I’m going to be upfront and say that I’ve been waiting years for Death Stranding. Being Hideo Kojima’s first big production after the cancellation of Silent Hills, I was one of the many, confused viewers when the first trailer came out. Set to Low Roar’s “I’ll Keep Coming”, it told us very little about the game except that it involved Norman Reedus and a baby. Since then we’ve been drip fed information on it, slowly learning more about the world, the gameplay, the story. Now that I’ve actually been able to play it, it seems so surreal to look back and think about the confusion and mystery leading up to the game’s release.
Death Stranding is a very different game. You control Sam Porter Bridges, a porter responsible for the delivery of goods across the wastelands of America. After a major incident, you’re invited to a meet with the current president of the United States. She gives Sam an order to go east, complete the Chiral Network.
It gets complicated after that.
Deliveries comprise the heart of Death Stranding’s gameplay loop. Some deliveries have restrictions, like time limits or a minimum amount of packages required. Sometimes you’ll have to retrieve packages from dangerous territory and deliver them somewhere else. No matter what, the gameplay revolves around that. Even the story does, as you’re tasked with making your way from the east of North America to the West. While this might seem a bit dull, the game has made even the basic act of movement a constant, deliberate decision. Weight, momentum, terrain, and even your stamina all have an influence on how you move. Sam’s balance is maintained by making him lean or brace himself with the shoulder triggers. Turn too quickly, and you’ll lose balance, requiring you to adjust yourself or risk falling over and damaging your cargo. Your cargo itself is a management puzzle all on its own – Sam’s carrying capacity is dictates not only by weight, but by how much he’s carrying. You can load Sam up with a lot of cargo, but it affects his center of gravity by a lot, to the point where sharp turns can make him stumble and fall over. It’s one of the most immersive physics-based movement systems I’ve seen in a game yet.
Unfriendly terrain isn’t the only thing you have to worry about. Groups of rogue porters called MULEs prey on porters like Sam, hunting him down to steal his precious cargo. Timefall is a bizarre weather phenomenon that occurs whenever it rains, rapidly aging anything it comes into contact with and damaging Sam’s cargo. And of course, there are the BTs – Beached Things, invisible, dangerous entities that track you by sound and drag you off to a combat encounter when you’re caught. Combat in the game can be very brutal if you’re not prepared; Sam loses blood when he’s struck by lethal attacks, and it can only be regained by eating cryptobiotes found in the environment or with blood transfusion packs you have to carry alongside your cargo. MULEs only concern themselves with your cargo, and won’t kill Sam. BTs, on the other hand, will gladly kill you if you let them – and while Sam can come back from death, doing so results in a “void out” that annihilates the surrounding area and leaves a massive crater. I played on the Medium difficulty and haven’t personally died outside of scripted sequences, though.
Death is dangerous in Death Stranding, more than usual. If corpses aren’t disposed of immediately, they become BTs themselves and can trigger voidouts. Killing MULEs is always an option, but every death has a consequence, making the world more dangerous by populating it with BTs. It’s easy with MULEs, since Sam has access to a robust counterattack that allows him to instantly knock them out. What about opponents with firearms, that won’t hesitate to kill Sam? I tried my best to avoid killing anyone, and I succeeded, but it was difficult and challenging. Killing BTs is possible, too, but at a personal cost – weapons that damage BTs draw from Sam’s blood, which for some reason hurts them. Every shot drains your health, but with a few blood packs it shouldn’t be a problem. Getting caught by BTs is only a dangerous if the creature they summon manages to kill you. These encounters can easily be mitigated by running far enough away, or even killing the BT, which rewards you with a large amount of rare Chiral Crystals used in the construction of a lot of things. Avoiding them is tricky, as they’re invisible for the most part and only become visible with the help of BB – a Bridge Baby, or a baby in a jar manufactured specifically to detect BTs. BB is sort of defective, so BTs are only shown for a moment, but as you grow closer to him they become more and more visible for longer periods of time. BB gets stressed around BTs, but his cries don’t give your position away – if you let him get too stressed by sticking around BT-infested areas, taking damage, or falling over, he’ll suffer from autotoxemia and won’t be able to detect BTs until you rest at a safehouse. You can calm him down by playing with him, which requires you to gently rock the PS4 controller. Yes, really.
The Chiral Network is also the game’s multiplayer aspect. When a region is connected to the Chiral Network, other player’s structures and signs will appear in your world. A ladder you place in your game could appear in the exact same spot in someone else’s game, and vice versa. Because delivery routes are important, these structures allow you to help and be helped by people without even meeting them. It’s not just that, too – Sam has access to different structures he can build while connected to the network, such as safehouses for people to rest in, bridges over ravines and rivers, or postboxes to deliver lost packages to. Early on in the game, I encountered two ladders stretching across different sides of a river, propped up on rocks; I added my own ladder to the sequence to complete the chain. Three different players who have never met just cooperated to make the way safer for others. Later, I returned to make a bridge there, making it even easier for people to pass through. The disposable and easily replaceable nature of your equipment encourages you to use what you can, and donate resources to other players when you can’t. A fast travel system also exists between safehouses, but none of your cargo can be carried over – if you want to deliver, you’ll have to do it the old fashioned way.
It’s rare for a game to tap into the concept of altruism in such a cohesive manner. Other games might be content to give you a karma system, where it judges you on an arbitrary sliding scale of “good” and “bad”. In Death Stranding, helping people is incredibly easy. Facilities generate materials in such excessive quantities that – unless you’re dropping structures everywhere – you’ll have an excess of construction materials. At that point, it’s better to use all that extra material to help build structures like roads and bridges. Not only do they help others, but they make traveling long distances trivial. In a later area of the game with an excess of mountains, I found myself building ziplines to help complete ziplines places by other players. This made deliveries incredibly easy, and it only made me feel better when I realized it meant that others would have an easy time as well.
Personally, I think Death Stranding had a compelling story. There are, of course, Kojima’s signature twists and turns, but it all wraps up nicely to deliver the game’s central message of connecting with other people. Sam starts off as a very standoffish individual only concerned with himself, but over time he learns more about the people supporting him. As per usual for Kojima, the supporting cast is compelling and entertaining, from the enigmatic masked director of the UCA Die-Hardman, to the teleporting, icy porter named Fragile. Personally, I found Cliff to be the most interesting character, his motivations shrouded in mystery and his story delivered in brief flashbacks whenever Sam hooks up to BB after leaving a safehouse. Who is he? Why does he want BB? It’s all so much to take in.
Earlier this year, when Death Stranding gameplay was shown, I joked about giving it Game of the Year if you could walk the entirety of the United States. You can. Sort of. An anecdote frequently shared about Kojima involves the production of Metal Gear Solid 3. It was said that during production, the boss battle was intended to take place over several weeks. While there thankfully isn’t anything of that caliber in the game, there were definitely moments where I was amazed at what the game was telling me to do. I’m not spoiling it, though – they were easily highlights. To me, the game was at its best during the moments of downtime after intense sneaking or fighting segments. The moment I decided the game was special was when I crested a hill, following two intense BT fights; I had gotten myself caught, and I was close to death. Then as I came up on my destination, the song Asylums for the Feeling by Silent Poets came on. What was originally relief that I could sprint down this hill and get to my destination faster instead turned into a relaxed, contemplative stroll down the mountain, listening to the amazing music.
Overall, Death Stranding is a very niche experience. But what a niche it is. It filled a hole in my heart for a game I didn’t even know I wanted. Between making deliveries for NPCs, helping other people with their structures, and unraveling the mysteries of the Beach and the Death Stranding, it was well worth the 40 hours I put into it to complete it. I don’t know if I can recommend it, because it’s such a specific experience, but to me this is easily Game of the Year.
I’ll be waiting for you on the beach.