Death Stranding (PC) review: Mountains, Metaphors and Mystery Boxes
- 13 July, 2020 17:00
Ahead of its initial release on the Playstation 4, there was a lot of consternation over just what Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding was. Depending on who you ask, the lavishly-produced open-world sandbox game is either a work of genius or daunting indulgence. Some might say it’s both.
But for a long time, it felt like the only thing that was really known about Death Stranding - Kojima’s first original property in over a decade and his first release since parting ways with post-Konami - was the long list of celebrities attached to the project. Norman Reedus. Mads Mikkelsen. Lea Sedoux. Guillermo Del Toro. Nicholas Winding Refn. Early trailers for the game dropped plenty of big names but gave little away.
A stark contrast to the sometimes painfully overt and obtuse hype cycles of other AAA titles, the team behind Death Stranding refused to explain anything. Not even the spooky title. The internet loves a good mystery box, after all.
Previously an exclusive to Sony’s console, Death Stranding has now come to the PC. What’s more, it’s made that jump at a time where the game’s vision of a desperate future where human society is divided and isolated by fear of an invisible threat feels oddly prescient or at least more resonant than it did the first time around.
The BTs of Death Stranding are no coronavirus and, after a few months in the wild, Hideo Kojima’s science fiction odyssey isn’t so much of a mystery anymore. Nevertheless, freed of previous limits, it’s no less compelling an adventure.
It’s a mad, mad world
While the sense of mystery implied by the title is itself a major thread of the plot, it’s hard not to talk about the gameplay in Death Stranding without laying down some of the basics.
Set in the not-so-distant-future, Death Stranding follows the survivors of a cryptic calamity that irreparable shattered civilization as we know it. At some point in the past, otherworldly invaders from the world of the dead called Beached Things (AKA BTs) started appearing and causing massive explosions akin to a nuclear blast.
As a result of this seemingly-supernatural phenomenon, Death Stranding’s vision of a post-apocalyptic America is one where humans have retreated underground and become reliant on couriers to physically ferry vital supplies from one place to another.
Cast as Sam Porter Bridges, you’re one of those unlucky few tasked with delivering packages on foot, investigating the mysteries surrounding the origins of the Death Stranding and rebuilding a derelict America by connecting the remaining survivors through the ‘internet-like’ Chiral Network.
Without going too deeply into other details like Timefall (a meteorological phenomenon that causes objects to age years in seconds), MULEs (renegade couriers driven mad by their need to deliver packages), Beaches (the personal purgatory between life and death) and the game’s absurdly-named cast of characters (Heartman, Deadman and Die-Hardman), Death Stranding has a LOT going on in it beyond just the A and B-plots.
Each of the game’s major story arcs (called Episodes) tends to focus on a new region of the world and a single specific individual and their relationship with Sam. There’s also a ton of smaller side-content for those who want to spend the time getting to know each of the game’s various doomsday preppers. It’s a simple formula but, compared to the breakneck ‘never let up’ storytelling found in other AAA games, it’s refreshingly laid back. The game encourages you to tackle things at your own pace. It’s more a slow-burn than a sprint.
Even if the more ridiculous conceits here feel at odds with the game’s often-sombre and more mature tone, Death Stranding comes off as just as charming as it is clumsy. Like many of Kojima’s other works, the writing in the game is rarely subtle and often more than a little melodramatic.
Some audiences will be more forgiving of the game’s indulgences more than others but, either way, the storytelling does sometimes become bogged down by its own bizarre mythology. When the default tone is so strange, it becomes difficult to spot the suspicious behavior and hidden agendas at play here.
The tyranny of social distancing
Still, as overwrought and plodding as the writing in Death Stranding is, it suits the gameplay well. In a world where most AAA games are about snappy, fast-paced gameplay and instant gratification, Death Stranding isn’t afraid to slow things down and take its time.
It’d be a mistake to call it a walking simulator but, at least to begin with, there’s a barebones sentimentality that makes it feel that way. The mission design here rarely ventures beyond walking from A to B but there’s a ton of attention to detail here that elevates a seemingly simple formula out into a meaningful and memorable adventure.
Convoluted premises aside, missions in Death Stranding are rarely as simple as they might seem. Once you’ve plotted a course to your destination, you’ll have to keep an eye out for environmental hazards, keep track of your stamina and remain constantly vigilant lest you lose your balance and stumble.
Mitigating any of these individual concerns is rarely taxing but taken together, the act of juggling them all at once keeps you engaged and immersed in the action. It’s tedious by design but not egregiously so. There's genuine satisfaction in a straightforward job done well, after all.
What’s more, making mistakes in Death Stranding can sometimes be a large part of the fun.
In one instance, I had to courier some supplies to a nearby prepper. Noticing the distance wasn't particularly great, I opted for the most direct route. Unfortunately, this took me into hostile territory.
Later, on the run from a pack of MULEs, I realised the real problem with this route is that a large ravine sits between me and the plateau where my destination lies. I scope out the cliff’s edge. I curse myself for not bringing a ladder. I size out the distance like Homer Simpson preparing to jump Springfield Gorge.
‘I could jump that,’ I optimistically think to myself.
Instead, I tumble down into the depths below. As my pursuers surrounded me, I scrambled for cover and frantically looked for ways to leverage the natural rock formations around me to my advantage.
Like I said before, things are rarely as simple as they seem. And even at its worst, Death Stranding is full of anecdotes and detours like this. It feels like the game has been impeccably and ingeniously designed to engineer these kinds of memorable moments and unexpected encounters.
More often than not, distance itself is often your greatest adversary and this game gives you tools upon tools with which to conquer it. There’s a minimalist pleasure in the act of simply hiking across the landscape to your destination but a blistering thrill in zipping across it once you unlock vehicles and other, faster methods of travel.
In addition to increasing your own speed, Death Stranding later gives you the ability to change the landscape around you through structures.
Initially, you’re limited to smaller utilities like postboxes, which let you deliver any lost packages you find littering the landscape, and watchtowers, which give you a vantage point from which you can gather intel about the surrounding area. Eventually, you gain the ability to build bridges, roads and other things to make life easier for yourself.
For as long and slow-paced as Death Stranding is, it continues to throw new items, mechanics and structures at you throughout. It feels like the game is constantly one upping itself adding fresh new ingredients to the mix.
‘You thought roads are cool? Wait until you see this.’
Somehow, someway, Death Stranding makes mundane infrastructure feel just as compelling as unlocking a new gun or ability in something like Rage 2.
The construction system in Death Stranding also ties neatly into the title’s multiplayer elements.
While there’s nothing as discrete or deliberate as actually playing with friends, the structures you build can often turn up in other player’s games and vice-versa. This cross-pollination helps build up a sense of community that I didn’t expect from the game going into it.
Death Stranding is an entirely single player adventure but, to its credit, it rarely feels like you’re the only delivery-person out there doing the work of getting those packages where they need to go or the only person in the world that matters.
The final piece of the puzzle here are the stealth-action sequences. As the saying goes: when it rains it pours and precipitation often precedes the arrival of BTs. Whenever that happens, you’ll need to slow down and either sneak past or around them.
While some of the early BT encounters are scripted, most of the time, they aren’t. They’re systemic. Not every delivery is going to see you go up against them but there’s always a chance, and you need to be preparing for that possibility.
The problem here is that BTs are all but invisible until it’s too late. To navigate this ambiguity, you’re given a Bridge Baby (AKA your BB). This small child is strapped to your chest and essentially acts as a portable BT detector. If you’re not moving, you'll be able to get a sense of where nearby BTs are and proceed based on that intel.
The sound design in Death Stranding really shines here. Sifting through the sonic debris of your own footsteps, the otherworldly cries of nearby BTs, the wailing of your BB, the pitter-patter of the timefall itself and the metronomic chimes of your odradek really draws you into the natural tension of the situation.
As with the quieter stretches of the Death Stranding experience, BT encounters are a juggling act. You have to think about how much noise you’re making as you move, how close you are to nearby BTs, whether BB needs to be cradled back to silence, how much damage the timefall is having on your gear and more. On their own, none of these is overwhelming but forced to reckon with them all at once, you're kept on your toes.
Being detected will result in a chaotic and oft-surreal boss fight sequence. Even if these confrontations can be survived or absconded from, there’s usually a risk or cost involved. Detection doesn’t equal failure here, it’s just a catalyst for complications.
The last thing worth touching on here are the things exclusive to this version of Death Stranding. Unlike the PS4 version of the game, you can really crank the visual settings in the game up to eleven.
The open world game also now supports higher frame-rates and larger resolutions - even wide-screen displays. There’s even a dedicated photo mode in the mix. As far as ports go, this thing includes more than just the essentials. It’s arguably the definitive edition of the game.
Last and least, the PC version of Death Stranding comes with a handful of unique Half Life-flavored missions that let you unlock a number of accessories for Sam. This content is entirely skippable but it’s a fun, if goofy, bit of bonus fun for those that want it.
The Bottom Line
It’s hard not to talk about a game like Death Stranding without also tackling the cult of personality around the man behind the game: Hideo Kojima.
Kojima’s past works - specifically the Metal Gear Solid series - have earned him worthy praise and a reputation as one of gaming’s greatest auteurs. But as far as critical theory goes, the support for the notion of auteurs and whether they really exist has waxed and waned over the years. Before blindly accepting and attaching this label to Kojima or anyone else, it’s important to actually unpack what it means in the context of films and whether the conditions that enable auteurs actually exist in the world of AAA games development.
The idea of an auteur begins and ends with the assumption that great art isn’t so much made by people as it is made by a person. In the world of film production, you either think the director is the tip of the spear or the guy holding the spear itself. An auteur is someone so ingrained and influential in every aspect of the creative process for a film that they exert a sort of gravity around the final product that’s closer to the relationship between an author and a written work.
With films, it’s arguably easier to make the case for auteurs as everything that the audience sees can be directly shaped or molded by someone like the director. Either it’s in-frame or it’s not.
With games, you have to reckon with an entirely production environment and I’m not so convinced that the same rules apply.
Sure, Kojima’s influence is easy to see here but the downside of auteur theory is that it almost erases the creative contributions of hundreds or so other people involved in a project. Regardless of just how involved he was with any specific part of Death Stranding, Kojima is going to end up with either the lion’s share of the credit or blame.
One person didn’t make this game. A whole team of people put in the work here and they deserve the credit for it because Kojima Productions’ debut title is nothing short of exceptional.
It’s not perfect but there’s an ambition to try and use verbs that aren’t just ‘shoot’ here that I wish more games of this scale would try to emulate. In that respect, it’s very much the thing I wish more AAA games strove to be.
For as much as the typical cinematic stylings and questionable dialogue that gaming auteur Kojima is known for are present here, Death Stranding feels like a game that’s firmly stepping out of its comfort zone and into the unknown. Not every idea in Death Stranding is a winner but I’m delighted to grapple with it nonetheless.
Death Stranding is incredibly convoluted but incredible all the same.