A time heist? Yeah, a time heist. That’s right, Scott Lang, the team at Arkane Lyon, have built Time Heist: The Game, and they called it Deathloop. At December’s The Game Awards, Dinga Bakaba (Co-Creative Director) called it “this strange game that no one can sum up in 30 seconds”. So, I’m gonna try my best to do it in a handful of minutes. Wish me luck.
Deathloop puts you in the shoes of Colt Vahn, the former Head of Security on Blackreef Island and also an amnesiac. From its early moments, you’ll be journeying with Colt to put his memories back together while figuring out “what the hell is going on”. Which as you might expect, unfolds a little like experiencing a soap opera in the first person. Having had his memories wiped prior to the game’s opening moments, Colt quickly learns a lot of mind-blowing details about himself and his surroundings. And he’s often got a lot to quip about it all.
It is precisely his quick-witted and melodramatic nature that makes him an entertaining vehicle to lead you through the roughly 18-hour long heist planning journey. Often, he spends much of it bantering with himself and other characters through his radio, which is neatly mapped to output on your Dualsense’s built-in speakers.
The setting Blackreef Island has all you’d expect, from a serene off-shore getaway from gorgeous vistas to coastal townships, to hidden caves with nooks and crannies for you to discover. But it turns out, it also has a Groundhog Day-esque Timeloop looming over it all (I’m fully aware that this is, as of 2022, an archaeological reference, but it’s the aptest point of reference out there – give me a break!). While its inhabitants are aware of the existence of a Timeloop, none realise that they’re actually living the first day over and over again in perpetuity. A fact that once discovered, Colt is eager to change.
Die Another Day
But it isn’t just Colt whose memory carries forward from day to day. Julianna Blake, his adversary, also carries her memories between loops and is hellbent on making sure Colt leaves things status quo. Dying in the Timeloop simply leads to Colt waking up on the same beach (with the same hangover) on the same morning every time. Thus, to put an end to your antics, Julianna intends to hunt you down and kill you as many times as she needs to until you decide to give up.
Breaking the Timeloop is, theoretically, a simple task. All Colt has to do is kill the eight eccentric visionaries who set up and protect the AEON (Timeloop) project. But given the time constraints, he’s got to figure out how to execute the heist all in a single day, which the game divides into four parts – Morning, Noon, Afternoon, and Evening.
The visionaries appear in different spots at different times across Blackreef Island’s four locales, and Colt can only visit one location per time period. Can you see where it gets tricky? Now that we’ve got the game’s premise out of the way, we can finally get into the experience and gameplay!
Playing Deathloop feels like a mishmash of a detective sim, a stealth game, a roguelite, and a guns-blazing action-adventure experience. I spent a lot of the time snooping around locations looking for clues and dots to connect. Then in turn, connecting these dots enabled me to set up what I call ‘heist dominoes’. That is doing things that affect the actions of NPCs, happening later in the same day. Following each set of ‘heist dominoes’ to see which trails might lead to the end-goal and which leads go cold scratched a curiosity itch that I’ve rarely felt in any action-heavy games.
There’s a clandestine feel to being a sneaky detective digging around the visionaries’ lab sites and living quarters, and peeping through their intercom messages to learn the hidden secrets behind the beautiful facade of the AEON project. Voraciously consuming audio logs and poring through chat messages, I discovered many dirty little secrets leading to several a-ha moments.
What’s this secret bunker for? Who’s sleeping with who? Is everyone actually flouting the rules that keep the AEON project intact? Each one gave me new ideas on what I may be able to try exploiting in the Timeloop next.
There’s always something new to explore or some creative way to put your day to good use. Be that by trying to solve one of Blackreef Island’s many environmental puzzles for potential rewards, stalking and hunting down a visionary, or seeking out new weapons and power-ups to build up your heist arsenal.
Like Arkane games of the past, players are given access to an assortment of fun weapons, a handful of cool (and upgradeable) powers, and freedom of choice to approach enemies and mobs in whatever way they choose. For me, that generally meant taking a stealthy approach – marking then sliding past enemies or using the Shift Slab to teleport past crowds along the rooftops.
Of course, the plan inevitably goes south, and I spent a lot of time improvisationally running and gunning whenever sh*t hits the fan. Often this rapidly morphs a feeling of cautious anticipation into thrilling panic, which is then followed either by relieved laughter if I escaped unscathed or of facepalming in disappointment if I got gunned down and lost important progress.
Deathloop cleverly plays into its Timeloop concept with elements of roguelike design. A key part of any successful heist is gathering your tools, and in this case, these are your guns, Trinkets (character and weapon mods), and Slabs (powers). To keep your items between loops, Colt must use gathered Residuum (a collectable resource) to infuse them. However, you can only do this in-between day periods where you can sort through your loadout.
If you die after exhausting all in-loop respawns, anything that isn’t infused is lost for good. I found this finely balanced risk and reward design to be greatly enjoyable, often having to decide on the fly if I should take a plunge and risk more for a sought-after item or instead play things safe and stash what I have to return another day. This roguelike (roguelite, I guess?) design is appetising in the small doses provided here, providing a more accessible and (much more) forgiving whiff of the genre than in fellow PS5-exclusive Returnal.
Stacked with Style
Deathloop feels smooth in motion, effectively pairing punchy gunplay (punctuated by Dualsense’ haptics) with a tasty selection of powers. Some of my favourites include a Juggernaut-style Havoc Slab, which temporarily turns you into a damage sponge that can bulldoze its way through swarms of enemies. And the assassins-favourite Nexus Slab that lets you conjoin the lifeforce of multiple enemies so you can take several targets out with just a single bullet.
The game’s beautiful 1960s visual aesthetic and its covert-feeling and instantly iconic psycho-rock soundtrack demonstrate Deathloop’s unique and strong art direction. Both of which set the tone wonderfully for this spy thriller. Its wonderful cast of eccentric visionaries, each with their quirks and outlandish personalities, accentuate the game’s style and further establishes its absurd yet believable premise.
My personal favourites include the deranged visual artist Fia Zborowska and the equally nutty game designer Charlie Montague. In truth, it’s really difficult to pick just a couple of favourites because the visionaries each make an equally, lovingly-unhinged and compelling case for themselves.
Unfortunately, this was also where I felt most let down by what the game had to offer. While the setup and backstory for these characters will suck you into the story, the build-up ultimately leaves you more with blue balls than a climax – as what’s set up in the first half doesn’t lead anywhere satisfying in the latter half.
Close But No Cigar
Beyond that, I was also left frustrated by several other things. Firstly, this wasn’t an easy game to jump in and out of. There’s a lot of immersive deep-diving whenever you’re chasing down leads or clues, but each time I left the game and came back, it took me a loop or two to get oriented and acclimatised before I could mentally catch up on where I left the heist planning process last time out. This may be due to the inherent nature of the game’s design, but it felt like more could have been done to re-acclimate players or catch you up on where you left off.
Secondly, Deathloop uses a cluttered but (just about) functional user interface which is a problem because as part of heist planning, you’ll be spending a lot of time managing inventory in the UI. Sorting through the bucket loads of Trinkets collected in the late game is a really overwhelming (and tedious) chore. Perhaps this is a matter of personal preference. Still, I much prefer executing a heist than sitting around figuring out which attachment to clip to the third gun that I probably won’t be firing at all.
Finally, as more of a kicker than a complaint, Julianna (who actively hunts you throughout the game) can be played by either an AI or a player over the internet. Hunting and being hunted by live players adds yet another peculiar dimension to the game’s already multi-layered design. And it’s a really cool idea. In reality, however, I just turned on single-player mode because the last thing I want is for a good near-death run to be tossed in the scrapper because I run up against a God-tier player-controlled Julianna.
Deathloop plays like a nutty game director’s pipe dream brought to life and polished to a tee. Sometimes it feels like none of this should work, yet it does, and here we are. Its delectable layers of artistic style, presentation, and game design make for one of the most intriguing games I played in the last few years and deserves credit simply for pulling it off at all.
But that didn’t come without frustrations in the player experience, particularly when it came to jumping in and out of the game, managing a bloated inventory system, and feeling let down by a set of characters and a world that could have offered so much more. It’s not a perfect game by any stretch of the imagination, but one well worth your limited (and non-looping) time.
Screenshots taken on a PlayStation 5. Additional visuals courtesy of Bethesda Softworks.