For almost three decades, Hideo Kojima has pretty much been known solely for the Metal Gear franchise. Hailed as one of the most unique game series of all time in terms of writing, execution and gameplay, Kojima made a mark on the gaming industry as somewhat of a gaming auteur with such a unique approach to storytelling and gameplay that his games superseded single genres. Known for intensely long and in-depth cutscenes, bizarre and often confusing storytelling and mythos, Kojima has amassed a huge following over gaming’s brief history.
It’s fair to say that Death Stranding is absolutely everything you would expect (or be unable to predict) from a new Hideo Kojima game set in a new Hideo Kojima Universe. Equal parts game and movie, engrossing and pretentious, addictive and frustrating. Fans of Kojima will get exactly what they want. However this latest venture may prove to be a tiresome and unrelenting journey for the more casual gamer.
Described as an Action/Horror/Sci-fi, Death Stranding is set in a post-apocalyptic reality where America is on the brink of it’s next great extinction. Now bear with me as I endeavour to outline the story, spoiler-free, in a way that makes a moderate amount of sense. You play as protagonist Sam Porter Bridges (a contained performance motion captured and voiced by Norman Reedus) – a man who cannot die (known as a repatriate) who’s an important commodity in a dangerous and fractured world.
Bridges is a ‘Porter’. Porters’ roles are to perform the dangerous mission of taking supplies to the scattered dwellings of the remaining living humans in an attempt to convince each mini-civilisation to rejoin a new and reunited network by getting them to join the ‘Chiral Network’ (think of it as the internet for explanation’s sake). Some are easily convinced to join this shared network of information – others require you to prove your worth as a Porter and deliver them a specific package of supplies.
The foundation of the game is essentially this – taking on a delivery mission, delivering said items, eventually getting another person to join the ‘Chiral Network’ (creating “strands” between them all) in an attempt to reunite a fractured and broken America. I am not exaggerating when I warn you that a good 40 hours of the 48 hours it took me to complete the story part of the main game is literally delivering packages.
Obviously the deliveries aren’t as straightforward as just walking to and from each destination with ease. The map provides challenges to navigate due to the varying forms of terrain you encounter, all while you’re maintaining balance (affected by how heavy your load is), the footwear you are wearing, your stamina, etc etc. Each obstacle can be navigated by preparing yourself with the right gear before setting out on each mission.
Sam can carry a range of ladders for climbing up mountains and crossing fast flowing rivers, as well as climbing ropes for navigating up and down steep terrain. As the game progresses, different structures that can be built to repair, recharge batteries, rest and the like can also be carried and deployed. Whilst the main gameplay is fairly simple to grasp, the system in which you have to prepare for each delivery task is quite in-depth and takes a while to get your head around.
Early into the game, this can feel pretty overwhelming. Load your delivery too high with too many pieces of equipment and your stamina runs down too quickly and Sam is more likely to fall over – or don’t take enough equipment and end up stuck at the bottom of a mountain you need to climb after a 20 minute walk and have to start over. This focus on the need to prepare for each individual delivery does break up the monotony of the deliveries and keeps it feeling reasonably fresh – although there are definite moments of wanting to throw the controller when you fall over mid your 90th delivery mission and have to start the long and treacherous walk all over again.
The world is a vast, open landscape sparsely populated and often quite lonely. The map is absolutely huge which is both impressive but also frustrating as a lot of the time the terrain you are faced with feels repetitive early on – once you’ve seen one rocky hill, a snowy mountain or a fast flowing river you’ve seen them all.
However one of Death Stranding’s more unique features is the fact that any structures, ladders, signs etc that you construct can be seen by other players you are connected with. This is really satisfying knowing that you are building up the world with other real world players and making each other’s journey through the game that little bit easier.
This provides a real sense of community and you start going out of your way to leave a path behind you that will benefit those who are sharing the world with you. In return, you receive ‘likes’ for items other players interact with and you can thank others in return with ‘likes’. These ‘likes’ accumulate over the game and much like in real life don’t really mean anything but as in real life, still feel kinda satisfying.
The real danger in the world of Death Stranding is in the form of rain, known here as ‘time-fall’. Time-fall (as the name suggests) accelerates the aging of anything and everything it touches. So nothing in the world lasts forever. Every structure you build will eventually be broken down and destroyed leaving room for new players to leave their mark on the game by building their own way through. The time-fall also damages any cargo you are carrying so adds an extra element of consideration when heading out on a long journey. The horror element of Death Stranding also comes with the bad weather.
When the time-fall comes, so too do the dead. “BT’s” serve as the game’s main antagonists; long deceased humans with one foot in the world of the dead and one foot in the world of the living. They hunt via sound and when they appear you have to reduce your pace, time holding your breath and avoid interacting with these creatures.
Failure to do so means you are dragged into the world of the dead (or rather the world of the dead is brought to you) and faced with a deadly creature from another world where you have the choice to fight it (using blood filled grenades and bullets) or simply run away (something that gets harder and harder to do as the game progresses and depending on which difficulty you are playing on). These battles are as fun as they are frustrating and add an extra complication especially when you are trying to carry too much cargo because believe me, accidently dropping all your cargo is about as unpleasant and frustrating as it sounds.
You also encounter enemy camps as you go and these camps want your cargo – you can deal with them in a variety of different ways – both lethally or non-lethally. Just keep in mind that every dead person increases the amount of BT’s (as well as a few other complications) so I ended up taking a less violent approach to these encounters but the option to use a variety of weapons means you can choose how you play.
As the game progresses, moving around the map has more options – vehicles are unlocked and although they help with speed and the amount of cargo you can carry, they are frustratingly difficult to navigate the terrain with. Clunky steering does not a fun journey make.
On more times than I would like to admit, I would load up a vehicle with several different delivery jobs only to find myself stuck (like actually between a rock and a hard place) and having to reload my save. Travelling by vehicle also makes you very easy to locate by the “BT’s” and it feels like the game almost insists that you complete missions by foot which is what I ended up doing for the majority.
Many of you who have seen the trailer probably wonder how the baby attached to your chest plays into all of this. Now this is a hard one to discuss without giving away too many of the game’s secrets but basically it serves as a connection between the world of the living and the world of the dead – a guide as to when BT’s are going to attack and where they are coming from.
This ‘BB’ (Bridge Baby) becomes your companion through the majority of the game and Sam’s relationship with this piece of ‘equipment’ is easily the most compelling and intriguing part of Death Stranding. This connection is the most interesting part of the story and Sam’s bond with BB also makes his character far more complex, so for it me was the strongest part of the narrative.
The story certainly gets pretty convoluted at times and it can be hard to follow. Kojima has a very specific way of dragging you down a confusing rabbit hole and I did find myself lost on many occasions as to what it was all getting at. However, there are more than enough beautifully scripted and visually appealing moments in the story that provide a compelling and engaging world in which to journey through.
Some amazing music from Low Roar helps create some much needed atmos to your long walks across America. Overall Death Stranding is an incredibly unique game. Its approach to non-linear storytelling and genre-crossing gameplay provides a full and intriguing 50 hours (plus) of gameplay.
Although at times the game feels unnecessarily long and frustratingly repetitive, there is still a huge amount to keep you busy and “connected”. The long winded approach to the storytelling can leave you feeling a bit lost as the journey continues but overall there is a relevant and thought provoking through line and some wonderfully beautiful setpieces.
At times the cutscenes and the gameplay feel like two completely different worlds and pretty disconnected from one another, although the performances are overall really good and despite some moments of pure cheese, the dialogue is engaging.
Casual gamers may find the overall experience more exhausting than enjoyable but Kojima fans are certainly going to be happy with his latest installment.
– Ashton Brown