Deathloop Proves Incredibly Flawed Games Can Still Be Masterpieces

Deathloop isn't the perfect game its best review scores may lead you to believe it is, but a game doesn't need to be perfect to be a masterpiece.

Photo: Bethesda Softworks

Deathloop‘s initial reviews have everyone buzzing about this timed PS5 exclusive from developer Arkane Studios (the team behind modern classics such as Dishonored 2 and Prey), but I’m a little worried that the positive buzz surrounding this game is going to give people the wrong impression about what kind of experience it actually is.

When a game starts getting perfect scores, it’s tempting to start telling yourself it must be perfect. Well, no game is perfect, and Deathloop is one of the most imperfect major games I’ve played in quite some time. It’s loaded with obvious shortcomings that will surely chase people away from its inherently divisive core gameplay.

Yet, I too am convinced that Deathloop is a masterpiece not just in spite of its flaws but, in some strange ways, because of them. Because a score can give you the wrong impression about why Deathloop is great, let’s take a slightly deeper look at this game’s problems, greatest qualities, and the strange relationship between the two that shows you just how rare a game like this really is.

Deathloop’s A.I. Is Shockingly Bad

The core of any immersive sim’s gameplay is the thrill you get from finding different solutions to complex problems. Do you go in guns blazing to show off your arsenal and abilities, or do you use stealth, hacking, and subversion to find a more subtle solution? That thrill of finding the perfect path forward (or even just your preferred one) is what makes games like Deus Ex, System Shock 2, and BioShock the classics they are. 

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Sadly, Deathloop’s terrible A.I. limits the moment-to-moment appeal of its immersive sim gameplay. Enemies will regularly walk straight into their death, ignore bodies dropped inches behind them from great heights, and generally refuse to use even basic combat techniques to try to slow your progress.  

Deathloop’s woeful A.I. rarely inspires you to find those creative solutions that should define these types of games. You can still approach a situation however you’d like, but you’re rarely left with the feeling you’ve just found and executed the perfect plan since you’re pretty sure just about any plan would have been good enough to topple this game’s hapless goons. 

Deathloop Tries Too Hard to Hold Your Hand

Deathloop is a pretty complicated game built around a fairly unique premise. As such, I can certainly sympathize with developer Arkane’s decision to frontload the game with quite a few tutorial screens designed to explain the basics. 

Still, it feels like there was a better way to explain this game’s core concepts without relying on a series of screens filled with tiny text. For a game that does such a great job of subtly relaying nearly every other bit of information while letting you figure things out on your own (more on that later), it’s odd that Arkane chose to rely on such a conventual, straightforward, and often frustrating method of delivery. 

In fact, the somewhat sudden way this game pivots from guided gameplay to encouraging you to find organic solutions to complex problems might be too much for some and ultimately negate the good intentions of the title’s opening hours. 

Deathloop Doesn’t Feel Like a Next-Gen Game

Most people knew that the Covid-19 pandemic and global supply shortages were going to slow down an already slow next-gen transition process. We probably won’t start seeing a steady stream of “true” next-gen games until later in 2022, and I understand why that’s the case. 

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That being said, I’m not sure Deathloop is entirely “worthy” of its current PS5 console exclusivity (the game is also available for PC). Aside from a few Dualsense features and quicker loading times, Deathloop feels like a game that probably could have been ported to the PS4 without sacrificing its best qualities. 

Considering how hard it is to find a next-gen console, I feel like this game probably should have been developed for PS4 and PS5. Microsoft may eventually offer some kind of backward compatibility once Deathloop comes to Xbox, but this title’s few obvious next-gen features aren’t a good enough reason to limit its initial reach. 

Deathloop’s Time Loop Is One of the Best In Video Game History

You probably know that Deathloop is a time loop game, and, thanks to a surprising number of new entries into that formerly niche genre, you probably know that means Deathloop is designed to make you repeat the same time period over and over again until you break the loop. 

However, you’ve got to play Deathloop to appreciate just how great its time loop really is. In fact, the way that Deathloop uses the time loop concept to slowly unravel its initially bewildering plot and enhance your understanding of what is possible in this game may just make it the best example of time loop design in video game history. 

I’ve already heard some say that having to repeat Deathloop’s basic structure over and over again starts to feel “grindy,” but in my experience, but there was honestly never a time when I felt too disappointed to start the loop over as doing so usually opened up exciting new opportunities or at least allowed me to learn from whatever mistake I just made that triggered the most recent reset.

Deathloop’s Assassinations Are Some of the Most Satisfying Logic Puzzles Since Portal

While Deathloop’s poor A.I. makes battles against its basic enemies feel…basic, the battles against the game’s Visionaries (your “boss” targets) combine the best elements of Portal and recent Hitman games to form the most satisfying logic puzzles you’ll ever experience. 

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Identifying your target and finding not just the perfect way to kill them but the perfect way to kill them that then allows you to seamlessly move on to the next target with enough time to spare is quite simply one of the greatest experiences I’ve had in a video game in the last 15 years. The number of possible ways to kill an individual target is bested only by the number of possible ways to kill every target in one perfect run.

It’s an approach that leads to a nearly infinite series of “aha” moments that never fail to provide the motivation you need to work your way through one more loop. 

Deathloop Brilliantly Repurposes the Best Qualities of the Roguelike Genre

At first, I was a little worried about Deathloop’s item rarity, skill finding, and progression/regression mechanics. During those early stages when the game is trying to explain so much to you in a short amount of time, the combination of all those roguelike systems started to feel like a bit much. 

However, you eventually discover that the reason those mechanics work so well together is that Deathloop brilliantly limits how many skills, weapons, and items you’re able to readily access during each loop. The result is a kind of roguelike experience where you (eventually) get to have some say in what your reset looks like and how close to “zero” you really have to start from.

I love a traditional roguelike experience, but between games like this, Returnal, and Hades that challenge the idea of “starting over,” it’s been fascinating to watch developers play with the boundaries of the roguelike genre and blend that genre with other concepts. 

Deathloop’s Multiplayer is a Brilliant Idea You May Choose to Ignore

In case you haven’t heard, Deathloop features a fascinating multiplayer component that allows other players to “invade” your game by controlling Julianna: a rival who will stop at nothing to kill the player and preserve the time loop. Julianna’s unique set of abilities allows invading players to easily disguise themselves and generally make your life hell.

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That’s the great and annoying thing about this feature. See, if you choose to disable player-controlled Julianna invasions, the character will still “invade” your game but will instead be controlled by the A.I. Considering this game’s A.I. problems (see above), you don’t really get to experience how brilliant this concept is until you enabled the multiplayer component. 

At the same time, the “griefing” nature of this invasion system means that many people are going to find it to be quite annoying and even detrimental to the overall experience. I feel like this problem could have been solved by a stronger A.I. version of Julianna who comes closer to representing the challenge offered by human players without being quite as frustrating. 

Deathloop’s Incredible Environmental Storytelling Enhances a Sometimes Weak Narrative

Most of Deathloop’s storytelling is done through audio files, environmental clues, computer exchanges, and…well just about everything other than cutscenes and character-to-player dialog exchanges. Anyone who is familiar with Arkane’s previous works (most notably Prey) will be familiar with this basic approach. 

Arkane’s familiarity with this complicated form of storytelling generally results in some of the cleverest and most unexpected bits of narrative design I’ve ever seen, even by this studio’s lofty standards. It’s amazing that Arkane left it up to the player to discover so many vital plot points and character development moments, but that approach ultimately enhances the thrill of finding that one bit of information that puts every other piece of the puzzle in place.

However, the game’s brilliant approach to storytelling doesn’t entirely disguise the weakness of the overall narrative. I won’t get into spoilers here, but once you realize that Deathloop’s plot is more about the little moments and the journey rather the destination, you start to get the feeling that there was a more interesting overall story here that the developers just didn’t quite deliver.

Deathloop Isn’t For Everyone, and That’s What’s Great About It

Developer Arkane Studios has been criticized in the past for making a specific kind of game that rarely meets sales expectations. Some have wondered whether or not Arkane would be better off making at least a few concessions to the preferences of wider audiences just so they could help ensure that they’re able to continue making at least some kind of version of the games they make so well. 

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Between Deathloop’s PS5 console exclusivity, Arkane-style design, and the fact it’s hard to even offer a basic description of the experience without getting into spoilers, I highly doubt that this is going to end up being a long-term best-seller or even just the studio’s best-selling game to date.

However, that’s kind of what makes Deathloop so great. Nearly all of the problems in Deathloop can be attributed to Arkane’s desire to focus on the things they do so well and not worry so much about whether or not someone who doesn’t really enjoy what this title is fundamentally going for is going to take a chance on it. 

I can’t speak to what would have happened if Arkane tried to make a few more changes for wider audiences or even just worked harder to break free of their bad habits, but what I do know is that they came up with a brilliant idea for a game and made that brilliant idea work despite the fact that it could have so easily fallen apart at any time. 

In a world where nothing is perfect, it’s hard to withhold the masterpiece label for something that somehow manages to get everything right. Like many of the most innovative and greatest games before it, Deathloop was made by a team of people committed to getting their biggest and best ideas right above all else.

It’s easy enough to see how Deathloop could have been a better game, but I’d rather be left with a series of nitpicks acquired in the pursuit of something original than another perfectly fine Triple-A game that ultimately justifies its existence through sales figures alone.

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