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‘Deathloop’: It’s campy and the mechanics are good, but nothing more than that

“Deathloop.” (Bethesda Softworks)


Developed by: Arkane Studios

Published by: Bethesda Softworks

Available on: PC, PlayStation 5

It might sound odd, but I thought of Susan Sontag as I tried to pin down the aesthetic that lies at the heart of “Deathloop,” the new action game about Colt, a guy caught in a time loop on an island populated by masked revelers who have no compunction about shooting him on sight. In her seminal essay “Notes on Camp” Sontag wrote, “Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style — but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated …”

“Camp” strikes me as a useful word to describe a game where one’s adversaries include Charlie, a techie, who underwent a voluntary lobotomy to furnish the computer he uses with biological material to enhance its computational power, and his lover Fia, an artist who sets up residence inside an active nuclear reactor where she paints over the instrumental doodads. “Deathloop” is keen to remind you of its video gameness. It celebrates its own artifice. It wallows in its own style. Its characters are merrily outlandish and the situation they find themselves in, of repeating the same day, killing and dying, is an obvious nod to players accustomed to repetition.

A recent article on Game Developer about “Deathloop’s” sound design opened with this observation: “Deathloop's aesthetic can't be summed up in a tidy buzzword. Even 'retro-future' doesn't quite hack it. Yet, despite its lack of conciseness, the 1960s- and '70s-inspired sandbox shooter[ …] has a vibe that simply works.” I agree. It’s best not to make too much of the mid-twentieth century iconography that runs through the game (tube TVs, radio technology, etc.) or other anachronistic features (the personal computers scattered over the island, for example). Deathloop doesn’t feel anchored in a historical period as much as it feels steeped in the conventions of modern (e.g. post-“Dark Souls”) video games.

At the start of “Deathloop,” Colt finds himself on the wrong end of a machete pointed at his chest. Holding the weapon over him asking “Why can’t you remember!?,” is Julianna, a woman who savors taunting Colt throughout his journey. Julianna barely lets him plead his ignorance before stabbing him in the chest. The scene then cuts to the early morning where Colt wakes up amid several empty bottles on a beach. Standing up and making his way inland, he sees messages written in white letters hanging in the air in front of him, “break the loop,” then soon after, “who are you?” Making his way to a metal door fixed along a rocky cliffside, he opens it, heads down a flight of steps and sees another message hanging in the air, “it’s me, I’m you.” The short passageway opens to another room where, positioned over a desk, is a map with notes and pictures tacked on to it.

The room jogs his memory. On the board are notes about the island’s resident Visionaries, the people whose presence sustain the time loop. Part of the backstory players are left to find out is how these luminaries from different fields — art, science, music, and business — came to work for a company in the business of enticing folks to take vacations where they can live out their fantasies with the assurance that “time is your plaything.” As players progress through the campaign they’ll discover a web of interconnections between the Visionaries that Colt must exploit to sabotage the loop.

Sections of the island of Blackreef can be explored at set times: morning, noon, afternoon and evening. If Colt dies more than two times during one of his expeditions, the time loop resets and he finds himself back on the beach in the morning. Early in the game Colt loses the gear he finds when the time loop resets. Eventually he learns how to “infuse” weapons and assorted upgrades with “residuum,” or energy, that can be harvested from dead enemies and objects littered throughout the environment. Infusion, which can be performed in between missions, allows Colt to retain his gear across different time loops. Residuum works in a manner similar to how souls work in the Dark Souls series. If Colt dies, he drops his residuum where he fell. Players then have the opportunity to revisit the spot where Colt met his end and reclaim the residuum, which disappears if the time loop resets.

Another way in which “Deathloop” borrows from the Souls series is by allowing for player invasions. Players can assume the role of Julianna and invade the world of other Colts. When played offline, a computer-controlled Julianna will sometimes try to hunt down Colt should he be detected by adversaries in an area in which a Visionary lives.

Created by the studio best known for its Dishonored franchise, “Deathloop,” is a systems-heavy game that offers players a variety of tools to accomplish its objectives. Different character builds are ideal for stealth, hacking or brute force. One of my favorite ways to go about things is to grab a turret (which can be folded up and carried like a briefcase) turn briefly invisible using the “aether” powerup that Colt can acquire from one of the Visionaries, mosey over to a group of enemies, setup the turret and skedaddle. Chalk it up to the voyeur in me but I’ve long relished inflicting carnage on video game characters from the sidelines.

I extracted only modest pleasure from “Deathloop.” Sure, I experienced some tense moments when I was down to one life and struggled getting to the exit of a level, but that sort of tension is something I’ve long grown accustomed to from any number of games. Moreover, the twists in the game’s story line did little for me. I never felt any urgency to break the time loop since everyone in the world — even Colt — is pretty blithe about going through the motions from one loop to the next. Alas, I find it difficult to imagine anyone who isn’t partial to video game tropes loving “Deathloop.” Unless you’re particularly drawn to its vibe, it’s a shooter with good mechanics but not much more than that.

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.

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