2019 seems so long ago, doesnít it? 2020 has been the longest decade-of-a-year Iíve ever experienced, and it seems like for one step forward itís ninety steps back. With a pandemic ongoing, each country has felt it differently but no one has been left untouched. Here in the United States of America, at least in my neck of the woods, I watched as within days bustling city streets became ghost towns. The area stood abnormally still, with barely a car or passerby to be seen. It was a form of isolation unlike one Iíd ever felt before in real life, and yet it was also similar to an isolating experience Iíd had only months before the pandemic took hold: the PlayStation 4 release of Death Stranding. A game about blurred lines between life and death in an isolated image of a post-apocalyptic USA.
Hideo Kojimaís experimental title is one that has simultaneously conquered award ceremony after award ceremony around the world, but is clearly not a title meant for everyone. While Kojimaís previous work focused primarily on stealth action and tactical gameplay throughout the long-running Metal Gear series, Kojima and his new studio Kojima Productions set out to make a game where the combat takes a backseat, where a long journey is set out before you and along the way the players will slowly reunite America as they push westward.
The PC release of Death Stranding couldnít land at a better time as various regions seem to be creeping back towards another lockdown phase rather than recovery. This may be just the game youíre looking for to get you through your own isolation. I wonít be diving deep into major spoilers in this review, although I will be talking specifically about one plot point revealed early on in the game as it has a major impact on the overall story arch. All the same, Iíll still mark it clearly as to avoid any faux pas.
What is Death Stranding? If you followed trailers leading up to its PS4 release, and then again for its PC release, you might get snippets but with little context. Youíll frequently see the player character, Sam Porter Bridges (portrayed by Norman Reedus), traversing landscapes ranging from safe to incredibly untamed in what appears to be an in-depth package delivery service; an extreme Fed Ex worker if you will. I want to put it out there immediately and state that yes, the main gameplay loop is essentially a delivery service experience.
Players will wander near and far to get supplies from settlement to settlement dotted across a massive map, and in so doing slowly open up to building infrastructure and slowly unite the map through roadways, bridges, ziplines, and even leaving behind hints, tips, postboxes and more. While the game appears as a singleplayer experience, itís actually one with ingrained multiplayer mechanics. Youíll never officially see another player, but players can contribute to the progress of different connected regions as more and more areas are brought into the fold. If it sinks its hooks into you like it did me, youíre going to find one of the richest gameplay experiences of the year. Itís really something watching a region go from untapped potential into an active trade network filled with different ways to get around, you really feel like youíre reconnecting what was once the United States.
But outside of the primary gameplay loop, the game does have moments of both combat and stealth. Although the game discourages players from taking the lethal approach and to avoid danger as much as possible. In regards to human enemies, players will have to worry about the crazed MULEs; porters who have succumbed to the need to feel relevancy by stockpiling supplies by any means necessary. More sinister than the MULEs are the Homo Demens (latin for Mad Men), a coalition of groups coming together under the rule of the mysterious Higgs (portrayed by Troy Baker) with one goal in mind; chaos unfettered. Survival against human enemies often involves sneaking through their territory, or utilizing ambush tactics. The more you play, the more the game offers up offensive and defensive options that come in both lethal and non-lethal variants. I definitely suggest non-lethal, as lethal means will add extra steps to your gameplay experience as youíre on the hook to dispose of bodies to avoid voidouts (massive explosions caused by BTs attempting to absorb humans).
Then of course you have the supernatural element in the form of BTs. Weíll get into the ins and outs of BTs shortly, but essentially imagine distorted versions of the human spirit after death. Imagine if you died, but were unable to pass on properly, what was left behind in its wake is a distortion of everything you are. Now make that more terrifying by the fact you canít see them with the naked eye in most circumstances. To survive against such a threat, humanity has had to embrace a taboo technology in the form of Bridge Babies.
These cute-and-creepy fetus tanks are basically able to visualize and detect BTs on behalf of the user. Itís honestly a useful mechanic that lends itself well to the plot later on, and of course has the player questioning the morality of using such a cruel technology even if it benefits mankind going forward. The downside to the dynamic between bridge babies and BTís is the community which affectionately nicknamed Death Stranding as Norman Reedus and the Funky Fetus. Never change gamers, never change.
From Shore to Shore, Beach to Beach
Here is the section of the review where we are going to embark into spoiler territory. These spoilers are going to pertain to Chapter 4 specifically, and while there are plenty of trailers featuring moments from Chapter 4, Iím going to be diving into the details. If youíd like to skip past these spoilers, head to the next section below.
The plot for Death Stranding starts out as a slow burn, but begins to open up further around Chapter 4 when players are given a deeper understanding of Beaches. Beaches, the in game term used to reference the afterlife when someone successfully dies and manages to pass through seams, are individualized to the person experiencing them. Thereís even the possibility that those bound together by life experiences could share their Beaches even. Prior to Chapter 4, our only experience with a Beach is through Sam Porter Bridgesí visions. A cold, unfeeling and gray landscape. Water washes upon sand beaches and dead or dying aquatic wildlife is littered all around. A unique take on purgatory if there ever was one, and thatís exactly what a Beach is likely to be until itís further revealed just how they work. Chapter 4 lays this on thick as Sam, through a twist of fate, is thrown into a Beach that isnít his own. He awakens on a battlefield that looks straight out of World War I, gunfire and explosions raging all around him with skeletal soldiers taking the field. They are largely indifferent to his presence, locked in an eternal conflict. Think about how long they must have been there, locked in this undying chaos that reflects their final moments in life. Is it the hellscape that we perceive it to be? Or is this a warriorís paradise?
We only really get to see two variants of the Beach within the context of the game, but knowing that there are many variants out there it gives off a sort of What Dreams May Come vibe without necessarily laying a heavy hand on the religious aspects of afterlife speculation. I never go into a game expecting it to make me think about something that deep, let alone having that topic be what comes after death. The game does express the idea that there are more beyond the Beaches as well, but this is never dissected in the same manner as Beaches. It was refreshing in a morbid way, but I do have to say if youíre prone to existential crises then the story may not be for you. It doesnít revolve entirely around life and death, but it plays such a major part in the overall scheme of things that I definitely see it as the overall larger focus for Death Stranding rather than the main plot of reuniting America and discovering long-hidden truths.
Nearly Perfect, ButÖ
If itís not clear yet, I love Death Stranding. It may also be clear by my description that itís a 'love it or hate it' experience. What may not be clear though is that despite my high praises, this is not Hideo Kojimaís best work, even if itís damned good all the same. Sometimes Hideo Kojima needs to be reeled in to protect him from himself, and his own tendencies. His creativity is sometimes overshadowed by moments where Iím just left asking ďwhy?Ē. Why is all of Sam Porter Bridgesí downtime filled with literal advertisements for Monster Energy Drinks and Ride with Norman Reedus? The blood grenades are cool, but why the sweat, urine, and fecal grenades?
Why put so much focus on characters in the different trailers only for a handful of them to be in the game for more than an hour? The game sports a massive cast, and only about 4 of the characters are we ever actually in enough contact with to have given them a spot worthy of being slated in the cast lineup. Why are nearly all character interactions presented in the form of holograms? I still feel that impact of reconnecting the world, but I canít really fault people for thinking the world feels lifeless when our interactions during deliveries are literally standing there, being spoken to by someone locked behind a door, and then dropping off the cargo.
Death Stranding leaves me asking 'why' a lot and it serves to note that Kojimaís storytelling and game design are both at its best when he has someone there to reel him in a bit. When he was at Konami he had a fair share of corporate oversight, and I would argue it was too much and stifled some of his visions. In this case however, he had too little. I donít think itís much to ask for someone or several people to accurately balance him out in the future.
Keep On Keeping On
I love shooters, I love RPGs. I love racers, narrative driven experiences, indie games and AAA smash hits. About the only games I donít love, are Tetris clones. Death Stranding hits different for me. I love the game, I have had an incredible time with it. I enjoy the simple but addicting gameplay loop, the sprinkled moments of action, and overall I enjoy the long winding narrative that sometimes takes a few too many pit stops along the way. However, it easily ranks among one of the bleakest games Iíve ever played.
A delicate balancing act is struck, asking players to restore hope against challenges far greater than humanity can handle, which is an experience not often granted in games. Youíre never made to feel like a hero, youíre just a guy who happens to occasionally do something heroic. Youíre a cog in a bigger moving machine. Samís goal is the same as any of us really, a search for a better tomorrow. The only way Sam is ever going to find it is if he "keeps on keeping on", and thatís something I think we can all relate to.
Being a delivery guy is more addicting than youíd think, great worldbuilding via travel, multiplayer elements let you see a country slowly rebuilding in real time, incredibly deep story with a talented cast.
Kojima is his own worst enemy, with some of his more chaotic ideas on full display here as well as his desire for tongue-in-cheek real world references coming off as literal advertisements this time, Majority of the cast donít get real moments to shine.