Seven hours in to Death Stranding and I began to understand why it’s been so difficult for Kojima to explain what the hell his game is. 2001: A Space Odyssey would be one reference, with moments of expansive loneliness amidst the gorgeous visuals and haunting soundtrack, but it’s mixed with Instagram, Mad Max, Jenga, Lovecraft, Metal Gear Solid, the Dirac equation, Mudrunners, Postman Pat, A Quiet Place, babysitting, and a very odd focus on bodily excretions.
Set sometime in the near future a cataclysmic event known as the Death Stranding has entwined the worlds of the living and the dead. Mankind has discovered the Beach, a link to the afterlife, and it has brought technical advancements, the Chiral Network, but at the cost of releasing the dead back in our world. It also means that anyone who dies in our world must be cremated within a few hours or they explode with the force of a nuclear bomb, something that wasn’t discovered until after the United States was decimated.
President Bridges (Lindsey Wagner) of the new United Cities of America has a plan to reconnect the scattered population, linking cities, towns and outposts to the Chiral Network. There’s only one man, Sam Porter Bridges (Norman Reedus), who can help. Sam is a Repatriate, one of the very few people who can die but return back from the Beach; he is to all intents and purposes, immortal.
So he dutifully heads out to travel across North America, a land now home to Beached Things (BTs), ghostly figures that float above the landscape. Sam has the help of BB, a baby in a pod strapped to his chest that can sense the presence of the BTs and warn you with the shrieking shoulder-mounted Odradek sensor. He’s a cute little thing, but is easily scared and needs you to stop still and soothe him, rocking back and forth. Get too close to a BT and they grab at Sam, trying to drag him to pools of black tar to be attacked by a whale whose head explodes into a mess of squid tentacles while it rains fish, as wrecked cars and dilapidated tower blocks bubble up from the ooze. Like many other things you are about to read, you’re just going to have to go with me here.
Our Post-Apocalyptic Pat spends a lot of time wandering across desolate landscapes bringing vital supplies to those in need, connecting cities and individuals to the Chiral Network. Sam can only carry a certain weight, but he also needs to be balanced with the weight distributed evenly across his back and suit attachment points. Get it wrong or reach his limit and he will wobble around and you have to fight to stop him toppling over.
You also have to be aware of the terrain around you. In addition to warning you of BTs, the Odradek can pulse your surroundings to reveal abandoned packages, enemies, and most importantly, the terrain. Coloured points indicate the lay of land, with yellows and reds indicating rough terrain that will unbalance Sam. It will also show the depth of water, marking deep water that can sweep Sam off his feet and lose your packages and equipment. Anyone calling Death Stranding a ‘walking simulator’ is actually right, it really does simulate walking across rough terrain, through snow, and up hills.
You may think that delivering packages, which can range from pizzas to humans, doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, but you would be wrong. Safely delivering a package is immensely satisfying. Planning your route is as engaging as selecting the right gear is important. You begin with ladders and ropes, but soon unlock Chiral Printers to create bridges, postboxes, watch towers and other buildings. Strategic use of these will make missions much easier, though they can require a lot of resources that you either need to bring with you from a city or recover from abandoned packages strewn across the landscape.
The vehicles unlocked later in the game are a welcome relief; the map is huge and some missions require you to travel great distances. Base stations for roads can create lengthy sections of smooth, powered tarmac which does not drain your vehicle batteries and speeds up your delivery process. The roads rise up over rivers and rough terrain and keep Sam out of the way of enemies, but they degrade when Timefall (rain) pours down from the skies. Anything the precipitation touches – the roads, your vehicle, any packages hanging outside – will age, forcing you to race against time or resort to repair kits in an emergency.
The BTs are not the only enemies you will encounter as MULE camps dot the landscape. These are the offspring of Porters from long ago who have become addicted to delivering packages, and will attack and steal whatever Sam is carrying if he’s spotted. You can generally skirt past their bases if you want, but they’re packed full of raw materials for your constructions. You can stealth your way in, sneaking past enemies and raiding their lockers, engage in some hand to hand combat that feels inspired by the Batman games, or print some weapons and go in all guns blazing. From shotguns to grenade launchers they’re all non-lethal because, you know, exploding bodies…
The main missions unlock new tech that makes your deliveries easier, but there are plenty of optional side missions to invest time in as well. Each mission is graded using a number of factors including the time taken, how heavy the cargo was, and your route. The better you do, the more likes you get, levelling up Sam so he can use Strand Contracts with other players and forge stronger bonds.
You will find their abandoned packages scattered across the landscape that you can pick up and deliver to get some extra likes. You will never meet your fellow players, but you can help each other out by finishing a delivery for them. At the very least, you can take abandoned packages to a postbox for another player to pick up and deliver, so one package might be handled by several players before it reaches its destination.
While you’ll never meet others, playing online means the Chiral Network gives you access to other players’ structures and vehicles. This can be a godsend when batteries are running low and you’re about to give up, only to round a corner and find some helpful soul has placed a charging station. You can also collaborate to create structures, making building roads much easier. Players can also leave icons scattered across the landscape, offering directions or warnings, or leave a ladder up a mountainside to help you. Though the other human Porters presence is often welcome, it does occasionally rob you of the satisfaction of building your own structures.
The main story runs for nearly forty hours, but the narrative drags a bit in the middle. Taking you to a mountainous area, these missions are a real slog of steep climbs and blizzards. Trekking across America is going to be hard and the mountain missions feel physically exhausting to overcome, but there are just a few too many and you’re slowed further by the loss of some vital equipment for plot reasons that lead nowhere. Another plot contrivance three quarters of the way through make things unnecessarily awkward and might make you scream at your TV. I certainly did.
There’s thankfully no nonsensical Quiet-style excuse for scantily clad ladies in this game – it’s actually Norman and Mads who spend a lot of time in the buff – but Kojima hasn’t totally grown up. Sitting alongside a sprawling narrative that deals in high-brow concepts is a very peculiar fascination with bodily functions, going one step further from the already infamous ‘piss mushrooms’ revealed at Gamescom. Hot springs that Sam can bathe in also make him need to poo, and he can relieve himself in his private rooms. The waste products from your ablutions and toilet visits are turned into anti-BT weapons.
You can, essentially, crap out grenades.
It’s annoying that, given the effort to build this world, Kojima can’t resist putting in “jokes” that remind you this is a video game. As soon as you enter Sam’s private room you suddenly become the camera. Norman winks at you, squirts beer in your face, mouths that he wants a shower, and if you take too much interest in his crotch, punches you. It quickly becomes annoying and should have been played straight and in first person.
Then there’s the bizarre product and personality placement. Rooms are stacked with Monster Energy cans that is somehow the only drinks brand to survive the cataclysm, Norman Reedus’ TV show “Ride” is advertised despite no one having a television anymore, and Conan O’Brien turns up dressed as an otter.
Thankfully, they’re minor issues. The game is staggeringly pretty with sprawling photo-realistic landscapes backed up by some of the best performances seen in a video game. Norman Reedus conveys so much with just a grunt, Troy Baker goes full psycho, and Lea Seydoux should win awards for a performance that is both vulnerable and fierce. Along with the licensed music, all of which is haunting and beautiful, there’s an energetic score when in battle and some creepy audio design full of scrapes, wails and creaks when sneaking through nests of BTs. If you have any heart then the final mission will have you in tears, not least because of the gorgeous, haunting song that plays as events unfold.
At times it’s a good thing that trekking across America is so genuinely satisfying, because the story baffles throughout. The way it gradually unfolds, twisting and turning as plot details are slowly revealed is comparable to the best modern TV series. If you think you know what Death Stranding is about, trust me you have no idea. It is high concept, full of ‘big ideas’, the game eventually resorting to Kojima’s trademark mini movies to explain exactly what has been going on.
Death Stranding balances the mundane against madness but always brings you back to the idea of connections. They exist between you and the other unseen porters, with BB, and with the many characters you will meet. Whether you are connecting cities, connecting lives, or connecting roads, the message is clear: we are better off together. Kojima doesn’t ram the concept down your throat but there is a clear, if quiet, political message to the game.
However, you have to buy in to Death Stranding, if you didn’t like Kojima’s previous titles this is not going to change your mind. It’s massively self indulgent at times – it has not one, but two credit sequences – and I have no doubt there will be those who will rip it to shreds for being arty nonsense about a DHL delivery man.
Ignore those people.
Embrace the madness, enjoy not having a bloody clue what is going on or why so many people have Bridge in their name. Get that pizza delivered while it is still hot and then abseil down a cliff with a corpse strapped to your back. Drink Monster Energy, repave roads, fight squid lions, ‘like’ postboxes, take a nap, crap grenades. Be baffled by how Mads Mikkelsen fits into the story, why only sea creatures go to the afterlife, and bathe in a colonic cleansing hot spa at the top of a mountain.