With Deathloop, Arkane Finally Set Players Free To Play Their Way

If you’ve played Dishonored, Dishonored 2 and Prey (2017), you’ll come across this very specific tutorial prompt, titled “play your way”. This tutorial blurb is developers Arkane Studios reminding players that the game is built to accommodate whatever style of play they like. Do whatever, play your way. We let you do it.

But, for most players, it doesn’t feel like that.

With Deathloop, Arkane’s suggestion that you can play your way finally lives up, and it’s likely the reason more people who would’ve picked up their previous three games and put it down indefinitely are really enjoying the game to its full potential.

First, let’s double back a bit. So what’s the issue with Arkane games of the past?

Dishonored, Dishonored 2 and Prey (2017) are all immersive sims, a highly specific genre of games that adheres to the philosophy of allowing emergent gameplay in a believable world.

What it really means in today’s video games is that these games give players an abundance of choice in how to approach an objective, catering to many playstyles, and none of them is mandatory. You can murder everyone in direct combat in Dishonored. You can use the alien powers to turn the tables against the alien threat in Prey. Or finish the game without murdering anyone or anything directly.

However, modern Arkane games starting with Dishonored adds a wrinkle- a consequence to your actions. In the Dishonored series, there’s a Chaos level that increases by how chaotic your playstyle is. Killing more people and being spotted more often will bump the Chaos level higher, which in turn causes changes to the next levels and ultimately lead to a different ending.

In Prey, you can spec yourself with alien powers, but you’re warned outright that the more alien powers you unlock, the more alien you will be. Security systems that attack aliens on sight will eventually attack you too.

From a game design standpoint, in a vacuum, having consequences for your actions in a world is great at showing how much a player has agency over it. Let players feel they have a say in this world and how to shape it. In reality, it just dreads players into choosing one specific playstyle over the other. Some may decide it’s too much to think about and put the game down indefinitely.

And since the consequence of interacting with these systems is usually making the world in a worse state, players will feel obliged to play the lamest ways to retain the default world state. It feels more in canon that Corvo and Emily do a non-lethal run to take back the throne since it produces the “good” ending. Having the turrets as your best buds in the early game in Prey turn on you as you grow more alien powers seems like a bad choice.

The reality is that we have grown too accustomed to games with binary morality systems, that rewards you for going all-in on one choice and punishes you for not committing to either one. Infamous, Mass Effect and various others have conditioned players enough that you cannot have fun if you mix-and-match your choices. Which is how immersive sims is best experienced as.

Dishonored 2 tried to address this, by making you know which choices lead to an “optimistic” or “pessimistic” ending (note the choice of words here is not “good” and “bad”). And non-lethal takedowns often lead to an even more cruel fate than death. But truthfully, it’s not enough. How many players see the “Unseen” checkbox on the end-of-level screen unticked and felt they were playing the game incorrectly?

I played three previous Arkane games ahead of Deathloop’s release. I ended up doing non-lethal stealth runs in Dishonored 1 and 2 and finishing Prey without using any of its abundant alien powers. Immersive sims are great that it lets player simply not engage in a system or mechanic they don’t want to.

However, I picked those playstyles because it feels like that’s the canon way to play. Though I personally don’t mind playing them those particular ways, despite the hardships that it comes with (there’s a lot of save-scumming involved). I find it fun, and likely so as other im-sim fans.

But let’s be real, immersive sims are such a niche that it’s probably more players out there that were put off by the games having so many overpowered abilities but you’ll be judged poorly for using it.

So what about Deathloop, the new time loop FPS? Arkane essentially removes all judgement and any long-term consequences element in the game. As Colt, you’re out there in Blackreef murdering people until you figure out how to break the time loop. Until it happens, you have to keep on killing. Doing it stealthily or loud-and-proud doesn’t matter since everything will reset by tomorrow.

Having it be based on time loops means players will need to replay the same parts of the game again and again. And it can get really, really stale quick if you are locked to a certain playstyle throughout one campaign.

Achievements/trophies where you have to do stealth runs or kill only the assassination target have been made easier to get thanks to the time loop. You just need to do them in one loop- which is much shorter than a full playthrough of past Arkane games. If you ended up playing the lame game of skulking around slowly, and you hate it but have to do it for the trophy, you’d be less mentally exhausted from doing those runs.

Plus, with no quicksaves and quick loads in Deathloop, you’re forced to just keep playing and adapting to whatever happens next. Past games let you save scum should you be spotted to ensure that stealth run you’ve committed to keeps going. In Deathloop, there are no take-backs, roll with the punches. If it means go loud, go loud.

The game doesn’t just force you into engaging with combat, but it makes it something you want to engage in thanks to it having no long-term repercussions. The AI is, in general, much dumber, so it doesn’t feel like you won’t be able to survive any single encounter if your stealth attempt goes south. You will usually come out on top.

And if you did die, it’s fine, try again. The next loops will always (bar some exceptions) be the same. You know what to expect. Should you go for stealth or guns-blazing, it doesn’t matter.

There is, however, one consequence system in Deathloop, called Loop Stress. The more you kill visionaries (the assassination targets) in one day, the tougher the enemies will be. Thankfully, it’s not really a negative feedback loop system. Enemies during higher Loop Stress also drop better loot as a result. Plus, Loop Stress goes down if you die and loop back to a new day.

It’s more of a dynamic difficulty system rather than an irreversible consequence of your actions that you’ll end up dreading. And that’s great!

By removing any sort of judgement and any long-term repercussions from your actions in the core gameplay loop, Deathloop frees the players from the shackles that is a burdening choice with consequence. The many floating texts encourage you to just murder people, by shooting them or stabbing them with your overpowered machete. The game gently reminds you over and over to let loose.

Maybe in another time and in another game, I would like to see developers (be it Arkane or other devs) try to incorporate choices with consequences that won’t lead players into committing to sticking to only one style of play that is to their detriment.

For now, let’s celebrate that with Deathloop, Arkane has finally let you play your way.

Deathloop is out now on the PS5 and PC. You can find our review here.

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