In 2016 at E3, Hideo Kojima revealed the new game he was working on in fantastic fashion: a trailer of a naked Norman Reedus waking up next to a crying baby, the baby disappearing and covering Reedus in black tar, and Reedus standing up and looking out over an ocean at five floating figures. Death Stranding.
For the next three years until the game’s release this past November, “what is Death Stranding about?” has been a question continuously asked by enthusiasts in the gaming community. Later trailers did not do much to help clarify: from Mads Mikkelsen commanding troops in a sewer to Reedus witnessing an invisible monster carry another person away, the point and plot of the game was shrouded in complete mystery.
Well after 52 hours I’ve completed the story of Death Stranding so I can tell you what the game is about. I can also tell you, surprisingly, that a lot of the weirdness that was shown off in trailers actually makes sense in the context of the game. Kojima, if nothing else, managed something very few others are capable of: drumming up interest and intrigue for a brand new IP without revealing any of the plot, really.
But did he make a good game?
That’s what I’m about to review. I’m going to spoil some things about the game (although nothing major related to the story), so if you want to go into the game completely blind it’s probably a good idea to skip this. But for the rest of you, read on.
Let’s start with the who. You play as Sam Porter Bridges, or Sam Porter, or Sam Bridges. I honestly don’t actually know what the character’s name is actually supposed to be. Just Sam is fine I guess because he has at least three last names, maybe four, over the course of the game and multiple people call him multiple variants so I don’t know; I just went with it.
Sam delivers packages across America. The apocalypse has happened thanks to an event called the Death Stranding and it rendered the outside world unsafe. Most people are holed up underground in “knots,” which are the world’s cities. We know this because early on a character tells us that knots are cities, and every city is named some variation of “X Knot City.” But because knots are cities, I guess that means each place is calling itself “X Knot Knot” or “X City City”?
This may seem like nitpicking, but even this small detail is a glaring example at how Kojima cannot be subtle in this game because he doesn’t trust the player to be smart enough to understand the world. Instead of just calling the starting place “Capital Knot” after establishing what knots are in the Death Stranding world, he calls it “Capital Knot City.” And Kojima’s lack of subtlety ends up being a detriment to the game, because it feels like Kojima is saying “get it? do you get it?” after every big story beat.
In Chapter 3, as I’m taking a story mission, I get a cut-scene that hasn’t happened before. This grabs my attention because at 10 or so hours into the game, I know the rhythm of Kojima’s cut scene animations. Every time you deliver a package, you have to watch Sam place it, and then watch the recipient check and see if the goods are damaged, and then you get the summary screen. All of these are skippable, but each are their own skippable section so you still have to skip through multiple things which doesn’t really shave off enough time to be useful.
Anyway, normally when you accept a mission you get a screen to select your gear for the mission and then the screen where you sort out all the cargo on your back. Instead I’m interrupted with a cut-scene where the screen in front of me glitches out. I’m already noticing something’s up. Then a mysterious character walks up and hand delivers me a package, supposedly from another character, that is to be included with my current delivery. The guy keeps his face hidden and acts suspicious. I, as the player, am now heavily on alert. Something is definitely up with this package.
After the cut scene ends it goes into the normal cargo screen. And it shows the package I just got. It is flashing bright red, and also flashing red in text format are the words “thermonuclear bomb.” The description is (and I’m paraphrasing here) “HOLY SHIT THIS IS A BOMB BETTER NOT DROP IT.” And then it tells you exactly what character in the game you’re supposed to take it to so you can proceed with the story.
This is Kojima’s Lack of Subtlety.
It wouldn’t be so bad if in-game, Sam looked at the package and went “oh, huh, this is a bomb, what the hell.” Instead, when you take it to the specific character you get a cut-scene where they and Sam go “OH HOLY SHIT YOU’VE BEEN CARRYING A BOMB SAM” “OH HOLY SHIT I DIDN’T KNOW I HAD A BOMB WHAT SHOULD I DO” and so on. I’m okay with the characters being dumb. But Kojima also treats his audience as dumb by pointing it out beforehand with flashing lights and big text to make sure they don’t miss it.
It happens with every character in the game too. Each character gets a defining moment where they reveal something about themselves and then basically say “and that’s why I’m called X.” Bridget Strand, the president, wants to build bridges across America and connect everyone. Heartman has a defining characteristic related to his heart. And so on. Each of these name-related revelations are detailed in long, dramatic cut-scenes.
At one point, I kid you not, a character actually utters the words “I brought you a metaphor.”
Kojima is a writer/director/ingenue who wants to be smart and a gaming visionary. But he doesn’t believe his audience can be smart with him, so the writing is super simple. Or maybe he’s just a bad writer. I don’t know. I’m gonna give him the benefit of the doubt because he has some good ideas (both related to story and gameplay) but oof the writing hurt a lot. All those things people like to dissect after a movie/game and go “OH! That’s clever! I didn’t realize this was also a reference to this!” Kojima spells out for you in-game through cut-scenes. Just to make sure you got the reference.
This was not supposed to turn into a rant on the lack of subtlety in the game, although that was my biggest problem with it (aside from the long, annoying repeated animations for everything I had to do). Let me talk about the actual gameplay.
As I said at the top of this, “what is Death Stranding about?” was a big question regarding this game, especially regarding gameplay. Was it going to be action? Stealth? A walking simulator? The answer is yes. It’s all of these, actually. But the easiest way to describe the gameplay is this:
You know encumbrance? The mechanic everyone hates in RPGs, especially hoarders? The thing where if you’re carrying too much weight you slow down, so you have to continually stop and manage your inventory if you like to pick things up? Kojima made a game based around that.
It’s inventory management while you play as an Amazon Prime delivery person after the world has ended.
Now yes, there is more to it than that. You can build all sorts of structures to help you on your journey – from generators that recharge vehicle batteries (and Sam’s if he’s wearing special gear) to bridges to cross canyons to postboxes that allow people to store goods if they’re worried about losing them. You also have tools like ladders and climbing rope to navigate difficult terrain. And you get weapons to defend yourself, but mostly non-lethal because dying is bad in this universe, so no kills allowed.
Sam’s long-term goal is to activate the chiral network, an apocalyptic stand-in for the internet, and get every person connected to it. This network, which allows instantaneous data sharing and printing of non-perishable goods, is based off of the new element chiralium which was created during the Death Stranding. The more people you connect the more you can build, and the more you can build the easier it gets to traverse and make deliveries. But build too much stuff and you take up all your chiral bandwidth, so managing what’s useful and what’s not is important in building your infrastructure (much like the real world should be).
The base of the game is taking a delivery mission, figuring out what to bring on your mission so you can navigate to your destination, making sure you aren’t carrying too much stuff (or if you are, you have a vehicle to store it in) and then setting out. It’s fairly relaxing once you’ve bent the wild terrain to your will and know the fastest routes from point A to B. The catch is, though, that you can only build things in an area once the knot/bunker/etc. is connected to the network, so your first excursion into a new area is more man vs. nature. Some places refuse to join the network right away as well, making navigation in certain parts trickier until you can convince them that joining Amazon Prime is the right way to go.
Along the way you can build roads, which specifically makes vehicle traversal a lot easier. You can also eventually build ziplines, which are the most expensive structure to make but also ultimately the most useful. By the end of the game, I had 3/4 of the roads possible built allowing me vehicle access to most bunkers, distribution centers, and Knot Cities, and a long zipline course connecting a good chunk of the cities I couldn’t get to with roads. I’d managed to make even long excursions trivial, which made me both sad and happy.
The part where the game shined was when I ventured into the unknown areas and had to plot a course with nothing but what I’d brought with me. The tensest, most nerve-wracking part of the game was when I found myself on the side of a sheer cliff in a complete whiteout blizzard with one ladder and no climbing rope left. I thought I was near the bottom but could not see more than two feet in front of me, so I hail-mary dropped the ladder hoping it connected with something so I could climb down further. I ended up making it to my destination but it was the closest I’d come to messing up a long delivery.
By the end, though, those exhilarating moments were few and far between as most of my time was spent optimizing how to make trips around the map. There was no more mystery to the world and navigation puzzles became an irritant instead of a joy because my goal wasn’t to explore but to maximize efficiency.
And that itself is a quandary, because the point of the game is to connect everyone and make it easier to travel. But doing that makes the game more routine and by-the-numbers, limiting the elements I found the most fun. By succeeding at the game I remove what I like. The wonder of “what’s over the next ridge” is replaced with the humdrum monotony of driving on a road across the map. It’s an interesting metaphor about the progress of technology, which surprisingly ends up being Kojima’s most subtle metaphor of the game.
There’s lots of other quirks to the game, too. Asynchronous multiplayer makes an appearance as other players’ structures can appear in your game after you activate an area’s chiral network. Sometimes a well-placed ladder or generator can save your butt. If a player has placed a significantly helpful structure you can also make a Strand Contract with them, which boosts your chances of seeing more of their structures in your game.
The main currency of the game is Likes – an obvious commentary on the current social media landscape. You rarely ever get docked Likes; you only accumulate them for making good delivery runs with as little damage to your cargo as possible. There are five categories to receive Likes in – they function basically as your EXP and the more Likes you get, the more weight you can carry or the more Strand Contracts you can make with other players, etc.
There’s also BB, your Bridge Baby. BB is a baby in a pod that forewarns you about BTs – the supernatural entities that make the surface world unsafe for the population. BB will give you Likes as well – they giggle ecstatically when you ride a zipline or speed down the road in a truck. But they’ll also start crying if you fall too far, wreck your vehicle, or start getting into combat with people or BTs.
The combat sequences are generally the low point of the game. BTs are the most fun because using BB to stealth around them creates a sense of cautionary dread. It feels like proper stealth in a tense situation that leads to disaster if you mess up. But if you get caught and thrown into actual combat with the BTs, it’s less harrowing and more formulaic. By the end of Chapter 3 (which is still fairly early in the story of the game) you have several options of dispatching BTs if you get mixed up with one and you get more and more options as the game progresses.
The human enemies are even less fun – unlike the clever approach to stealth with BTs, humans have the normal bad AI where if you get seen every enemy in a five mile radius zeroes in on where you are. The non-lethal guns you get fairly early make short work of them and only the very first few encounters were a struggle of any sort. And even then the struggle was more annoying than challenging.
This review came out very harsh. The truth is, I really liked the game while I was playing it moment-to-moment. And I think that if Kojima listens to criticism there’s a solid chance a Death Stranding 2 could be an all-time great game. But he has to trust his audience; let metaphors stay metaphors and not swing them like a sledgehammer. He has to make the minimal combat more engaging; add more focus and variety to the BTs and lose the human encounters. Expand on the wonder of venturing into untouched space with just the equipment on your back and how a simple fast-moving river can be a challenge if unprepared.
This was a weird game with a weird concept, but it all comes together and just works. Right up until it released I didn’t know if I was going to enjoy it, but 52 hours later I can confidently say I did. Yes, I have criticisms about the writing and the other points. But if you can’t criticize something you enjoy, what’s the point? Why do we build all these connections with other people if we can’t also improve on them?
PLAY Death Stranding. It’s a good kind of weird.