us,” says artistic director Sébastien Mitton . I’m frustrated “). As a result, each neighborhood is a dense sprawl. “Imagine a level like Edge of the World from Dishonored 2, and made even bigger, that would give you an idea,” Bakaba explains of the expected scale for each.
It’s also worth noting that while match day doesn’t play out in real time, there are four distinct time periods during the 24 hour day. There are different stories and activities going on in each district for each time period, while the areas you can access and your routes may change. The location of your targets, the visionaries, also varies depending on the time of day you visit.
While a quick menu selection can switch you freely between hours, actions in one period of time c an have repercussions in another. The studio is careful about the details of the story, but offers a possibility to illustrate: a character recorded earlier today will unlock a door elsewhere later, giving you access to a new part of the island.
From soldier to assassin
In Deathloop, frontal assaults are possible but not recommended. Mapping enemy areas and positions first allows you to plan attacks or routes that increase your chances of survival. At the same time, you can (and should) listen to important conversations and discover hidden places that will help you achieve your goals. For example: if everyone is wearing a mask, how do you spot your target? Or another: can you eliminate a target without alerting anyone?
Aggressive measures also come into play. Along with a tool to hack tech such as turrets, Collectible Trinkets offer weapon upgrades and customizations. Slabs are elements of power, each granting a unique ability. Not all of them are traversal-based: Kinesis is the obvious first headliner, letting you toss enemies into the air or against walls (or against each other) with a wave of your hand. Find the one that best suits your playstyle: your loadout is limited to three weapons and two powers, with the latter having two upgrades. (Can be upgraded by assassinating the same target in a subsequent loop).
Deathloop was one of the first examples of what was possible with the DualSense wireless controller. Bakaba explains that each weapon will have a slightly different feel. “You mentioned the trigger lock to represent the locking of your weapon. But when you run out of ammo, the trigger effect will go away. Even before your brain registers it, the animation, the click-click sound, you’ll know you’re away. ”
It’s about having fun with the toolkit, combining and seeing the results. “At the end of the match, you’re kind of a demigod,” Bakaba says. And the choice of the player is essential. If you really want to, you can try ending the game with “just that rusty SMG and whatever you find in your path and accept you’ll lose everything at the end of every loop.” It is entirely up to you as a player. ”
But not everything is under your control. Enter Julianna.
Meet your worst enemy
Julianna started her life as one of your targets. Even at the start of development, it was distinct. While her comrades would be involved and let the others do their dirty work, Julianna was motivated, actively trying to get you out first. It turned one of Blackreef’s elites – his visionaries – into your equal and would challenge you to outsmart it. This motivation is always at the heart of his character. But she only became fully realized and ultimately co-directed the game’s artwork when someone in the studio suggested she might be a playable character.
“I wouldn’t say eureka for a moment,” Bakaba replies when I ask him and Mitton if that idea changed the trajectory of what the game could be. “It was a crossroads. It’s not just about adding an enemy type […] it was definitely a turning point.
An initial concern was the technical impact of a second player-controlled character in the world. Multiplayer could mean a compromise on Arkane’s view of Blackreef’s NPC density or the scale of the island’s level design. The fears were allayed once the studio learned about the PS5’s processor speed. “It gave us oxygen,” Mitton says simply.
Even without player control, Julianna is a constant presence. She continually harasses Colt, either from afar, haranguing him through the world’s multitude of tannoys and speaker systems, or up close even when she tries to kill him. To be fair, Colt quickly starts giving back as much as he can, forceful verbal clashes that, as Bakaaba puts it, are a “punchline contest” and he can’t wait to see players respond to.
These beards are surprisingly good-natured in their delivery. Attempted murder as it can be, there is no revenge or revenge towards Julianna. She is playful. To someone who’s trying to kill me, she’s incredibly likable.
“It’s a rough island,” Bakaba replies when I ask him about the contradiction of someone I want to get to know better while staying at a safe distance. “People have come here for an everlasting feast. They brought a cocoon of fun, comfort and technology to turn all that sadness into an entertainment station. If Julianna is to be someone who wants to protect the curl, she has to adhere to this philosophy. That it is harmless is good. It’s even fun. He’s a very complex and interesting character.
The best assassins know how important it is to keep a low profile.
A unique horn will sound in your game to signal the appearance of a player controlled Julianna. The Creative Director makes a list of possible scenarios that could result from this: one Julianna that will mess a player’s head but will never be seen, another that will frighten you with jumps by randomly appearing and disappearing. Even a “ friendly ” who will lay down weapons for you to use. Who Julianna is will be up to you. “She is eternal. She doesn’t care about dying. She cares about the hunt and how it can make it interesting for ages.
Achieving the perfect withdrawal is one thing. The unpredictability of psychological warfare while trying to complete eight assassinations? I’m already intrigued to see what will happen when Deathloop launches later this year.