Platform: PlayStation 4
Time played: 42 hours
After years now of chatter, trailers, confused press junkets, celebrity cameos, and general speculating on what Death Stranding would actually end up being, we've finally got to play the game and piece our thoughts together. The AAA game from Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear Solid series) has built up a lot of hype, and confounded expectation of what a mass market game should look like – and although we’ve played through the story, we've purposely omitted the majority of narrative details from this review to keep it as spoiler-free as possible. Suffice to say, we think it was worth the wait since its 2016 announcement.
The English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley once discussed the humanless majesty of Mont Blanc, describing the mountains as “peopled by the storms alone” – a place untainted by human contact, snows unspoiled by our vainglorious footprint. These ideas are so inherent to Death Stranding’s meditative nature that they breed a quiet melancholy, an inquisitive pondering on the now that would seem impossibly mindful in another context.
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Bridging the fissure
The force that conjures this alluring sense of melancholy is rooted in the pervasive loneliness tied to deliveryman Sam Porter Bridges, a self-imposed outcast with no ties to the world – or anyone.
Bridges inhabits an America that is left fractured, courtesy of the mysterious phenomenon known as the Death Stranding that led to complete societal dissolution. From the ashes, well-meaning institutions attempt to reconnect the country by expanding a curious communication system called the chiral network, where porters deliver cargo to remote waystations in exchange for recruiting them as members of the newly-established UCA (United Cities of America).
However, as the network begins to bridge the gaps formed in the wake of the Death Stranding, the increase in the strange material known as 'chiralium' causes weird environmental phenomena to plague the world. This leads to an upsurge in alien BT activity, an increase in rogue splinter factioneers known as MULEs, and the motives of those with seemingly benevolent intentions blur into a bubbling grey area, as terrorist Homo Demens begin to expose the inner monsters in each and every one of us.
The first few hours of the game are quite confusing, with each revelation fostering a variety of new ambiguities. Mechanically, the beginning mostly asks you to traverse harsh terrain while keeping delicate cargo intact. As you cross impassable abysses and sinuous rivers, the involuntary descent into loneliness is juxtaposed with a solemnity that is, despite itself, quite warm.
You begin to ruminate, even meditate, on the here and now, and the world around you blurs, soft hues blanketing harsh surfaces. The story is, at least at the beginning, superseded entirely by emotional presence, and although the trajectory becomes increasingly linear as you progress toward the endgame, the beginning is wide open, littered with side quests and hidden secrets ripe for discovering in a second playthrough.
The magical thing about this is that it beautifully sums up what’s at the thematic core of Death Stranding: the overt bleakness of this decadent world ultimately begets the truth that sincere hopelessness is an impossible feat. Hope is a human inevitability, an inexorable product of existing against the will of fate. And so this dystopian travesty that has gluttonously swallowed up countless innocents is at all times present, but as a reason to persevere more so than a cause to give in. It’s the single justification for trudging on through the tragically impossible, and wrenching it into a state more compatible with restoration.
Beauty and travesty
The entire Death Stranding experience is deeply cinematic. Characters are introduced as they would be in a film, and even moment-to-moment play is framed as though each individual angle has been emphatically directed.
It’s easy to haphazardly assign a major release a “gorgeous visuals” tag, but Death Stranding truly earns it – not because of realism, or frame rate, or any technical jargon, but because of how unflinchingly unique it is both stylistically and tonally. This, much like Metal Gear games in the past, has the potential to adjust the way in which games are presented. It’s an evolution of aesthetic, a maturation in form, harrowingly gorgeous and alluringly atrocious.
Take, for instance, an early scene in which a bird is violently wrenched into the obstinate clutches of death: it is struck by Timefall, a curious form of precipitation that causes everything it comes into contact with to rapidly age.
Death Stranding’s environmental critique is courageously unsubtle, with nature itself being far more cruel a mistress than any kind of enemies. In fact, you can eschew violence for stealth in any given scenario — the rain is your most treacherous enemy, alongside the anomalous creatures known as BTs it attracts.
Lay down your weapons
Combat with BTs is far more interesting than combat with humans, which is remarkably unfun when compared to stealth routes. With BTs, however, it becomes very enticing about midway through the game. Before then, your only real way of affecting them is to hurl grenades of your own blood at them, or use a weak gun that infuses droplets of your blood with regular bullets.
These are quite sluggish encounters for the most part, but when a new feature is developed for your cufflinks - the handcuffs that allow you to bring up the main menu and access information about cargo, quests, the world map, and mail - you can stealthily approach BTs and snip the umbilical cords grounding them in reality.
BTs, however, are invisible. The only way to sense them is to rely on your BB, the baby confined to the pod plugged into your suit. This BB, or bridge baby - a bridge between the living and the dead, as Guillermo Del Toro’s Deadman puts it - powers a fan-like mechanism attached to your shoulder, which begins to whir ferociously as you approach a BT.
By holding your breath and inching forward with caution, you’ll be able to advance without startling it, and have the option to cut the cord, sending it on a one-way trip to the land of the dead.
Monotony into sublimity
What makes Death Stranding truly special, however, has nothing to do with combat. In the wake of countless imaginings of apocalyptic sunsets, Death Stranding fosters awesome monotony. You are quite literally a delivery man, tasked with transporting cargo from one waystation to another. You have to manage your cargo in a way that balances out — too much weight on your left and you’ll constantly be hammering the right trigger to keep yourself steady, slowing progress and almost indefinitely ending in a nasty fall, damaging your cargo and reducing the amount of likes – a sort of leveling currency afforded to you by other players and NPCs alike – you receive on arrival.
This constant need to balance yourself, to make sure you move steadily onward without hitting the deck, makes all traversal meaningful. You can’t just hold the analog stick forward while you make a cup of coffee. You will, inevitably, fall. This, coupled with the necessary use of the scanner attached to your shoulder, makes studying the terrain in its entirety an essential undertaking prior to an expedition.
As you progress through the game, you gradually gain access to even more planning procedures like weather forecasts, which make plotting routes even more ostensibly monotonous yet weirdly captivating. Before long, you find yourself religiously using the map’s topographical functions - pressing the touchpad and tilting the controller enables you to analyze height and harshness of the terrain - in conjunction with methods of actively avoiding Timefall, remaining outside MULE camps, and avoiding BTs.
This sort of calculated preparation might culminate in what looks like an unnecessarily long trek, but planning for level ground and as few enemy encounters as possible testifies to that old proverb about the tortoise and the hare, and does so in such a way that the former seems all the more appealing.
In terms of mechanical complexity, Death Stranding is meticulously intricate, yet somehow retains fascinatingly functional systems. The UI is stylishly unintrusive despite the amount of information it needs to communicate. New mechanics and features are introduced regularly throughout the whole game – some passively, which is perfectly suited to gradual progression – and yet nothing is ever overbearing, or without merit.
There is a use for each and every item the game provides you with, and the online permanence of structures makes placing them all the more important. For example, a ladder placed in your world will appear in the worlds of other players, and could be the very tool a fellow porter stuck in a rut desperately needs. For this, the fortunate porter in question may reward you with as many likes as they see fit, increasing your rank and inching you ever closer to the prestigious title of ‘The Great Deliverer’.
After you finish Death Stranding, you can continue to set up structures in early areas, invisibly helping newcomers as they set out on their own quest to make America whole again. It’s quite a special thing, as placing structures and leaving either warning or encouraging signs are the only online components available to you. It’s impossible for toxicity to fester in this world, despite how broken and desolate it is. Hope persists.
Death Stranding’s story is, at parts, seemingly convoluted. However, without giving anything away, it ties its conclusive knots with the learned hands of a seasoned sailor - weaving its strands together seamlessly. Almost all of its characters are deeply fascinating, with the exception of one relationship not quite hitting the mark – more because the others are so effortlessly organic than because it’s actually uninteresting.
The characters are all played superbly, with personalities like Norman Reedus, Lea Seydoux, and Guillermo Del Toro stealing the show – Troy Baker is, of course, typically spectacular. The plot points, although sometimes arbitrary at first impression, are inspired and original. The entire narrative is stitched together like a majestic quilt, each individual thread bearing its own equal-weighted significance in the conglomerate whole. It’s an emotional odyssey, where the dull parts only serve to suck you in before the explosive ones detonate.
Death Stranding is a game where monotony is innately imbued with intangible subjects of the extraordinary. On paper, the premise shouldn’t work. A deliveryman, a ruined world, a convoluted plot centered around dejection and the abnormal Weird. In execution, however, it’s perfect, unwaveringly confident in itself and assured of its place in the zeitgeist.
It’s a game, an experience, where introspection is derived from futilely confronting the macrocosm of a decaying world. It’s a story where hopelessness is the source and adversary of an unquantifiable, incomprehensible desire to persevere.
Death Stranding is a Sony PS4 exclusive, with a PC port set to arrive mid-2020.
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