I have a confession: I’ve never really played a Hideo Kojima game. Silent Hill always looked like the type of game I’d play, but I never got around to the series. And despite its HUGE popularity I’ve never played the Metal Gear series. Okay, that’s not entirely true. I’ve had about a dozen false starts on the original Metal Gear Solid and then transitioned to false starts on a few other games in the series. I did play through all of Phantom Pains, but never played the entirety of Metal Gear Solid V, despite how appealing it was. Maybe it was the underlying strangeness that kept me away. Perhaps, while I love absurdity in film and TV shows, I wanted my games to keep a different standard. I have regrets, because the strangeness really brings Kojima’s latest game together. And, spoilers, I fucking love Death Stranding.
If you’re not aware yet, most of Death Stranding is about delivering packages. Yeah, really. I mean, I didn’t even know that going in, because I avoided as much information as possible. I thought I was going to get a Silent Hills meets Metal Gear Solid V or something, but what I got was terrestrial Elite Dangerous, or something like the Truck Simulator series– and it’s glorious.
Full disclosure: I find a certain Zen– even a catharsis–in games that eschew time skips in favor of going the full distance. I love the monotony of figuring out how I’m going to survive getting from point A to point B. That’s why games like The Long Dark, and Elite Dangerous appeal to me so much. It’s like the hardcore mode of Diablo 2, but with a slower strategy that feels more like reality–where there are hours of monotony followed up by a moment or two of sheer terror, and Death Stranding manages to invoke that for me.
Perhaps it’s in the highly “technical” way Death Stranding deals with the simple act of walking. Load up protagonist Sam Porter Bridges (played by Normal Reedus) too much and he’ll topple over. But even if he’s got the minimum amount of gear on and he can trip on the terrain if you’re careless. I don’t think I’ve seen a game incorporate tripping as such an integral mechanic. I’ve seen comparisons to Ben Foddy’s QWOP, but it’s not nearly as diabolical. I’m getting ahead of myself, but my point is: Death Stranding feels mechanically satisfying to play. Lugging cargo across rough terrain, whether it be on Sam’s back or in a truck feels like the way it’s supposed to. That is, until you find yourself flipping around on the physics-defying motorcycle. (But I’ll get to that more later).
But Death Stranding is so much more than delivering packages—even though that’s the main gameplay loop. The story, though strange, is extremely well acted, with the production values of the whole game being unparalleled. Throughout the entirety of Death Stranding, there are references, clues, and so many small details that would take me another 50 hours of game time to discover.
And that doesn’t count the sheer strangeness. Yes, there are Monster Energy drinks that you consume IN GAME to get your energy up. Yes, when you use the toilet you can see AMC advertisement for Norman Reedus’ Ride. But as world breaking as that would be in other games, it feels like it fits right into the world of Death Stranding.
As I’ve mentioned, just the logistics of moving from one place to another, loading gear, finding the best route. Man, my mouth is salivating at the prospect. Most of the gameplay in Death Stranding is this. But that’s not to say there isn’t any opposition in the post-apocalyptic America you’ll be delivering packages in. There are those who would want to steal your packages called MULES. They hang out in camps and chase you down if you get too close.
Most weapons in Death Stranding are meant to incapacitate. Killing is a no-no, and unless you have an incinerator handy, a dead body becomes like a bomb—“necrotizing” and exploding in what’s known as a “void-out.” When the Death Stranding came to America, these void-outs left most of the landscape littered with craters. There are combat sections, though most of these exist in an afterlife limbo known as “the beach.”
I don’t want to get too much into the lore and circumstances around Death Stranding. If you’re reading this you may have consumed all you can about the game before getting into it. But, as always, I think maximum enjoyment would be had just experiencing all of the strangeness for yourself. In fact, the main story, and I won’t spoil it here, ended up being told in an extremely interesting way. And despite some strange decisions towards the end of the game, I’m glad my experience of it ended up the way it did. Let me just say: any tedium in Death Stranding has a satisfying payoff—at least for me.
And the world of Death Stranding is filled with interesting characters voiced by people at the top of their game. Norman Reedus does a great job as Sam, Lea Seydoux is great as the cryptobiote eating Fragile, Guillermo Del Toro is stand-out as Deadman. Troy Baker’s Higgs makes for a great—and unsettling—antagonist, and Mads Mikkelson’s performance as Combat Veteran is outstanding.
One of the stranger aspects of Death Stranding are those strange babies in jars you see so closely associated with the title. Those are called “bridge babies” or BB for short. Your BB ends up being a companion throughout the game, and despite it being labelled as a “tool” will actually start to bond with Sam. You have to comfort it when its scared or crying, otherwise it malfunctions and ceases to work. And you’ll want it to work, because the main point of a BB is to see the invisible ghosts that dot the landscape of Death Stranding—the BTs.
BTs are both annoying and terrifying. You don’t really “fight” them in their first form, where they float around as invisible ghosts. You’ll get tools to deal with them, but most of the interactions I’ve had with BTs were avoiding them. And every fight with a BT is like a boss encounter—you will be dragged INTO the ground, as it turns into a black tar, and fight a massive creature while trying not to get killed.
You can fight these BTs in a number of ways, but most likely you’ll be using guns and grenades to shoot your own bodily fluids at them. Mostly blood, but you’ll be using all sorts of urine and feces collected from your toilet to do battle with the ghosts. There are more conventional weapons towards the last half of Death Stranding, but even then, combat never becomes an integral part of the game (outside of a few sequences).
Dying in Death Stranding is interesting, and incorporated into the lore. As a “repatriate” you can enter back into your body after death, where you’ve left off (mostly) where you just were. It’s mostly the act of dying that is inconvenient. Packages can get damaged, ruining deliveries. But staying alive is often not as hard as simply getting from point A to point B over unforgiving terrain.
Luckily, you can build in Death Stranding, and its unique multiplayer component allows you to see and interact with other players’ structures. From zip lines to full blown roads, there’s lots to build in Death Stranding. Most structures can be built anywhere, but a few structures (like the roads that run through the games’ second region) require you to deposit materials at a fixed location. But the leeway you have for building is great. If you have trouble delivering packages in the snow-capped mountains, just build a series of zip-lines to ease your suffering. If you want to use a truck (when they become available) to deliver lots of packages at once, consider donating materials to help your fellow players build the roads and make life easier.
Death Stranding was made with love. I want to say it’s “hand crafted” but that’s nonsense and not really descriptive—but holy wow does this game invoke that feeling. Moving on to other games afterwards just feels like a downgrade in almost every way.
Death Stranding is a strange, sometimes boring, sometimes terrifying, cathartic and satisfying journey across an apocalyptic America with your ghost-sensing baby in a jar. Once you can get your head around your circumstances, eating bugs and fighting on old battlefields will feel like just another quirk in a medium that, let’s face it, is full of high-strangeness. And Death Stranding stands at the top as the standard for all games to meet, strange or not.
Death Stranding is available now for PlayStation 4 and will release on PC summer of 2020.
If you like the video game, tabletop, or other technology content that Third Coast Review has to offer, consider donating to our Patreon. We are the only publication in Chicago that regularly reviews video games, and we cover lots of local Chicago-based events and more. If you want to contribute to our coverage of Chicago’s video game scene (and more) please consider becoming a patron. Your support enables us to continue to provide this type of content and more. Patreon.com/3CR