Deathloop prides itself on intelligence, in both senses of the word. That is, “the ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one’s environment” and “information concerning an enemy or possible enemy or an area.” There is also a third layer: Intelligence in Deathloop is both diegetic and non-diegetic, as the game’s plot relies on the skills, plotting, and planning of the player character Colt, as well as the skills, plotting, and planning of the player themselves. Watching a character “be” clever is fun, but there is nothing quite like putting the final puzzle piece in yourself and watching the trap you set perform like a finely tuned watch.
Deathloop wears the clothes of a first-person action-adventure, but its flesh is entirely a puzzle game. The goal is quite simple: You must assassinate eight powerful people, who exist in one of four locations, before the day is done. If you do not assassinate all of them before the end of the day, the cycle repeats and any slain targets return. One day consists of four time periods: morning, noon, afternoon and evening. That means there are 16 spaces (time periods multiplied by locations) in which to initially find a target. You can easily imagine a board game with this structure.
Everyone on the island experiences the time of one day. As Colt, however, you loop that day, remembering everything about it each time he dies or the evening comes to an end. This allows Colt to gather intelligence that is, for example, only available at night to be utilized the “next” morning.
Time is the most important element in the gameplay. A day that was at first unfolding — as all others do — into the fog of the unknown becomes instead a red carpet of comprehension once it is looped. Because those 16 locations play out exactly the same each time: Arriving in the afternoon at one location means seeing three people converse about fireworks. When the loop repeats, and Colt is back at this place and time, the same dialogue occurs. I knew the lines, I knew the people. I can then plot and play with this intelligence — I become the nail in the clockwork mechanism of this universe.
Deathloop does not reveal its full self easily or quickly. To explain its delicious play means being a little bit spoilery, but I will ruin nothing of the plot or world in telling it. I want to continue the example of fireworks.
I overheard some guards talking about how one of my targets loves his fireworks. What would happen if I tampered with them? The problem was that his fireworks were locked in a storeroom on the other side of the island. I therefore had to (1) get the code and (2) sabotage the explosives. I could only get the code in the morning, when it would be given to the firework supplier. The storeroom would be empty in the evening, because the fireworks would have been transported by then. So, I had to loop my day (which can be done by dying 3 times or completing the final time segment, evening), go to the supplier’s storefront in the morning, and acquire the code. Digits in hand, I got to the storeroom in the afternoon. I messed with the fireworks. When the target set them off in the evening: boom.
Of course, he was only one target out of eight. And he’ll be alive again in the next loop. But I have the code! And I now know how to take care of him without wasting my morning. (Also, shoutout to Arkane for following IO Interactive’s line of making all your assassination targets part of the one-percent.)
All this time manipulation is utterly genius, and it makes me feel like a genius. Arkane Studios has made a game about time management one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever encountered. The example of the fireworks is a small gear whose space I found within an increasingly complex lethal instrument. One villain refused to attend another target’s party because he was encumbered by his science experiments, so I ruined his experiments in the morning, leaving him free to attend the party in the evening: two birds, one stone. I learned of two targets’ love affair then found out how to flood their love nest: two birds, one flood. Deathloop is entirely about finding all these tiny gears, until you set in motion the lethal clockwork machine of death leading to the game’s conclusion. It’s so clever and, importantly, it made me feel clever.
There’s a lot more to this game: the gorgeous graphics, the tight and wonderful controls, the actual story, Julianna, the incredible voice performances (I’ll get to these in my final review.) But it’s Deathloop’s focus on time, manipulating the world around you with the intelligence you acquire through your use of repeated cycles, that puts it miles above its peers. “Roguelike” games are premised on repetition and gaining skills to incrementally win — Deathloop uses repetition not for endless grind but actual progress. The loop is not about Colt getting stronger — I could now complete this game without any of the more advanced skills or arsenal Colt acquired. The loop is about Colt (and me as a player) getting smarter, more knowledgeable, to execute the one perfect plan. Yes, it’s arguable that all roguelikes and time-loop games are about executing the perfect “run”.
But no game has made me utilize mere knowledge, forced me to manipulate the world more “permanently” (until the day ends), for my benefit than Deathloop. If anything, with its soaring 1960’s aesthetics and spy-music score, Deathloop made me feel like a Bond villain whose plan actually succeeds.
Deathloop will be released on Sept. 14 on Windows PC and PlayStation 5. The game is being reviewed on PS5 using a pre-release download code provided by Bethesda Softworks. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.