By Marty Mulrooney
Death Stranding is the latest project of legendary Japanese video game designer Hideo Kojima (Policenauts, Metal Gear Solid). A timed PlayStation 4 exclusive (it will arrive on PC in late 2020 via the Epic Games Store), Death Stranding was developed by Kojima Productions and stars Norman Reedus (The Walking Dead) as Sam Porter Bridges, a courier working in a post-apocalyptic United States of America.
The “Rope,” along with the “Stick,” are two of mankind’s oldest tools.
The stick to keep the bad away, the rope used to bring the good toward us.
They were our first friends, of our own invention.
Wherever there were people, there were the rope and the stick.
— From Kobo Abe’s “Nawa”
Where to begin when reviewing a game of such ambition, scale and scope. Death Stranding opens in media res, with the player character Sam (Reedus) fleeing from Timefall – rain that immediately ages everything it touches – on his futuristic electric motorcycle. Plants wither and die, only to immediately grow and bloom again. Birds fall from the sky, rapidly decaying flesh revealing the delicate bones beneath.
After a nasty crash, Sam has no choice but to abandon his bike and take shelter in a nearby cave, where he meets fellow porter Fragile (Léa Seydoux, Spectre). Raising a finger to her lips, she warns Sam to be quiet; they aren’t alone… Monstrous handprints appear in the mud, searching for them, accompanied by an otherworldly growl. Eventually, the danger passes, but the threat of this invisible enemy will remain ever-present.
Taking full control of Sam once the opening cutscene has finished is an incredible moment; there are no visible seams between the interactive and non-interactive scenes and the graphics are nothing short of breathtaking. Powered by the Decima game engine (developed by Guerilla Games and previously used for Horizon Zero Dawn), the visuals in Death Stranding often approach photorealism.
Screenshots cannot do Death Stranding justice; in motion, it is a work of art that technically shouldn’t be possible, the majesty and power of nature somehow captured and conveyed with mere pixels alone, on aging hardware that is fast approaching the end of its console generation. Then the soundtrack kicks in – Sam’s very first delivery is accompanied by a dreamy song (‘Don’t Be So Serious’) performed by Icelandic indie rock band Low Roar; the first of many wonderful licensed tracks – and you’re there.
This opening mission – delivering a consignment of smart drugs to Central Knot City – teaches the player the basics of gameplay. These mechanics will be built upon throughout the course of the game with the addition of new tools and the acquisition of additional knowledge, but the basics will never change. The landscape in Death Stranding can be just as deadly as any enemy, and moving Sam involves much more than simply holding forward on the left analogue stick.
Using the Odradek – a shoulder-mounted, articulated mechanical sensor – Sam must analyse the terrain ahead and react accordingly. Ground covered with rocks will cause Sam to lose his balance if he moves too quickly, while stepping into a river that is too deep will sweep him off his feet; both examples have the potential to seriously damage – and even destroy – his precious cargo. Pressing L2 and R2 will help Sam keep his balance by adjusting his shoulder straps; holding them both at the same time is highly recommended, even if this does result in a slight decrease in speed. Stamina and blood levels must be maintained at all times.
Sam’s backstory and the mechanics of the world are enshrouded in mystery as Death Stranding begins. Following a terrifying voidout – a massive explosion caused by a dead body that wasn’t incinerated in time – Sam wakes to find himself at Capital Knot City. There, the dying president of the United Cities of America (UCA) – his adoptive mother Bridget Strand (Lindsay Wagnar, The Bionic Woman) – and Die-Hardman, his former boss and director of the Bridges delivery company (Tommie Earl Jenkins – seriously, this man deserves all the awards for his heartbreaking final scenes in Death Stranding), beg him to rejoin Bridges and help them rebuild America.
Despite Sam’s reluctance – he is visibly uncomfortable and angry in their presence – he eventually agrees to help when he learns that his sister Amelie (Emily O’Brien, Guardians of the Galaxy: The Telltale Series) has been captured by an anti-ACU terrorist group while trying to rebuild America herself (the terrorists are led by the wonderfully theatrical Higgs, played by Troy Baker of The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite fame). From here, the game begins proper; Sam must complete deliveries that will take him further and further across America, from one coast to the next. Along the way, he must use a device called a Q-pid to connect each delivery terminal to the Chiral Network: a wireless communication network that serves as Death Stranding’s version of the internet.
Once a delivery terminal is connected to the Chiral Network, other players’ nearby structures, vehicles and roads will begin to appear. Despite there being no traditional multiplayer mode per se in Death Stranding, there is a constant sense of community spirit. It’s an incredible feeling to struggle across an inhospitable landscape and finally make a delivery, before connecting the delivery terminal to the Chiral Network and discovering a newly built road that halves the time of your return journey.
It works both ways too. You might need to abandon a vehicle at some point, only to later receive a notification that another player gave you ‘likes’ when they found and used it to complete their own delivery. Lost cargo can be delivered by other players (porters) from around the world too, and everything can be ‘liked’; tackling a mountain is so much easier when another player has forged a path before you, leaving strategically placed ladders and ropes in their wake.
I must apologise; when talking about Death Stranding, it’s far too easy to get ahead of yourself. The main gameplay ‘loop’ involves Sam making deliveries across a post-apocalyptic America, shaped by a cataclysmic event known as the ‘Death Stranding’. Although there are occasional human enemies – such as MULEs, rogue porters obsessed with cargo – combat is rare when playing properly. Sam’s greatest challenge is the landscape itself.
Using his Cuff Links – a wrist computer – Sam must plan his journey well in advance. Is it going to rain? If so, is there an alternate route to avoid Timefall, or will a shelter need to be built? Will non-lethal/lethal weapons be required? How about a spare pair of boots? Everything in the world erodes over time, so ladders and ropes won’t last forever. Furthermore, Sam can only carry a certain amount of weight. How heavy the delivery cargo is will determine how much additional equipment he can carry.
Sam cuts a lonely figure, but for much of Death Stranding he isn’t alone. Early in the game he discovers a piece of equipment called a Bridge Baby – basically, a baby in a pod that simulates a mother’s womb – and refuses to incinerate it. Instead, he calls it Lou and wears it on his chest, which allows him to use his Odradek to sense BTs. BTs are ‘Beached Things’, invisible creatures that originate from the ‘Beach’, the land between life and the afterlife.
BTs crossing over to the real world causes Timefall, and is also the reason why dead bodies result in voidouts. They are much less of a threat to Sam than the average porter, as he has a condition known as ‘DOOMS’ which allows him to sense BTs; his Bridge Baby (BB) allows him to see them too, as long as he doesn’t move. He is also a ‘repatriate’, which means he can reconnect with his body if he is killed. However, BTs are still terrifying and best avoided if possible. Sneaking past them with the Odradek spinning like crazy and Lou crying is unbearably tense.
Sam’s relationship with Lou is the beating heart of Death Stranding. Throughout the 40+ hours it will take to complete the main story, players will bond with their BB and truly come to care about it. Every time Sam connects with Lou, he shares a memory of an unknown man played by Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale). These memories feature some of the best acting and performance capture in a video game to date; Mikkelson goes all in, creating a character that is both formidable and heartbreaking. The way the story is drip-fed via these memories is Hideo Kojima as his very best.
There is so much that hasn’t been discussed in this review. Sweat, urine and feces grenades. Blood bullets. The gorgeous original soundtrack composed by Ludvig Forssell (‘BB’s Theme’ is a masterpiece). Death Stranding is better being experienced than discussed and spoilers should be avoided at all costs. The acting rivals any Hollywood movie (Reedus gives a anguished, nuanced performance) and the supporting cast of characters – Fragile (Léa Seydoux), Deadman (the likeness of director Guillermo del Toro, voiced by Jesse Corti), Mama (Margaret Qualley, Once Upon A Time In… Hollywood) and Heartman (the likeness of director Nicolas Winding Refn, voiced by Darren Jacobs) – all have backstories that are as complicated and satisfying to uncover as Sam’s own.
Yet surprisingly, what holds Death Stranding together as an experience is the gameplay itself. Without players experiencing the arduousness nature of Sam’s journey, there would be no real payoff. Surviving the elements and making deliveries might not be considered ‘fun’ in the traditional sense, but it’s endlessly satisfying when things go right – or when things go wrong and you need to improvise. By the time the boss fights are over and the story has been wrapped up, it’s the journey – one shared with players around the world – that will stick with you.
This is one of the most beautiful experiences of this console generation, in every sense of the word. Strip away all the exposition and bombast and what you’re left with is a timely – and timeless – story about reconnecting with people that is genuinely moving. It won’t be for everyone – it’s undoubtedly weird – but that’s what makes Hideo Kojima such an exciting and unique voice in the video game industry. Just like Sam Porter Bridges, despite any small missteps along the way, he always delivers. Keep on keeping on, Kojima.
10 OUT OF 10