One of the most anticipated games possibly ever, Death Stranding has gleefully surfed a wave of pre-release obfuscation. Just what the heck is it all about, beyond the oft-stated objective of “connection”?
There’s an old joke that asks how many surrealists it takes to change a light bulb. The answer? A fish. We reckon that would make perfect sense to Hideo Kojima, the remarkably fertile mind behind Death Stranding.
He’s an out-there cat, and pretty much as close as the games world comes to having an auteur. His film connections aren’t only one of the keys to this experience, several of them are even involved. Gullermo del Toro plays a recurring character, as does Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn. Main characters are represented by the likes of Norman Reedus, Mads Mikkelsen, Léa Seydoux and even the Bionic Woman herself, Lindsay Wagner. Kojima’s connected.
Furthering our suspicions that Kojima would dearly like to be making films rather than games, the early hours of immersion see cutscenes ruling airtime, gradually pulling us into a hyper-creative and fascinating story. It’s set after the titular Death Stranding, a cataclysmic event that saw a form of alien entity hit the Earth with everything it had, leaving humanity teetering on the brink of extinction. You control the hero of this here experience, Sam (Reedus), who’s a delivery guy tasked with reconnecting the severed ties between cities across the USA via a “Chiral network”. As players will gradually learn, this is no easy feat. Some survivors welcome him, some don’t.
To oversimplify things, Death Stranding is a resource management game crossed with what initially comes across very much as a walking (well, more accurately, falling over) simulator.
To oversimplify things, Death Stranding is a resource management game crossed with what initially comes across very much as a walking (well, more accurately, falling over) simulator. Sam needs to make deliveries from A to B, with everything that he chooses to carry having a specific weight. The more Sam carries, the harder it is for him to walk – overweigh him and you can just about watch snails zip past as you struggle manfully onward, unless you head downhill, in which case momentum wins. Because of this welcome realism – no bottomless sack of wonders here – sudden turns or bumps can cause Sam’s load to shift, requiring a stab of the left or right trigger to balance him. Much time will be spent stumbling, at least until you learn the fix – hold both triggers down and he’ll stay upright. Sure, he’ll be a bit slower, but it saves a lot of cursing – and scraped knees.
These initial impressions may be disappointing to some, but Death Stranding is a game that rewards those who persist. It’s much like a Katamari, in that the further you progress, the more crap you accumulate. Eventually, quicker means of transport unlock – but you then have to manage which are best for whichever routes you choose in order to make your way through the rather bleak, open world wilderness. You can’t drive a trike up a sheer cliff face, yet one of those ladders you’re schlepping… Speaking of those trikes, they are utter, utter bastards to control. There. We’ve said it.
Managing your means of transport – including keeping its battery charged – is just the first of many a layer. Death Stranding is a bureaucrat’s dream. You also have to manage yourself with sufficient rest. You wee, you poo, you shower, you watch your health via eating grub-like cryptobiotes, you drink a certain real world brand of energy drink that we daresay Kojima will soon receive a free warehouse full of. You also carry blood bags to help keep you alive, both from wear and tear such as anaemia and bigger attacks, which we’ll get to. Even your shoes wear out! Oh yes, you also have to manage all manner of materials and minerals used for building objects that range from postboxes to bridges, roads and rest stops. At least a handy “Odradek” scanner helps with locating such things in the wild.
Then there’s delivery management. They start simply with key, single missions, before quickly becoming more complicated as you juggle manadatory and optional deliveries – the latter including dropping things off that others in the world have left abandoned. These are by other real-world players, as the world is shared online. This can be handy when somebody has come before you and built a bridge over that raging river, or dropped a bunch of stuff that you can do useful things with. To this end you also create connections with other players, and anything from signs to structures that the world is strewn with can be liked by others, social media style. Eventually you also get to manage happy little delivery robots, which look like something out of a Herbie Hancock video.
Are you overloaded yet? Wait, there’s more. Throughout the ravaged USA that you traverse lie area inhabited by MULEs. They don’t take kindly to other delivery peeps, and if you don’t manage to stealth your way past them they’ll go on the offensive, trying to nab your precious cargo. No problem though, if you don’t sneakily garrotte them, stun-gun them or punch their lights out with your fists, you can give them a satisfying whack with something that you’re carrying. These guys are but minor annoyances, however…
Sam – and, indeed, all survivors – face a creepy variation on acid rain called “timefall”, and if they’re not careful, unleashed BTs – or “beached things,” which take the form of multi dangly-limbed creatures that are not your friends. Luckily your Bridge Baby or “BB” – yes, the star of many a trailer for the game – helps you to detect these things, so look after the little cutie, yeah? BTs appear should you not manage to escape their initial assault of creepy, inky humanoid shapes grabbing at you from within the Earth. The first time – heck, even subsequent times – that these attacks occurred it seriously bordered on knicker-soiling. Fail to get away and these assaults quickly devolve into challenging battles, in which you utilise various bodily fluids in the form of grenades to make good your defense. You see, as a repatriate – kind of half human, half, erm, something – you, Sam, are special. You may also be the key to survival for everybody…
These BTs aren’t all you’ll have to deal with opposition-wise, and the sheer scale of battles increases as you trudge ever further – both against creatures, and the elements.
We could just about pen a novel to fully explore Death Stranding, and obviously there’s much, much more that we could divulge beyond the basics outlined above. Naturally, however, this is a game with a story – and many functionalities – best discovered for yourself.
Death Stranding will be a polarising release. There will be those who think it’s a revolutionary evolution in video game history, while others will see it as a souped-up, overhyped walking simulator with more resource management than you have to deal with in trying to navigate real life – The Sims on seriously potent steroids. In our many days of play – this is FAR from being a one big session quick knock over – we flip-flopped between being completely absorbed in Sam’s story, and hurling abuse at the screen and rage quitting in abject annoyance. It could easily be argued that much of the gameplay adds fiddly, unnecessary busywork and padding, and some will likely think that the (unskippable) cutscenes alone would have made a perfectly great movie without the need for added interaction.
Honestly, we’re still not entirely sure exactly where we sit. Which brings us to our rating: A fish.
Death Stranding is available November 8 for PS4.