It’s easy to expect Blackreef to be an open world with a flowing day/night cycle, akin to Outer Wilds’ freely explorable solar system and its 20-minute loops. Instead, the island is split up into four districts, selected from a main menu, much like how you’d pick a Hitman level. You even choose your equipment before heading into the location, just like you would for Agent 47. There’s an added wrinkle, though: you also select what time period to explore the district in; either morning, noon, afternoon, or evening. Rather than putting you on the clock, time is a condition that you choose, akin to deciding day or night when setting up a race in a driving game.
These time periods change what you can expect within the district. The presentation Arkane gave us demonstrated that mornings in the Updaam district – an area dominated by a towering mansion – feature construction workers putting together a stage. Visit Updaam in the evening, though, and there’s a party in full-swing. These changes, and the varying opportunities they provide across all locations, mean that there are 16 map variations to explore.
Exploration seems to be the most pressing part of Deathloop. Much like in Hitman, investigating every square inch of a location will reveal new opportunities to take advantage of. But unlike Hitman, locations are not self-contained stories. The opportunities you find may not be useful until a later time, or simply inform what you must do in an entirely different location. These discoveries help you piece together what Arkane refers to as the “murder puzzle”.
To solve the puzzle, you’ll first need to identify which of Blackreef’s many masked inhabitants are the Visionaries you must eliminate. Then you must work out how to kill all your targets in one day. At the start of the game, they’re just too spread out over the 16 map variations to be able to kill all eight before you run out of time. That’s too much ground to cover over your morning, noon, afternoon, and evening slots. You can’t be in two places at once, after all.
As such, you’re going to have to explore every district at every time of day on multiple doomed-to-fail loops, all to gain an understanding of how you can shepherd your targets together and butcher them simultaneously. Arkane’s example is that you may discover during the morning in one district that you can set things in motion to ensure a Visionary will attend that party in Updaam in the evening, where another of your targets will already be in attendance. As they say: two birds, one stone. Apply this method to all eight Visionaries, and you can eliminate every last one of them within a single loop.Enough about structure, though; how does Deathloop actually play? Dinga Bakaba, Deathloop’s Game Director, sums it up neatly: “The core gameplay is what you’d get if you added big guns and straightforward abilities to something like Dishonored.”
Much like Arkane’s best known series, the world of Deathloop appears to be dense with both beautiful artistic choices and clever level design. The presentation only showed a small section of the Updaam district, but the striking ’60s architecture provided plenty of high vantage points to climb to, smart flanking routes, and clear pathways littered with items to use as sleathly hiding spots or firefight cover.
Because time is a manual setting rather than a ticking clock, you have as long as you need to explore a level. “It’s not a race against time to kill the eight targets fast,” Bakaba explained to IGN. “It is really about unfolding these mysteries and getting to the end of those investigation threads.” And those investigations look to contain immersive sim DNA extracted from the purest Deus Ex strain; the presentation showed Colt looking through computer emails to learn more about a Visionary, eavesdropping on NPCs to learn about new routes into the target’s mansion, and breaking into a safe to obtain a piece of information that definitively identifies which person at the Updaam party must be killed.
Information looks to be vital. Not only does it help set your next objective, but it survives the time loop reset. For example, in the evening you may discover that a vital item is in a building that only opens during the day time. That area may be currently locked, but now you know that to progress you must head there during the afternoon on a subsequent loop. This means the end of the time loop doesn’t reset your progress, just your position in space and time.
Deathloop may not be a roguelike, but that’s not to say it doesn’t borrow some ideas from the genre. “You lose all your shit when you die,” says Bakaba, although he does point out that you can work around that problem to some extent. You can ensure more than just information survives a loop reset by collecting a resource called Residium, which can be used to permanently unlock weapons and powers.
Residium appears to be a little like souls in Dark Souls; if you die, you lose it all. A special power called Reprise, however, rewinds time upon death instead of resetting the loop. This gives you not only another opportunity to keep exploring an area, but also the chance to return to your corpse and pick up that precious Residium.
Also similar to Dark Souls is Deathloop’s PvP invasion system. Arkane refrained from showing her in action, but Julianna – the key antagonist of Deathloop’s story – can be controlled by another player. A musical cue plays when Julianna enters the area, indicating that you should proceed with caution.
Dealing with Julianna – as well as any other enemy – is where Deathloop’s increased emphasis on stylish, gun-heavy combat comes into play. A hands-off demo means it’s impossible to judge right now if combat feels great, but the weapons certainly look to have weight as they kick and splutter while cartridges eject all over the place. From auto-pistols loaded with double magazines to a belt-fed machine gun that’s cranked with a giant handle, Arkane has put together some cool, retro-looking blasters. For Dishonored purists there’s a silenced nail gun – as well as suppressors to attach to handguns – but I’m eager to play an immersive sim that truly supports frantic firefights over pacifist runs.
This doesn’t mean that Arkane has ditched its signature smarts, though. Since death will reset the time loop, you’re going to have to play carefully. At least to begin with. Arkane promises Deathloop’s trajectory will turn players into a “super-powered John Wick” capable of dominating the loop. That means supernatural powers return from Dishonored, including the short-range teleport, Blink (known here as Shift). Domino is also back, now called Nexus, which will allow you to link multiple enemies together so that damage you deal to one is dished out to all of them. Arkane showed this being mixed with the telekinetic Karnesis ability to lift an enemy up and hurl them off a bridge, with their three linked buddies plunging into the abyss with them.
Deathloop concept art
Combining the environment, your guns and powers, and the information you learn through exploration will lead to the death of your targets. Arkane explains that, ultimately, there is only one solution to the murder puzzle. But within that puzzle, there’s plenty of scope for players to kill in their own ways. Talking about one particular Visionary, Aleksis, Bakaba says “One [method of eliminating him] is just killing everyone on the island, which is, uh, a very crude way. But if you are able to do it, it works.” But he promises there are “three other very bespoke ways to get him,” one of which involves plunging him through a stage trap door into a meat grinder. You’ll only be able to do that, though, should you learn of his egotistical love of giving speeches.
With all this laid out, I’m fascinated to see how Deathloop plays when I’m in control. “In terms of genre, it’s a story-driven first person shooter with elements of stealth and adventure,” Bakaba says. “It just happens to be in a world that resets every day. It is still a linear story.” That suggests a game much closer to Dishonored or Prey than its collection of Rogue-adjacent systems suggest. But the structure clearly offers something that, if not special, is at least odd and unique. Where Dishonored’s linear levels makes it clear what your objective is, the puzzle nature and freeform exploration of Deathloop promises something even more engaging.
The idea of a Hitman game where you jump into a level not to kill the target, but to discover how you can force them to move to a different location so that you can blow them up at the same time as someone else, is undeniably attractive. But mixing that with Dishonored’s supernatural assassin gameplay and top-tier level design quickly makes Deathloop one of the most exciting propositions of the year. Folding all that into a time loop system, though – even one that doesn’t exert actual time pressure – also makes it potentially one of 2021’s most complex games. Complexity can lead to ruin as easily as it can to greatness, and so it remains to be seen if Deathloop can stand tall beneath the weight of its wild ambition. But if I were to trust any developer with such a task, it would be Arkane.
Matt Purslow is IGN’s UK News and Entertainment Writer.