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Death Stranding

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, iOS
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: Kojima Productions
Release Date: Nov. 8, 2019


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In-Depth PS4 Review - 'Death Stranding'

by Redmond Carolipio on Dec. 8, 2019 @ 1:30 a.m. PST

Death Stranding is an open-world action game that follows the story of Sam Porter (Norman Reedus), who must travel across a ravaged wasteland and save humanity from impending annihilation.

Buy Death Stranding

How much am I supposed to suffer for the sake of someone's art? I don't usually ask myself this question as I'm playing a game — because we're like, supposed to enjoy doing this — but it's the only question on my mind after dozens and dozens of hours wading through the galaxy-brained, high-concept forest of ideas known as Death Stranding.

It says something that this game's been out for a month, and no one can universally agree on what it is. Some people will see it as the final form of a new vision from one of gaming's strangest auteurs, while others will see it as quote-marks artsy, boring and overwrought schlock, wreckage left behind by an unchecked creative tornado.

The truth, which designer Hideo Kojima always seems interested in finding in the most obscure of nooks, is somewhere in the middle: I found Death Stranding to be gutsy, special and unique while also acknowledging that it is ham-fisted and indulgent, occasionally stopping to gargle in its own slow-burning sense of self-importance. It is legitimately awesome, but sometimes in the most awesome and off-putting way.

I feel like we should have seen this coming. Kojima has long flirted with the notion of morphing into his own genre. He has a way of finding that unexplored angle through the fog of current gaming thought and then, when he finds it, he straps it to a table, shines a light in its face and probes it to within an inch of its life. That's what led to Metal Gear, an action game that actually demanded that you engage the enemy as little as possible. The idea was, "What if we made an action where avoiding the action is the only way to truly succeed?" At the time, it was mind-blowing.

What vaulted Kojima into super-duper stardom was the emergence of Metal Gear Solid, an updated and refreshed version of the Metal Gear universe that also bared newer facets of Kojima's design personality: fearless fourth-wall breaking (in the form of the Psycho Mantis confrontation); oddly placed tongue-in-cheek silliness; and layered storytelling that blended ingredients of science fiction, geopolitics and the art of war. We can't forget the reams of dialogue: He could turn an elevator ride into a seminar. Any veteran of the Kojima experience has probably felt the urge to cringe or at least mentally brace themselves when a character asks the hero, "Do you have a moment?" or "Do you want to know why?"

All of that signature creative energy is present in Death Stranding, but here, Kojima has found a new vessel: logistics, of all things. He's built a life-and-death saga around logistics.

If all you want is a shorter, on-paper description of the Death Stranding general experience, here it is: You know those movies where the hero or heroes engage on a long journey, and then the movie throws up a montage of them journeying, crossing mountains, walking through valleys with the sun in the background, sitting and resting, doing "journey" things, all set to music? That's it. That's most of Death Stranding. Sometimes you fight, and there's an entire narrative built around the idea of reconnecting a country that's been decimated by a world-changing event, but the main character, Sam Porter Bridges, is basically a legendary, lightly superpowered delivery man whose whole job is as a one-man expedition, delivering goods to the scattered remains of civilization. I wonder if Kojima had an amazing experience one day with FedEx or Amazon or the postal service and decided that delivery people would decide the fate of the world and must be immortalized. It almost sounds a little silly, and kind of boring, right?

Then you pour some hours — some legitimate, engaged hours where you acknowledge that you don't know what the hell the Death Stranding is or what BTs are or why rain is called "timefall" — and that's when Kojima's artistry starts sinking into your bones. You're no longer playing in the world; you become part of it.

Kojima pulls you in by using weapons he has in his creative toolbox. This is easily the best-looking game Kojima might ever produce. Over a catalogue of long journeys on foot or by vehicle, I was exposed to wide-open green vistas and perfect sky, only to later brave rain and the scary phantasmal forces it brings, or trudge through legitimate snowstorms while hiking and climbing up mountains, all while trying to support mounds of cargo on Sam's body.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this game is the universe of systems in this world designed to support Kojima's vision of a dystopian, logistics-driven future. It even uses some of the lingo: You start with accepting "orders" of goods from all over the map. However, in the case of the story, each order is meant to take Sam east to west, reconnecting installations and cities along the way to a massive network expected to serve as the foundational infrastructure of what used to be known as the United States.

When you take on orders, you also have to make sure you have the right equipment, like climbing ropes and extendable ladders. You have to check out a map and plot a favorable route through the aforementioned peaks, valleys and weather patterns as well as the ghostly creatures left to roam the Earth. There are armed looters, too. Do you want to carry weapons with you? Food for thought.

Then there's the trip itself. Weight is a real thing, to the point where carrying too much can cause Sam to stumble and fall, causing some of his boxes to scatter. To stop that from happening, you have to jam on one of the trigger buttons to shift Sam's weight to the correct side to even out things. You have to scan terrain and worry about things like slopes that are too steep or water so deep that it'll cause you and some of your cargo to float away. The rain I mentioned earlier actually damages the stuff you're carrying, so you either have to find a place to hide from it or find a specially built structure that can restore your containers to prime condition. There's a bookful more things I had to mentally take into account, and that's part of the game's strange allure: Instead of enemies and stages, you're fighting the terrain itself, your own sense of logistical thinking, and even your innate desire to do well.

Another layer to consider is how Sam can build a variety of structures if enough raw materials are available: bridges, postboxes that can have goodies inside them, ziplines, and even whole roads. Not only does this appeal to the inner completionist in everyone, but building stuff also serves as Kojima's clever nod to social gaming: The stuff you build can be used by other people playing in their own game, and vice versa is true. Once you reconnect a section of the map, you'll see and be able to use whatever stuff people created to your benefit. Part of the joy of the journey is seeing where people went and how they approached it. Some people leave signposts warning you of incoming enemies, while others leave behind a bridge or a road that makes travel a lot easier. The game even notifies you when someone uses something you built. You're welcome for all those battery-charging generators, Death Stranding Nation. I have to say, it's a very cool feeling knowing that you're being helped and also helping people churn through this bear of a game.

The biggest reasons I got sucked in? The story and the world. Both are among the weirdest I've ever experienced as a gamer, and I needed to find out more about them. That exposed me to another part of Death Stranding charm. Instead of things simply being laid bare in digestible order, I found myself growing into a narrative that includes Egyptian views on life and death, historical accounts of extinction events, and straight-up ghost stuff. I've referenced this book many times before, but what Kojima does isn't unlike "Neuromancer," which tosses the reader into an already-built world with its own established rules, terms and history and expects the reader to roll with it and catch on to the best of his or her ability. It takes true craft to be able to pull that off, and I found myself more and more willing to trudge through terrain and deliver items to get to the next major cinematic plot point.

The game is a verisimilitude factory, where abstract things like life and death are given form like black tar, beaches, creatures and even babies that can link you to the afterlife. Sam can't permanently die, so when it actually happened, I found myself in a first-person "underwater" setting with the ability to "guide" Sam's soul back to his floating body. Like I said, this game's weird, and I just learned to roll with it whenever Sam temporarily perished.

Ideas like that are part of Kojima's off-kilter gift for storytelling, which leads to a few genius moments in the game. One of my favorites must include a small spoiler.

[Begin spoiler alert]

There's a moment in the game when Sam has to figure out how to cross an entire lake of black tar to reach the next section of country he has to reconnect. It's vast. There's no bridge or tunnel or flying device available. If you're not paying attention, you'll stay stuck there, confused, like I did for a few minutes. It turns out that the solution was found in one of the many e-mail messages to Sam that pepper his inbox throughout the game, and it involved doing something that I'd basically been avoiding the whole time: letting myself get swept under by the BTs, the "beached thing" entities that creep around in the rain and serve as one of the few game-over opportunities for Sam if they manage to get a hold of him. It was a crafty, almost dastardly trick, but I loved it.

[End spoiler alert]

Kojima's storytelling chops are also present in character development. Sam Bridges is played to growly, strong perfection by Norman Reedus, and his wasn't the only character I enjoyed seeing for the most part. Lea Seydoux is blissfully enigmatic as Fragile, Mads Mikkelson's mix of foreboding intensity as Unger jumps off the screen, and Tommie Earl Jenkins' Die-Hardman (it's a Kojima game, you're going to get names like this) spends a lot of time as the typical mission-focused government man until his last conversation with Sam, where Jenkins unleashes a knee-buckling torrent of pathos. There's also Nicolas Winding Refn's appearance (but voiced by Darren Jacobs) as Dr. Heartman, who legitimately dies every 21 minutes via self-inflicted heart attack (Heartman, get it?) to study the afterlife. There's also Deadman, the quirky and very talky scientist played facially by Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro and voiced by Jesse Corti. Lindsay Wagner, the original Bionic Woman herself, shows up as two people: The president, and her younger daughter, where she has been de-aged. One of the best aspects of Kojima's characters is that everyone has a story, not just the main pro and antagonists. Every side character has depth, which is always filled up breathy marathon dialogue sessions.

Refn's appearance is interesting on a couple of levels. He's no stranger to making polarizing work. One of his most acclaimed movies, "Drive," is either hailed as a deep art masterwork or a boring slog, depending on the person you ask. You could almost make an argument about del Toro, who won an Oscar for "The Shape of Water," which also wasn't immune to people who thought it was just a little too weird. If you expected the mere presence of more accomplished filmmakers would perhaps balance out Kojima's goofier ticks, as Sallah in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" would say, you're digging in the wrong place.

As intricate and well-crafted and ambitious as this game is, I couldn't help but pick up how Kojima rarely spares us the chance for him to show how serious he views himself as an artiste, how well-read he is, how much pop culture he knows, what movies he's watched, and even who he knows. It's like he's trying to re-prove himself to another generation of game players. Whether it's the sheer amount of lore you can read on your own within the game or hours of reference-filled, lengthy conversations Sam has with all of the characters, Kojima wants players to know how much information and art he's absorbed in the course of this game's development. One scene stuck out for both me and my brother, who put even more hours into the game: It's when Sam finally meets Heartman, who while explaining his backstory, drifts over to his massive film and book collection and pulls out a copy of "Twenty Minutes of Love," a 1914 film by Charlie Chaplin. I know this because Heartman shows it right to the camera, and information about it pops up on the side. Real talk, this felt pretentious as hell: I know, Kojima. You watch all kinds of movies. I get it. I get you. That's why I got the game. Relax.

I also wasn't a fan of how the game's story ended several times, complete with multiple rolls of the credits, just so Sam (and I) could be exposed to even more post-ending dialogue and scene-setting designed to tie a bow on almost every story arc all at once. That's when even all the wonderful world-building couldn't save it from starting to feel like a drag.

Death Stranding is not for everyone. This isn't the first game that asks players to push through and grind. Ask anyone who's played Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. But that game asks you to fight through chaos and fury. Death Stranding asks you to embrace the process of work and the journey, trusting that you'll feel rewarded at the end. For my part, I did. If you think of a Kojima game as an event, then you should know what you're signing up for. That's the best way to enjoy it. If not, you'll be in the middle of a beautiful landscape, wondering what the hell you're doing out there, maybe even a little stranded.

Score: 8.8/10

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