Grab the popcorn and get ready for the walk of a lifetime.
I will be honest – I actually completed the main story a week ago. For me, being done with the main story almost always means moving on to a new title. But I can’t bring myself to do it; I don’t have the heart to leave Death Stranding behind just yet. So, stealing a bit of time from exam prep here and there, I keep going back to it. Back to lugging piles of metals and ceramics up steep slopes to build roads. Back to hunting down memory chips, to increasing my connection levels with the inhabitants of this brave new America so I can devour as much information as possible about life in this terrifying world. And let me tell you something – building roads is insanely gratifying.
The Story of Death Stranding
In the not-too-distant future, America has been devastated by ‘voidouts’ – massive explosions that occur when otherworldly ‘BTs’ make contact with humans. This has gone down in the history books as the Death Stranding. Survivors are isolated, spread out across the nation and disconnected from each other. The aforementioned BTs haunt the grassy plains and snowy mountains alike, their appearance foreshadowed by the mysterious Timefall (think: rain that ages everything it touches in a flash). They rely entirely on ‘Porters’ such as Sam (Norman Reedus) to supply them with life-saving essentials. The majority of the game sees Sam reconnecting survivors and establishing the new United Cities of America. Factor Hollywood talent, stellar direction, and mind-boggling sci-fi into the mix, and you have some idea of what Death Stranding is about. I say some, because simply skimming over the plot would take up another page or two.
As you might have pieced together already, playing it in a world ravaged by a pandemic hit differently. Keep in mind that this was entirely conceived of and released in the pre-pandemic era. Speaking about his creative process in an interview, Kojima mentioned that he tries to imagine ‘what could happen in society in 5, 10, or 20 years’ and then how to best present that in an entertaining way. In this case, he came unpleasantly close to predicting our current state of disconnect more than anyone else on the face of the earth.
Brave New World
The world itself has been crafted with such passion, detail and intricacy – both the actual environments (which, side note, are breathtaking) and the rich lore – will likely make you forget you’re playing a ‘game.’ One of my chief complaints with Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate was the fact that despite the beautiful rendition of London, the world itself felt devoid of life, even though it was full of NPCs and enemies flooding the map. Conversely, Death Stranding manages to create a world with just a fraction of those characters that is so well-realized it’s impossible not to get sucked into it. Above all, it oozes originality at every turn, from BT design to the concept of BB.
Death Stranding is riddled with the creator’s eccentricities. These range from amusing names (Die-Hardman) and a bizarre cameo by Conan to the cringiest line I have ever heard (“I’m Fragile, but I’m not that fragile”). But this no-holds barred dedication to putting out exactly what he wants is what makes Kojima – and his content – so appealing.
Reconnecting the world is a full-time job, and often a tiring one at that. Death Stranding does not shy away from making that clear. Quite a few missions involve perilous, lengthy journeys on foot. Progress is slow, especially if you forget to review the predicted risks and fabricate equipment to help along the journey. Depending on the area, encountering BTs further contributes to slowing down your progress. As a result, most NPC interactions and cutscenes feel like a reward at the end of a long day.
What’s with the mixed reviews?
It is important to understand that Death Stranding is unlike any traditional AAA game. Self-described as a ‘genre-defying experience’ it is the boldest move from a well-established creator in the past few years, if not the decade. Yes, the gameplay hinges on mostly delivering items from one location to another. However, focusing on the gameplay takes away from the point. This is about the experience: the journey Sam undertakes. Walking through desolate, grassy plains, snowy mountains and scorching red deserts – with licensed music complementing the atmosphere at times – connecting people with one another; at its core, this is a tale of hope, of the struggle to survive in the face of absolute isolation.
It is not a mere game, but a hybrid that borrows equally from film and TV as much as it does from video games. Its visual appeal lies in the cinematic presentation, with Kojima flashing his film buff badge with pride here. It’s a love letter to his favourite films with tons of not-so-subtle nods (with directors Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water) and Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) making special appearances too).
That said, the pacing and the frustratingly slow crawl the story can come down to will likely put off more players than the initial lack of exposition does; but for those that stick around, the payoff awaits. Being different than most games in this regard doesn’t automatically make a title a masterpiece; but the courage to be different should be appreciated in an environment where it’s usually the indie studios trying out new approaches. As a friend says: “…any game with a triple A budget that’s willing to do something weird is a winner in my book.”
Death Stranding is currently available on PS4 and PC, with a special Director’s Cut edition in the works for PS5.
Looking for something different? Check out this review of Wildermyth!
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