‘Deathloop’ is my perfect video game: A bloody puzzle you have to solve, not beat.

During my heady sprint through Deathloop’s wild story, I gushed about it to a friend in the know and he said something that stuck with me: It’s a video game escape room.

That’s not a perfect comparison, mind you. Yes, your goal is escape. But the time crunch that creates tension in your typical escape room doesn’t work in quite the same way here. Deathloop joins a growing genre of time-loop games with a story built around a day that’s on an eternal 24-hour loop. But you’re never really pitted against a timer here.

It works like this: You play as a man named Colt. He wakes up on a Blackreef beach one morning without a memory in his head or a possession to his name. All he has, strangely, is the ability to see floating text in the air that seems to speak directly to him. These surreal pop-ups are how we learn Colt’s name right at the outset. As the story winds on, the floating words will warn of threats ahead, hint at Colt’s past, and generally just nudge us in the right direction.

There are four times of day, and four distinct areas you can visit on the Isle of Blackreef. Time doesn’t pass until you voluntarily exit an area, leaving control over the clock entirely in your hands. But the loop always resets after the “evening” segment — at least until you finally manage to uncover the so-called “golden path.”

It quickly becomes clear that Colt has a deep connection to Blackreef. The time loop seems to be caused by a still-operating relic from the island’s defunct military installation. A cult lives there now, led by a woman named Julianna and seven Visionaries — a gang of distinct personalities who each oversee different aspects of the island.

The Visionaries (plus Julianna) are the keys to breaking out of this escape room. If Colt manages to kill them all in the space of a single loop, he’ll be free. That’s the golden path.

No sprawling mystery is complete without an elaborate, string-and-thumbtack-marked map affixed to a bulletin board.
Credit: Bethesda Softworks

Uncovering that path is the whole game here, and from your very first loop there are patterns unfolding all over — even if you can’t quite see them yet. Each area of Blackreef is a sort of sandbox where you’re meant to investigate and experiment. While there are optional pursuits that’ll net you better guns or more resources, solving the mystery of Colt’s escape route is your main focus, always.

Developing leads that point you to what each Visionary is up to at different times of day is everything here. It becomes clear very quickly that they’re almost never in the same place at the same time. So you need to pry into their personal spaces, read their emails and text chats, shuffle through their private papers. Like a good escape room, clues are everywhere. Figuring out how each one fits into the larger puzzle is where Colt’s journey collides with your creative problem-solving capabilities.

Then there’s the action. Blackreef is a menacing place where cultists, who all wear masks and drape themselves in garish wardrobes lifted right out of the mid-’60s mod scene, are all trying to kill you. Learning where they patrol and what they get up to at different times of day is a piece of Deathloop’s whole investigation vibe, but eventually you’ll need to face them.

Stealth is always an option, but Deathloop doesn’t play favorites. Developer Arkane Studios has learned that players will gravitate toward guns blazing or sneaky stabbing if either is tied to special rewards. So here, it really doesn’t matter. Going loud has its virtues. So does staying quiet. At certain points, the mystery might even demand one or the other (or it might not, who can say?!). Colt is effective either way, depending on the kit you set up for him.

‘Deathloop’ is an escape room rendered as a video game.

That’s how Deathloop’s puzzle shapes the action. While Colt loses all the gear and powers (called Slabs) that he’s amassed at the end of a loop, you’re taught early on that any of it can be permanently committed to his arsenal if you collect and spend enough of a resource called Residuum to “infuse” it. Dead Visionaries yield whole treasure troves of the stuff, but Colt can also absorb it out of everyday objects that pulsate and glow with a prismatic rainbow swirl. In fact, after the first couple loops, which mostly serve as a guided tutorial, it’s a good strategy to focus specifically on scouring every location you visit for more Residuum so you can build up that arsenal.

The best stuff you’ll find always comes from the Visionaries. Cracking the golden path takes tens of hours, but Julianna’s lieutenants are all easy enough to find on their own. Hunting and killing them can still serve a purpose, since you can get their guns — which come packing bonus effects — as well as their Slabs, which are unique to each Visionary (and which can be upgraded as you collect more of the same Slab).

There’s also Julianna herself. Unlike the rest, she’s not someone you can simply find out in the world. Instead, the cult leader pops up at random times to hunt Colt and generally ruin your day if you’re not careful. Kill her, though, and you stand to inherit some top-tier weapons and a randomly selected Slab.

(Deathloop can be played as an online game, with a separate “Protect the Loop” mode that lets players jump into another Colt’s game as Julianna. I unfortunately wasn’t able to test this during the review period, but playing offline against an AI-controlled Julianna is plenty satisfying on its own.)

In the end, all of the guns, Slabs, and weapon/ability-modifying Trinkets you collect lend additional texture to Deathloop’s central puzzle, giving you more (and sometimes outcome-changing) options for tackling a given problem. Shift, a Slab that enables short-distance teleportation, opens up new routes through the world, and even to certain Visionaries. With suppressed weapons you can silently clear out a space with minimal risk. Colt himself is always armed with an intrinsic Slab called Reprise, which gives him three lives to live in a given time of day before the loop resets. But there are even times when voluntarily turning off that supposed advantage is a strategy in itself.

The Nexus Slab is useful for taking out groups of enemies in a single blow.
Credit: Bethesda Softworks

That’s the genius of Deathloop, and what makes it work so well. Every single aspect of this game vibrates in tune with the central mystery you’re trying to crack. You’ll spend time growing Colt’s arsenal because it brings more variety to the proceedings, but you’ll also need some specific loadout to see the golden path through to its bloody end. There’s no one configuration that guarantees victory; it’s all about finding the right tools for the right jobs — and that hinges on how you prefer to play.

I preferred a quieter approach, so I stuck with abilities and weapons that let me move around and stay deadly without being seen. But I tried some louder approaches as well. The Slab called Havoc, which lets Colt deflect bullets back at enemies, pairs well with Karnesis, the obligatory “toss enemies around with telekinesis” power. With that kind of loadout I’d also skip suppressed weapons in favor of the ones that come packing exploding bullets or bonus headshot damage.

The point is, it’s up to you. Loadouts are set before you dive in with each new phase of the day, so deciding which two Slabs (in addition to Reprise) and three guns to carry along — not to mention weapon- and ability-modifying Trinkets, which do everything from letting you double-jump (essential) to boosting your ammo capacity — is part of the fun, and the challenge.

I did run into the odd weak spot along the way. The menus organizing your leads are tricky to navigate with the mouse-style cursor, and the information they offer — which you ostensibly uncovered from clues — isn’t always clear. More than once, I got stuck simply because I needed to find a random object to inspect but didn’t have a clear sense of what the object might be. Deathloop’s clues — papers, voice recorders, and more — blend in too easily with the beautifully cluttered and detail-packed environments.

Every single aspect of ‘Deathloop’ vibrates in tune with the central mystery you’re trying to crack.

The enemy AI gets confused sometimes, as well. More than once, I watched a cultist get stuck walking into a wall. The cultists themselves are also easily gamed; once you realize where the AI patrol boundaries are, you can draw large groups into tight locations and pick them off one by one with little fuss.

But also… learning how to game the game is the game here. The central allure of Deathloop is the freedom it affords you to step into a virtual world and uncover the mysteries hidden there. And while the golden path is a fairly rigid sequence of steps in the end, the choices you make to complete each step are wide open. You might feel the need to cheat the stupid AI early on, but that process can also help you see other angles of approach that may be more effective (and less cheesy).

In many ways, the kind of experience Deathloop delivers is an Arkane specialty. Fans of the Dishonored series and the 2017 Prey reboot will spot lots of familiar elements from those earlier games carried over here. But to me, Deathloop feels like a culmination of Arkane’s signature sandbox puzzle-solving. It’s a studio and a creative team firing on all cylinders to deliver the best possible version of ideas they’ve already spent years sharpening and perfecting.

Deathloop is a special experience, and the most perfect video game I’ve encountered in 2021. I’ve missed escape rooms during this awful pandemic, and here’s a game that actually scratched that itch. It’s perhaps too complex and shaped by overlapping systems to enjoy mainstream levels of success. But for the inquisitive player who likes puzzles, mystery, and virtual murder — aka me — Deathloop is an absolute delight.

Deathloop is out for PlayStation 5 and Windows on Sept. 14.

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