There is a lot of hype surrounding the first post-Metal Gear game of series creator, the legendary Hideo Kojima, and rightly so, because this work is the culmination of his “redemption arc” after his acrimonious split with game publisher Konami with whom he had worked for more than three decades. There is no denying that Kojima has a certain magical touch when it comes to his games, with a certain level of quality and polish that lets the game endure the test of time. Even a somewhat barren and unfinished masterpiece in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain contains a certain level of sophistication that, gameplay-wise, still makes it a joy to play despite being released at the start of the PS4 life-cycle.
Your deliveries not only bring much-needed supplies to cities that have been cut-off from one another by a catastrophic event, but re-establishes links with them
No small wonder then that people hoped – or expected – great things from Death Stranding. Especially since it includes a star-studded cast, developed by most of the people from the old Kojima Productions who joined their boss out of Konami, and had the full-backing of Sony. And so, before we dissect Death Stranding’s essentials, here is what I can say about the game: Death Stranding is a work of art. As a video game, it will endure, and future game developers will study it to learn its secrets and crucial lessons. But as with other art, it has its own flaws, some bigger than others. The most crucial thing to remember is that, as with his beloved Metal Gear, Hideo Kojima somehow makes it work, and work beautifully at that.
Death Stranding has you take on the role of Sam Porter Bridges (played by Norman Reedus), a delivery-man (porter) tasked with making deliveries from one way-station to another, and in the process, try to reconnect the cities of what was once the United States of America (now called the United Cities of America). Your deliveries not only bring much-needed supplies to cities that have been cut-off from one another by a catastrophic event, but re-establishes links with them through the “Chiral Network“, a form of internet that not only serves as a repository of knowledge, but also gives these cities much-needed “abilities” to build much-needed structures like bridges, generators, roads, and other stuff that will definitely make any delivery man’s life a whole lot easier.
Making your life difficult are the Beached Things or BTs (which are spectral beings who are formerly human who somehow are defeated through your blood), bandits called MULES who try to steal your deliveries from you, and a terrorist group called the Homo Demens led by Higgs who can control the BTs and seem fond of reducing cities into craters. If you can’t follow, don’t fret: I had a difficult time wrapping the plot around my head the first time. The only reason why it hasn’t really bothered me as much as I expected to is because I have played Hideo Kojima’s past games, thereby half-expecting the mind-fuckery that has become his style.
I’ll have to say that this is the weakest story-telling among all of Hideo Kojima’s games
Without revealing the plot (yes, there is a plot), I’ll have to say that this is the weakest story-telling among all of Hideo Kojima’s games. That doesn’t mean that the underlying message isn’t conveyed to the gamer, or that the story doesn’t have any merit: I assure you that it does. But Kojima’s trademark overly verbose style of writing works against him in spots. There is always a need to explain something in a droning, sometimes convoluted fashion especially in the earlier hours of the game where everything is still technically a tutorial. I’ve had better time reading the emails from the NPCs you will meet, as they expand on the lore in subtle ways while giving you a general idea of what you are supposed to do. I am not saying that these dialogues especially from characters like Die Hardman and Deadman (yes, those are real character names, courtesy of Hideo Kojima’s mind) aren’t helpful at all, but the way their dialogue was written (and executed) leaves a lot to be desired.
Death Stranding’s premise is deceptively simple (the surviving humans living in cities are disconnected from each other and you need to “reconnect” everybody back), but the lore can be difficult to keep up with at times. But as I said earlier, Kojima makes it work because despite the mumbo-jumbo piled on top of the basic premise, there is an actual basic premise. The narrative can run circles around you only because it has a solid foundation. Go to the various cities and way-stations, make deliveries, take orders, and connect everyone into the Chiral Network. Do more deliveries that improve your connection allowing you to build more of the much-needed structures. Rinse, and repeat. What pulls it all together is the fact that you can actually see the progress being made, and even get to avail of its benefits yourself.
Many game developers view online connectivity as something that can be used in a multiplayer setting. Death Stranding uses it to make a community. No, you’re not going to see a dozen or so Norman Reedus making deliveries. The structures you make can be seen and used by other people in their game and vice-versa. Ladders and ropes you or other people used, appear in your game as long as you are online. Same is true with postal boxes, bridges, generators, roads, and other useful structures. Once you connect a location to the Chiral Network, you will also see the structures made by other players like they will see yours.
What this does is to make the act of re-establishing connections between cities and way-stations very tangible. There is a clear benefit to re-connecting things as opposed to just being part of the plot. The ladders and ropes you used and left behind can be used by others to aid in their travels. Hideo Kojima took his rather simplistic plot with very convoluted (and cheesy) dialogue, and used it to create such a refined and artistic gameplay in this console generation.
Fetch quests and deliveries are normally the bane of my existence as a gamer. The Assassin’s Creed games in particular, really soured my attitude towards fetch quests as not only were they sometimes frustrating, but they’re literally copy-paste missions with no lasting impact on both the story and the open-world. Death Stranding’s deliveries are different: making deliveries improves the station’s connection to the Chiral Network, allowing you access to more structures, as well as delivering crucial materials and resources. Think of it this way: a basic connection to the Chiral Network allows you to create a bridge. An increased connection allows you to build two, thereby vastly improving your ability to travel from point A to point B, and making each stations much more accessible. This is more apparent later in the game when you’ve progressed enough to be building roads. Gathering resources can be a chore, but you will be thanking yourself for making the effort later on.
The whole thing can be exhausting, not just because of the myriad of things you have to watch out from preparation…
Taking orders and making deliveries is also an exercise in micro-management, especially with the weight. Different cargo have different weights that affect your ability to carry them. Having too many cases on your back affects your balance, while putting some cargo on a bike (called the Reverse Trike) can relieve you somewhat, but it also means that the terrain will affect your ability to travel (some routes are not conducive to wheeled transportation). You don’t carry just your cargo: you also have to take into account your equipment like ladders which are crucial especially if you are travelling a route for the first time. I often find myself going through the route first before taking an order so that I can set-up ladders and ropes along the way. These things can mean the difference between making a timed order (some orders are time-sensitive), and failing it because you didn’t make the necessary preparations.
The more I play this game, the more I find myself being drawn to the act of traversing long distances to fulfill an order. Yes, you play as a glorified delivery boy, but fulfilling orders is much more complicated than simply going from one station to the next. The whole process itself is one big puzzle that you have to solve. From figuring out how much weight you can carry, to negotiating the terrain, to figuring out what to do if BTs or MULES suddenly appear on your route, to keeping yourself upright because factors such as elevation, slopes, and other terrain features can affect your footing, which may result in you face-planting on a rock if you’re not careful. The whole thing can be exhausting, not just because of the myriad of things you have to watch out from preparation, to the actual journey and completion of order, but because you will find yourself identifying with Sam Porter Bridges more and more. Each step he makes becomes your step, and each new route the two of you figure out is a small success that really feels good.
After devoting several paragraphs to the beauty of traversal and completing your orders, here are some elements of the gameplay that, while not exactly bad, are not as stellar. Dealing with BTs can sometimes be quite a chore, not only because fighting them is a whole risk/reward matter (they can be defeated with your blood, but failure to bring a blood-pack means your grenades will take blood from you directly), but it really hampers your momentum somewhat. They also love to appear in places where the terrain is quite difficult, meaning that you can either switch yourself into “horror game” mode and try to figure your way around them, or use the damn grenades.
You would also have to take care of your BB (the baby strapped to you), that allows you to sense BTs. Whenever you fall or take damage, the BB becomes stressed, hampering your ability to sense these specters. Whenever the BB cries, you must take care of it as if you are babysitting the whole time. While the mechanic isn’t actually bad, I find that it adds to my frustration that I would have to worry about the welfare of others beside my own, in an inhospitable environment, no less. But I guess that’s another of Kojima’s ways to make us “re-connect” and be considerate of others.
Dealing with the game’s human antagonists, the MULES and the Homo Demens, is a whole different matter. The Mules are not that difficult to defeat as three well-placed blows can knock them out, but the actual combat mechanics are pretty unwieldy. A surprise considering the Metal Gear Solid series starting with Snake Eater feature video-gaming’s best close-quarters combat available. You eventually gain both lethal and non-lethal weaponry, but the game itself leans heavily to non-lethal methods as killing enemies turns them into BTs.
The Homo Demens – the terrorist group that is opposed to joining the UCA, are a different matter. They’re slightly better than the MULES, but they’re still not that hard to deal with. I think that the only Homo Demens capable of giving you a real challenge is Higgs, the group’s leader (and that’s by virtue of him being the boss).
If anything, these periodic “battles” provide nothing more than distractions to your travels. Sometimes, I’d rather get along with carrying a towering stack of deliveries rather than facing these “enemies”. Yes, Death Stranding made me want to play delivery boy more than fighting enemies, even I am surprised by it. I think part of it is because this game has none of Snake’s skill-set from the Metal Gear Solid series, and fighting does feel clunky at times. To be fair, I don’t expect a delivery boy to fight like a Tier One operator, but with the gameplay as refined as this, the combat is a bit of a let-down.
What isn’t a let-down are the visuals. Death Stranding is graphically stunning, even with the barren and gloomy landscape. Kojima Productions really pushed the limits of what the Decima Engine can offer. Everything is crisp and a pleasure to look at, even with the craters and the atmosphere of despair. Heck, even the BTs looked really creepy as these specters float around waiting to do you harm.
The character models are also top-notch. Norman Reedus is…well, Norman Reedus. The whole motion capture technology really paying dividends in this game. I personally even loved looking at the other characters, especially Mama. For the duration of my playthrough, I have this little crush on Margaret Qualley. But the excellent character models are to be expected: I haven’t played a Hideo Kojima game with aesthetically poor characters since Metal Gear Solid’s low-poly models, and even then, that’s because of the limitations of the technology at that time. Anything from the clothes, the equipment, the cases you have to deliver, the Reverse Trike, and even your room, were meticulously designed.
One particular memory I have is when I was going through some really rough terrain full of rocks and BTs. It was an arduous journey, and I really wanted to get it over with. Once I got through some rocks, I was stunned to see the location of the Edge Port city, with the landscape caldera-like formation around it (Edge Port City was situated on a huge crater-lake formed by a void-out). My jaw dropped at the stunning graphical spectacle that literally jumped at me after I had to negotiate a pretty rough passage. The feelings of awe were genuine.
This is where Kojima’s Hollywood influences shine
Like any other Hideo Kojima game, the music isn’t just great, but it really fits the mood of the game. I really liked it when a track starts playing while Sam is walking to a Waystation to make a delivery. Just listening to the rather hypnotic tracks is enough for me to zone out and focus purely at what I am doing in the game. This is where Kojima’s Hollywood influences shine as the sudden playing of tracks while on a long journey reminded me of shows and movies that pretty much did the same during hiking scenes. Given that Kojima is a huge Hollywood nut, I wouldn’t be surprised if he got the idea from there.
The sound effects also contribute a lot to the gameplay. The BT sound effects really make your skin crawl, and the soundtrack during such scene really adds to the fear and suspense, even though fighting the BTs or the mini-boss battles you’ll have to face whenever the BTs capture you won’t really be a challenge until Act 3. It seems like Kojima is serious about making a horror game, even though it’s a “semi” horror game. Lessons well-learned from the Silent Hills demo perhaps? Horror, after all, is part visual, part auditory.
I do have some issue with the voice-acting though. Most of it is just fine, but at times the voice-acting feels like a monotonous script-reading session. The emotion is sometimes gone, like the VA suddenly giving up trying to put it in their voices. Norman Reedus is fine, although his portrayal of Sam Porter Bridges reminded me so much of his character Daryl Dixon in The Walking Dead. Same expressions, same tone. That’s not exactly a bad thing, but it does give you the impression that you’ve seen – and heard – it somewhere. Reedus’ portrayal of Sam though, can be quite forgiven if you consider that Kojima might have intentionally wrote Sam that way. I have not a single evidence for that, but I certainly wouldn’t put it past Kojima to do it.
Is Death Stranding worth the hype? The answer’s not as straightforward as we would have hoped…
So, finally we’ve come to the meat of the matter: is Death Stranding worth the hype? The answer’s not as straightforward as we would have hoped, not just because any experience will inevitably be subjective, but also due to the nature of the game itself. As I mentioned before, Death Stranding is video game art, and it tries to balance being a video game with being art…and often failing. Video games can – and have been – art, with certain titles being really good artistic forms of expression, but good video games are also entertainment, which often does not require a rather particular taste to enjoy. That’s not to say that Death Stranding is not entertaining (it certainly has its moments), but as with the latter Metal Gear Solid games, your enjoyment can be greatly affected by how much you buy into the wacky, out of this world setting that could only come from the mind of Hideo Kojima.
Kojima once mentioned that he would rather have stories or elements in his games that are difficult to chew on or accept, and perhaps, Death Stranding is a realization of this sentiment. The story is the wildest and weirdest one to come out of the creator, and even upon finishing the game, some plot elements still leave me scratching my head. It’s not that the main plot remained unresolved (it will resolve itself, don’t worry), but when I finally came to a point where I had a better grip at the over-arching narrative, I can’t stop to think about why certain plot elements are in place, and if the mechanics were designed for them and by them, or if plot elements were introduced to explain certain quirks in the gameplay. The question “but why?” kept sounding off in my head, even if the answer (or lack of it) won’t really affect my overall feelings for the game that much.
The game’s main message seems to be that we are all connected and that we are stronger together than apart. To this end, your whole journey of reconnecting the various cities and locations, creating structures that make your job much easier, all of this benfits not just you, but other players. Death Stranding is connected to the internet, and each and every location you reconnect to the Chiral Network allows you to see and use structures made by players who’ve been there before you. Subsequent players will then be able to use the structures YOU created once they have advanced enough in the story to connect to waystations as well.
By creating these “bonds”, Death Stranding teaches its players that working together – making structures like bridges and roads that benefit everyone – is so much better than working against each other. The game makes you realize that by letting you experience how hard it is to go from one point to another, enough to make you consider making things easier for other players. It is the kind of a persistent online universe that allows you to make a mark on the world without having to see dozens of avatars of other players running around.
It is also in direct opposition to the trend in video games today of Battle Royale PvP style game modes. While Hideo Kojima does not condemn these kinds of video games, he endeavored to make something different, that instead of killing each other, the players should try helping each other out.
That a video game is used to relate the message of unity and connected-ness spreaks volumes about the kind of creator Hideo Kojima is. And for that reason alone, I’d say the hype is justified and well-met. The game that has its own flaws, sure, but the refined gameplay, the message it is trying to send across, and the sheer attention to detail makes this a once in a console-generation type of game. Future gamers and developers will talk about this game and dissect its elements, trying to figure it out. Death Stranding, with all its eccentricities, its quirks, its flaws, and its strengths, have elevated video games into an enduring form of art.