This week on Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Deathloop.
You know what? Fine; maybe time loop games can be a genre. They're a nice, neat way to formalize the standard save-load function within the context of the plot, and they let us live the fantasy of not having to advance beyond the present day and watch our civilization's gradual transformation into a gigantic consumer electronics landfill. But they can't officially be a genre without a proper exemplar; what Doom is to Doom clones, Dark Souls to Souls-likes, the bitter polyamory of Metroid- and -vania. Yeah, I know there's been half a dozen time loop indie games, but there are so many indie games competing for attention, none of them have a high enough profile; it's like trying to see Magic Eye pictures in television static.
Deathloop comes to us from the creators of Dishonored and Prey - or to give it its full title, "Not That Prey; The Other Prey" - and brings their trademark "play it your way" AAA immersive sim-iness to the time loop concept, but will it be the game that takes the crown of time loop genre namer? No, it won't, frankly, partly for all the reasons listed below, partly because the name just sounds weird the more you say it. "Deathloop". "Dethloop". Sounds like a bloke with a speech impediment trying to point out a single-masted sailing ship.
The premise is, you are Colt Vahn, grizzled mercenary-type - 'cos you can't exactly get a job at the DMV with a name like that - who wakes up with no memories on an island full of good-time Charlies who have deliberately locked themselves in a one-day time loop so they can party forever and never have to deal with the ever-downsliding outside world. And Colt wants to escape from this situation, which is the first glaring plot-hole for me. Fucking hell; air-drop in two crates of hard cider and a RealDoll and show me where to sign, guys!
Colt discovers that the only way to kill the loop is to assassinate the eight superpowered nerds who set it up, none of whom are particularly hard to kill, but the snag is, you have to kill them all in a single loop, and they're deliberately avoiding each other, so your quest is to repeat the day until you've figured out the precise sequence of actions that will result in all of them carking it, since they don't remember things from loop to loop, and will always keep the same schedule. And that's glaring plot-hole number two, because why would these party nerds want to set up a time loop that resets their own memories every loop? Surely, from their perspective, it would just be a normal day, one that ends with a grizzled mercenary-type decanting their brain matter across the fucking Twister mat.
There's a lot about the plot I don't get, that might well be explained in some random document or audio log I didn't notice because it was hidden in an office psychotically cluttered with random, pointless assets between a tray of sandwiches and a dog, but the dialogue's fun and light-hearted, and our goals, at least, are made clear enough, so let's find other nits to pick. It's not a huge game; there's only four medium-sized open-ended levels to pick from for each of the loop's four time periods: Morning, Noon, Beer O'Clock, and Regret O'Clock. It's more about practicing the most optimal routes to take to get to your objectives and embracing your inner speedrunner. It's also about building up your skills and arsenal of weapons, because Colt can spend the wibbly-wobbly time points he accrues to bank any piece of equipment for future time loops, which swiftly means he can wrap the difficulty curve around his grizzled stiffy and bugger it like a bedspring full of ham, because combat's fairly shallow, and it doesn't take that long to fill all your equip slots with endgame-quality weapons.
I found a suppressed machine pistol in Loop One that could accurately bestow insta-kill headshots at any range, and that thing was my friend for life; I named it "Norman". Which is a shame, because finding better weapons and improving your capabilities is supposed to be the reason to explore and do side-quests, but once I had Norman and the Nexus power that makes everyone around your target die as well, possibly thanks to magically-induced flatulence, I was pretty much good to go. "Would you like to equip this weapon mod that improves your range?" What do you think, Norman? Would you like an extra 10% range on top of infinite? Norman doesn't seem enthusiastic, but that might be the suppressor.
And beyond Nexus and the Shift power, which is bluntly the Blink power from Dishonored copy-pasted and with the hue slider shifted half an inch, I never found a use for any of the other superpowers; there's Invisibility, which is just the lazy man's Shift and runs out of power faster than an army wife's vibrator, and there's a thing that lets you pick up one dude and throw them across the room, which I'm sure all the dude’s friends will think is a very impressive parlor trick as they subject you to lead-based hip replacement surgery. The combat being shallow and not particularly hard is a pretty severe flaw for a game where mastering the combat is supposed to be one of your main motivators; it might've helped if there were more than one enemy type besides "substance abuser with gun and fragile, squashy head".
Not for the first time, I wonder if a time loop game would've been a more effective challenge if we weren't allowed to keep stuff from loop to loop, and we had to work "find effective weapons and powerups" into our daily routine between "breakfast wank" and "celebratory post-breakfast wank". I suppose there's nothing stopping you from doing a self-imposed "no infusions" challenge, but if I'm having to design your game for you, Arkane, then I expect a mention in the credits and a consultancy fee. Then again, having to find weapons each time could be an almighty pain in the arse, especially near the end, after I had discovered the ten-step program for total super-nerd assassination and had to start all over again because I got killed during Step 9 by a passing multiplayer-liking person.
That's Deathloop's other big feature; playing single-player mode is like being one of the quiet, studious boys at scout camp: you never know if it's safe to go to sleep, or if one of the rowdy lads from the tent next door will run in and fart on your face. Multiplayer-liking people are tasked with invading other people's single-player campaigns and killing them for prizes in your classic Dark Souls fashion, and I've always hated being forced to socialize ever since Mum made me come out of my room to say hello to Auntie Val. But I probably shouldn't complain, because I was just talking shit about the combat being too easy and shallow, and this does at least bring some tension back in. But every time I was invaded, all they did was hide on a roof and snipe my quiet, studious ass, which tells me that the multiplayer-liking people probably also aren't seeing much benefit from varying their approach.
You know something, listeners? I wanted to like Deathloop a lot more than I did. I do like time loops as a concept, and a game about perfecting a string of sneaky assassinations is a fun way to explore it; on top of that, there's a nice eye for detail, an energy to its writing, and depth to its characters. But at the end of the day, it's let down by its weak core gameplay leg, and that's a problem, because the legs are what's carrying everything; you can't just show up to a figure-skating contest with one leg in a cast and hope to make up for it with a sparkly miniskirt.
- De thilly gameth reviewing man: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Deathloop's just not a very good title if you ask me, sounds like the name of a rejected Rob Liefeld character
- And that was a *good* night at scout camp