Shaun Munro reviews Death Stranding…
In an age where the dollar value of a single-player game without the expected “live service” accoutrements couldn’t be lower, it’s enormously refreshing to see something like Death Stranding – a title so stridently committed to minimalism despite its evidently massive production budget.
But more than that, the latest offering from Hideo Kojima is a jaw-dropping, occasionally frustrating testament to what can be achieved when creators are simply allowed to create. Given that Kojima was famously railroaded into delivering an incomplete, compromised product with Metal Gear Solid V, it’s immensely encouraging that Death Stranding appears to be an holistic retort – the vision of an untamed artist doing exactly what they want to.
And while this game absolutely won’t be for everyone – even some Kojima die-hards may find its slow, anti-action approach unwieldy – it is an experience which captures the potential thrill of “emergent gameplay” perhaps better than any other game I’ve ever played.
Some have readily labelled Death Stranding “the world’s most expensive walking simulator,” given that the core gameplay loop amounts to protagonist Sam Bridges (Norman Reedus), a delivery man or “porter,” scouring the tattered remnants of a post-apocalyptic United States in order to connect cities up to a nationwide Internet-like Chiral Network, the completion of which will allow society to rebuild.
Radically, Kojima’s game is for the majority focused on traversal rather than sustained firefights – though there are shoot ’em up segments peppered throughout the game – with an emphasis on traipsing from one remote city to the next, delivering packages to customers – yes, effectively fetch quests – and linking up city nodes along the way.
While for many games this simply wouldn’t be a compelling enough loop to sustain interest, especially with a 30-hour length on the lower end – and easily double that with the wealth of optional missions on offer – Kojima has quite ingeniously elevated the arduousness of the journey to such a mythic degree that each of the game’s 70-ish excursions feel like engaging puzzles in of themselves.
Getting from A-to-B is rarely as simple as a pacy jaunt from one waypoint to the next. Momentum plays a major part in reaching your objective, as you’ll need to use the L2 and R2 triggers to steady yourself and ensure you don’t pratfall on the ground, as can potentially damage a valuable piece of cargo.
Some may find the micro-management involved with movement – tweaking your cargo placement, checking your stamina gauge and so on – tedious, yet given that it’s inextricably linked to Death Stranding‘s core gameplay function at the de-emphasis of all others, fussing over the details ultimately feels totally worthwhile.
What will prove far more cumbersome than the weight you’re carrying around, however, is presence of “BTs,” scarcely-visible otherworldly entities which emerge whenever it rains, stalking the Earth and seeking to impede your progress. Your primary line of defence? A baby in a jar of amniotic fluid, BB, which is able to detect the BTs, making them partially visible and allowing you to cross their fields of influence in relative safety. Naturally, these sequences still prove tripwire tense in that insidiously unnerving, muscle-aching way only Kojima knows how.
But if you get over-eager and end up having to flee from an enraged BT or take a violent tumble in the game’s unforgiving environments, you’ll cause BB to cry, which can ultimately lead to it entering a semi-comatose state and offering you no help whatsoever. But as proves both hilarious and disturbing, you can soothe an upset BB by gently rocking the DualShock 4 controller up and down; it is a Hideo Kojima game, after all.
Even once you get the knack for avoiding BTs, you’ll also occasionally encounter MULEs, rogue human porters obsessed with stealing your cargo, who will doggedly pursue you should you venture into one of their many encampments. Despite their persistence, however, they can generally be put down with fair ease, even if you can quickly end up overcome by their sheer number if you’re not paying attention.
But again, Death Stranding is far less concerned with combat than any of the Metal Gear Solid games, which is perhaps why the overwhelming majority of the fighting is either avoidable or extremely simple. Boss fights do arrive every few hours, yet they’re largely so bullet-spongey and straight-forward one wonders why Kojima bothered including them at all, beyond offering up mildly intense palate cleansers between the more pared-down traversal mechanics.
In many ways the game feels like a direct response to Metal Gear Solid V, which offered up best-of-class open world gameplay despite its piecemeal story. In this case, the story is decidedly more fleshed-out, but combat is reduced to a mild inconvenience above all else, while the challenge lies in slogging it out to your destination. Despite loathing “busy-work” in games, the mere act of travel feels more satisfying and meaningful in this game than I ever could’ve imagined.
Though like Kojima’s last game the mission objectives are ultimately rather samey, that potential mundanity is broken up by not only lashings of cinematic story, but the dynamic wealth of traversal options available. For starters, the player steadily unlocks an extensive suite of abilities to make their journey more manageable, such as exo-suits, gloves, equipment which can build structures such as zip-lines and safe houses, and also vehicles like reverse trikes and trucks.
It does have to be said, however, that Death Stranding‘s major gameplay failing lies in its awkward vehicular controls; though hopping on the trike and punching it all the way to a far-flung target can save tons of time, some of the game’s more treacherous routes will cause the bike (and the truck) to struggle.
While in theory this is just another survival factor the player has to consider, watching your vehicle bounce off the environment for no clear reason and basically pay little attention to your steering inputs is immensely frustrating. Many times I simply ditched the vehicle altogether and ran along on foot.
What really makes Death Stranding come alive in even its more procedural moments is its fantastically implemented asynchronous multiplayer, where players are instanced into a semi-persistent online world with other players, who cannot be directly interacted with.
However, any fixtures they’ve erected, such as ladders, climbing anchors and entire buildings, will remain for your use, and through the game’s social media-aping “likes” system, you’re able to reward helpful players by spamming them with likes (which the game keeps track of). It’s a terrific system which makes the barren world feel paradoxically bustling, while ensuring that the iffy waft of “live service” requirements stay far away.
The world itself is, simply, magnificent, and while certainly not the biggest or most detailed that gaming has ever seen, is absolutely one of the most richly intoxicating and well-realised on a moment-to-moment basis.
Every inch of the land feels meticulously designed and pored over, such that traversal has a real character and visceral appeal to it, because it doesn’t ever feel like you’re scaling a mountain that was simply copy-pasted by a tired developer during crunch. It all feels curated and as “alive” as a game world possibly can, even with so little tangible to actually populate it.
This is in large part due to some of the most spectacular visuals and art direction you’re likely to see in any game of this generation; even on O.G. PS4, the U.S. is a literally breathtaking sight to soak in, and one which further helps mitigate the potential tedium of those longer delivery missions. The cinematics, meanwhile, are of Kojima’s typically high standard, with some jaw-droppingly realistic character animations, especially during the game’s later cutscenes, wringing every last drop of emotion possible from the (admittedly scattershot) story.
At which point we should discuss the story, which is absolutely in the sloppy, shamelessly melodramatic step of Kojima’s prior works. It doesn’t want much for subtlety, it wears its exposition on its sleeves, and there are aspects of it that may qualify as problematic (especially a scene in which Léa Seydoux’s Fragile is forced into her underwear under questionable necessity).
But this is evened out somewhat by the ambition and undeniably present relevance of what Kojima is trying to say. It’s not a huge leap to discern Death Stranding as an allegory for a fractured, even disconnected contemporary America, what with one of Sam’s superiors literally striving to “make America whole again.”
It’s clear that Kojima is frustrated with the state of our real world, and the game’s aspirations to elucidating that within such an already creatively left-field framework is admirable enough that it’s easier to embrace if not forgive the game’s many excesses.
There is plenty of mawkish dialogue to laugh at, but at this point, many of Kojima’s fans lovingly welcome the sub-anime, overwrought melodrama, of which there is a lot here. But there’s also more palpable emotion elsewhere, especially in the game’s latter stages, because as fundamentally silly as Death Stranding‘s plot might be, it’s tough to willingly play a game for 30+ hours and not get invested.
But as usual, Kojima’s character strokes are generally more rewarding than the labyrinthine narrative, and this game typically offers up a wonderful cast of colourful and eccentric characters, acted by one of the finest video game casts ever assembled. Norman Reedus is perfectly cast as Sam, a gruff man with a cynical view of the world and the U.S. in particular, yet who is lent humanity through his unexpectedly touching bond with his travelling companion BB.
BB could so easily have been nothing more than another Kojima quirk, yet despite the character’s natural wordlessness, the bond the baby forges over the course of the story with both Sam and the player is a slow-creep of emotion. When BB cried in a field packed with BTs, I was genuinely worried and concerned, and the baby is further brought to expressive life during the game’s cutscenes, where BB skirts clear of the uncanny valley to resemble, with a shocking level of exactitude, a real newborn.
Meanwhile the game’s villains are played with a gleeful menace befitting Kojima’s prior works; Mads Mikkelsen’s Clifford Unger fills the screen with dread every time he shows up in full combat gear, while on the opposite end, Troy Baker’s hilariously over-the-top terrorist Higgs serves as a tone-balancer, keeping things just theatrical and silly enough when morbidity threatens to overpower.
Elsewhere Léa Seydoux is a hoot – if slightly underused – as trader Fragile, and Tommie Earl Jenkins gives perhaps the game’s stand-out performance as the preposterously-monikered Die-Hardman, the director of Bridges (the company Sam works for.) And of course, there are some fan service roles for good measure; filmmakers Guillermo del Toro and Nicolas Winding Refn lend their likenesses to the prominent supporting characters Deadman and Heartman, while the voices are provided, quite charmingly, by different actors.
To call Death Stranding “not for everyone” is not to paper over the game’s flaws nor put-down those who indeed can’t get into it. Many simply won’t vibe with its self-consciously drawn-out journey, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Yet for those who do, Kojima’s latest is sure to grip them tight for its near-entirety – bar some undeniably over-egged, needlessly bloated segments.
Fans and haters alike can surely all agree that this game is a monumentally, perhaps stubbornly singular work, yet there was clearly the potential for Kojima to push things even more left-field by stripping out the game-y combat sequences entirely. If players can bring themselves to embrace Kojima’s penchant for self-indulgent excess, this just might be the most meditative AAA game ever made.
Death Stranding once again sees Hideo Kojima pushing the boundaries of what video games can be, and the result is a breathtaking and uncompromising – if at times willfully baffling – experience.
+ A unique, fiendishly addictive gameplay loop.
+ One of the most visually impressive open worlds ever.
+ Ultra-cinematic story should please Kojima fans.
+ Superb asynchronous multiplayer.
+ Sharp performances from the ensemble cast.
– Pacing is occasionally uneven.
– Vehicular traversal is frustrating.
– Boss fights are rather underwhelming.
Reviewed on PS4.
A copy was provided for review by the publisher.