Some would consider Hideo Kojima to be self-indulgent, with his frequent citing of cinema as an inspiration, a reason to doubt his gaming credentials. Others see him as a creative genius, having crafted the now-iconic experiences of the Metal Gear Solid franchise, and introducing game mechanics that are unique to his reputation as a video game auteur. Say what you will about the man, but when he has a vision, he sticks to it.
With Kojima Productions’s Death Stranding, the writing is clear on the wall, plastered in polished typography and displayed with an aplomb that is so unique to Kojima. This is Hideo Kojima at his best, less so of the convoluted lore of Metal Gear Solid, more of an increasingly coherent, cinematic experience that surpasses far beyond gameplay mechanics.
Just as he promised.
There are niggling issues, no doubt, but not so much that it takes away from what is truly an innovative take on an open-world action title that involves heady themes and the seemingly mundane cycle of delivering orders. Never has a game invoked such feelings of true connections with not just NPCs, but also other players, in rebuilding a devastated world devoid of hope and a future.
Much of Death Stranding’s mysteries revolve around the phenomenon of the same name, an extinction-like event that has basically brought humanity onto its last legs. It has granted extraordinary abilities to certain individuals, but at the same time, opened our world to the dimension known as the Beach, the game’s version of the afterlife.
This is how Sam Bridges Porter (Norman Reedus), a repatriate, is able to keep dying and reviving, or how Fragile (Léa Seydoux) can teleport between places. All of these special individuals are inflicted with a condition known as DOOMs, allowing them to tap into the powers of the Beach in one way or another.
However, it has also allowed the encroachment of entities known as Beached Things/BTs, the otherworldly beings that always manages to appear at the most inconvenient of times. Suffice to say, Death Stranding weaves a tale of intrigue and mystery that is riveting enough to keep you pushing to the next objective, whilst also peeling back the layers as players get engaged in this world.
Tomorrow is truly in your hands, and reconnecting the scattered settlements into the United Cities of America will provide the answers Sam seeks, while asking even more thought-provoking questions about the human condition. The pursuit of answers about Death Stranding continues to be a galvanising experience from start to end, and credit must go to the developers.
On the surface, the idea of being Sam the porter can instantly turn players off from even trying Death Stranding. Granted, it will require a not-so-substantial investment of your time and effort before the game even starts to get into its groove, but the potential rewards of new places to explore, better gear, and more exposition are truly enticing.
It is all a complementary system that is quite addictive to see in action. From the get-go, your job is to traverse the whole of America (or rather, a condensed version), bringing cargo to wherever it is needed, while reconnecting the various settlements via the Chiral Network with the use of the Q-pid necklace. It would be a simple task, if not for the many obstacles that stand in your way.
Rivers, hills, mountains, and the weather will all play havoc with your journey, taxing Sam’s stamina and giving players plenty to think about when it comes to organising your load. Carry too much and you move like a laboured sloth, where a misstep will send you tumbling and damage your cargo. How about swimming? Well, wading into deep waters can see both your stamina and items disappear into the depths. Even the orientation of how you carry things come into play.
Not every path is straightforward, as one can imagine. Getting to certain places will require you to be creative with the use of your tools. Ladders to scale heights or cross gaps, a climbing anchor to navigate drops, or even an actual bridge to cross the rapids. Death Stranding gives players an open-ended question and you are free to answer however you like.
The verticality in Death Stranding makes for some truly magnificent vistas, but climbing the peaks can be truly horrendous with a towering load on your back. The same applies to rocky outcrops, and watching Sam trip and damage everything can be a frustrating ordeal. Movement will feel cumbersome and require some getting used to. It is key to pay attention to how you manage your inventory and weight, which adds an unexpected but ultimately satisfying puzzle element to the game.
Managing cargo is but the tip of the iceberg, as there is also your stamina, blood level, as well as the condition of your Bridge Baby (BB).
Stamina has a hard cap that decreases over time, only replenished by resting in a private room, sleeping, or taking a hot spring bath with BB. The blood level is your health, which is kept up with Blood Packs or by eating Cryptobiotes.
As for BB, it is an invaluable tool in Death Stranding, and is a vital cog in both gameplay and story. BBs are taken from stilllmothers (brain-dead mothers) and housed in a device known as the stillmother’s womb. Having one equipped enables operatives to establish a connection between the world of the dead and the BB, and sense the presence of BTs in our world.
It certainly feels dark, but players will definitely form an emotional attachment to the little one, Sam will have to do the same to increase its emotional resilience, soothing it and spending time with it will make it stronger against the many dangers of the world, preventing it from ceasing function due to autotoxemia.
Outside of tough terrain, Sam will have to contend with heavy rainstorms altered by the Death Stranding. Known as Timefall, the rain accelerates the age of both organic and inorganic matter. Imagine what that will do to your precious cargo, equipment, structures, and even vehicles, which you might want to repair once in a while. At least Sam is safe from the effects with his trusty suit, but Timefall often also usually means the presence of BTs.
The lingering BTs forms the main bulk of the threat in the world of Death Stranding. Once you enter their areas of interest, your BB will go into action, using the Odradeck sensor to warn you if you get too close. Sudden movement, sound, and even breathing will draw the BTs’ attention, and treading carefully is a must.
If you are discovered, you will be beset by tar figures trying to drag you down. Escape and you can beat a hasty retreat, lose your balance and Sam will be dragged off to face off against a Catcher BT.
These large, antimatter creatures can take several forms, but their main objective is to devour you, plain and simple. If you are unable to fight them and get taken, a voidout occurs – an explosion that wipes out the surrounding area and leaves a rather impressive crater that is persistent. It is something that everyone should witness at least once, but too many voidouts will render the rest of your time in Death Stranding an even harder task.
Any crisis will often lead to the rise of extremists, and this world is no exception. Sam will also have to contend with humans who have succumbed to Delivery Syndrome. These MULES exist only to steal any and all cargo, hoarding them at their campsite and employing electrified weaponry.
The more dangerous foes are the terrorists of the Homo Demens group, who are not opposed to using deadly force to prevent Sam from reconnecting America. Higgs, portrayed by Troy Baker, is affiliated with the group, and will remain a constant thorn in your side.
While the human enemies can be taken down by stealth or melee attacks, Sam will have at his disposal, both lethal and non-lethal firearms. The more deaths you cause, the more the BTs will populate the world, and it is a fine balance between taking a more humanitarian approach or going berserk.
Taking on the BTs will require sacrifice, incapacitating them with a Bola shot will only do so much, but Sam’s blood is key to eliminating these entities. Hematic rounds from firearms and grenades will harm the BTs in a bloody fashion, and can be a viable strategy if you wish to clear an area of BTs and Timefall for a while, just be sure to keep tabs on your blood level.
The combat will feel familiar to anyone who has played Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, albeit in a more approachable form here in Death Stranding. The third-person shooting works fine, especially for the non-lethal Bola Gun, but other firearms can have too heavy a recoil that players will have to compensate for.
Survive the treacherous terrain, weather conditions, BTs, and humans, and you will be graded on how well you have performed your duty. Cargo conditions, the time and distance taken, and complete/partial orders are all factors to consider, with new conditions like extra fragile or time-sensitive deliveries spicing up the processions later on. It all affects how many Likes you will receive, which in turn translates into a grade.
The grades of all deliveries will go towards improving your connection to a certain community or person, with five stars being the maximum. Each increase is usually accompanied by a reward, such as new and better equipment, aesthetic options, and even lore.
For Sam’s personal growth, it is a combination of five other ratings – Delivery Volume, Delivery Time, Cargo Condition, Miscellaneous, and Bridge Link. Raise them high enough and you will get upgrades to your stamina, cargo capacity, stability, and much more. The incentives to do well in Death Stranding are plenty and it is vital to the experience to be as efficient as possible.
The inclusion of Bridge Link speaks to the fact that Death Stranding is a singleplayer experience that is meshed with multiplayer elements. Keeping your game online will see other players’ structure populate your world and vice versa, alongside helpful signs and shared/lost cargo. The theme of connections run true here, helping others is akin to helping yourself, and such aid is invaluable.
Postboxes can be useful to deposit lost cargo when you have run out of space, Timefall Shelters provide repairs and a safe spot to hide from the rain, and Watchtowers can give you a bird’s eye view of what is to come. Everyone can work together to construct structures that will make Sam’s journeys a little easier, and discovering a useful Bridge or Zipline already in place can give you that little hope of making your next destination in Death Stranding.
If you feel that it is lessening the challenge, fear not, it is not as though everyone’s structures are going to be added to your game. Exchanging Likes and cooperating with certain players will deepen your relationships, increasing the likelihood you will see their impact on your world, and you can seal the deal with a Strand Contract, forming a permanent bond that increase the likelihood of their structures appearing in your game.
Yet, the game is smart enough to not give you everything, and the onus remains on the player to take advantage of these additions, while making their own changes to the world to make traversal more manageable.
All of these constructions and fabrications will take some materials to maintain or upgrade, and Death Stranding’s resource management is thankfully light but requires prudence still. Resources like Ceramics, Metals, and others can be gathered from around the world, and stores will increase their pool if your relationship is at a certain level. Get those roads and vehicles built as soon as possible, and you will be saving precious time and effort.
Everything will count for nothing if not for the overarching story that drives Death Stranding. Unlike some of Kojima’s earlier work, there is a balance found between being overly committed to philosophical themes of connection and communication, and an actual story that makes sense. You do not need to be obsessive to understand the broad strokes that Kojima is painting with.
From the last Death Stranding, Sam, the key players, Bridges, the Chiral Network, the BTs and more are explained in ways that are satisfactory for the most part, but if you want to dig deeper, the in-game journals and data logs contain even more nuggets of information that flesh out the world.
That said, the game is not perfect and there are some leaps of logic that exist within the plot, and enough of grey areas for the hardcore fans to speculate till the end of time. Overall, though, it is a thrilling tale that pays off in the end, with enough twists and turns that you expect from a Kojima joint.
Visually, the Decima engine used for Death Stranding is nothing short of breathtaking, producing some of the best environments and effects you will see on the PS4 generation. Hulking structures are dwarfed by intimidating mountainsides, sun-scorched grassland sit side by side with gassy bogs and chaotic and explosive battlefields give way to the billowing, snow-covered plains, you can spend hours just admiring the surroundings, even when the BTs are breathing down your neck.
And we haven’t even begun to mention the amazing facial and motion capture of the star-studded cast. Mads Mikkelsen, Léa Seydoux, and Norman Reedus deservingly take the spotlight, with their facial details captured perfectly without venturing into the uncanny valley. The performances across the board, especially for the main cast, stands out in a way that not even Kojima’s trademark melodramatic direction can take away from.
Troy Baker’s Higgs, in particular, is a favourite, exuding an irresistible charisma interweaved with an aura of power and threat that only cements his place as one of the leaders of his craft. Mikkelsen also deserves some plaudits, not just for his star power, but also bringing his unique brand of gravitas and exceptional command of a scene whenever he is around. It is seldom hard to find a connection with the antagonists, but to do so with two such characters is an achievement in itself.
The score of this title is outstanding as well, pumping up the adrenaline during hostile encounters with bassy drops while soft, melodious accompaniments soothe Sam’s tired mind and body during long hauls. The occasional insertion of vocal tracks by the likes of Low Roar often punctuates a sequence flawlessly, and you can always pop these tracks on in Sam’s private room to enjoy.
Expectations for Death Stranding have undeservedly ranged from low to impossibly high, and it is understandable as Kojima has divided opinions from the start. That said, it is without a shadow of a doubt that this is a definitive piece of work by a creator and his team unshackled to fulfil their creative potential, right down to the finest details.
A gripping tale supported by a solid foundation of resource management, combat, and exploration that has a layer of emotional resonance that is rare to find in the medium, Death Stranding is one hell of a game, issues and all. The journey from start to end was a phenomenal ride, and Death Stranding emerges as not just a contender for Game of the Year, but possibly of Hideo Kojima’s illustrious career, and that is saying something.
Death Stranding will launch on the PS4 on November 8.
GEEK REVIEW SCORE
A true masterpiece by Hideo Kojima, Death Stranding is an experience unlike any other, and you must try it to believe it.
Gameplay - 8.5/10
Story - 9/10
Presentation - 10/10
Value - 10/10