Once there was an explosion. A bang.
Death Stranding is an ambitious indie game scaled to size with a AAA budget, where it doesn’t bother to get rid of its unique mechanics, and unlike many independent games, it didn’t appear to have to cut off its more enterprising features. It may also end up being one of the most divisive games in recent memory, definitely akin to the Red Dead Redemption 2 debate last year.
I will say this at the top: this game will not be for everyone. It may also not be for anyone outside those who are willing to play something that explores a truly interesting, and game-changing foundational aspect of playing a game. Would you play a game that just has you watch paint dry? What about a game that just has you do the camp chore sections of the aforementioned Red Dead Redemption 2? There is little combat in Death Stranding; although what little there is can be extremely fun and satisfying.
You start as Sam Strand, the adopted and distant son of the President of the United States, Bridget Strand. When Sam’s unique abilities let him survive being in the middle of a Voidout – a catastrophic event caused in this world by failing to properly dispose of the dead – he is whisked away by the United Cities of America and their Bridges program, the de facto government trying to restore the country.
The titular Death Stranding was an event where the first people to die caused a massive chain of Voidouts all over the world, ushering in the apocalypse that makes up the state of the world. It was Bridget’s dream to unite the many cities of America once more, and Sam was meant to lead that dream. But when Sam left Bridges, his step-sister Amelie took his place, rebuilding a disconnected infrastructure across the country before being kidnapped. With the rise of terrorist activity adding to the country’s troubles, Sam’s reunion with the President following the aforementioned Voidout results in him taking on a contract to connect Amelie’s infrastructure and put America back together again.
The plot plays out pretty straightforward, especially considering Hideo Kojima is not exactly known for straightforward story-telling. Things begin to fall apart towards the end, but it overall sticks its suddenly-hypercomplex narrative in a landing that actually works. It’s not without several issues, however. Technobabble is abound to the point you just might want them to replace these fanciful made-up scientific terms with the word magic. It can also be frustrating at times, as the game takes several precious moments in the ending to beat you over the head with information that wasn’t that hard to see coming.
For a game that’s about delivering packages, Death Stranding delivers much more than you might expect out of this kind of game. This is a story about connecting people, reestablishing the connections we already had, and forging new ones. But this game won’t connect with everyone. There’s plenty of clunky Kojima-styled writing, with its browbeating of themes and higher-level concepts being explained over and over again.
Death Standing is able to showcase in its gameplay loop of package delivery in some of the most wonderful ways. An interesting take on social media in an age of disconnection, you’re able to hit the touchpad on the PS4 controller to leave a number of “likes” on equipment, structures, and even signage. The “like” system shouldn’t be considered all that special within the frame of modern social media. But in the shared world of Death Standing, I was often saved from dire straits by some miraculous construct, tool, or vehicle left behind by another player. Warning signs about enemies or geographically treacherous areas, and even the ones left behind that could boost vehicles or make BB coo and laugh. I’ve never felt more connected to others in a single-player experience outside of too few games. After completing a mission, I’d see the “likes” pour in. It would make me pause and look up what was being liked so much. Often times it was a bridge or road I had dragged enough resources to build. But a number of them were of a dropline I had used and forgotten about or a ladder I had hastily dropped when trying to cross a river but didn’t have what I needed for a bridge.
The smaller shelters of “Preppers” have some of my favorite moments of the game. Fetch quests feel much more personal when you see the face and the reaction of others, just for doing them a good turn. Emails they send you later help flesh out their character, and help shed light on the everyday life of these people. It makes the journey worth taking, even if it’s lost cargo left behind by another porter. Fixing up the lost cargo, and delivering it to them really feels like you did something for somebody, rather than just for experience points. Winning over some of the Preppers can be a challenge, but I always felt it was worth it in the end (and not just because this usually unlocked new gear to help on the journey).
Vehicles are mostly a hit, but can sometimes be a miss. The topography of Death Stranding can be precarious enough for walking, and even more so for vehicles. Never controlling as tightly as you’d like, but never egregious enough to forgo them altogether. If you decide to bust up enemy camps and reappropriate their stolen goods, using a truck is a great primary method for moving goods in order to recycle them into building currencies like metal or enamel.
Weapons come in a variety of types, and include three kinds of ammunition. Blood bullets that drain your health but are effective against the more paranormal enemies, lethal ammo that kill people, and non-lethal ammo that knocks them out. Killing people leaves behind a corpse that can cause a Voidout, and you’ll be tasked with incinerating it. At least that’s what others have told me. I was too afraid in any of my playthroughs to risk it, so I never killed anyone. If you leave the body and don’t incinerate it, you’ll be forced to restart from a prior save. When combat works well, which is most of the time, it works wonderfully.
For a game so purely indulging the niche and nuance of what Death Stranding aims to capture, one thing sticks out like a sore thumb. Advertising. As Sam transports cargo and sometimes even bodies, and your stamina is low, it’s not water that Sam reaches for. It’s a canteen of Monster energy drink. What message comes up on the glass of the stall around the toilet as Sam produces a “No. 2” grenade? An advertisement for Ride with Norman Reedus, the AMC series starring Norman Reedus himself. Touching on Ride, I would be remiss to not talk about what is, without a doubt, one of the worst insertions of promotion in the form of one of my favorite vehicles. The Ride Reverse Trike. Despite just having a simple and otherwise forgettable logo on the front of the bike, we’re constantly reminded by Sam that this bike is both “so cool” and should be on the titular show itself. It’s truly something special.
Sam is played by the incredibly dedicated Norman Reedus. Veteran voice actor Troy Baker portrays Higgs, the violent sadistic former porter with a taste for death who is capable of summoning the game’s frightening enemies at a moment’s notice with a zap of lightning from his hand. Higgs acts as a dark parallel to Sam’s gruff altruism hidden beneath a gut-wrenching tragic history.
Troy Baker as Higgs is a delightful experience, even as he taunts your efforts throughout the game. Baker’s use of slipping in and out of an accent is one of the many ways he establishes a sense of a terrifying calculation in what otherwise would appear as a misstep. He maintains an undeniable charm and his chemistry with Norman Reedus’ Sam is a dynamic that effectively serves their adversarial relationship. The clash between Higgs, who makes a performative effort to show he cares that feels as empty as a husk, and Sam’s wounded aloofness belies his bleeding heart, good samaritan nature is a frictional relationship that drives the conflict between the two men. It is inverted in the form of the wholesome, and healing “strand,” made between Sam and his Bridge Baby, or BB. Their journey is a wonderful journey of man and tool to something much more, something that is darkly mirrored with Higgs’ own twisted take on it.
The incredible performance from Mads Mikkelson probably isn’t all that surprising, but he really is able to use this medium to carry an incredible variety of performances to express to the player the complexity of his character and the greater secrets he’s tied to.
Another incredible performance comes from Lindsay Wagner, who plays the amiable but sickly President Bridget Strand with her likeness being given new life by Emily O’Brien as Amelie in a role that gives a sense of comfort, but just enough of a sterile feeling that makes it unsettling. Jesse Corti as Deadman, Darren Jacobs as Heartman, and Margaret Qualley as Mama shine, each with their heartbreaking and incredibly well-examined reasons for why they do what they do, and why they are the way they are. But no two actors stand out more than Léa Seydoux as Fragile and Tommie Earl Jenkins as Die-Hardman, each with a unique history tied to the state of the world, each bearing the cost of the sins of others as their own. Their individual journeys of self-sacrifice and taking the raw end of their deal to do more for the world are inspiring as much as they are heartbreaking.
By the time the game sunsets, the contradiction of the game’s narrative quality really comes to light. The “big reveals” in the story of Death Stranding are contained in one of the worst design decisions that undermine it by showing its hand too often. But it comes away from those flaws in stride, creating a world worth saving. Death Stranding isn’t going to change gaming forever but as the first game from a new studio led by an industry titan like Hideo Kojima, it’s an ambitious and magnificent start.
8.0 / 10
That Great Game
- A bold and ambitious first outing that eschews the expectations of its director’s past acclaim.
- The incredible combination of motion capture and voice talent makes some scenes flourish where otherwise they might have fallen flat.
- A truly great story and narrative that doesn’t try and shy away from its important themes, but embraces them fully.
- Terrific gameplay loop that if willing, can chew away the hours.
- A sudden influx of repeated exposition at the climax of the story is jarring, and feels out of place.
- Boorish and obtuse product placement.
Death Stranding review copy was a digital copy purchased by the reviewer. That Nerdy Site’s Review Scoring rubric can be found here.