Arkane Lyon’s Deathloop was first announced at E3 2019 but few of us truly foresaw the twists and turns it would take en route to release. What appeared to be a narrative-heavy rogue-lite title – and despite the developer claiming otherwise, still retains some of those elements – would soon become a key exclusive for Sony’s PS5 release strategy. On top of current events hampering development, delaying the game into Q2 2021, Bethesda was acquired by Microsoft and joined Xbox Game Studios. Thus would Deathloop become an Xbox-owned IP that was debuting on PlayStation first and remaining a timed exclusive before coming to Xbox. It’s been a weird trip, in more ways than one.
But to its credit, Deathloop has managed to stand out amid it all (and its extensive marketing campaign has ensured no one can forget it). The swinging ’60s aesthetic and dark humor, centered on protagonist Colt Vahn as he struggled to escape this ever-looping island of debauchery and death. He’s not alone though. Along with trying to take out his targets, the Visionaries, he must contend with Julianna Blake. She remembers things between each loop and is intent on killing Colt while spicing things up in her own twisted ways.
Gameplay-wise, Julianna represents a second playable character but not like in Dishonored 2. She doesn’t have her own dedicated story campaign like Colt. Instead, she can be controlled by another player who invades your game and attempts to kill you. Brief snippets of her story – and supposed connection to Colt are provided – but for all intents and purposes, Jules is looking to protect the Loop. I won’t spoil what her purpose is but it’s already confirmed that immortality via remaining on the island isn’t it.
Julianna’s gameplay is pretty straightforward. Upon starting a game, you’re given two choices – break the Loop or protect it. Going with the latter allows you to play as Julianna, customizing her load-out before the hunt begins. You can choose different abilities, Trinkets and weapons along with different outfits. Though you start with a limited selection, completing different challenges and ranking up with Julianna will unlock new weapons. You don’t get to choose the unlocks but a fairly decent arsenal is amassed in good time.
Granted, if you’re not in the mood to deal with another player, you can choose to play offline. This results in an AI-controlled Julianna invading your games, though how much this will affect the difficulty and how often it happens remains to be seen. But even with that option available, what’s especially interesting about Julianna’s influence is the effect that another player can actually exert on the game. For all intents and purposes, Deathloop has elements of a rogue-lite game. You can carry over weapons and items between cycles, and Colt has multiple lives. But when you’re dead-dead, it’s back to the start of the Loop and you must take down each of the eight Visionaries once more.
After all of the investigations, NPC placements, Visionary schedules, secrets and whatnot, the nuts and bolts of the game will be laid bare. We’ll learn what’s actually going on and hopefully, Colt can complete his task and leave the island (or stay behind after the main story is wrapped in search of more answers – it really depends on what direction the story goes). In essence, you can keep playing and attempt to go for that “perfect run”, killing all of the Visionaries in one fell swoop with the tools available without dying, being detected or killing anyone else.
This is where Julianna lends the most impact. It’s not just a way for players to experience Invasion-style PvP and hunt each. It’s also way to test your mastery of the world, from NPC placements and events to the best sniping spots and ambush points. You could go invisible and stalk them around the map, picking the right opportunity to take them down; use Havoc and attack them from up close; and or just mess around with Masquerade and exchanging Julianna’s appearance with an NPC.
Over the course of the game though, Colt will be getting stronger and Julianna players will need to be more clever (especially since Residuum allows for properly curating an arsenal instead of relying on unlocks). As someone playing as Colt, there’s also plenty of reason to accept Invasions from other players. Long stretches become a lot more dangerous when another player could be waiting to ambush you in areas with the help of enemy NPCs.
Certain traversal abilities and shortcuts become more important, as you look for ways to get around without being noticed. Granted, you don’t have to fight Julianna but she drops Residuum, a power or power upgrade and a high quality weapon on top of the Trinkets. These could help make a run that much easier but at the highest level, you’re also putting your knowledge of the map to the test. Throw in different times of day and the conflict between the two assassins can differ significantly, even in the same locations.
Of course, there are a few problems with how the Invasions are handled. Julianna can’t just pop in at any time – the player must be in a district with a Visionary target. This creates enough tension when you’re trying to go for that perfect Loop but pretty much telegraphs the other instances where you’re running around, trying to gather information since there’s no real danger of being invaded. Granted, the game does a decent job of ramping up the amount of incursion opportunities especially as more areas where multiple targets reside can open up. But just as the districts become repetitive overtime, so too do the kinds of gameplay that Invasions can really add.
It would have been cool if, instead of just killing Colt, a player-controlled Julianna could just do whatever they wanted, like helping them out. You’re not really sure whether she can be trusted and maybe she’ll fulfill her goal and kill you when it’s least expected but given the relationship between the two, it adds that much more in terms of narrative and dynamic gameplay. Having other objectives in the world as opposed to “Hack the antenna and escape or kill Julianna and then hack the antenna” would have also been nice.
Why not set up a bomb that Colt has to defuse before it’s too late and he loses a life? How about certain scenarios where she hacks turrets and turns them against the player, or even disable certain Slabs and/or upgrades to make things more interesting? On top of providing a fresh challenge, these can slot in rather well with Julianna’s progression since it’s all challenge-based.
There’s also the issue with her story. Julianna is a fascinating character and it’s kind of a shame that she doesn’t get lots of her own unique story scenarios or something akin to discoveries and Leads for players to delve more into her past. As it stands, she feels more like an observer that can occasionally interfere just to spice things up as opposed to this hardened killer that wants Colt to suffer eternally.
While still feeling like a natural evolution of the Invasion mechanic, Deathloop seems more like it’s laying the groundwork than anything else. It could have been a proper narrative mechanic that also adds some much needed nuance and replay value on top of the base game. Then again, Arkane Studios probably didn’t want to put too much work into Julianna’s mechanics lest they end up overwhelming players or hampering the core narrative.
Deathloop is now available for PS5 and PC – you can read our official review here for more details. Whether it’s another classic from the developer behind Prey and Dishonored, another high-profile PS5 exclusive or simply an intriguing experiment in time-looping gameplay and Invasions remains to be seen. It’s got our attention though and we can’t wait to see how it develops in the long-term.
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