In today’s video game world, consumers have lots of choice – or so it would seem. Apart from the odd indie developer, the games that line shelves are more often than not first-person shooters and sports games that the big developers churn out on a yearly basis (full disclosure: I love playing those as well).
It’s for that reason recent titles such as God of War and Spider-Man have received such praise: they’re different. Don’t get me wrong – those two properties are huge beyond those individual game releases, but they brought a breath of fresh air into the zeitgeist.
Death Stranding takes that concept and runs with it – well, more like walks at a brisk pace, based on gameplay – all over America. For all the talk of the concept prior to its release, Hideo Kojima’s latest isn’t quite as weird as he would have you believe. It does delve into some strange concepts, and true to form, it has tons of sci-fi technobabble, but from beginning to end, Death Stranding is a beautiful, mournful look at the ruins of society (specifically, American society).
You play as Sam, a ‘porter’, someone who braves the now-untamed wasteland that was the United States of America, to deliver essential goods to isolated communities all over the map. Not only that, Sam is reconnecting these communities to the ‘chiral network’ (essentially a more souped-up version of the internet) at the behest of President Bridget Strand (get it?), whose wish is to see humanity reunited as one, strong group.
The backstory of the events prior to gameplay is delivered piecemeal, which is perhaps why the game can seem so strange right off the bat – characters spout words like ‘chiralium’ and capitalize words such as ‘the Beach’ without much in the way of explanation, and it’s up to the player to deduce what happened (even though Sam and every other character does actually know what happened already).
Essentially, the Death Stranding itself was an extinction-level event that tore a hole between Sam’s world and the afterlife, allowing spirits to seep back into reality. The aforementioned Beach is a type of purgatory, something that every human has the ability to access upon their death, though Sam has the ability to come and go as he pleases, considering his special abilities as a repatriate (conveniently, another ability is that of respawning). The spirits that plague Sam on his journey are Beached Things (BTs, as they are referred to in-game), and they’re the poor souls who have ‘leaked’ back into the corporeal world…and they’re none too pleased about that. The encounters with them are highly dangerous to Sam and everyone around him, so avoid them (or send them back to the afterlife) at all times, where possible.
Because the game is so centered on delivering cargo to settlements, most of your playing experience will focus on traversing difficult territory. As Sam reconnects settlements to the network, he gains access to more equipment, making it possible for him to walk faster, carry more cargo, utilize vehicles, and even 3D print new items for himself. You can re-arrange Sam’s cargo across his pack and even his body in order to distribute the weight in the best arrangement, which makes for easier travelling.
There are a lot of obstacles in Sam’s way – BTs, crazed enemy porters, violent weather changes – but the one that is most common is the terrain itself. It’s up to you to guide Sam through the treacherous landscape, and you truly can take any path you so desire. Want to go over the mountain, instead of around? Build a ladder, and scale the cliff. Want to descend from a rocky overlook? Drop a climbing stake, and rappel down the side. Your options are limited by only the resources on hand, and Sam has access to virtually everything via the network at each settlement.
One of the most interesting facets of the game is the online mode – Death Stranding is best played while connected to the internet, as the echoes of other players reverberate everywhere. Let’s go back to the ladder/climbing stake examples: once you drop the ladder and use it, you can either pack it up and keep it with you, or you can leave it behind for other players. You’ll never actually see these players (because they exist in their own instance/world), but the idea that these other porters are just behind or ahead of you is one that gives the game a pleasant, communal feeling.
It doesn’t stop there, either: even just walking along the same path that other players have taken can cause it to become wider and smoother, which allows Sam to walk faster and with less chance of tipping over. There’s something satisfying about making a few treks between settlements and seeing a well-worn path ahead of you – and as the game progresses, you can utilize the resources lying around to 3D print whole new roads as well. Honestly, during my first playthrough, I spent tens of hours wandering America, searching for materials for no other purpose to build a road for someone else to use.
If none of that is for you, fret not: you can certainly play on offline mode, but you’d be losing out on a huge part of the experience.
Much of the visuals are very appealing to the eye, which is key for a game that relies so much on the player’s surroundings. You’re not going to be looking at Sam, but at virtually everything else, so it’s pleasing that everything is so lovingly rendered. There are many a moment where the camera pulls back to minimize Sam against the backdrop, and some music begins to play – it’s very cinematic, and you get the impression that Hideo Kojima could potentially have a future as a filmmaker.
The voice acting and motion capture are impressive as well, and they boast an A-list cast: Norman Reedus (TV’s The Walking Dead), Lea Seydoux (Spectre), Margaret Qualley (TV’s The Leftovers, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood), Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale, Rogue One), not to mention famed video game voice actor Troy Baker (Baker in particular really chews the scenery whenever he gets the opportunity, and the result is…actually quite fun). While for most gamers, the name Hideo Kojima alone will be enough to open up their wallets, I do have the slight concern that video game developers will feel pressured to involve famous actors in order to attract the average consumer to their passion projects. Something to keep an eye on.
One flaw with this game are the cutscenes – they’re gorgeously animated pieces of art at times, but they are also somewhat pretentious and increasingly overwrought. There’s only so many instances in which characters can utter ‘You must re-connect the world!’ or ‘Humanity must be saved!’ before the melancholy wears off. The constant badgering to remind you of Sam’s end goal is exhausting, and while this isn’t exactly new territory for Kojima, it’d be nice if he laid off once in a while.
On another note, President Strand’s catchphrase of ‘Make America Whole Again’ is sure to evoke a whole other sentiment, and considering Death Stranding is about unifying a broken America, I’m sure Kojima is quite pleased with himself. Then again, subtlety is not the game’s strong suit: one of the main villains introduces himself as Higgs, and then proceeds to say ‘just like the God particle!’, in case you didn’t get it.
There’s an odd bit of product placement as well: whenever Sam’s stamina depletes throughout his journey, you can direct him to take a swig from his canteen. Seems normal, right? Well, no matter what you put in the canteen, it turns out it’s full of Monster Energy drink. There’s no in-game explanation for this, either, it’s just there. In such a carefully, meticulously crafted world full of dull, muted colours, the neon green logo sticks out like a sore thumb.
Death Stranding presents itself as somewhat inaccessible, due to the daunting lore that lurks behind every phrase, but in truth it’s pretty easy to digest. Every detail that can be observed is usable to your advantage, and despite the sci-fi overtones, it’s thrilling to be the ‘first’ explorer that braves the wilderness. The story gets a little (and, soon after, a LOT) off the rails, but don’t let that deter you: Hideo Kojima has created a singularly impressive experience that not only stands apart from the rest, but demands to be played.
Death Stranding is currently available on PlayStation 4. Kojima Productions provided a copy of the game for coverage purposes.
You can catch Sho on Twitter at @SNSAlli if you have any questions about Death Stranding, or if you want to have meaningful conversations about life, the universe, and everything. The book, too!