So the wait is finally over, and for all the confusion Kojima caused with trailers, screenshots, and interviews, it didn’t matter anymore because they were all in the past. I sat down on my couch, cup of tea in hand, booted up my PS4 and launched into Death Stranding with apprehension, as I had no idea if my confused excitement for the game was going to be rewarded or squandered. Would the game live up to the hype that has been built over the last few years? Or would the chase be better than the catch? I honestly don’t know that I have an answer for you even now, but what I can tell you is that Death Stranding is one of a kind. It’s visually stunning with a layer of polish that should be a benchmark for all AAA launches, accompanied by gameplay that essentially boils down to walking your groceries from one end of the country to the other. It may already sound like a game that you should pass by, but for reasons that are very hard to explain, Death Stranding is truly an unforgettable experience.
Ignoring the explosive cargo on my back for a moment, this game never stopped amazing me visually
I won’t go very deep into story details because spoilers are just no fun at all, plus there are large portions of the plot that I am still struggling to understand (I do have American heritage so that makes sense). The old US of A has seen better days. A cataclysmic event known eponymously as the Death Stranding has left humanity in tatters, clinging to survival in underground shelters that are dozens of kilometres apart from one and other. To make matters that much worse, rain (now referred to as Timefall) is no longer a giver of life, rather it is a constant threat to it, rapidly ageing whatever it comes into contact with. So how exactly does the world keep turning in these dire times? That is where you come in. You are Sam Porter Bridges, an on-foot courier, known as a Porter, that delivers packages between settlements in the now United Cities of America. Mail delivery is important in our day to day lives, but in Death Stranding it has become the lifeblood of humanity. Understandable so far? Cool, don’t expect it to stay that way for too long.
As the game opens, Sam is being summoned by the President of the UCA who has an urgent task specifically for him: to travel across the country in an effort to unite all of the cities in the once USA and bring them all into the Chiral Network, an internet-like system that allows data to transferred across great distances. The idea is simple enough, but the execution is far from easy, as terrorist groups and otherworldly beings (which I will elaborate on later) stand between you on the East Coast and your final destination on the West. The game throws you straight into the deep end with its plot and you will either sink or swim. You will be watching cutscenes for 90% of the first few hours, which would imply that it supplies you with explanations and context for the world and your place in it, but instead it is filled with dialogue that doesn’t immediately make sense and imagery of beaches, dead sea life and plenty of umbilical cords. While a lot of this falls into place later in the narrative (sort of), I can see it being off-putting to some as without context it does come across as overly convoluted (classic Kojima).
Without context this is a weird moment, wait no, even with context it’s still odd
With a lifetime of sitting and watching people talk out of the way, the game does eventually begin to take shape. You are given a delivery order to take packages from one city to another, you arrange them on your pack as you wish and off you go. That initial moment of walking from the distribution centre you were in, into a landscape of rolling mountains, grassy meadows littered with streams and rock formations and low-lying clouds is incredible. The environment in Death Stranding is truly something to behold. As you begin your trek, low, melodic music begins playing to accompany you on your route to your destination. The combination of stunning scenery and the game’s excellent soundtrack gets things off to a calming and serene start. Juxtaposing this tranquil feeling however, is the moment to moment gameplay.
Before setting off you will load up your cargo on your back, arms and legs depending on the shape and weight of each parcel. This may seem like a pointless task to begin with, but once you realise that Sam has the proportionate balance to that of a newborn you will quickly understand why preparation is key. While traversing the landscape you will have to take note where you are stepping, as sloped ground, raised rocks, streams of water and other obstacles will cause you to lose balance and fall, damaging both yourself and your cargo. In order to prevent this from happening, you are able to shift your weight from left to right using the corresponding shoulder buttons (R2 and L2). This system feels genuine to the circumstance, as schlepping over 100 kilos of boxes on your frame would absolutely throw off your equilibrium, but it does become annoying rather fast. You are able to hold down both R2 and L2 to keep balanced easier at the cost of speed and later in the game there are upgrades and buffs to alleviate the frustration, but it never truly goes away.
Give the man a break, delivering that amount of cargo by hand is tiring work
You won’t solely be relying on your feet to execute deliveries, as Sam has access to a range of tools to further the chance of packages making it to their destination intact. Incredibly satisfying extendable ladders, ropes and PCCs (think a handheld 3D printer) among other tools make travel a little bit easier, though they all must be loaded onto your pack the same as cargo, so planning for each trip specifically is important. You will be able to acquire and use vehicles later in the game to give Sam’s legs a break, but of course they have their caveats also. The reverse trike (a bike with one wheel at the rear and two at the front), is fast and nimble, but struggles through water and has limited cargo space, whereas the trucks are slow and can only travel on simple terrain, but can haul huge amounts of cargo. Every decision in Death Stranding has a consequence and each choice, no matter how insignificant it may seem, could result in failure.
Though you are alone in your voyage, Death Stranding does have a persistent online functionality that allows other players structures to appear in your game if that area is connected to the Chiral Network. There were multiple times during my play through where I found myself out of tools, facing an impossible obstacle, only to be saved by another players well placed ladder or bridge. This online functionality can be turned off if you want to truly go it alone, but it really does add a layer of comradery between you and your fellow Porters. This level of player interaction lends itself so well to a game so obsessed with the idea of connection. If you use another players item, or are just feeling generous, you can leave them a ‘like’ for their troubles. Likes are…currency in a way, used to level up and progress Sam’s skills. Who says Facebook likes are meaningless?
By delivering cargo undamaged and in a timely fashion you are rewarded with more likes. Likes then increase your Porter Level, allowing you to carry more cargo and increasing your balance
Both the environment and your ability to Tetris packages onto yourself effectively are ever-present dangers in this world, but they are far from the only two. The most terrifying and deadly enemy that you will face are the spectral BTs (Beached Things) – former humans that, once dead, reappear in the physical world as shadowy monsters with a connection to the world of the dead. These horrifying beings are invisible to all of those who aren’t attached to a Bridge Baby (BB). You didn’t think I was going to ignore the foetus in a cannister did you? Your BB is strapped to your chest and is connected via a cord, allowing you to see the outline of the BTs. If you find yourself in BT territory, stealth is key. Crouching, moving slowly and holding your breath when they are close will allow you to sneak through undetected. Provoke them by being too loud and you will be attacked, pulled down to the ground in a pool of tar and dragged away to face a huge collection of them fused together in the shape of a sea creature.
That all sounds crazy I know, and it is, but it is also immensely stressful in the right way. The BTs are the perfect blend of ominous, intriguing and downright scary. They only appear when it is raining, so as soon as the droplets start hitting the ground, your heartrate is sure to elevate. The ‘boss’ encounters that ensue if you are caught are equally tense, as you are kitted out with grenades and other projectiles, laced in your blood that, for story reasons, are the only thing capable of harming and destroying BTs. Remains of buildings appear during these sequences, giving you some verticality to work with for an advantage, which is necessary when an inky whale-esque squid is raging towards you. The only negative with the BTs is that after a few run ins they become more of a hassle than a threat, slowing down the pace of your delivery and often arriving at irritating junctures.
Sure the scenery is beautiful, but get too close to those black strands suspended from the sky and you will find yourself creeping past the foreboding BTs
If you were simply delivering Amazon packages to John Blow for the duration of the game I’d have no qualms in saying that the gameplay would not be fulfilling enough to hold your interest for very long. Thankfully the bizarre narrative that unfolds, coupled with the cast of eccentric and fascinating characters that you meet, goes a long way to making you feel like the work you are putting in is important. The entire game not so subtly revolves around the idea of connection and how we as a race desire and require connection to each other to be human. By delivering aid, supplies and connecting settlements to the Chiral Network you are essentially bringing the world closer together in a time when it is in pieces. For this reason I found a sense of ownership and importance to what I was doing.
While the writing was fairly hit and miss, with some conversations feeling odd or awkward in principle, the execution given by each voice actor was fantastic. Sam, as voiced by The Walking Dead star Norman Reedus, came across perfectly as a damaged and untrusting outsider that was caught up in something much larger than himself. The true standout, other than Troy Baker as antagonist Higgs, who is brilliant in everything, was Hannibal’s, Mads Mikkelsen. His character is shrouded in mystery for the most part, but every time he showed his face he stole the spotlight. Also being a Kojima game, don’t expect normal names, instead prepare yourself for people to act as though Die-Hardman and Mama are as common a name as John and Sally.
The extendable ladders are always helpful in a pinch and never stop being satisfying to deploy
There is so much that I haven’t touched on yet – the random jump into action with firearms and terrorists, the bond you form with your BB during the course of the game, the ability to piss on command. This game has so many moving parts yet is so simple in premise that it will no doubt baffle you even if you are an ardent lover of Kojima’s games. Before I give you my final impressions I would like to say that even if you have a passing interest in this game I think it worth giving it a try at the very least. There is a good chance that you will either love it or hate it, but text can only offer you so much when it comes to accurately explaining just what the hell this game is. I haven’t been so intrigued by a game in years, as I found myself thinking about it constantly while going about my day, so that in itself shows you what a unique experience it is.
While playing Death Stranding for this review I habitually found myself wondering about different forms of entertainment and how we process them. More specifically, I was questioning whether or not entertainment mediums had to be fun in order to be enjoyed or considered good. Take for instance a carnival ride – you’ve paid to be in the carnival to begin with so when you get on the teacup ride and it’s more vomit-inducing than fun, you would say that there was little enjoyment had. But on the flip side, if you look at cinema, there are countless films that are emotionally draining and thought provoking that don’t contain an ounce of ‘fun’ within them, yet we find them entertaining and captivating nonetheless. Video games are in a strange limbo between carnival and movie – where they have the capacity to invoke emotion but often require a degree of spectacle to keep the audience interested. Death Stranding is a curious case that doesn’t offer players fun, but instead takes a concept that appears menial and dull and adds an importance to it that hooks you into a world that is equally beautiful and filled with dread. Gorgeous, immensely confusing and sporting a plot that is often too ambitious and convoluted for its own good, Death Stranding is unique, and that will either draw you in or push you away. Regardless, it is a game like no other and I am endlessly thankful that it exists.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro // Review code supplied by publisher
- Kojima Productions
- Sony Interactive Entertainment
- November 8, 2019