Sam Bridges must brave a world utterly transformed by the Death Stranding. Carrying the disconnected remnants of our future in his hands, he embarks on a journey to reconnect the shattered world one step at a time.
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment (PS4), 505 Games (PC)
Reviewed on: PS4 (Pro Unit)
Also available for: PC (coming 2020)
Cast: Norman Reedus, Mads Mikkelsen, Léa Seydoux, Margaret Qualley, Troy Baker, Tommie Earl Jenkins, Jesse Corti, Darren Jacobs, Lidnsay Wagner, Emily O’Brien
Developer: Kojima Productions
Directed by: Hideo Kojima
Written by: Hideo Kojima, Kenji Yano, Shuyo Murata
Art Director: Yoji Shinkawa
It’s 3 AM. I’m tired, bewildered and feeling triumphant as the credits begin to roll on Death Stranding. I’m sad, shocked and yet, as tired as I am, wishing I had anyone around to discuss what I just played through over the past 44 hours. Through rocky hills, enemy filled terrain, ghostly haunted ruins and up snowy mountains I had walked from one side of American to the other and it wasn’t easy, at times it was tedious, slow and lumbering, but as I sit at 3 AM watching the credits roll, I feel a triumphant euphoria fall over me.
You can naively boil Death Stranding down to being a game about delivering packages. It’s what you do for nearly every mission in the game, it’s what is the core moment-to-moment is made up of and yet, any FedEx simulator jokes feel utterly redundant.
Death Stranding is about depression and how you escape that dark hole; it’s about fatherhood and, at times, motherhood; it’s about the internet and how it affects us positively and negatively; it’s about America’s current political climate; and it’s also about delivering packages, including pizza.
“Once there was an explosion, a bang which gave rise to life as we know it. And then, came the next explosion. An explosion that will be our last.”
Sometime in the near future, a cataclysmic event called the Death Stranding occurs. With it comes near extinction as most of America is wiped out and BTs (beached things) start roaming the land. Think of them as ghosts, that will kill you if they bump into you. The Death Stranding has brought the world of the afterlife and the living together, they now exist seemingly connected and only a few dare brave the harsh environment above ground anymore with BTs roaming and the development of Timefall – a rain that will age anything it touches. Those choosing to dare travel above use BBs (bridge babies) as a way to sense when BTs are around as the BBs have a connection to the otherside due to their removal from still mothers.
Sam Porter Bridges — performed by the relatable everyman, Norman Reedus — is one of the few that still travels above, working to make deliveries between different communities. It’s a job, it keeps him busy, and away from others. Which is the way he likes it.
In the world of Death Stranding, there is no longer communication between any of the American cities and communities. Those that remain alive live in these underground bunkers safe from the terrors above, but this also means any information that could be important or technology that could help everyone isn’t freely accessible. Which is why Sam is approached and recruited by the President of the Cities of America, Bridget Strand, to reconnect America via the Chiral Network — a pseudo sit-in for our internet — and along the way try and put a stop to a terrorist organisation that has been slaughtering people causing more BTs and worse, Voidouts, which are basically big-ass explosions that can destroy cities.
It’s a lot to take in and the first few hours are filled with your brain creating a Death Stranding thesaurus to help you through the remainder of the game. I’m not here to explain it all though, of course, that would spoil it, but I will say that as confusing as Death Stranding can seem, the core objective boils down to simply wanting to turn the internet back on for everyone. And by the time I rolled the credits, I felt like I had a decent grasp on the story, its themes and how it all comes together. Which is actually a first for Kojima and me.
Hideo Kojima, freshly free from the Konami shackles, has proudly called Death Stranding the first of a new genre, the ‘strand-game’ and although Death Stranding is very unique, I’d still put it under a third-person action-adventure game.
Death Stranding is utterly unique within the genre however and it’s not the at times obtuse Kojima story that features babies in bottles, themes of the afterlife or the insane characters named Deadman, Die-Hardman or Fragile that may turn players off finishing even the first few chapters. It’s the slow-paced gameplay that may not be for everyone.
Get an item from objective A to objective B. Simple right? That’s your mission for 90% of the game. But it’s not really that simple. Sam can carry a ridiculous amount of gear on his back, but within the confines of the unlikely ability to carry as many packages as he does come the grounded realism to way it all down and make you, the player, feel at odds constantly with your environment. Every single item in Death Stranding takes up space somewhere on Sam’s back or body and although you have the ability to carry about 30-metre ladders within a box, that box still takes up space and weight. Pack Sam too much and he’ll be constantly falling sideways. Lightly pack him and still be aware of every little stone or downhill decline you come across for fear of tumbling and breaking your cargo.
Early in the game Sam is nearly always wanting to stumble and you’re having to press L2 or R2 to balance him out in the right direction. It seems like the worst implementation of the stupid mini-games you do in most games when walking a character across a thin rope. But I learned early it’s simply easier to hold down L2 and R2 at most times to keep Sam holding his cargo straps down tight and lessen the likelihood of disaster. Things also become increasingly easier as the game carries on as you get access to better gear including a floating carrier that you can string behind you like a sled and even access to vehicles.
I never hated or grew tired of Death Stranding over my 44 hours. The deliveries will feel slow and when you hit the snowy hills it will feel like you’re trudging through the most tedious section of any game you’ve ever played but I was determined and I enjoyed the puzzle that is mapping your route and planning for any encounters you may find along the way.
Death Stranding works because it is designed to be slow and tedious in nature. That’s not to say its the kind of game that everyone is looking to play when they knock off work, and I’d understand that sentiment. However, there has to be room for different kinds of experiences in games and Death Stranding is easily one of the most addicting things I’ve played all year.
Bumping into BTs means you can either attempt to leg it through their area and hope for the best or take it slow and use BB to help you spot their locations and go around them. Later in the game, you’ll unlock weapons to fight back which eases their difficulty and scare factor, but it makes sense as Sams connections grow and access to better tech does as well. There are also MULEs to make your way around or through. Pesky groups that are out to cause havoc on delivery-people. If you bump into them and lose a fight you’ll simply be knocked out for a period of time and have to sneak into their base to retrieve your goods. These sections are the most Metal Gear feeling of the entire game as you sneak through high grass and use gadgets to silently take down your enemy.
Later in the game, you can get weapons that will allow you to kill MULEs but ultimately, it’s a terrible idea. Much of Death Stranding is, as have the last few Metal Gear Solid titles, pushing the idea of violence as a last resort and in Death Stranding, those words ring at the highest degree. I won’t spoil exactly what happens if you do kill someone but its a fantastic use of in-game lore and world to dissuade the player.
What keeps me constantly on the hook playing Death Stranding into ridiculous hours of the morning was the reward that’s felt when you connect a new network. Making those tedious long hauls up snowy mountains for hours needs a reward at the end and it comes when you connect another location to the Chiral Network, which, in turn, also connects your game and that section of the map to the real internet. The area you just made your way through all alone is then filled with signs left from other players, generators for recharging vehicles gadgets, ladders, ropes, bridges and more left by other real players. Each of these items you’re able to walk up to and see the players name who left it, and you can give it likes. A big old’ thumbs up and the sound Death Stranding makes as you slam the PlayStation’s touchpad button to assign likes rings through your ears with glee. It’s somewhat addicting and it makes you feel good. What does it do for you? Nothing. Do you get special rewards for having an item with thousands of likes? No, it just feels nice. It feels nice to receive them and it feels nice to give them and that’s why I stopped and did it so often.
Death Stranding’s biggest success is this asynchronous multiplayer that seems equally inspired by the notes system of the Dark Souls games and also Journey. I don’t understand how the game pairs you up with other players creations, but I’d assume its to do with your progression and possibly how much you participate in creating and liking other players as well. I would see the same couple players names for the majority of my playtime as if they were playing at the same periods of the day I was, or were just ahead of me in story missions.
You will at times enter boss fights while playing Death Stranding, so it’s not all deliveries, although not all of them you have to participate in. If you’re dragged down by a BT you’ll enter a mini-boss against a big BT monster that you can fight and kill which will reward you in resources, or make a run for it and eventually trigger it to disappear. Either way will clear a BT area for some time and can make certain deliveries a lot easier.
The star-studded cast and guest appearances of Death Stranding can seem over-indulgent in the appearances of people like TV host Conan O’ Brian or The Game Awards host Geoff Keighley, but when it comes to the main cast, it’s the fantastic performances that keep the metaphorical story-telling believable and not becoming a bad B-movie.
Norman Reedus is perfect as a relatable, likeable lead but its actually Mads Mikkelsen who steals the scene every time he appears in-game. I can’t spoil his character but it’s one that becomes very important the further you get into the game. Troy Baker hams it up as the terrorist Higgs to the perfect degree while Tommie Early Jenkins gives a mostly stoic performance as Die-Hardman. Then there’s Jesse Corti and Darren Jacobs who voice Deadman (who appears as Guillermo del Toro) and Heartman (who appears as Nicholas Winding Refn), both great performances, it just takes a good hour to get your head around seeing these directors play pivotal roles in the game.
Léa Seydoux leads the female side of the cast and she gives a strong, emotional performance as Fragile, a porter who’s out for revenge against those who wronged her. Margaret Qualley also gives a strong performance and has an interestingly developed story, as does Emily O’Brien who voices Amlie Stand but it wouldn’t be Hideo Kojima game if the female characters didn’t feel like the camera acted differently around them.
It’s sad too because the game as a whole is rather erotic when it comes to the male cast. The camera moves around Norman Reedus in the shower every so careful as to now show his privates but lingers in careful positions and Mads Mikkelsen makes smoking a cigarette and staring into the camera r-rated. Hideo Kojima felt the same sexual chemistry we all did watching him on Hannibal. The big difference between these and the female characters is that when Fragile is having a triumphant moment giving a speech the camera is on her ass, not her face. Nothing in Death Stranding comes close to the ridiculousness that was Quiet in The Phantom Pain though and I’m thankful and hopeful Kojima is slowly learning.
Most impressive about all of the characters are just how good they look. I honestly forgot several times I was playing a game as I watched a cut-scene play out with Norman Reedus just having an old-fashioned chat with Guillermo Del Toro about BBs. The game’s deadly and dry environment does not show off the Decima Engine like Horizon Zero Dawn does with its vast array of colours and locations, but the game is sparingly gorgeous, especially when you see green appear as you come over a snowy mountain top.