Award-winning video game director Hideo Kojima, who is known for his philosophical, surreal, complex, and deeply strange imagination and his personal brand of enigmatic idiosyncrasy, debuted the frighteningly beautiful Death Stranding to the world at E3 2016. Since then the blockbuster PlayStation 4 game and its cryptic title have been shrouded in mystery. Even after the release of six or more trailers, numerous interviews and unconventional promotions, the action sci-fi game remains an enigma. With cinematics that featured a crying baby locked in a jar, Lovecraftian alien creatures hovering over bruised skies, Mads Mikkelsen covered in black tar, and Norman Reedus naked in a barren wasteland, the world raised its collective eyebrows.
In just over a week, after two years of marketing, gamers will get hands-on time with Death Stranding and finally discover the true meaning behind some of the bizarre imagery. But is the game worth the hype? Is the gameplay as good as the visuals? Is it as overwhelming as Red Dead Redemption 2? And is it as good as Kojima’s previous work?
In short, yes. And yes again.
Freed from the constraints of Konami suits, the legendary game creator who once pioneered Metal Gear Solid has brewed an unsettling epic that expands the boundaries of gaming. In some aspects, it truely feels like Kojima is finally getting to make the game he always wanted to make. Wearing the cap of writer, director, game designer and producer, everything about Death Stranding echoes the industry veteran’s unique and weird cinematic storytelling methods. In simple terms, if you enjoyed Metal Gear Solid 4, then you’re going to love this game.
Death Stranding takes place in a futuristic post-apocalyptic US that has been torn apart by a series of devastating supernatural attacks. There are invisible beings, called BTs, that hover over the barren lands and destroy anything that moves. As a result, the remaining population live underground and have lost contact with one another. A government organization called Bridges tries to link the last remaining cities across the country together in the Chiral Network, the game’s version of the internet.
Porter Sam Bridges is tasked by the president with trekking alone from one part of the country to the other, reconnecting cities to the UCA and delivering small (but sometimes heavy) packages to various stations. His only company is a defective BB, a baby in a jar attached to his suit, which is used to identify BTs.
Explaining anything beyond that and we head into spoiler territory.
Most of the game’s stunning cutscenes reveal the backstory behind each of the characters at play in Death Stranding. The arcane story, which has a wealth of incidental and hidden detail, is divided into episodes, and each episode is dedicated to a different character. As the game progresses the curtain is lifted to reveal various twists and surprises.
That said, the first few episodes in Death Stranding are slow and difficult. The game takes its time introducing the world and the mechanics necessary to survive. In fact, Kojima himself admitted that the game only really takes off and becomes fun later on. For casual gamers, this might be a problem.
The same issues that turned gamers away from Red Dead Redemption 2 are present here. With a focus on realism, a lot of the gameplay relies on doing mundane work, like remembering to shower, eating, sleeping and changing your boots. Furthermore, you’ll be tasked with balancing packages on your back as you run on foot across large open spaces for a few minutes before reaching your destination. This can become exhausting, especially for those who simply want to have fun.
The fun side does eventually arrive though, and the game becomes exceptionally interesting from there on out. In time you’ll have access to vehicles, weapons and a different set of skills, all upgradable. You’ll also visit interesting (and starkly different) locations, meet interesting characters and fight mules (the game’s version of dispensable henchmen).
Explaining all the mechanics of the game would take forever. All you really need to know about Death Stranding before playing is that you’ll need to be patient and you’ll need to pay close attention to orders and requests. Also, it’s a very long game. You’ll need to put in the hours in order to get through it. The world is vast and there is a lot to do, and that’s aside from the side missions available.
Unlike most games, each character in Kojima’s masterpiece feels alive, thanks to the wonderful and earnest performances by the actors involved with the project. The virtual ensemble cast which also includes Lindsay Wagner, Troy Baker, Nicolas Winding Refn, Margaret Qualley, Guillermo del Toro and Tommie Earl Jenkins, do a fantastic job. If it wasn’t a game, Death Stranding could have been an amazing sci-fi TV series (it’s too long to be a film).
Connecting and connectivity are at the forefront of the game. This is particularly evident in the game’s multiplayer. What you do in the game might affect another person’s game, in a way. For example, packages offloaded by one player can be picked up by another person at a later stage. You can also sometimes see tracks or the direction in which other players went.
Death Stranding‘s biggest achievement, however, is the way it blends the strong narrative with the gameplay. Kojima has barred no holds, delivering an uncompromising and operatic blockbuster that moves between scenes and actual gameplay with ease. Of course, it’s still laden with sentimental sermons about war and evil, like most of Kojima’s work, but it’s also filled with dramatic high-points that’s richly satisfying. He has somehow managed to refine his ideas from Guns Of The Patriots with Death Stranding. There’s still spectacle, pathos, thrills and moments of tenderness present, but it’s not as over-the-top or unrelatable as his former work.
That said, you must understand that Death Stranding is probably not for everyone. While there are level difficulties to choose from, the game doesn’t really hold your hand at any point. This might be frustrating for casual gamers who might feel like they are babysitting the character, by telling him when to eat, sleep and poop, rather than being entertained with large action set pieces. Also, some of the bizarre ideas and mechanics also might repel certain gamers who prefer a more linear and comprehensive story.
In summary, Death Stranding will either be the best game you’ve played in 2019 or the worst. Arguing that it isn’t a masterstroke of genius is foolish though. The way it marries film and gaming is truly groundbreaking. Kojima deserves every award coming to him, and then some.
If you loved Metal Gear Solid 4, then you'll love Death Stranding. Hideo Kojima has mastered the art of combining both film and video gaming, and the amalgamation is something revolutionary for both fields.
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