In Death Stranding, you will encounter gigantic, inky whales soaring through stormy skies. You’ll carry a baby in a pod, suspended in mystery fluid, who gives Guillermo del Toro the finger. You’ll giggle at an ad for Norman Reedus’ AMC show, Ride with Norman Reedus. You’ll see crystals shaped like human hands jutting out of the ground. You’ll look up Mads Mikkelsen’s nose (a lot).
Video game auteur Hideo Kojima’s latest game is strange, nightmarish, bold, and requires ungodly amounts of patience to complete. It’s a story about family, the cost of progress, the beauties and horrors of modernity, the virtues of finality, and much more. Let’s get one thing straight: this game is not for everyone. But many the best games and movies aren’t. Kojima is as ballsy and imaginative as any game developer or filmmaker alive, and the experience he’s created here with his team at Kojima Productions is as craggy and flawed as the punishing terrain you’ll trudge over the game’s 50-hour(ish) length.
The story is set in a fractured America. A form of rain called “timefall” has forced communities into isolation, effectively shattering what we once knew as the United States. Reedus stars as Sam Porter Bridges, a post-apocalyptic delivery man who braves the elements and moves loads of precious cargo from city to city, mostly on foot. Though the United States Of America has been all but disbanded, what remains of the government, now called the United Cities Of America, have tasked Sam with embarking on an unimaginable trek from the East Coast to the West, connecting cities to the UCA’s “chiral network” one by one. Each of these connections is called a “strand,” and as Sam sets them up across the country, he’s aided by brainy allies like scientists Deadman (Guillermo del Toro/Jesse Corti), Mama (Margaret Qualley), and government head Die-Hardman (Tommie Earl Jenkins), while shadier characters like the nomadic Fragile (Lea Seydoux) and the sadistic Higgs (Troy Baker) may or may not have plans to foil the UCA’s plans.
The majority of the game involves you making deliveries, navigating the craggy terrain as you struggle to not trip, fall, and smash the leaning tower of packages on your back. What’s worse, ghostly figures called BTs threaten to devour you in areas with heavy timefall, and your only way of detecting them is via your BB, a uniquely gifted baby you carry around in a pod. Because so much of the experience involves wallking, running, and climbing, additional layers of complexity have been added to the mechanics to make traversal more engaging than in most games, which would typically simply require you to push forward on the control stick to progress. The game’s terrain will often be uneven, causing Sam to lose his balance unless you brace yourself by pulling on the left and right triggers. If Sam is carrying a large amount of cargo that’s arranged in a way that’s top-heavy, you’re more likely to topple over when making abrupt changes in direction or attempting to tackle a particularly steep or rocky incline. There’s also a stamina gauge that, when depleted, will result in a tumble.
The amount of walking you do in Death Stranding will likely be the most divisive aspect of the game. After playing over 50 hours of the game, I can sincerely say that I enjoyed hauling Sam’s ass across the plains, rivers, valleys, and mountains of the game world. I liked trying to maintain my balance and conquer dangerous stretches of terrain that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get across unscathed. Some of my favourite moments in the game were when I’d fight my way through a particularly difficult area and then turn around to look back at what I’d just overcome. I’m almost positive that most players probably won’t experience this in the same way I did, but again, this game isn’t for everyone. Was all the walking, balancing, and climbing difficult? Not really. Was it fun? No, that’s not the right word. More often than not, it felt like tedious, blue-collar work. But I think that’s the point. We’re meant to feel the labour of Sam’s quest because his hard work is the beating heart of the story. More on that shortly.
Other than embarking on foot, there are alternative modes of transportation available to you as the game progresses including motorcycles, trucks, and floating carriers, which you can load with cargo or use as a hoverboard to bomb down hills like Marty McFly. The devs have done a good job of making sure that no form of transport is superior to another, and that you’ll ultimately spend most of your time on foot without it feeling like the game is forcing you to.
The areas overrun with BTs are the most stressful in the game because you’re meant to sneak by them even though you can barely see them. BB can give you a general sense of where they are when you’re standing still, but when you start moving, they mostly disappear from view. Holding Sam’s breath with R1 is the only way to move by undetected, so you’ll have to manage when to stop and take breaks while sneaking around. If a BT grabs hold of you, you’re pulled into an inky abyss by a spring of undead human hands (disturbing), and in some cases, more powerful, frightening forms of BTs will attack you as the entire environment around you is flooded by the black mystery goo. Later in the game, you’re given weapons to help you combat the BTs, but it typically behooves you to keep a low profile, especially when carrying fragile cargo.
In addition to the BT-infested areas, there are separatists who’ve set up outposts across the country. Their group is solely focused on stealing porters’ cargo for themselves, so you’ve got to be careful when treading on their turf. These enemy encounters play out like most conventional action-adventure games. You can utilise a variety of guns and gadgets to take down the separatists face-to-face, or you can infiltrate their bases and take them out quietly. These combat sections were probably my least favorite in the game, not just because they feel a bit conventional and imbalanced, but because they don’t support the story in any meaningful way.
Thankfully, practically everything else you do in the game supports the larger story and themes. Sam’s travels, for example, symbolise the hard, dangerous work early settlers performed when founding the United States in the first place. And with every footstep he takes, you wonder why he’s willing to put his life on the line for people he seemingly doesn’t care about. What’s his motivation? What’s he searching for? Why is he such an asshole to everyone he meets? The game ultimately answers all of these questions in beautiful fashion. The BT encounters are more meaningful than the separatist ones because one of the story’s main focuses is the ephemeral relationship between life and death. The BTs are embodiments of what’s on the other side of mortality, and as you learn more about their nature and why they’re there, a poignant message about survival in the face of inevitability comes into view.
One of the more fascinating features of the game is its online component. The game world is unforgiving and will kick your ass more often than not, but by collecting different materials and using UCA tech, you can erect structures that can help not just you on your journey but other players online. For example, if you build the foundation for a bridge to get across a turbulent river, other players will see that you’ve started the building process in their game and can donate materials to the structure to help complete it. Once it’s built, it’s free to use for anyone. You can also plant signs warning other players of dangers ahead, or to simply encourage weary travellers with a stamina boost.
Making connections is one of the central ideas of the game, and just as it’s represented in the online features and in Sam connecting cities to the chiral network, the theme is also reinforced in the relationships Sam develops with his allies at the UCA. The actors and animators’ performances are truly top-notch, with Reedus more than pulling his weight as the lead. Sam is something of an enigmatic character at first, reluctant to make any type of connection with anyone, ironically, and Reedus is perfectly equipped to convey the type of strong but emotionally closed-off energy that the role requires.
Qualley shoulders a lot of responsibility in her role because Mama faces some pretty wild, heartbreaking stuff as the story progresses. Without spoiling anything, she goes through a multitude of changes that couldn’t have been easy to convey for the surging actress. Mads Mikkelsen plays the most psychologically ravaged character in the story. His backstory is tragic, painful, and complex, and Mikkelsen was cast perfectly in the role because he’s one of the best character actors working today.
All of the characters are believable and jump off of the screen, not just because of the actors’ efforts, but because the game’s visuals are advanced enough to support them. The character models and performance capture in this game are perhaps the best I’ve ever laid my eyes on, and this is paramount because the story’s success relies so heavily on the actors being able to do their jobs. Kojima Productions chose to use the Decima engine, which powered games like Horizon: Zero Dawn and Until Dawn. The choice makes sense because the game features vast landscapes with complex weather systems and detailed character models capable of emoting on a human level, and the engine has proven more than capable of presenting both.
The outdoor landscapes look great, though design-wise, I would have liked to see more variation in colour palette and geometry. Some areas of the map look incredibly drab and uninteresting, which makes sense in the context of the story but can often make the already tedious task of hauling cargo even more mundane. Later in the game, when you’re getting pelted with sheets of snow on mountain peaks and battling BTs in and around an active volcano, the weather effects and lighting are pushed to the limit and look utterly spectacular. And on a micro level, the graphics are just as impressive. The details on Sam’s face are startlingly accurate to Reedus’ real-life features, to an almost uncanny extent. It’s sort of freaky. Materials look tactile and reflect light appropriately, the tertiary elements of Sam’s suit bob and sway realistically as he moves around, the character’s eyes look alive and not glossed over like we see in so many other games. Visually, Death Stranding is extraordinary.
The game’s narrative is more of a mixed bag. What’s always irked me about Kojima continues to bother me here – he just doesn’t have a firm command of storytelling. He’s endlessly imaginative and has some truly fascinating ideas floating around in all of his work, but his stories are over-stuffed with exposition and unnecessary details, and they don’t flow in a way that’s easy to understand. I was scratching my head through most of Death Stranding’s cutscenes because they were so long-winded and full of plot points whose relevance to the story was dubious at best. This is extremely annoying, especially because I know that there’s a poignant, culturally relevant message underneath all of the plotty BT/BB/UCA BS. Don’t get me started on “beaches.” Just don’t.
While a lot of the writing is shaky, some cutscenes are incredibly powerful, emotional, and worthy of being showcased on the big screen of a movie theatre. That’s the thing with Kojima – his works are such unbridled extensions of his imagination that they’re inherently imperfect and incompatible with modern conventions. Some parts of Death Stranding are brilliant, and others are infuriatingly mediocre. But for better or worse, you can feel Kojima’s personality throughout the entire experience, from his views on death to his opinion of American politics to his bizarre sense of humour.
As I played through the ups and downs of Death Stranding, I seriously considered whether or not I’d prefer Kojima to be edited or reigned in, and I’m pretty sure that I like him and his games just the way they are. Yes, Death Stranding is full of extreme highs and extreme lows, but that’s because Kojima took a lot of big artistic and conceptual risks. Not all of them paid off, but I admire him for shooting his shot. Is the game’s interface the worst? Absolutely. I still have trouble navigating the menus and don’t know what half of the numbers and letters on the map mean. But the game’s best attributes (and there are a lot of them) are beautifully weird and unique. You won’t find another experience like Death Stranding on the market, anywhere.
Death Stranding is out on 8 November 2019 for PS4