Review: Death Stranding (ps4).

by jonny Lupsha ft. Andi Hodgetts

This review is spoiler-free and contains additional insights from AIR Entertainment co-founder Andi Hodgetts, which are highlighted in bold print and with shaded backgrounds. If you enjoy this sort of “dual perspective” review format that Andi and jonny have employed here, let us know in the comments and we’ll do another one the next time our taste in games overlaps.

In 2014, Metal Gear Solid mastermind Hideo Kojima released an hour-long playable demo on the PlayStation 4 called P.T.  In this demo, players found themselves in a first-person horror scenario on a seemingly endless loop exploring the front end of a disheveled house.  The entire thing took place in an L-shaped hallway and a bathroom – go through the door on one end of the hallway and you’d walk straight through the door at the opposite end. 

Slowly, subtly, things changed.  Writing would appear on the wall, an Eraserhead-like baby monstrosity would or wouldn’t be in the bathroom sink and so on.  If players somehow made it to the end of the demo – a process still in debate today – they would be treated to a short teaser video of The Walking Dead actor Norman Reedus walking on a foggy street and a title card: Silent Hills.  Originally intended to be the new entry in the psychological horror series Silent Hill, Silent Hills was eventually canceled due to creative differences between Konami and Hideo Kojima.

But it wasn’t 100% dead, as gamers would find out when Kojima announced his next title, Death Stranding.

It may be disingenuous to hang so much of Death Stranding on the hat rack of P.T., but P.T. shared a few elements with Death Stranding so it’s only fitting to use it as a starting point.

Anyone who’s played Death Stranding will recognize some of the familiar elements of P.T., offering insight as to where Kojima had intended to take Konami’s flagship horror series.  Foreboding handprints of the dead, a mysterious female character named Lisa, an incompletely-formed fetus at the heart of it all, the theme of multiple planes of existence bleeding through from one to the other, the principal actor in Reedus and – most crucially – the ethereal and playful use of multiple almost-identical universes.  To explain this last is to open up an entire conversation about Death Stranding’s second-most compelling game mechanic (right behind caring for an unborn child in a glass jar), which deserves its own discussion later on in its proper place, so for now, just consider the dialogue line in P.T. – “The only me is me.  Are you sure the only you is you?”

As we reach the close of another decade, it seems fitting that we are at last treated to another release from Hideo Kojima. After the initial debut trailer back at E3 in 2016, Kojima has shrouded this release in mystery and kept everyone guessing; not to mention the theorists working overtime. It is safe to say that Kojima has probably one of the most amazing minds within the games industry defying the boundaries of what a game can deliver as well as delivering some very forward thinking in his art.

Most know Kojima from the Metal Gear series. In my opinion, Konami did the world a massive favour; he was free to create his own studio and show the world what he could do on his own and not be forced to adhere to any restrictions by Konami, which they always did.

I can’t believe that it has been three years now since that initial trailer and the game is finally in our hands.

The world of Death Stranding is as complicated as it is ingenious, so bear with me while I lay this out.  In Death Stranding, players take control of Sam Porter, a courier delivering various packages from one place to another on foot across a beautiful and eclectic landscape.  Sam – acted and voiced by Norman Reedus, who also lends his likeness to the character – has a rare allergy to a newly-discovered substance called chiralium.  Chiralium is closely linked to a purgatorial world of the dead known as The Beach. 

At some point in the past that I won’t pin down for spoiler purposes, scientists opened a doorway between our world and The Beach, accidentally allowing unsettled spirits to seep into our normal world in an event called the Death Stranding.  Think The Mist meets Stir of Echoes and you’re at least halfway there.  Now, after most of humanity was killed off by run-ins with these seemingly-undetectable spirits – called BTs, for Beach Things – those who remain stay in small localized areas.  A few city blocks here, a bunker there.

Sam’s allergy to chiralium causes his eyes to water, just barely giving him a hint of an idea when he’s near BTs.  While on an errand in Capitol Knot City (formerly Washington DC) for President Bridget Strand, who is the last president of the United Cities of America (UCA), Sam soon finds himself working with top-level government agents to reconnect the country to the UCA by getting various hotspots across the country linked to a sort of nationwide wireless database called the “chiral network” which is – you guessed it – powered by chiralium, the death-related substance to which Sam is allergic.  He is compelled to do so by Amelie, a woman with whom Sam is in love.  Amelie is also the daughter of President Strand and heir apparent to the country.  Amelie is captured by enemies in Edge Knot City (formerly Los Angeles) and part of Sam’s journey is to go save her.  She plays a much more significant and gender-breaking role in the story than “damsel in distress,” though I wouldn’t dare tell you more.

Of course, there are obstacles at play, like “Timefall,” which is rain that vastly accelerates the aging process of whatever it comes into contact with. (A single drop can mean unconcealable wrinkles.)

Throughout his journey, Sam isn’t alone.  He’s accompanied throughout the game by a Bridge Baby, or BB – the notorious unborn baby in the glass jar as seen in press materials.  Bridge Babies’ mothers are said to be in vegetative states in various hospitals around the country, unable to be resuscitated.  This stasis, somewhere between life and death, gives BBs the unique ability to very specifically detect and “see” BTs when the person carrying them is close enough.  As Sam and BB reconnect the country, he fights off BTs as well as pirates known as MULEs every step of the way.

Other characters in the game include Sam’s superior officer, Die-Hardman (Tommie Earl Jenkins); a BB expert known as Deadman (likeness of Guillermo Del Toro); a tech expert codenamed Mama (The Leftovers’ Margaret Qualley); a teleporter and private courier named Fragile (Lea Seydoux); a BT expert, Heartman (likeness of Drive director Nicholas Winding Refn); and two antagonists – Clifford Unger (Mads Mikkelsen) and Higgs Monaghan (veteran voice actor Troy Baker).  In addition, Lindsay Wagner (The Bionic Woman) makes an appearance as President Bridget Strand.  Several other creative celebrities – including Conan O’Brien, manga horror mastermind Junji Ito, film director Edgar Wright and more – feature in cameos throughout the title.

Within the game, Hideo Kojima has employed some big names from within the acting world and seems to purposely make the game into a serious cinematic experience. The very easy setting on the game is for everyone to enjoy the game as a whole as if they were watching in a cinema, it has very little effect on the parcels you carry when timefall starts to fall, whereas if you do up the difficulty level that timefall will start to rust and deteriorate anything on your back. Kojima even stated “When I announced [Death Stranding], I got responses like, ‘I’m a great movie fan and I saw your game, but I haven’t been playing games’. I wanted to set the bar really low and that’s the very easy mode. All of these people that are movie fans, they say games nowadays are just so complicated they can’t do it anymore… I want people to come back to playing games again. It’s totally different than watching a movie. It’s basically easy, but you have to control it. You’re not just watching it.”

As Sam reconnects the country, Kojima takes the time to present the player with many philosophical and existential questions that are more than worth considering.  If we had proof of an afterlife, but it were really so unpleasant, are you sure you’d want to know about it, or is ignorance bliss?  What is it that connects humans together – what binds us and makes us see life beyond a lonesome journey to a community effort?  When do existence and identity truly begin?  How can we learn to forgive and to let go of the past transgressions of others – and of ourselves?  To what extent do we need tangible proof of a mutually beneficial coexistence to shake us from “looking out for number one” into compassion for our fellow person?

While the concepts of Death Stranding may sound lofty to the average gamer, consider this.  In the first Metal Gear Solid title, Kojima toyed with the idea of a manmade virus that could target a specific individual and make them appear to have a heart attack.  He also tackled cloning and the Human Genome Project.  By the time the final installment in the franchise – Metal Gear Solid 5 – was released, Kojima had already delved into PTSD, mutually-assured destruction, nuclear deterrents, the Turing Test, accelerated aging, genetic deficiencies in cloning and a vocal cord parasite that could kill upon its host speaking.  Frankly, fetuses rescued from unviable pregnancies – and vengeful poltergeists – are actually quite tame compared to some of the ideas he’s explored in his games.

One of Death Stranding’s finest questions – albeit a sensitive one – comes from deeply-ingrained American culture.  As a lifelong American I feel responsible for addressing the sociological elephant in the room here.  That elephant is American Exceptionalism.  I cast no judgment nor prejudice against my fellow Americans when I say that American philosophy is very much rooted in the idea of the self-made man.  This is the Pull Yourself up by Your Bootstraps gumption that Americans regularly tout as a point of pride and self-worth.  Our nation was founded on the concept of being able to make one’s own station in life if one simply works hard enough.  Books have been written about both the reality and the fantasy of this concept, but Americans’ efforts to spin straw into gold is undeniable.  Sometimes it works a treat and other times it doesn’t. 

To this effect, Sam is regularly faced with people – points of contact living in the shelters to which he delivers – who don’t wish to join the chiral network or the UCA because they’re doing fine on their own.  These folks are all too happy to walk the lonely road and look out for themselves rather than their community.  Japan, in stark contrast to America, is an incredibly community-based nation.  Students stay at school for several hours after class to clean their classrooms; there’s an almost complete lack of litter because anyone with trash to discard considers everyone else.  Neither Kojima or I intend to preach one ideology or the other, but the difference is certainly worth considering.

In light of this individualism vs. community-based philosophy, one of the most compelling themes of Death Stranding is how fractured America is.  Not only does a broken America serve as the backdrop of the title, but it holds a mirror up to modern politics.  It’s no secret or controversy that the United States is in the midst of an identity crisis since the election of Donald Trump as President.  Running on a platform of individualism and exceptionalism, Trump’s campaign was marred by allegations of sexual assault, racism, sexism, classism, tax fraud, business fraud and divisive policies.  Since his election, hate crimes have escalated 400%, racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan have resurged and Nazis have marched through the streets of towns like Charlottesville, Virginia. 

This last example hits particularly close to home for me as my paternal grandfather was a Navy man who was stationed on an LCI ship at Normandy on D-Day.  He saw both oceans during the fight against the Nazis and escaped death more than once to return home to start his family.  He passed in 2016 and is interred at Culpepper National Cemetery, just an hour’s drive from where neo-Nazis – who President Trump would later call “very fine people” – gathered and chanted “Jews will not replace us!”

It’s no coincidence that Donald Trump’s campaign slogan was Make America Great Again while Sam’s mission gets the oft-used catchphrase Make America Whole Again. I didn’t get the impression it was a flattering imitation on Kojima’s part so much as a response. During his campaign, Trump regularly embraced very specific USA-focused “America First” philosophies as being central to his mission to “Make America Great Again” – a philosophy that has been called nationalistic. The results of this have included an alienation of long-time American allies like Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany and the Kurds. Sam, on the other hand, spends much of the game re-earning the trust of Washington DC’s (domestic) allies who have been alienated.

In the divided America of the real world and in Sam’s world, what hope of remedy do we have?  Maybe, Kojima says, just maybe the way to make America whole again is to utilize the ties that bind us together.  Compassion, empathy, community, shared ideals, family and camaraderie decorate this game in more ways than one.  BTs are mostly linked to our world via umbilical cords, seen with the help of BB (who himself has a large umbilical cord protruding from his stomach).  Sam’s duty throughout the game is to string together each facility that would be a part of the UCA via the chiral network, a strand of togetherness that would unite us all.  Countless other instances of imagery and symbolism regarding our tethers to one another feature throughout the game, and I think it’s this theme that offers one of the most heartfelt and insightful mechanics of Death Stranding’s gameplay.

As Sam delivers cargo to the different bunkers and waystations and cities throughout the game, his relationship with each cargo recipient grows on a scale of a five-star ranking depending on the size, haste and condition of the delivery (the game never runs out of deliveries to any one recipient).  When that relationship reaches a new star’s worth of mutual admiration, the package recipient almost invariably provides Sam with a new blueprint for crafting helpful materials to help him on his way or a customization option for his sunglasses, hat or cargo backpack.  Of course, this can’t all be done at once, because there are limits to how much Sam can carry at a time.  Symbolically speaking, aren’t there also limits on how much burden we can each maintain in a relationship?  Don’t we have our limits?  And the closer we get to reaching them but delivering something of value in a relationship, are we not rewarded with further bonds and ties with that other person?  Kojima and company are acutely aware of this specific (if not a bit on-the-nose) metaphor.  Strengthen your bonds with others and be rewarded with the tools you need to succeed on your own personal journey, they’re saying.

Speaking of bonds with others, Kojima bridges the gap between fictional characters and reality with the aforementioned second-most compelling element of gameplay.  As Sam traverses the open world and faces environmental and intelligent obstacles, he will need to make use of a variety of weapons, tools, vehicles and structures to facilitate his quest with his BB.  Crossing the landscape begins on foot with the boxes on his back maxing out at around 100kg, but soon enough, load-bearing exoskeletons and several additional modes of transportation (including motorcycles, trucks and high-speed ziplines that work uphill and down) increase Sam’s maximum load and expedite his deliveries, respectively.

It is absolutely possible to gain the crafting materials to build the items he needs, from handguns and assault rifles to large umbrella-like shelters that shield his cargo from the harmful effects of the timefall rain, alone.  However, the game links your account up with seemingly random other players, all playing as Sam in their own copies of Death Stranding, who are crafting similar items on identical maps in their own universe/playthrough.  Before long, your Sam will be caught in a rainstorm only to find another player’s shelter to protect him.  Or maybe you’ll prepare for a long trek from one city over a mountain to another and be surprised with other players’ vehicles available to you in your garage.  A “shared locker” at a location may hold a dozen other players’ donated weapons that are free and welcome for the taking to help ease the burden of using so many of your own crafting resources.  You and other players can place warning signs around the open maps for each other that indicate villains, requests for structures or route info.  You even find abandoned cargo and vehicles – dropped during hectic run-ins with BTs and MULEs – from other players out in the field.  Particularly large structures like highways or safehouses may require a wealth of resources to build, so don’t be surprised to find half-finished ones on your trip or to load your saved game and find that other players helped you finish building yours while you were away from the game.

Without going into too much detail lest I spoil the story and a revelatory gameplay experience for you, this cooperative mechanic becomes strikingly relevant and important very late in the game.  All we have is each other, the developer seems to say.  When you need a helping hand, others will be there for you; you’re just expected to do the same.

And this is a beautiful title. Snow-capped mountains tower over Sam; deep ravines gape from below. Rolling hills and sprawling buildings separate volcanic wastelands from grassy plains. High waterfalls descend to raging rapids that eventually calm to trickling brooks leading out to an off-limits ocean. Every environment begs for a screenshot.

If you’d rather get a good look at a t-bone steak by sticking your head up a bull’s ass, Death Stranding is an open-world, third-person action title with light crafting, simulation and survival elements.  Sam must stay hydrated throughout his journey, his shoes wear thin as he walks, BB has to be kept in high spirits and crossing rivers requires paying extra attention to your stamina and the depth of the water.  Too deep a river or lake and Sam loses his cargo and he must recover his footing and whatever he carries in order to keep on.

And that’s what a lot of the game is about – carrying the fire, not losing hope regardless of circumstance.  In this way, it shares thematic elements with Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Road.  You’re a man on a journey to keep old values alive come Hell or high water.  And Sam will definitely face Hell.

While discussing gameplay, I’d be remiss not to mention Hideo Kojima’s career-spanning aversion to lethal violence.  Since the first Metal Gear Solid at least, Kojima has offered players a challenging but rewarding gameplay route of not killing a single enemy throughout the game.  Tranquilizer darts, choke holds to spur unconsciousness, nonlethal beatdowns and stun grenades appeared in every Metal Gear Solid title in the last 20 years and Death Stranding is no different.  Even before Sam is provided with a lethal weapon 10 hours into the game, he’s given a garrote that won’t kill human enemies but cut off their oxygen supply just long enough for them to pass out for some time.  Non-lethal assault rifles and grenade launchers with tranquilizer rounds follow suit.  There are also “non-lethal” weapons for the BTs, including an entire gameplay mechanic focused on Sam’s unique blood.  His anti-BT grenades and weapons use set amounts of blood from blood bags that are filled and supplied to Sam whenever he rests.  His health meter is listed as 1000ml of blood throughout the game, so – in yet another clever and symbolic game mechanic about the value of ourselves versus one another – players must delicately balance saving themselves and eradicating supernatural threats to their community.

In one of the more brilliant ways to punish players for lazily killing enemies, it’s said that any human who a player kills will then repopulate as a BT later in the game, making their journey that much harder.  I can’t verify this because Kojima’s plea for nonlethal violence was compelling enough that I never killed a human enemy.  In fact, before using rubber bullets to steal consciousness from my foes, I’d often wait for them to finish wading across a river so they could stand on terra firma.  No sarcasm, I’d hate to risk them drowning while knocked out.  The game just makes you consider life and death that much.

Following the theme of antagonism, the monsters and human villains – whose lines begin to blur almost from the outset – beg further explanation.  Sam’s regular enemies are, as I mentioned before, the human pirate-like thieves known as MULEs as well as the poltergeist BTs.  If I had one complaint about the game, it would be that the MULEs could be more fleshed out with some kind of territorial boss leading them, but that’s more a pipe dream than anything.  As it is, they’re self-interested bad guys whose sole purpose in life is to scrounge for cargo, including that on Sam’s back.  Several missions involve stealthily infiltrating their areas on the map to retrieve items from them that they’ve stolen from other characters.

As for the BTs, they don’t merely attack and kill Sam.  They materialize tar pits full of waist-deep dead souls reaching out to grab Sam and pull him down.  While they grab at Sam, players can (just barely) avoid this by escaping to normal ground with properly-timed shaking off of the souls and balancing their footing, though you may occasionally drop your cargo when you do.  On the other hand, if players are dragged down by those souls, they speedily carry him about a hundred meters to another location where the ground suddenly becomes an ocean of tar and players must either fight off a large boss BT or escape the area by running and jumping along high ground.  The ever-changing landscape – from safe ground to timefall to BT-riddled timefall to being dragged through the tar to a large BT fight – is equally dynamic and incredible.

Mads Mikkelsen plays Clifford Unger, a soldier with ties to Sam and Sam’s BB.  He appears to Sam at various points in the game, where the two fight on battlefields that emulate 20th century wars.  Cliff never fought in those wars, but in one of the clearest examples of the game delving into Jung’s theory of the Collective Unconscious, the battlefields manifest as a kind of purgatory for soldiers who died in their respective wars and never found peace beyond the grave.  Cliff deploys a small unit of four skeleton soldiers to fight Sam, who must fight them and Cliff off by any means necessary.  Cliff seems intensely interested on the BB that Sam carries, though the reasons why are best left to your discovery.

For me, Mads Mikkelsen easily steals the show here. His character starts off slowly viewed from the point of view of the BB looking out of their protective pod whilst Mads is doing whatever he is doing through a series of flashbacks. It’s later in the game where Mads comes into his own as the story develops.

Similarly, Troy Baker (who voiced Joel in The Last of Us and Booker in Bioshock Infinite, among others) plays Higgs, some kind of human master of the BTs and the tar.  Higgs and Lea Seydoux’s character Fragile have a checkered past together and both can use their chiral abilities to teleport.  In a plot point that is revisited throughout the game, Higgs is interested in harnessing the BTs and their destructive abilities to wipe out the rest of mankind.  In my opinion, Higgs provides at least two of the most incredible boss fights in the game, even if Cliff is the more fully-developed villain.

The one character/actor that really lets this game down for me is actually Troy Baker famed for his role in The Last of Us as well as other games. He plays a villain in the game and I’m not going to go into details as we’re trying to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, but Higgs is the most boring and bland villain I have ever come across in any form of media. He feels like he is just a ‘bad guy that wants to do bad things’ for the sake of it and the voice acting for me did nothing.

I definitely see where Andi’s coming from here. I found Higgs to be very subtly creepy – he reminded me somewhat of Far Cry 5 archvillain Joseph Seed as a cult-like Southern evangelist – but I may have just been filling in the gaps on my own. At the very least, if his creepiness is there like I imagine it to be, he could’ve played it a bit stronger and it wouldn’t have been too much. Beyond that, his character development is minimal to say the least, playing to Andi’s point that he comes across mostly as just a bad guy who wants to unleash evil.

There are also several silly mechanics worth discovering on your own, from peeing outdoors to Norman Reedus occasionally interacting with the camera in various safehouses.  Needless to say, all exhibit the quirky humor fans have come to know through the Metal Gear Solid series.  Remember the guard peeing on Raiden in MGS2?  Or tapping the girlie poster in the locker, which suddenly raised every alarm in the building?  Weird and funny moments on par with those abound in Death Stranding.

I became enamored with several of Death Stranding’s side quests and optional terraforming and structure-building to facilitate my journey.  I’m glad I did, but the reason I mention it is to discuss the length of the game.  Several reviewers – AIR Entertainment staff included – have said they beat the game in about 50 hours.  I don’t doubt it.  My personal run is 85 hours and there are still plenty of things for me left to go back and do.  But even at 50 hours, the game has staying power.  Whether finding the game’s collectibles, ranking up your reputation as a deliverer in five categories, maxing out your links with cargo recipients or just trying out new weapons against BTs, Death Stranding is a ride you won’t want to end.  Not only is it a very strong contender for Game of the Year, but I’d put it up alongside Persona 5, Horizon: Zero Dawn and Detroit: Become Human as a title that defines the current generation of games. In light of how incredibly-made the title is, its minor shortcomings essentially cease to exist.

For all these reasons, I’m giving Death Stranding a perfect 10 out of 10 rating.

Same as you, I’m also giving it a 10/10 and for me, GOTY

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