Kojima Productions' Death Stranding has been at the center of a lot of confusion and conversation in the gaming world over the last few years. It seems that every trailer released has raised more questions than answers, so much so that even now - just before release - people are wondering what exactly this game is about. Well, it's about connections at its heart, but it's also about so much more than that.
We know this as we've sunk around 30 hours into the game to see the credits roll (twice actually), and we've come away from it thinking that there's a lot more clarity in here than Hideo Kojima - of Metal Gear Solid fame - has let on with his pre-release marketing. From what we've been given, one would think that this is a confusing tale that's impossible to keep track of, but when actually sitting down and experiencing Death Stranding, everything's a lot clearer.
Within the first two hours - which are very cutscene-heavy, as Kojima fans will likely not be surprised to hear - we find out the central premise at the heart of this new story. Your job as Sam Bridges throughout the whole game is to head from the East coast of America to the West, connecting hubs of human civilisation in a broken world in order to create the United Cities of America (UCA).
You get this order from US president Bridget Strand and her trusted advisor Die-Hardman, but there's a more personal journey for Sam as well. He has a history with a woman known as Amelie, and she's trapped on the West coast as well, and this serves as more of a driving force for Norman Reedus' character. He has history with Bridget and Die-Hardman, after all, but it's not exactly a friendly reunion at the game's opening.
Interspersed within the opening cutscenes are some light tutorials, showing you how to move with Sam (and his BB, but we'll come back to that) and - most importantly - carry cargo. You're a porter in this game, meaning your purpose is to make deliveries and carry things to where they need to go. You do this by loading things onto your suit and your back, clambering across the environment while trying to do as little damage to you and your equipment as possible.
After we're introduced to the key players and given our central goal of unifying the UCA, that's when Kojima loosens the reins a little. This is where we're let loose in the first map of the game, and before long you're learning how to get from A to B as quickly as possible, which comes down to moving smartly.
That's because your movement requires a lot of thought. Overburden yourself and Sam is more likely to lose balance easily, and you'll need to use R2 and L2 when prompted to shift your weight. You can also use these to grip for extra balance, which is useful when going up or down steep slopes. These are the basics of moving around by foot, and after a while, you're also given rudimentary tools like an extendable ladder and climbing rope to help you on your journey.
As you keep playing you get more missions, which take you further afield to new locations. There are many delivery points in the game, some of which are bigger, major hubs, while others are more like little pit stops. There are optional and critical deliveries to make for each, and the map gradually unfurls before you as you unlock more locations, revealing the massive size of the game.
Part of the reason that we kept coming back for more is that Kojima Productions' is great at layering on mechanics so that you've always got something new to toy with, but you don't feel overwhelmed by the number of options available to you. Before long you're clambering with a ladder and rope falls away as you use a bike, before then unlocking a truck, a floating carrier for cargo, and even extra gear like boots, power suits (to help you when moving by foot), and more.
You might argue that Death Stranding is almost a survival game in disguise. It's not quite like other more extreme examples like Ark, but you constantly have to manage elements like your stamina, footwear conditions, health, battery levels for vehicles, and more to stay on your toes, fabricating gear from resources in the world if and when you need to.
This makes exploration vital, as extra bits of cargo and resources are scattered throughout the game. Metal and other resources are littered about, but you'll have to manually carry these before recycling them, which may be more of a burden than you're willing to accept. There are also natural resources and Chiral Crystals to harvest as well, all of which have their use, especially Chiral Crystals as they're particularly valuable.
You'll often come across cargo that has been lost, meaning you can deliver them to where they need to go if you want. This will give you certain bonuses like an increased connection rating with the recipient - in turn unlocking more extras like cosmetics - but again it's about whether the cost is worth the risk since some may be heavy and the destination out of the way.
Kojima Productions' game also layers on story nicely as well. At the start of the game everything's introduced to you at once, from the weird world we're in to the characters at play, but we're meant to be confused. We're thrown into Sam's story none the wiser, and throughout the 30 hours we played, we were constantly given more answers to piece together events.
This isn't just about Sam's own story, but those around him as well. A spotlight is shone on different characters at different points, with several episodes in the game being dedicated to one person, and you see each of their backstories and how their lives fit into this wider narrative of the Death Stranding, a cataclysmic event that poses a significant threat to humanity.
This Death Stranding is also the reason for BTs, the paranormal floating entities that we've seen already in trailers. These are one of the enemies in the game and are mostly unseen. That's why it's vital that you have your BB with you, as it gives you a blinking indicator on your back, flashing intermittently when you're in the presence of BTs, and getting quicker the closer you get, producing tension that reminded us a lot of the motion detector in Alien: Isolation.
At the beginning, you're helpless to the BTs, as you can only hope to find them when absolutely stationary, before holding your breath to make yourself undetectable as you sneak past. The horrifying noises made these encounters incredibly tense, as did the fact that the ground turns to black goo when you're discovered, with hands reaching out to grab Sam and pull him down to his doom.
You're not totally helpless against the BTs. We're slowly given more tools to fight them with, along with gear to fight against the human enemies we encounter as well, which are another threat we need to watch out for in this hostile environment. These mostly take the form of Mules - scallywags who want to steal cargo for themselves. Porters are a regular occurrence in Death Stranding's world, after all, and they provide a lot of opportunity for thievery. Sam has a lot of options when taking them down, and most of them are non-lethal, like a gun that wraps projectiles around the bad guys to tie them up and incapacitate them.
Combat isn't exactly common, but there's enough of it to make you think about balancing your need to carry weaponry (which has weight just like cargo does) with your desire to stay light, and it's worth remembering that you can also melee attack at close range. You're encouraged to get around using long grass, taking enemies down with a sneak attack if possible, especially since they're very aggressive and have backup in big trucks a lot of the time. That said, there are cargo rewards if you venture into their camp, so again it's all about balance.
Going back to BB though, this baby is crucial not only to detect BTs but also to the narrative as well. You're attached to this child at an early age, and you have to care for it in order to get the benefits. If you go into deep water that submerges the case, for example, it'll get stressed and cry (through your controller's speaker no less), and if it gets too stressed it'll stop working. This means you'll need to take regular breaks to stop and rock your BB using the motion-controls on the DualShock 4, calming it down.
The BB is just one character with an engaging story, and in fact, we're given so many personal stories about the various characters around Sam, painting a vibrant picture as we go through the main story. Mad Mikkelsen's character stood out to us with an incredible scene later in the game, but everyone from Léa Seydoux's Fragile to Guillermo del Toro's Deadman provide intense and engaging stories.
Perhaps some people might not have expected this, but there's a strong online component with Death Stranding as well, although not as you're used to seeing. The closest comparative point is Dark Souls, as often you see other people's influence on the world via signs but without them actually being there with you, and Death Stranding is much the same.
This is because you're constantly interacting with others despite being on your own. Other players in the game can deliver parcels you leave at distribution centres, for example, and you can deliver theirs, and just like Dark Souls you can leave a variety of messages too, and all interactions have the potential to give you extra Likes (the points system in the game that is awarded for all actions).
This extends to the features in the world as well, as you're allowed to craft while out and about, and others can use your structures, leaving you Likes if they're useful. A key ladder over a difficult bit of terrain will get a lot of likes, as will a battery charging point or a temporary Safe House, and in this way, you grow to really relish the community's input in your world as it affects you and your experience in a meaningful and tangible way. We really felt grateful when a useful bit of equipment showed up while we were in desperate need, and it really deepened the theme of connections.
Speaking of Safe Rooms, these act as your sort of base, with several hubs - or 'Knots' in the overall strand of the UCA - featuring them. These allow you to customise your gear, consume energy drinks, ablute (your urine, faeces, and shower water can be turned into grenades for narrative reasons we won't spoil), and more, not to mention recovering your stamina, health, and battery levels too.
We had gripes with the game, despite being thoroughly enticed and intrigued throughout. The vehicle physics, for example, are just not very good. The vehicles are useful for getting around, but they clunk all over the place and stop on the slightest obstruction, making it a real pain to get anywhere with undamaged goods at times, especially with the bike that struggled on anything but flat road.
The ending also dragged on a bit for us, featuring two credit sequences in a bloated and messy finale that didn't know when it really wanted to end. The story concluded several times but kept on going, to the point where we just didn't know what to expect any more.
Those issues shouldn't take away from the fact that Death Stranding is an incredibly unique product that got us hooked due to the constant introduction of new mechanics and information, making us feel like we were growing as the game opened up further and further. The social systems in place showed us how much we need our fellow man, and we often wanted to return the favour because of that, helping others through the engaging narrative just as they'd helped us.
With the focus on delivery and cargo at its core, Death Stranding certainly won't be for everyone, especially at the beginning, but there's so much more here than being a delivery boy. It offers a mind-bending narrative the likes of which you won't find anywhere else, and one that constantly rewards you and makes you think long after you've put it down to do something else. Kojima fan or not, this is certainly a game to remember.
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