Whether you love it or hate it (there are valid arguments on both sides), Death Stranding is an experience like no other.
We’ve heard many a gamer call Hideo Kojima’s new title a glorified walking simulator, and you know what? In the broader sense, that’s exactly what it is. But you know what else? It’s the best darned walking simulator around.
This year’s most anticipated PS4 title, Death Stranding, is the first title to come out of the Silent Hill and Metal Gear Solid creator’s new company — Kojima Productions. The world basically stood still as we waited for this release, as the many trailers didn’t give away any pertinent info. All they left us with, honestly, was large amounts of confusion.
After launch, we were happy to find that Death Stranding is a game in which you’ll spend hours (yes, hours) trying to prevent protagonist Sam from falling flat on his face while haphazardly descending a hill. And if you manage to do it gracefully, congratulations. Because we sure as hell couldn’t.
There are Porters?
That’s a very good question, young Porter. At its core, Death Stranding is a game about walking. Other stuff happens, particularly later on, but mostly, you pick up a package, walk for kilometres and deliver it to someone. What makes the game intriguing, though, is the strange (but ultimately wonderful) storyline.
Throughout the game, you play Sam Porter Bridges (Norman Reedus from The Walking Dead), who is a delivery man. The occupation has become essential in a post-apocalyptic world filled with strange creatures. You later find out that good ol’ Sam is something of a legend in this field.
It becomes clear early on that you’re based in a near-future America, where a series of near-world-ending explosions have triggered a supernatural event. Turns out, this event is called the Death Stranding. Which essentially means that the seam that once separated life and death has been breached. It may start to sound like a Stranger Things ripoff, but bear with us.
There’s a Chiral Web
This dimensional breach has caused the remaining humans to compete with creatures called BTs (Beached Things). It’s like a territorial cold war that the BTs are winning. This has driven humanity to live in small communities (towns) and a few cities. Only the Porters wander outside the barriers and face the BTs.
Then there’s Timefall — rain that accelerates the passage of time for anything it touches. When Timefall occurs, you’re more likely to find BTs wandering around. Luckily for Sam, he has a BB (a baby born to a still-mother) strapped to his chest, which is able to sense nearby BTs. What makes Sam a particularly good candidate for being a Porter is also the fact that he is a repatriate. He is able to return to life after he’s killed. *Bear with us* Sam also has DOOMS, which is the ability to interact with BTs — that’s all you need to know. For now.
Sam is then recruited by an organisation called Bridges, that assigns him the task of connecting the whole country of ‘Murica to something called the Chiral Network. Which is basically the internet? All while linking up bases across the land, Sam needs to ensure delivery of some parcels containing important stuff.
There’s a story, we promise
All of this is part of a far bigger plan to rebuild America from the ashes of the Death Stranding. So big, in fact, that the President (who is also his mother) gives the order to rescue his sister Amelie from a terrorist called Higgs, but you sort of have to forget about her plight for most of the game. Because the Chiral Network! And the packages! And the BTs! Don’t worry, it gets far more complicated than that.
If you’ve played/seen Kojima’s previous games, you’ll know that he loves his cutscenes. The first few hours of Death Stranding will feel like a movie with a few moments of playtime. Even though we’ve got all these cutscenes, it still won’t be clear wtf is actually happening.
It’s comically indulgent nonsense a lot of the time, and if you really want to dig into the convoluted lore you’re better off sifting through the explanatory emails sent to you by the NPCs. But you know what? At least the game is full of gorgeous shots, and we were 100% invested in finding out what it was all leading to.
There are Likes
You’ll typically start a delivery at an identikit delivery terminal, where some annoyed hologram will give you instructions. Orders get bigger as the game progresses, so it’s important to learn how to micromanage how you stack your cargo. Thank god for the ‘automatically arrange cargo’ option or poor Sam would have irreversible spinal damage by now.
This game isn’t making it easy either. Along with your packages, you’ll need some basic kit, like a ladder, extra shoes (they wear out) and climbing ropes. This kit expands as the game progresses too. Everything in the game gradually accumulates damage and in time will become unusable, especially if you fall on your face one too many times.
Your BB doesn’t like tumbles either and will start crying when you fall too hard. Then you need to soothe a baby in the middle of ageing rain among BTs that only react to sound while your cargo’s drifting down a river. That happened to us. No jokes.
After Sam makes an essential delivery (you can also pick up non-essential crap along the road), you’ll get a breakdown of the success of your delivery. This includes how quickly you made it there and what state your packages are in. This will influence your overall rating. Low damage earns you more ‘likes’, which is the only currency in the game. No, we’re not in Black Mirror.
There are Cryptiobiotes
Eventually *followed by a long sigh*, you get to make weapons! Before this, you could only punch people. Oh yes, you’re also facing a group of rebels called MULEs, but you cannot kill ‘em otherwise they turn into BTs. So… try not to kill them.
Weapons, along with other cool items like bridges and postboxes, are 3D printed using a PCC (another item you need to carry). This PCC also allows you to build a generator for your vehicle (that kinda helps with deliveries), but then you need to load up a few PCCs as it runs out of battery power along the way. You soon also unlock exoskeletons that enable you to strap even more gear to yourself.
It all sounds wonderful and mystical and complicated. But something we would’ve loved to see less complicated is the fiddly inventory system. Actually — all the menus are unnecessarily complicated. The text is also too small, but maybe I’m just blind. Kojima is rolling out an update soon to fix this though, so yay!.
Simple movement is by far Sam’s most challenging adversary in the game. When you squeeze the triggers on the DualShock he’ll grab the left and right straps on his backpack to steady himself. Lifehack! You cannot hold these triggers in to keep him steady all the time. We tried. Hold it in for just a few seconds and he goes head first the mud/water/rocks/grass, often dropping his meticulously assembled cargo in the process.
So you’ll have to carefully monitor your momentum, and watch your stamina. Sam may look like the world’s best cargo-carrier, but he also gets tired. Stamina can be resupplied by hitting cans of Monster Energy drink. Apparently they survive the apocalypse. You can also regain health by eating slugs called Cryptibiotes. Sam doesn’t like ‘em though — which is understandable.
There’s a sense of serenity
If there’s one thing Death Stranding gets right, it’s creating an atmosphere. In one of the early missions, when you find yourself travelling to your first destination on a long stretch of openness, Don’t be so Serious by Low Roar starts playing in the background. Following this, the game will randomly serenade you with its brilliant soundtrack at various points in the game. There is a reason it won the best soundtrack at the Game Awards of 2019.
The soundtrack, combined with the beautiful backdrops and graphics (we played on a PS4 Pro to get the best definition out of this pretty game), makes crossing the enormous stretches of terrain easier.
Another thing that makes traversing the (sometimes brutal) landscapes of post-apocalyptic America easier is by pulling up your map and using draggable lines to plot the best route. This means you’ll need some basic topography skills to plot the perfect route. Spoiler alert: the route is never perfect, but the paths definitely help. This is also where your ladder and rope come in handy — when an unexpected canyon or riverbed suddenly pops up.
If that all sounds more like hard work than fun, that’s because it is. But, honestly, the serenity and absolute beauty created by Kojima here makes up for all the hard work you put in. Hiking across Death Stranding’s empty America is actually the best part of the game.
There are BTs
As we mentioned, the main thing that comes in the way of Sam Porter Bridges’ important delivery duties are BTs. Yeah, the freakish monsters that never become easier to face. Basically, the Death Stranding forged a connection between the living and the dead — and these Beached Things are creepy howling apparitions that wander the earth.
As expected, the first few encounters are incredibly tense. Thanks to Kojima bringing so many questions and uncertainty with them the suspense is intense, for good reason. Early on in the game, you’ll learn that your BB can sense nearby BTs. We won’t go into specifics right now, but the baby is basically a bridge between you and the world of the dead, which gives them the ability to sense BTs. The baby is hooked up to a gizmo that’ll point in their general direction when they appear.
Now you’ll need to go into stealth mode because BTs don’t have eyes in the literal sense, they can also sense you and react to sound. So you’ll have to crouch and move silently through what feels like a minefield. The aforementioned gizmo will point in the general direction of BTs, so you can avoid that area completely. You can also hold your breath when they get very close. You won’t evade them every time, so get used to it now.
The first time these predatory spectres drag you into the tar-like substance they travel in and you hear your panicking BB bawl through the controller’s speaker, it’s truly terrifying. But eventually, they just become a progress-stalling irritant, and an ability you gain later on that gives you the upper hand is very welcome. Another useful tactic is to lob a grenade that can be engineered using your own blood, sweat or poop. Seriously.
There’s a real connection
We are especially impressed with the intriguing online multiplayer aspect in this game. While you never see another player on your travels, you can leave ladders and ropes to aid them, while theirs will appear permanently in your game. This helps with the plotting of routes that others have taken successfully, so it’s like these invisible helpers have your back.
You can build communal post boxes and charging stations, and later the foundations for safe houses, roads and bridges, which other players can maintain and upgrade by donating materials. If someone uses something you’ve built they can give it likes. You can even drop hazard badges to warn players about a threat ahead, like Timefall, BTs or harsh terrain.
There is a certain comfort in knowing another player has walked the same path as you. It can also mean the difference between reaching your destination in good time and being forced to take a different route.
Death Stranding Verdict
After all of that, it still feels like we’ve covered about 30% of the game. There is no straightforward way to summarise a game like Death Stranding. It’s a weird combination of the most boring game you’ve ever played, while also being the most intriguing game ever. And don’t forget that it is graphically mesmerising — something we can likely expect from many other games to come.
The main thing that drew us to play this game is definitely its intriguing story. We’re suckers for good/well-thought-through stories (especially in the sci fi-apocalypse genre), and Kojima absolutely nails it here. We can foresee a lot of people giving up before the narrative really starts to unfold but honestly, you’ll hold out if you’re curious enough.
What keeps you going could be a number of reasons: the story, attachment to Sam’s hard work, attachment to the ever-needly tank-baby, sheer determination or a chance to find those moments of serenity. Maybe you’re just holding out to see Mads Mikkelson freak out about his BB. We’re not judging you.
Whichever strategy you choose, try to make it through Chapter 3. If you can manage that — you’ll enjoy playing through the game.