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Deathloop defies comparison in wonderful ways

Being trapped in a time loop can be freeing

Julianna pulls back to swing at the player, Cole, in a screenshot from Deathloop Image: Arkane Studios/Bethesda Softworks

Deathloop takes a lot of things I already like and remixes them into something I like even more. I’ve long been a fan of the time loop genre, so every time I sit down to write about Deathloop, I start thinking about movies and games like Groundhog Day, Edge of Tomorrow, Palm Springs, Outer Wilds, Returnal, and even Twelve Minutes.

It’s also tempting to compare it to other Arkane Studios games with a similar style and mechanics. Arkane Studios is extremely good — great even — at making a certain kind of game. Just look at the Dishonored series or the criminally underplayed Prey. They’re first-person games where you mix supernatural powers with death-dealing gadgets as you traverse beautifully realized environments, dispatching enemies either head-on or stealthily (or a mix of the two). All of that is there in Deathloop, out Sept. 14, but even that beast of a sentence is missing something.

And that something is just how much playfulness and subversion Deathloop contains. The comparisons define the borders around what Deathloop is. All of that “it’s kind of like” and “have you ever seen” miss out on all the ways Deathloop pokes holes in what I expected a time loop story to be.

Cole fires dual SMGs at an Eternalist in a brightly lit room from Deathloop Image: Arkane Studios/Bethesda Softworks

Time loop stories tend to be about solving the mystery of the repeating day and then breaking the loop. I started playing Deathloop with that expectation in mind, but I was waiting for a mystery that never arrives. Or, rather, a mystery that had already been solved. When I woke up as Colt in the opening minutes of the game, it quickly became clear that I was the only person on the island of Blackreef that didn’t know about the time loop. I wasn’t in on the joke. And everything is kind of a joke when you have an infinite number of todays to play with.

Deathloop begins in the nihilistic part of the time loop story — think Act 2 of Groundhog Day or, to use a more recent example, Palm Springs. The people inhabiting the island aren’t trapped. They’re celebrating it. They call themselves Eternalists. The time loop creates a consequence-free perpetual existence. Blackreef is not a vast mystery that you’re here to solve. Instead, it’s an absurdist, hedonistic oasis of amoral immortals free from repercussions. Including death.

Colt uses a shard skill in his left hand while aiming a pistol at an Eternalist in Deathloop Image: Arkane Studios/Bethesda Softworks

A similar concept came up in our review of Twelve Minutes: Knowing about the time loop objectifies the characters. As the player, you’re removed from all consequences as well, and the people become disposable playthings even more than they already are as video game characters. That’s present in Deathloop, too, but as the premise not as a consequence. The characters are objectified — everyone’s wearing these neutral, dehumanizing masks — but it’s by design. And that, not the time loop, is what Colt’s out to fix.

Colt’s quest to break the loop isn’t about solving a mystery; it’s about righting a wrong — killing the Eternalist leaders to break everyone out of the nihilistic loop. And you get to do it with guns and superpowers.

Graffiti in an alley in one of Deathloop’s districts Image: Arkane Studios/Bethesda Softworks via Polygon

Time becomes my means of finding the best way to do that. There are four times of day — morning, noon, afternoon, and evening — to explore across Blackreef’s districts. Each time I leave a district, the day advances to the next chunk until I’m out of time and the day resets.

Within these districts, I find clues that lead to new weapons or to opportunities to kill my targets. Killing one of them gets me a Slab — a superpower like short-range teleportation or telekinesis — that opens up whole new ways to explore or murder. But once the day resets, I lose my guns and Slabs and have to start over.

Deathloop works so well because it knows when to get out of the way. Relegating (or, perhaps, elevating) the time loop to the game’s setting instead of its mystery does a couple great things for gameplay. When I’m exploring a district at a certain time of day, time is effectively stopped. There’s no countdown like I expect from a time loop game. Removing that pressure means I’ve got the freedom to explore and experiment without rushing. The districts change over the course of the day — the downtown area might be busy in the morning, but deserted at night — so I’ll find different people and information depending on when I visit. No time pressure means I get to hop around in space and time until I piece together enough clues to know exactly what to do.

Deemphasizing the loop also lets me skip over the tedious steps of each day. Instead of having to make sure I pick up my basic gear every single morning when I wake up, I get my machete and the default gun on every loop after I’ve done it once. When I learn the key code to a locked door, the game fills it in for me every time or even fast-forwards me past the door.

Image: Arkane Studios/Bethesda Softworks

It frees me up to focus on just playing and enjoying Deathloop as I search for my next lead. I get to explore the retrofuturistic environments from the streets or the rooftops, killing or avoiding as I see fit.

I’ve only had a couple days with the game — call it five or so hours. What I’ve played has been a delight. It’s playful and absurd while maintaining that Arkane style of game that I find immensely satisfying. The mix and balance of straightforward shooting and physics-bending superpowers, along with being free to switch between stealth and head-on combat, means I never have to be perfect, just adaptable. And since I’m in a time loop, I’m even more free to play around.

Besides, if I screw up, I can just try again tomorrow.

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