Death Stranding (2019)

As someone who values creativity, innovation, and uniqueness in games, Death Stranding was one of my most anticipated titles of 2019. It boasted Hideo Kojima’s signature style, yet it promised to be even stranger than the Metal Gear Solid series. It would be an understatement to say that Death Stranding is divisive. It firmly falls into the category of “love it or hate it” type of games. Kojima’s over the top and campy dialogue, the bizarre and confusing story, and the seemingly uninteresting gameplay were all either panned or praised depending on who you asked. I consider Death Stranding to be an important milestone for the gaming industry. It’s triple-A, yet it’s incredibly niche; it’s a game with a high production value yet the creators knew that the game would not appeal to everyone. Fortunately for me, this a niche that I really enjoyed, and I am solidly in the “love it” camp.

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You play as Sam, a delivery man in a post-apocalyptic world. Earth has been decimated by a phenomenon known as the “Death Stranding”, a sort of disease that causes dead bodies to transform into anti-matter and destroy entire cities in violent explosions. The anti-matter ghosts that are created when a person dies are known as BTs, and if these BTs come in contact with a living person, the explosive “voidout” occurs. BTs tend to show up during bouts of “timefall”, which is a toxic equivalent to rain. Timefall causes anything it touches to rapidly age, decaying any living thing it its wake. The world has been devastated by the appearance of the Death Stranding and timefall. Voidouts annihilated major cities before they even knew what was happening.  Now, there are few remaining communities, and many people choose to live alone in doomsday shelters.

Sam plays the critical role of being a porter. He delivers packages from shelter to shelter, city to city, bringing necessary supplies between the scattered remnants of humanity. Since the dangers of timefall and BTs are unavoidable, most people refuse to leave the safety of their underground bunkers. Porters like Sam are the lifeline of civilization, undertaking the dangerous task of journeying in treacherous conditions to facilitate trade between the few survivors. Sam’s job is even more important, as he was given the task to link these scattered shelters via the chiral network. This advanced network allows people to communicate, share data, and ultimately become a global community again. Sam’s job is to rebuild America by bringing vital resources to people across the country and to connect them to the chiral network.

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Death Stranding transforms what is considered downtime in most games into its core concept: walking. As a porter, the player must travel between shelters, delivering packages and avoiding danger along the way. Death Stranding does something very unexpected, it flips the universal notion of how inventory works on its head. In typical games, you have an inventory in which you can store items, sometimes up to a certain weight threshold. The inventory is a magical beast in most games, there is no physical representation of it, just a menu for easy access to things that you have collected. In Death Stranding, every single thing you decide to place in your inventory is physically on Sam. For every piece of cargo you bring with you, there are draw backs. You will move slower, you will be easier to spot, you will lose balance more easily, you will gain uncontrollable momentum, and it will be harder to fit into small gaps. This turns what is usually an implicit feature of most games, the inventory, into an important management aspect.

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The core gameplay in Death Stranding revolves around being a porter in a disjointed America. You travel from coast to coast, delivering packages and connecting survivors to the chiral network. There are numerous dangers when traveling in the desolate environment of Death Stranding. Some areas are ripe with BTs, which require the player to stealthily avoid these mysterious ghosts. Moreover, terrorists are looking to intercept Sam and steal his cargo at every turn. There is also the obvious environmental factor when trekking across long distances. There is always a risk of running out of stamina, resources, or taking too dangerous of a path that inevitably damages your cargo beyond repair.

Each delivery in Death Stranding is a balancing act. You must examine the map to work out the best route to reach your destination. Avoiding BTs, terrorists, and choosing a path with manageable terrain is crucial to having a good experience. If you try to head straight up or down a cliff, or trudge through a river, Sam is going to be very hard to control. Picking an efficient route is then followed by deciding what cargo you want to bring along. There are tools to deal with the environment and enemies; ladders, climbing anchors, and a variety of other devices are critical to a delivery’s success. However, every tool you bring has a weight, which as mentioned earlier will make it harder to balance, move, and be stealthy. Choosing an effective route and bringing the correct tools is vital to Sam’s success, and to the player’s enjoyment.

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Trekking through the wilderness is a supremely lonely experience. The seeds of civilization are few and far between, and the solitary journey between these bunkers of hope is one of silent contemplation. As Sam slowly makes his way across the gorgeous yet eerie vistas of desolation, the player is left alone with their thoughts. Death Stranding is a slow burn, action is tense but sparse. The majority of the game is spent wandering through scenic landscapes, but the few moments when you do encounter enemies are all the more tense due do their rarity. Music is also used to its greatest possible effect, when a song begins playing it is as if the player is transported into a movie. The visual of Sam hiking in the lonely wilderness with a calming and ambient soundtrack playing in the background creates some unforgettable and picturesque moments.

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Despite the isolation of the lone porter, Death Stranding is a game all about connections. Reconnecting the people of America, the connections of personal relationships, the connections between life and death, and the connections between players. This game implements a unique form of cooperation with players around the world. Even though you will never truly meet the other players, you will help each other through treacherous world. When you connect a region to the chiral network, you will also be able to see what other players have built in that region. Bridges, roads, storage boxes, safehouses, vehicles, ladders, and various resources are shared among players. You can contribute resources to other player’s structures to complete them or upgrade them. The player base is collectively working together to make the game easier for each other. You can leave signs of encouragement, or warnings of danger to come. And you can always drop some “likes” to show your appreciation for what other players have built.

The transformation of the world in Death Stranding is an incredibly satisfying experience. Watching an empty wilderness gradually fill with player structures as you connect the chiral network accomplishes the effect that you actually are rebuilding America. I was absolutely obsessed with efficiently connecting each location on the map via a network of roads, bridges, and ziplines. I wanted to make it simple for myself and other players to quickly travel across the landscape. Donating resources that I had collected to reestablish the world made it feel like I was contributing to the greater whole.

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Death Stranding made me feel like I was working with other players, rather than just playing in isolation. I was worried that player structures would make the game too easy, as you could just use previously placed roads and bridges to complete any mission, but this is not the case. The player structures only appear once you connect a location to the chiral network, so each trek to a new place is still difficult and lonely. Each of the main deliveries is “pure” in the sense that you will play it exactly how the developers designed it: with no external assistance.

Hideo Kojima is known for his absolutely convoluted stories, and Death Stranding is no different. Just describing the basic idea of the world earlier in this article was difficult. As previously mentioned, Sam is traveling across America, delivering supplies and reconnecting people as he goes. Ultimately, he is trying to reach his sister on the West Coast, who is being held hostage by an anarchist terrorist group. Moreover, Sam carries around a “Bridge-Baby”, affectionately referred to as BB. Little BB acts a connection between the worlds of life and death, allowing Sam to sense and see BTs. There is a ridiculous amount of moving parts in Death Stranding, many of which may seem random and disconnected. It all comes together by the end of the game. In true Hideo Kojima fashion, there are plenty of plot-twists and unexpected explanations for what may seem nonsensical at first.

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Despite the convoluted nature of the story, and what may seem like an incoherent world, Death Stranding manages to contain one of the most emotional stories in the medium of video games. Sam begins the game as a cynical, standoffish, and antisocial man who is just doing what he needs to do to survive. Witnessing Sam’s transformation as he travels with BB is one that I highly empathize with. Occasionally, I was taken out of the moment by some of the campy dialogue that Hideo Kojima has become known for. At this point it’s expected, but that doesn’t excuse some of the really goofy writing. It’s odd because there are absolutely masterful scenes with amazing dialogue, but then once in a while Kojima will throw in some ridiculous one-liner that just makes me scratch my head.

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Much of the game’s emotional impact has to do with how well the game was acted. Kojima brought in an all-star cast of actors to portray his vision. Norman Reedus, Mads Mikkelsen, Léa Seydoux, Guillermo del Toro, Lindsay Wagner, and many more all were critical in the story of Death Stranding. Norman Reedus as Sam and Mads Mikkelsen as Cliff Unger were both absolutely phenomenal portrayals of their respective characters, filling them with life and emotion. Cliff in particular has become one of my favorite characters ever, from any medium.

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The core mantra behind Death Stranding is connections. The entwined thread of humanity is one of love, compassion, turmoil, and misunderstanding. Kojima famously stated that this is the first “strand-type game”. In a traditional game, you use a stick to beat the obstacle in front of you. Instead of using a stick, in Death Stranding you use a strand, connecting people to overcome the obstacle. There is traditional combat occasionally, but the game is primarily focused on connecting the remnants of humanity. The strands connecting people can get tangled, causing anguish and agony. The unrelenting love of a parent, the fervent hunger for revenge, and the desire to watch the whole world fall apart all are key components to Death Stranding. The main point that the game gets across is that everything is connected in some way, and we should be attempt to form positive strands rather than face life as a lone warrior.

My solitary gripe with Death Stranding is that the game is too easy. Despite there being multiple difficulty options, even the hard difficulty did not present any form of challenge. The early portions of the game are by far the most difficult, but the game only gets easier as you progress. Early on you have low carrying capacity, limited equipment to build, and are unfamiliar with the controls. The game is divided into 15 chapters, and by chapter 3 you are essentially given all the tools you will need to defeat the majority of the threats in the game. Sure, you get more powerful equipment as you get farther along, but once you are given a weapon to deal with basic enemies you are set. This is a problem because Death Stranding benefits from those occasional tense moments when you encounter a terrorist camp or a horde of BTs. Once you have a weapon to deal with these threats, the genuine fear and anxiety disappears.

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Moreover, the vast majority of bosses in Death Stranding pose no realistic threat to the player. Some of the bosses are horrifying spectacles, but they are all show and no go. Ultimately, there should have been an extra difficulty level added for players like myself who wanted a bit of a challenge. A “survival” difficulty could make bosses more threatening, and make resource collection more integral to player success. As it stands, the player is given more than enough resources to build any sort of tool that they need. Weapons, exoskeletons, vehicles, and structures (with the exception of roads) are all fairly cheap to build, meaning that you never truly have to scrounge for resources or properly ration materials.

One of my favorite moments in the game was early on before I had weapons or vehicles available; I snuck into a terrorist camp, stealthily dispatching the guards one by one, then I stole all of their precious materials and loaded it onto one of their own trucks to haul away. This was exciting and rewarding, I walked away with a stash of resources and a vehicle. Yet this was a hollow victory as a couple of hours later I realized that the extra resources that I acquired weren’t really necessary, and I could build a truck whenever I wanted. If building tools were more expensive and resources were scarcer it would force the player to scrounge for materials. Additionally, players would think twice about wasting valuable tools when not necessary. Terrorist and BT encounters would remain tense as you would try to get through them without blowing through a bunch of resources. I understand that many players would not want to have to constantly restock materials, so an additional difficulty level would be the best way to solve this issue.

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It is important to understand that Death Stranding is not a game for everyone. Some players are going to click with the game, others are going to dislike it or outright hate it. And that’s ok. The modern triple-A industry is filled with cookie-cutter games in which producers and developers are afraid to take risks so they follow a proven formula. Kojima Productions made something entirely unique, which I heavily appreciate. Being unique doesn’t necessarily mean that a game is worthwhile, but in the case of Death Stranding, I think the game has plenty of appeal and attempts to convey a meaningful message.

This is definitely not a game for everyone, it understandably won’t appeal to a large chunk of players. It’s slow paced, filled with exposition and cutscenes, has a confusing story, and its core gameplay will bore many players. While I personally found a sort of Zen state by making deliveries, I understand that many people will desire high-octane action. I loved deciding what tools to bring, what cargo is important, what route to take, and subsequently traveling along that route. This is not a standard open world game in which the world is your sandbox. You have to follow the guidelines laid before you or you will have a bad time. Carrying too much cargo will mean you will move slow and have a hard time balancing. Traveling across rough terrain will cause you to fall over and lose cargo. Not bringing the right equipment may leave you with no way forward. Players who do not follow these rules are going to get frustrated, you must be patient and play the game the way it was designed.

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Overall, Death Stranding is a one-of-a-kind game. It’s certainly a niche experience, and many people are going to absolutely abhor it. Still, I hope that everyone at least gives this game a shot. It can be an absolutely enthralling journey if it clicks for you. The artistry, narrative, online cooperation, and uniqueness of Death Stranding are second to none. It is for these reasons that I give Death Stranding a 9.5/10. It’s not for everyone, but everyone should give it a shot. Get out there and rebuild America, and don’t forget to keep on keeping on.

 

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