Okay, this is interesting. For what was predicted to be one of the most polarising titles this year, it surely delivered on that promise. Death Stranding’s premise is certainly one that I was left with, questioning just what I had just experienced. While I will say that it’s a title that will not be for everyone, it most definitely has left it’s mark within the gaming industry as one of the most innovative demonstrations of landing it’s own twist amongst an established genre, while trying to market and brandish itself within a completely new one. While I would love to tell you that the brilliance of Hideo Kojima certainly shines here, there are sporadic moments of uncertainty placed within the title that makes you seriously question it’s direction, or lack there of. However, I can without doubt tell you that Death Stranding is one of the most unique title’s to grace us this year, and will certainly be a conversation piece for years to come. From the initial reveal right up until it’s release, we knew absolutely nothing about this game and that’s what made it great. I cannot faulter Kojima Productions here, by taking what will forever be a classified as bold risk, purely redefining what we know about the action-adventure genre and turning it on it’s head, and reselling the title to fans as what will now be known as a “Strand Title”. I mean, who knows what that even means, right?
Regardless, I dig it. It’s fresh and something that attempts to detach itself from the norm, quite like this title does right from the onset. It’s something I can absolutely respect from the Japanese based studio, and their legendary director. However, I still sit here writing this in somewhat disbelief. I still honestly question myself while writing this review, with my own level of satisfaction. Yes, I’m still confused. But I honestly think that Death Stranding’s nature of intent was to do that, so that in itself ensures a major plus on my part. I’ve never had a title leave me with a million questions, but also have me question my own fulfillment. Is that even a bad thing? I’m not sure. However, one thing that it ensures is fantastic delivery regardless of it’s unorthodox nature. Sure, it’s more art-house than anything and yes, that can be an acquired taste for some. Hell, it’s not my taste that’s for sure, but damn does it deliver on so many levels. Trying to convey what this title delivers is interesting, it’s not your average run-of-the-mill third person adventure. The old adage that “it’s not about the journey, it’s about the destination” may apply somewhat but could most definitely be argued as there is plenty to experience while trying to get from point A to point B, but it’s intent is still so complicated that even I am having a hard time wrapping my head around the title in it’s entirety. So, let me tell you a little about it’s plot and some key factors of gameplay.
Set in the midst of an apocalypse, The United States of America has deteriorated into a supernatural state, and dependent on survival through transporters who travel cross-country to deliver multiple cargo’s either by foot, or bike. Hit by waves of consistent rainfall that rapidly ages anything and everything it hits, “Timefall” has killed off humanity and has disintegrated the country into a state of collapse. The once great, now fledgling nation known as “The United Cities of America” locates itself in the North, with Knot City as it’s Capital as Washington D.C. being completely lost within the cataclysmic event known as “Death Stranding”. The cause of the event are due to creatures known as “Beached Things” or “BTs” that roam the Earth stuck in an afterlife known as necrosis. Unless the dead are cremated, body’s are consumed slowly in a post-mortem like virus effect that places them in an eternal void. These “voidouts” are are scattered across the land and hunger for the living which in turn leave meteor sized craters behind. With these events occurring, the living have gone into hiding in remote colonies known as KNOTs, to identify themselves as part of the remaining City of America.
Our protagonist is Sam Porter Bridges, a member of “BRIDGES” who is highly regarded as one of the best cargo transporters within the group. Sam plays a vital role in reconnecting the U.C.A. embarking on an expedition to have survivors communicate across the Chiral Network, which helps establish strands across different continents that have been isolated in America. Sam’s opening expedition leads him to Central Knot City, where a citizen who has committed suicide is on the verge of necrosis, and must help other cargo transporters get the body to an incinerator as soon as possible. On his way there, Timefall puts a halt to his objective where he remains in a small cove until the rain subsides. It is here he meets Fragile who helps Sam evade a BT that is on the hunt. After essentially giving the cold shoulder towards Fragile’s attempt to befriend him, Sam treks towards Captial Knot City to assist his fellow cargo transporters. Sam is a special breed of human known as a repatriate, which allows him to revive himself after death as his “Ka” is rejected by the beach, according to BRIDGES lead researcher Heartman. After failing to deliver the corpse to the incinerator due to a voidout hitting the cargo truck, Sam experiences death again, only to awaken in Knot City meeting Deadman (played by famous director, Guillermo del Toro), a doctor who serves partially as Sam’s guide through the game.
Sam is also given a Bridge Baby (BB) to take with him on his journey, however major spoilers are in place for those reasons intended, so I will refrain from any reasons as to why. A Bridge baby is a newborn that has been taken from a stillmother, and experimented on to help build the infrastructure of the Chiral Network. They are kept in small pods that act as bio-mechanical wombs that allow them to live. It is here that Sam is given the task of delivering a cargo full with morphine for the dying President of the United Cities, Bridget Strand. This is where we get our first taste of pure gameplay, and I must say that it does take a little while before we get to this point. It was around an hour and half to two hours before we hit anything of pure substance, but it does make what we experienced worth it. It’s in no way one complete cutscene, but plays out like an entire cinematic experience. There is a notion, that Death Stranding is purely a walking simulator. While I would agree in part that there is definitely some moments of isolation, and completely desolate areas with nothing in them, we have to remember that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild had these situations put into them, and I could certainly see some inspiration lifted there.
Traversing across the barren plains of America, with the voidouts looming only provides tense moments of sudden urgency and needing to find different grounds of safety, which is all provided by difference gear that attaches itself to your Bridge Baby, which Sam nicknames “Lou”. Lou helps Sam sense any oncoming threats in different areas as you travel from different points, carrying various materials to strand together the isolated city’s. This may come in form of the voidouts, with BTs ready to attack and feast on Sam’s living body. BB helps avoid these situations by giving off an alert that triggers a odradek, a mounted sensor attached to Sam’s suit that shows which direction the BTs may be coming from. Using stealth here, you have to slowly crawl through certain parts to avoid the voidouts from appearing. You must also avoid breathing in these areas, as the BTs can also detect that too. Holding down R2 allows Sam to hold his breath, and pressing down circle will set Sam into a crouched motion and moving slowly as possible to avoid loud steps. I did find this quite tedious however, as there were moments where the voidouts would find their way towards you regardless of how slow you were actually moving. Fighting out of the voidouts however, seemed like an essential slap fight with a bunch of undead zombie hands reaching out of the floor for you. Not really a fuss, but kind of a headache.
Battling off grounded enemies in the area is almost simply running for your life, when groups of militia type bandits known as MULES try to haul cargo from transporters across different plains. The MULES carry weaponry on them to try and steal any cargo that you may be carrying and will try their best to defeat you at any cost, so be very attentive to the world around you, they sometimes come out of nowhere and could also lead you right into a sea of voidouts. There is some gunplay introduced which helps elevate the title’s impact but it is quite minimal, and not entirely needed. For a title that heavily exudes the message of stranding the world together, we do see simple elements of communication in items dropped from other players that are traversing on the same path you are. These items will be helpful in building multiple roads and can help or hinder your adventure. A sense of realism is introduced in balancing cargo weight using both LR & R2 triggers, which could also lead you Sam toppling over, and aggravating BB, so be sure to take some moments of rest to relax and revitalise yours and BB’s health. You will know when your BB is aggravated when it’s tank fluid starts turning a bright orange, this is the first sign of caution and is highly advised to take it easy, however when the the tank itself starts emanating a signal to stop, then most certainly, stop. It can be an interesting mechanic, but sometimes gets in the way of the entire experience, but I still understand and appreciate it.
While the title will be recognised as Kojima’s most polarising, and may never reach magnum opus levels of achievement that the Metal Gear franchised accomplished, it certainly puts on an incredible showing. Vast displays of incredible design that is put on display quite beautifully, and while much of it may seem repetitive, there is something that we can’t dispute here and that is how realistic of a situation it would most certainly be. It’s a post apocalypse story. What else would you want? While understanding that we are given rolling hills of lush greenery and different weather patterns in certain environments, it all comes to one feeling and that is urgency. The game radiates this emotion, and it’s almost inescapable at times, and that’s what makes it completely unique. You’re not jumping into anything that you have seen before, it’s nothing traditional nor anything regular. It tries it’s best to stay real, while surpassing any element of supernatural. On paper, it’s a psychiatric wet dream, but on display it puts on an incredible show. I really am in awe of what I came out of this title with. But honestly still question what it’s true message is.
While star power may potentially create a new reach within this medium, we are certainly treated to a vast cast, headed with Norman Reedus (The Walking Dead) as Sam, Mad Mikkelsen (Casino Royale, Hannibal), Troy Baker (The Last of Us, Persona 4), Lindsay Wagner (The Six Million Dollar Man), and special celebrity cameo appearances by Conan O’Brien (Late Night with Conan O’Brien) and Geoff Keighley (The Game Awards), and that is just a taste of the star power included here. The Death Stranding Timefall Official Soundtrack does an amazing job at triggering certain emotions an scatters itself quite nicely throughout pivotal points in your journey. It’s range of musical choice is on full display, showing Kojima’s fandom of the electronica genre. Multiple artists feature throughout the album including CHVRCHES with the game’s titular track “Death Stranding”, also Bring me to the Horizon, Missio, Flora Cash, Khalid and Alan Walker. Kojima explained that he wanted an “enviromental image” to connect with each piece of music presented in the game, and the only way to do that was to get the best in the industry right now to help compose the title’s album. I have to say personally, the soundtrack is one that has been in my Spotify’s most played list since it’s release, and I absolutely love it. But that could also be my undying love for CHVRCHES showing.
Well, here we are. The closing statement. I still can’t wrap my head around the game. But from what I have written above, I can certainly tell you that Death Stranding is a must play. Sure it’s not going to be for everyone, but it’s a talking piece that will certainly provide gamers a unique take on what we know, and turn it on it’s head into something completely different. Is it a walking simulator? Sure. Is it and action adventure? Yes. Is it a self-proclaimed “strand title”? Yeah okay, I’ll give it to you, Mr. Kojima. It certainly deserves it’s own genre, why? Because it’s nothing like we’ve ever experienced. I’m sure that casual gamers would be questioning just what they would even be playing, and even as someone who does his best to sell the medium, it would be extravagant enough, but not too extremely difficult to describe. So the questions to myself are, did I enjoy Death Stranding? Yes, it should not be this good but I definitely did. Do I feel satisfied with the 60 hours I endured? Yes. I most certainly do. Does it wrap everything up nicely, plot wise? No, it doesn’t. That’s what leaves me befuddled on why the title is so good. Does it deserve an accolade and be recognised amongst the best presented in 2019? Hell yes. It most certainly deserves to be in the same conversation as anything labeled “Game of the Year”, and I for one will argue for it. It’s different, It’s unique, it’s incredible. Death Stranding is one of the best, and unmissable video games of this generation.
Death Stranding – Kojima Productions