A Hideo Kojima game comes with its own heightened set of expectations since storming onto the scene over 30 years ago with the Metal Gear franchise, 9 sequels, and other non-Solid Snake related adventures. Kojima has since disbanded from Konami and launched his own self-published game, Death Stranding.
The hype machine surrounding this game was on overdrive since launch. Its E3 launch trailer way back in 2016 is a reliably bonkers one, with bizarre imagery of a naked Norman Reedus cradling a baby attached to him via umbilical cord on a black beach surrounded by dead sea life. For some reason, that trailer earned great attention and the wait began. Over the next 3 years, the game’s cast grew into one of the most astonishing we’ve ever seen for a video game with starring roles for Mads Mikkelsen, Léa Seydoux, and Margaret Qualley, alongside using the appearances of Nicolas Winding Refn and Guillermo Del Toro for two key characters you interact with in almost every minute of the game. The scope of this thing was huge where every trailer, every hint from Kojima himself created theories far and wide trying to answer the question, “what is Death Stranding?”
After an apocalyptic event known as The Death Stranding, America was left completely isolated after it collapsed the country’s entire infrastructure, causing its remaining survivors to lock themselves away in their own areas of the country. The Death Stranding caused the bridge between life and the afterlife to become blurred and beings from the afterlife known as Beached Things (BT’s) invaded Earth, invisible to the vast majority of the country, hence why so many lock themselves away forever. In Death Stranding, you play as Sam Porter Bridges (Norman Reedus), whose job title is in his own name; he’s a porter. Sam transports important packages from Point A to Point B in an age where human connection is growing weaker and weaker, but Sam is special; he has DOOMS, an innate and rare ability to sense BT’s, which makes him the perfect candidate for what the country needs him to do. Sam is sent on a journey that will span literally all of America to connect the country again via the Chiral Network from the East Coast to the West, all the while bringing important goods with him along the way.
What’s funny about Death Stranding is that rather lengthy game introduction is as simple as I could possibly make it. There are various gameplay impacting quirks to it such as Timefall (The Death Stranding created rain that ages anything it touches instantly), Bridge Babies (equipment, NOT human) and the semi-online functionality of it – which I’ll get into later – but I would like to one thing clear; I wholeheartedly believe Death Stranding isn’t a game that will convince you of its worth just by reading about it and watching videos. It’s one of the most unique gaming experiences I’ve ever had, but that isn’t always clear as you watch it. If a game that challenges you to take part and explore what is presented in front of you with open eyes, then Death Stranding may well be the game for you.
One of the most popular criticisms of Death Stranding I’ve seen online is people derogatively calling it a “walking simulator.” I’d be lying to you if I told you walking isn’t the most essential part of the game; you gain access to vehicles as you progress, but you will spend the vast majority of the game on your feet clambering across rough ground to get to your destination. But, calling it a walking simulator is doing the gameplay a massive disservice. Every journey you make is its own puzzle to solve; what equipment will you need to traverse the ever more difficult terrain? What weapons will you need in case of unexpected visitors? And most importantly, how are you going to keep that bloody pizza flat? Death Stranding does what I thought was impossible; it makes walking fun.
I have a terrible history with open-world games. I enjoy open-world games within reason; the Batman Arkham series is one of my favourite series of all time, and Far Cry 3 is arguably the most fun I’ve ever had in an open-world game. And yet, the open worlds in those games are still somewhat limited – you can see a clear end to the world. Compare that to games like Skyrim or Fallout, I became so overwhelmed by the size of the world that I gave up very early on. Death Stranding has one of the biggest maps I’ve ever played, and yet it never felt overwhelming or daunting to travel mile after mile because of its approach to it. The careful balancing act, quite literally, of transporting these items from across the map is so engaging and deceptively fun that you get used to the routine of it all very quickly. It helps the game hugely that every package you’re moving has its own presence in the world, it’s sat on Sam’s back staring you in the face every time you look on screen, serving as a constant reminder of the task at hand. Yes, Kojima gets cute with his deliveries by forcing you to deliver pizza to a local, but even these jokey missions serve a purpose in the game’s grand ideas (keep an eye on that pizza guy…).
As you wander through the game, your meetings with BT’s become increasingly more frustrating, always having a knack of showing their faces at your weakest point, with your back almost overloaded with goods and running low on valuable anti-BT supplies. These instances serve as the action moments of the game, but only if you do it poorly. Stealth plays a key role in the BT encounters, and you will have successes where you sneak through an entire army of BT’s unnoticed, which makes every encounter a forget-to-breathe one.
When you take on more than you can handle, however, is when shit his the fan, and you’re running for your life through sticky tar and across mysterious dilapidated buildings that rise from the Earth below you, launching blood-infused grenades and firing blood bullets at monstrous BT creatures that take various shapes and sizes. These creatures are a joy to behold at times, and one of your final BT monster encounters towards the end of this hefty game is one of the most beautifully designed monsters I’ve ever seen in a video game. The gameplay in these encounters is repetitive (shoot at the thing until it dies) but considering death is so catastrophic to the world around you (being consumed by a BT results in a “voidout”, which is effectively a nuclear explosion that devastates the local environment), it’s crucial to stay alive.
“10 hours” is something you may have heard a lot regarding Death Stranding. These 10 hours refer to the game’s opening segment, a lengthy tutorial that meticulously introduces its multitude of features to be understood before it loosens the reigns and sets you free into the scary post-apocalyptic world in front of you. Personally, 10 hours was a huge exaggeration, but that may just have been my playstyle; I much prefer to learn by doing so I blasted through this opening section until it let me explore on my own. Death Stranding is effectively spread across 2 maps – the opening, smaller, tutorial world to introduce you to its mechanics, and the massive, beautiful, multi-biome open world you discover at the very start of Episode 3. Episode 3 is where Death Stranding truly hits its stride.
As you progress through Episode 3, you start to see the semi-online nature of the game come into play; you start seeing structures (ladders, climbing ropes, bridges, generators…) spawning in the world attached to other PS4 players. Death Stranding does a stellar job convincing you that there are other porters out there just like you are, delivering packages all over the place, but their presence is only known by their structures; you’re free to use their ladders as they’ve placed them as you know it must have helped them in some way. There’s a real sense of community surrounding the game, with players contributing valuable materials to the construction of bridges, safe houses, and roads to make traversal that much easier. The entire purpose of the plot of Death Stranding is bringing America back together again, something that is so evident with the endlessly helpful tools left around the world for me to use. Death Stranding is a single-player game that really benefits from this quasi-multi-player experience because not only is it helpful to you, it makes you contribute to the world too as a thank you to those who have been there before. Every structure made by a player earns literal likes (as if you were on Facebook or Twitter) by the people who use it, and the notification stream of people using something you placed in the world is endlessly satisfying.
I could gush about the gameplay for hours; Death Stranding makes the impossible fun and creates an experience like nothing I’ve ever played. I genuinely felt like Sam, after every tricky journey I had to give myself a small pause for breath after I was so intently focused for 15 or more minutes at a time, and that’s not including the supreme anxiety caused by suddenly incurring a time limit on certain deliveries. That said, Death Stranding isn’t without its flaws, and these flaws are the same ones prevalent in any Hideo Kojima game; its storytelling.
In terms of concept and game design, it’s not difficult to claim that Kojima is a genius. In Death Stranding alone, there are so many ideas that in other games would be the entire focus of its story, here they’re merely small features to the massive quality in the game (Timefall is the one that springs to mind to me). With his dialogue writing, though, Kojima struggles. Cutscenes are everywhere here, as we’ve come to expect, but the cutscenes are so exposition-heavy that characters rarely have a moment to breathe. Sam is reduced to a target for people like Guillermo Del Toro or Nicolas Winding Refn to just tell him what’s just happened and what he’s going to do now. Small character touches do exist in the story, but they’re frequently drowned out amongst all of the frustratingly necessary plot explanations. As you reach the game’s conclusion, I would advise you to set aside an evening for all its cutscenes because there are many. It becomes almost self-parody at one point considering how it does so much to keep you in the dark for 95% of the game before dumping all the answers on your poor, cutscene enforced 4am-tired brain. The actual story I found to be very compelling, but its delivery (*honk*) is where I struggled.
The cutscenes are where the game’s A-List cast is used, and much attention is given to The Mystery of Mads Mikkelsen. Mostly seen in slightly obscured views for reasons that will be evident to you once you play, Mads is a complete mystery for much of the game, and yet his presence is constantly an exciting one. He’s a wild card in the story, you’re unsure of his role in all of it until a decent chunk of the way through the story, but you know that every time he appears he means something, with his unexplained but ever present fire powers as he controls an army of the dead…I’ve said too much. The Mads sequences are a highlight (Episode 4 is a complete tonal shift for the game up until that point that really gives you a kick in a different direction than you initially anticipated) because of their wacky nature, but his part in the story becomes clear in a really satisfying way. I have my problems with the storytelling of the larger storyline, but when Kojima just focuses on characters, he does it well.
There are some fantastic, story-heavy cutscenes that you should look forward to; a lengthy interaction with Heartman (Winding Refn) is one of the game’s best that combines heavy exposition with a lot of character study enforced by a quirkily life-affecting choice by Heartman himself. What the game does nicely is the small storytelling through e-mails and visits to locals not part of the main quest. I loved dropping into these people’s lives briefly, finding out about how they’ve lived in a post-Death Stranding America, and offering my stellar delivery service to them in exchange for valuable resources. There’s even lovely updates on their lives through the game’s e-mail system, helpfully colour coded to give you the key information in bright yellow, but it was nice to hear from them after not seeing them for so long (again, keep an eye on pizza guy…).
What Death Stranding will give you is a sense of achievement in terms of constant reminders throughout the world of where you’ve been. The online functionality of leaving things behind and coming back to them later is such a bizarrely satisfying joy – seeing my Timefall Shelter that I used in a moment of dire need have over 7,000 likes when I returned to it many, many hours later was a thrill. Death Stranding does fall into the occasional pratfall of making you backtrack, but the return journey is always easier. This is plainly clear in one of the game’s final missions as it makes you return from whence you came, but the journey is filled with helpful paths already carved out by you and others, really summarising what the game is all about; connection. When we work together, we can achieve anything, as corny as it sounds. This is the message Kojima set out to deliver, and on that level, he nailed it.
Buying Death Stranding was a risk. I’m not one for massive open-world games, I didn’t know what the hell the game was about, and the early divisive reviews made me even more unsure. And yet, the further I got into the game, I realised I was playing something in a way that I’m not sure I’ll ever experience again. The online system is fantastic, the world is photo-realistic and absolutely beautiful (the game reaches its peak visually when you’re up in the snowy mountains), the BT encounters are consistently tense, and as weird as it sounds, the walking is the best part about it. There are cutscenes aplenty to wade through with varying degrees of success (the late game cutscenes, while interesting, are a chore to finish), but you should come to Death Stranding for a wholly satisfying gaming experience that needs to be played to be believed, filled to the brim with a colourful cast of characters (and cameos aplenty from the film world to look out for!) and scenery to die for.
As shocking as it may be, Death Stranding is my first ever Hideo Kojima game. I think I know what I’ve been missing out on.
Developer: Kojima Productions
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment, 505 Games
Director: Hideo Kojima