Back in 2012, I played a little game called Dishonored. It wasn't the first game from Arkane Studios, but it was the first one I played (or at least the first game they were the lead on, apparently they helped on BioShock 2 to some capacity?). And I'd guess it's the game that put Arkane on the map for most people. While Dishonored certainly has its diehard fans, I can't really count myself among them.
Looking back at what I wrote in 2012 (always interesting to remind myself of how my writing skills have improved over the years), I really liked how open ended the levels were, and the freedom of different ways to go about traversing them. Conversely, I was frustrated with how lacking it was in terms of non-lethal options, especially in a game that chastises you every step of the way for killing people. Which is why I ended up with a large body count, and the bad ending. That, and the story seemed to be the thing at the time that I disliked the most, even though over the years it's the frustration at the nonlethal side of Dishonored not being fun that I remember the most.
That, and not being able to unequip that sword from your right hand, haha.
So, I didn't play Dishonored 2, or Death of the Outsider, because from the outside looking in, it didn't seem like they had addressed my issues with the first game. Like the sword. On the flip side, at some point Arkane expanded to form a second studio, this one in Austin, and that team went on to make Prey (2017). Unlike Dishonored, I absolutely love Prey, and it's one of my favorite games of the last generation. Just a fantastic game, one with a really compelling story, and I like its underlying message about the importance of empathy, and going out of your way to help others. Prey was followed by the excellent Mooncrash DLC, which was an intriguing combination of Prey's mix of stealth and survivor horror game design, with rogue-like-like elements.
And all that, after this lengthy intro, brings us to the latest game from what is now called Arkane Lyon, “Deathloop.” Now that I've finished “Deathloop” I'm extremely happy to report the best news I can on the game:
You can equip things other than a sword in your right hand.
Also it's another fantastic game that I couldn't stop thinking about whenever I wasn't playing it. Even now, after having seen credits, after having exhausted just about everything I can in the game without going hard on getting the Platinum Trophy...I still want to keep playing. Keep looping, keep trying out new ways to complete missions, keep trying to screw with other players by invading them, keep searching for every last audio log or text collectible...
I guess for those who might not know exactly what “Deathloop” is, it's basically Dishonored but in a time loop. Colt Vahn (voiced by Jason Kelley, giving one of the best performances of the year) is stuck in a time loop on an island full of the richest, most obnoxious a-holes on the planet, and his only way out is to kill every one of the eight other Visionaries on the island. The catch, obviously, is that when the loop resets at the end of every day...they all come back.
Broadly speaking then, “Deathloop” becomes a game of first figuring out how to kill each of them, then figuring out the most efficient way to get them all, and do it before time runs out. Game play wise, time only really moves when Colt moves between levels, but when there's eight targets, four levels, and only four times of day, it takes a whole lot of work to get everything to line up just right.
All of that is really interesting, and cool, but none of it would work if the game itself wasn't fun. Thankfully, it retains not just the open ended level design that I liked so much in the first Dishonored, but also addresses all of my issues from back then, though one of them not in a way I would've expected. I joke about the sword, and technically you could play “Deathloop” with Colt's machete out the entire time (there's even an option in the menus to start levels with it equipped), but having weapons on one hand, and abilities on the other does help streamline the experience of simply moving through the world, and interacting with stuff. Being able to Shift (Dishonored's Blink teleport in everything but name) from rooftop to rooftop, and quickly take out enemies below with my silent nail gun just feels good and quick to do in a way that I don't remember anything in Dishonored being.
As you might guess from my saying “nail gun” rather than something like “tranq darts,” “Deathloop” isn't a game I played non-lethally. That's because you can't. Arkane's solution to non-lethal play not being fun was to simply remove it entirely. You could still run from enemies, or circumvent them entirely with stealth, but when a fight breaks out? I'd say the only thing Colt leaves in his wake are bodies, but through sci-fi timey-wimey justifications, all the bodies just turn into little wisps of ethereal smoke, but the point stands. And it all feels good too, whether running out with a fully automatic shotgun, ducking and weaving through enemies (there's a side dash and long slide that both feel good to pull off), or taking them out sneakily from the shadows, “Deathloop” is a fun game to play.
Combine that with a time loop game design built around revisiting levels again and again to learn them inside and out, and you get a game that absolutely captivated me. Those open ended levels in Dishonored were great and all, but short of starting a new game, there wasn't really any way to revisit and try out different approaches. So in a way “Deathloop” feels more like the recent Hitman trilogy, but I think this takes it a step further. Hitman only encourages replays through high scores, and menus full of challenges to try to prod people into doing things again, but taking a different approach.
Here, you need to keep going back into the levels, and you need to learn them. And learn the different variations of them, because each level is different in each time of day. Oddly there are a couple instances where the game just refuses to let you in (specifically Karl's Bay at noon and Fristad Rock at evening), but otherwise each level at each time is different to some extent. Enemies in different places, different events happening, different side quests, and sometimes whole chunks of the levels are locked off, except for a specific time.
Charlie's funhouse feels like a perfect microcosm of explaining some of this stuff. It's only open at noon, and at least at first, the only obvious way to get in and take out Blackreef isle's resident game master, Charlie Montague. It's only approachable from a single bridge, and inside it's floor after floor of cardboard cutouts made to look like a 60s sci-fi TV set, except with real guards carrying real guns between Colt, and Charlie.
First time through, when I was still familiarizing myself with the ins and outs of the game, I fumbled and bumbled my way up the floors. Trying to be stealthy, but getting into fights, weaving around the cardboard cutouts to find moments of reprieve, and hopefully evade the enemies long enough for them to stop actively searching for me (though if I have any issue with “Deathloop,” it's that I wish the AI was smarter, if anything). Eventually I made it past all the guards, past Charlie's security measures, and when I got to him...he ran away. So I had to chase him back around the core of the funhouse, and eventually offed him, finally netting me the Shift ability.
So when I came back later to take out Charlie again, and get myself an upgrade for Shift, it was pretty evident that I could just get circumvent a lot of the area by Shifting around the back, and go in through a balcony door in the rear. This is just a simple example, but “Deathloop” is filled with things like this, levels that feel like there's only one or two ways at first, but after exploring, getting a new ability, or finding a code somewhere, you open up so many more paths. This game is so intricately designed, and the levels are so dense that the initially paltry seeming four levels is so much more game than I would have thought. I haven't played the Dishonored sequels, and it's been so long since the first game that I can't really say with certainty that these are the best designed levels Arkane Lyon has ever built, but I feel confident that the game they built around them did a fantastic job of making me explore every nook and cranny.
Most of the Visionaries drop a Slab that when equipped, gives Colt a new power, but like all the other gear in the game, they're lost at the end of a loop if they don't get infused with a resource called Residuum that can be harvested from various items around the word, from the bodies of Visionaries (they always seem to drop just enough to infuse their Slab or upgrade), or from sacrificing other items, weapons, etc. The fact that infusing can only happen outside of the core missions also gives some good incentive to not just die after completing an objective, and getting the core knowledge (how to kill a target, keypad codes, etc) that's the main focus of the game's narrative thrust.
I'm a bit mixed on the Slab powers, if I'm being honest. Some of them, like Shift, always feel useful, even if they aren't always totally essential. The same goes for Aether, which allows Colt to turn “nearly” invisible. If enemies get too close, especially if they're already on alert, they'll spot Colt, and keep attacking. Others, like Nexus (link enemies together so if one takes damage, they all do) and Havoc (strong defense and offense buff) have their moments of usefulness, but I never found Karnesis to be good at all. Karnesis is a telekinetic power, but it only works on people. On paper being able to toss enemies around should be fun, and initially it is. But as best as I can tell, it doesn't really kill, at least not on its own, or on the first throw. So it ends up feeling too situational, or maybe I never figured out the right combination of upgrades to really make it work for me. Especially not when you can only have two Slab powers equipped at a time (not including Colt's Reprise, which gives him two extra lives in each level).
A lot of the time I found myself wishing I could have more than two Slabs equipped at once, because most of them are cool, but I get why that limit is in place. The game wants people to have to think about their loadouts, and those restrictions help push toward equipping Colt for a particular style of play, rather than just having everything at the ready. Besides, if every Slab was accessible at every moment, it'd be way too easy of a game.
Speaking of difficulty, I need to do some outside reading on how it scales. There's a short tutorial message about “loop stress” that says enemies will get tougher and drop better loot as more Visionaries are killed. When I read that, I just assumed that meant on a loop by loop basis, or in other words, that it resets on every new day. Then I heard Brad Shoemaker talk about it, and he seemed to think it kept ratcheting up the difficulty until Colt lost all his lives and fully died, resetting the loop that way. And when I thought about it, the enemies had seemed like they just kept getting better and better eyesight, until at some point they were seeing me in situations that were just ridiculous, and unrealistic. Like through a tiny sliver of glass in the floor of a room where I doubt anyone would be looking at the floor in the first place.
I did end up fully dying a few times, and their eyesight seemed to die back down a little, but it never really felt like their AI scaled in other respects. They didn't take significantly more damage, their tactics never got any better, so I'm still not clear on what exactly is going on with that system.
If I have any other quibble with the game part of the game, I do wish there were more in the way of gadgets too. There's Colt's trusty Hackamajig (what a great name) for cameras and turrets (making them shoot the enemies instead of him), and a nifty grenade with three different modes. Regular grenade, trip mine, and proximity mine. Of the three the proximity mine was the one I found the most useful, but I think there's cases where the trip mine makes a little more sense, and there's nothing wrong with lobbing a regular ole grenade into a group of foes.
But that's it, it's just the explosives and Hackamajig. I don't have specific ideas of what I would want, largely because the game is really only designed with those couple of things in mind, yet I do think it'd be cool if there was more. Conversely, given the game's overwhelmingly positive reception, maybe it being relatively simple with things like this just helps broaden its appeal. A lot of the time, in the heat of the game, it kinda feels like a weirdo game for weirdos like me. Anecdotally though, it feels like a game that even if only for a week, everyone was playing it. Hyperbolic, of course, but if the game reached a wider audience than Dishonored or Prey, the devs probably made the right choices.
I just want to reiterate that the above really are quibbles, and my wishing the game had even more variety and whatnot just speaks to how much I liked its best aspects. Bigger budget stealth games were never the most common thing in the world, but they've especially dried up in the last few years. Just having a new game that feels like it was made with stealth first, rather than being an action game where you can be stealthy made me happy. And it's great that the action feels really good too!
And finally getting to things outside the game play, I think the story and characters are pretty good too. Maybe not as good as I had hoped based on the potential the game has at the outset, though. Colt and Juliana (played by Ozioma Akagha, also giving one of the best performances I've heard all year) are both great, and the Visionaries all flirt the line between “good intentionally unlikable” and “kinda annoying intentionally unlikable.” So in terms of characterizations, and more broadly, character, “Deathloop” is leaps and bounds better than the performances from the inexplicably star studded cast of Dishonored, which felt like the auditory equivalent of watching paint dry. Seriously, look up Dishonored's cast and share my confusion at who was in that game (Susan Sarandon and Carrie Fisher????).
But like Dishonored, I think “Deathloop” sets up a really interesting world, but doesn't do as much with it as I wish it did. Even that isn't entirely true, because I think there's a lot of interesting stuff to find out about the island, about the characters, and the history of everything. Blackreef's history between the abandoned military base, and everything around the Visionaries and their Aeon project is neat. It's more that the whole time loop anomaly stuff ultimately feels underdeveloped. Maybe I missed something along the way, but the game never really explains that. Which is fine, but in the end the time loop just feels like a justification for repeating the game part of the game.
That's probably true in terms of why Arkane Lyon wrote the story they did around the game they made, but I still wish there was more. Especially considering the game kinda just...ends. It's not a bad ending by any means, and getting to that ending was fun, but, as I said, I just wish there was more!
I think the only thing I haven't really gotten into is the multiplayer side of “Deathloop.” Invading as Juliana, or getting invaded by another player controlling her. The main reason is that I spent the majority of the game playing in single player. At first it was because I didn't really want to be losing progress left and right because I was getting invaded by people who somehow already had everything unlocked and knew the game inside and out. Ultimately the fact that you can't pause when set to online mode, even if you haven't been invaded yet, that ended up being the sticking point that kept me playing offline.
That said, I have spent some time as Juliana invading some other people, and had really mixed times with it. Sometimes it's fun, sometimes the other person just hides motionless in the last place I'd think to look for fifteen minutes. Sometimes the other person doesn't even seem to enter the level at all? And sometimes it's so laggy that it's almost impossible to even move around and do anything.
Interesting to note that the game doesn't stop Juliana from killing NPCs, so it's possible to do makeshift co-op. A friend and I tried just that, but that transatlantic lag didn't really help matters, sadly. Still something to keep in mind for anyone reading this that might have a friend they'd like to try that with! Or just use the “friends only” option to get in some “Deathloop” deathmatch.
The music, and just general tone and style of “Deathloop” are all great too. It's got a solid sixties vibe to everything, but really more of a faux, “this is how we see the sixties now” kinda thing, I'd think. I mean, I wouldn't really know, I'm nowhere near that old, but that's what it felt like to me. Anyway, the music's great, and I do love the game's psychedelic/funky sixties bolted onto more traditional buildings and military bases aesthetic.
That's “Deathloop.” I loved it, I really did, and I'm probably going to keep playing more of it. Not immediately, as I'm a handful of hours into Lost Judgment, and that feels like it's only just started to open up. Then Metroid Dread is looming on the horizon, not to mention Kena, which I really want to play too. It's almost October, and that feels like the right time to replay spooky games like The Evil Within 2, or the Resident Evil 2 remake, both of which I've been meaning to for some time... And speaking of remakes, I still want to replay Final Fantasy VII Remake on PS5, and that had the InterMission DLC too...
Anyway, thanks for reading! Dunno when the next write up will be, Lost Judgment is fun so far, but it feels like more of the same in a way that I probably won't have anything to say if it isn't a deep dive on the specifics of the story. And Metroid? Who knows, I just hope that game is good.
Regardless, see ya next time!