In roughly 25 years of playing video games and the 8 years, I’ve spent in my capacity as an editor, I never dreamed of something like Death Stranding. Hideo Kojima returns after the Konami fiasco saw him ousted him in his role at the studio. His return to development with new studio Kojima Productions comes out of the gate heavy-fisted and seemingly profound. Years of building the community up with enigmatic trailers, talented cast, and the financial backing of PlayStation, 2019’s biggest game of the year is here.
Once, There Was An Explosion
Playing as Sam Porter Bridges, mo-cap and voice provided by Norman Reedus; who does his best as being a self-sufficient man who excels at being a porter. Sam isn’t exactly a people person and would rather spend his time away from people than in the last of the city sprawls around the continent.
As Sam, you’re tasked with rebuilding America after a devastating event known as the Death Stranding. This event, saw the dead cross over to our world, stranded and unable to crossover. The world of the living and the world of the dead are now blurred together, and every human has their own afterlife, better known as a “Beach,” a plane of existence only those who belong can access it. Our world is ravaged by “Beached Things,” or BTs. These ominous and rather harrowing looking ghosts come in various sizes and the bigger BTs cause havoc that is damaging the world. As such, when encountering the massive BTs, they may trigger a voidout, which in the world of Death Stranding, leaves a crater where a city once was in some cases.
Death Stranding oozes in its own mythology and terms associated with events and people. Death Stranding is also hard to describe and partially why this review took me so long to write. I’m three weeks past the review embargo but not for lack of interest. In fact, as I write I have this feeling in my gut wanting to go back. I want to deliver more cargo for the Engineer, I want to talk to the Chiral Artist a bit more and I want to expand my infrastructure.
By now, it’s true the comparison to a delivery simulator jokes hit the web and had their moment, and yes, that’s the chosen gameplay mechanic used to carry the narrative forward. For over 40 hours you’ll fetch cargo and deliver it amongst the United Cities of America, building trust and earning likes. This is a social game, and surprisingly, a ton of fun once you get over the beginning crawl.
Each delivery relies on a few things to be successful. For one, the importance of delivering a package with as little damage as possible is necessary, so is the path you decide to take when delivering an item. If you carry too much or even the wrong tools to complete a job, the score assigned at the end is affected but you easily adjust your cargo load and how you traverse the rocky and craggy world.
Sam excels at his job as a porter. Each time you pick up a new delivery, you’ll load up your cargo on top of your inventory and arrange it to balance the load. You’ll need to keep in mind a few things while delivering: Sam stumbles when his load is overbearing, so you’ll use the shoulder buttons to stabilize his balance, otherwise, you’ll need to shift weight to keep upright. Each piece of cargo affects mobility, so going to your next location full of gear isn’t always the best idea. Shoes deteriorate so you’ll find yourself replacing those, too. Sam also has a stamina meter that depletes with every action, some more than others depleting the meter faster. Thankfully, the way these systems are designed to tend to keep things interesting, and less of a nuisance.
At times, I had a hard time coming back because thinking about delivering in the snow, on a mountain made me anxious. Trekking through the mountains, ill-equipped and low on stamina is a recipe for disaster. Coming across BTs in the snow, where without the right equipment usually means an encounter that won’t end well, with cargo being damaged.
The Face of Our New Hope
The single most important piece of equipment that ends up saving your hide is BB, a “Bridge Baby” which serves as a beacon to detect the BTs in your vicinity. Essentially, a BB is a stillborn child ripped from its mother with the pod serving as a womb to simulate the environment. One character informs you that these human babies are nothing more than equipment and shouldn’t be viewed as people. As you encounter BTs, and in some cases become overwhelmed by them, BB begins to cry through the DualShock speaker. Hearing that the first time took me by surprise, and you’ll need to soothe BB or risk autotoxemia.
Luckily, for all my anxiety I had as I expanded the chiral network, story beats hit at the ideal junctions to keep me invested. Every member that joins offers several sidequests to deliver to other members of the network in order to grow your bond with them and doing so rewards with you new schematics to upgrade your arsenal. After a while, the desire to push forward with the narrative happens. Each time you discover a bit more about why your mission is so important, learn a bit more about the people ensuring your success or those working against you, the itch to unite the nation grows with it.
Stick vs Rope
In addition to delivering cargo to citizens of the UCA, you’ll encounter MULEs, former porters who thrive by attacking and stealing cargo from others. They horde gear and items in their camps and will not hesitate to capture you and rob you of all your possessions. You’ll deal with countering the threat in several ways thanks to the work you’re doing by uniting the country.
At the start of Death Stranding, there aren’t many ways to deal with MULEs except avoid them or be stealthy when engaging them. By the middle of the game, however, you have access to a wealth of tools to take them head-on; and ensuring that they aren’t killed by your hands. Death in the world of Death Stranding isn’t exactly peaceful, bodies need to be incinerated otherwise, necrosis occurs, and you turn into a BT. If you end up consuming a human as a BT, a voidout is triggered, leaving devasting damage behind.
Thankfully, the asynchronous multiplayer is excellent and is a key piece in delivering cargo. At the start of Death Stranding, the most you’ll be able to create is a post box or watchtower. As time goes on and you expand the chiral network, a wealth of options opens up that allows for items and structures to build highways and bridges across the country. It’s endearing to watch a path form after spending hours walking through uneven landscapes, through treacherous mountains and wading through water.
You’ll be using and upkeeping various structures made by other players that end up in your world. A ladder or anchor in the right spot shave minutes off delivery but the use of a Timefall shelter or private room is all the difference between success and failure.
Death Stranding is far from the perfect game but it’s the perfect game to talk about. Hideo Kojima doesn’t just deliver a video game, but an experience packed to the brim with ideologies and philosophical questions; going back decades and including the Metal Gear series. Discussions about this game and whether it’s merely a mundane experience or something holistically brilliant set it apart from the norm. There isn’t anything like it out in the world right now and whether that’s good or bad left to you and what you get out of playing this cinematic opera. To me, the hours I’ve spent walking, delivering and stacking cargo include my favourite moments in gaming this year. I’ve laughed with Sam, I’ve felt his loneliness and faced otherworldly threats on the brink of ruin. It’s the most absurd game in years and one I can’t stop thinking about.
As polarizing as the game is, I’m glad Death Stranding exists. This isn’t a video game you shut your mind off when playing and mindlessly waste time. Quite the opposite, each narrative thread and relationship intertwine and it’s up to the player to piece them together. Sadly, the opening hours are the hardest to get through, and if you can get through it, you’ll be rewarded with all the necessary tools to forge your own path and learn all these to know about the Death Stranding.
[A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.]