Nani?! Ara, wakarimashita
It’s nigh impossible to do justice to Death Stranding in just a few paragraphs. You’ve seen the promos, the famous faces, the web of intrigue spun by industry veteran Hideo Kojima; and either checked in or checked out of this hotel of madness.
So let’s try to understand it together with a full review, shall we?
Death Stranding (PC, PS4 [reviewed])
Developer: Kojima Productions
Released: November 8, 2019 (PS4) / Summer 2020 (PC)
One of the first things you do in Death Stranding is enter your birthday, which allegedly impacts gameplay by influencing your “DOOMS” rating. Yes, this is a Hideo Kojima joint — strap in, if you haven’t already.
While I’ll refrain from diving too deeply into the narrative, suffice to say there’s a quiet (ha) beauty to it amid all of the “delivery babies that spot shadow beasts” absurdity. It looks and sounds as damn fine as coffee on a PS4 Pro, with a rousing lead performance from Norman Reedus as professional “The Legend” delivery man, Sam Porter Bridges. That beauty isn’t so quiet on a technical level, as Kojima and his team have been toiling away for years with their Decima engine: it paid off.
Not just in a “you can see the pores on the actor’s faces” kind of way that wowed everyone back in 2011 when L.A. Noire hit the scene, but in a meaningful fashion; with all the wild bells and whistles that go with something extracted from the mind of Kojima. I love Reedus’ grunting, raw, and primal delivery in nearly everything he does: Death Stranding included. Léa Seydoux is mesmerizing as “Fragile,” who has her name emblazoned all over her outfit just in case you forget her moniker. Hell, just about every cast member, big or small, feels essential to the experience and dedicated to their role. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Mads Mikkelsen in a Santa hat shouting “ho ho ho!”
Unless you’re a huge Kojima nut you probably came here for an actual gameplay discussion, so let’s go to it. No bullshitting around: you run about for most of the game as a postman in a quest to reunite America by reactivating internet terminals. You can scan for packages — that’s what the fancy arm-like radar thing does — jump, grab stuff, and occasionally fight.
It doesn’t take an hour and a half to get started like some Metal Gear Solid games. You’re grabbing packages — and bodies — and confronting the main baddies (shadow things) very quickly. Your main job is to regulate Sam’s blood and stamina gauges, and not slip and slide down hills or off cliffs by bracing yourself with L2/R2, even with a comical amount of cargo on your back (I have trained for this my entire life). Oh and avoid those menacing “BTs” — horrifying creatures that you can’t clearly see that figuratively drag you to hell — plus human threats. No big deal.
Much of Death Stranding is spent finding the best way to reach a destination (through arduous rivers and mountains), taking in the sights as you wait for another [good] bridge cutscene. No, there aren’t frequent boss fights, but they do exist and are pretty exhilarating, if not simplistic. No, everything isn’t fully explained in the end. Unless we get a sequel, that’s par for the course for Kojima — feel free to cheer or sigh here. Whether or not you’re okay with the whole “auteur” excuse, Death Stranding as a whole is a little too long (in all it’s about 30-50 hours, critical to 100%, respectively). I could have done without a large busywork section a little past the halfway mark (in which you need to wait until your baby is fully operational again by doing required side missions), and in some cases, the map is slightly too sprawling for how little there is to do in a few zones. It can be exhausting and should be a red flag for a certain kind of person, but in my case, never to the point of giving up.
The way the delivery concept works is a bit weird and clunky, but fun in the sense that you can fully customize how you want to approach the game. Sam can strap anything he wants to his back, but it can get really silly when you need to carry critical mission objectives. It’s actually more efficient to place items like ladders, anchors, weapons, grenades, and other trinkets onto your body directly like a Transformer, or on vehicles. Sam can carry two shoulder items, two pieces of gear on his thigh, an exoskeleton (with various bonuses like higher capacity loads, speed, or terrain control), gloves, and several backpack-like pockets.
You can manually do this every time you come across a new item or take another quest, or click an auto-optimization button, it’s your choice. Yes, there is a dedicated urination option — which directly impacts a lore-based concept — and weapons like traditional lethal and non-lethal weaponry, though guns don’t come into play until roughly halfway in. Eventually you can unlock fast travel and use light hand-to-hand combat that doesn’t even remotely resemble something like CQC. It’s esoteric, but in the end a very traditional action-adventure in many respects.
Of course there’s cinematic flair in-between all that walking and plenty of existential dread. There’s a lot of tension in this completely new, unique world, especially since you can hear the unsettling voice of the BB (the baby device on your person that helps detect BTs) through the DualShock 4 speaker, or the TV if that gets annoying. You really have to hand it to Kojima: even if you hate his games, they aren’t quite like anything else. Some don’t see him as the genius he’s now known as by his fanbase, but like David Lynch, his weirdness (and their fondness for toys as adult men) resonates with me directly.
Speaking of, death is also a whole…thing in Death Stranding. I mean, it’s in the name. The first time I died was at the very beginning after an errant jump off a cliff. From there, I had to reunite with my body through a 30-second minigame. I know people are going to hate it: An artsy death world is a game mechanic and you are a postman. I want to make that absolutely crystal clear before someone claims I called this the next Metal Gear Solid. Tactical espionage action this is not.
It can also be frustrating. Delivering packages will make you “very popular indeed” according to an early on-screen message, which tells you absolutely nothing about what that entails. There’s an in-game loading screen tip that explains three esoteric concepts all at once. Kojima also seems to be commenting on the current social landscape (he’s an Instagram fiend!), with “likes” being doled out for deliveries, and you can vaguely level-up, though completing critical missions and earning new blueprints for gear is far more impactful.
There are so many menus and controls that it can get crazy. To jump into a structure submenu, you have to hold (not press) the options button until it shows up. Building structures is a very finicky venture, as you need to figure out the proper placement for it and have all of the required materials on hand. When placing a bridge is stressful, you know someone did something horribly right or horribly wrong depending on your point of view. This savagery has a point though with the game’s very light but welcome “we’re all in this together” multiplayer.
You can create open-world signs for people to “like” or warn them of impending hazardous areas just like a lot of other modern action-adventure games, but Death Stranding takes it a step further. Bridges or other big structures can just show up in other worlds (or yours) because you or another player built them. You can reap the benefits of donated items in your mailbox from a community of other real players in a constantly connected asynchronous universe, which was live and very active even during the course of this review period. There is a limit on how many players can connect (and your entire real estate won’t be taken up by building after building), but I’ve always been matched up.
I can’t count how many times my bacon has been saved by a player-built safehouse or a battery charging post that provided respite. The optional (you can play offline) community-driven idea propels the game forward in a way, but the world itself isn’t a complete mystery.
There is a good amount of exposition that straight-up tells you how the universe works. Concepts like aphenphosmphobia are a lot easier to relate to than “La-li-lu-le-lo,” as a full layer of political intrigue is chopped off in favor of a more human angle. Kojima also hasn’t lost sight of his cinematic roots, providing four levels of difficulty, including “very easy,” which I’ll transcribe right now: “Recommended for those with little or no action game experience. Gameplay at this difficulty is only very mildly challenging, allowing almost anyone to make it to the end of the story.” Emphasis mine! What a subtle dunk. As usual I forged ahead on normal mode, but at any point, you can swap. Accessibility!
Death Stranding is not the overly-strange inaccessible walled garden the marketing has made it out to be. It’s weird, don’t get me wrong! But anyone with a surface-level understanding of surrealism in art should be able to acclimate to what is essentially a playable Hollywood production.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]