There are many things that Kojima has been called by the gaming press but for me, he will always be a master storyteller and a master of misdirection. That last bit is especially important considering everything that’s been happening during the promotion for Death Stranding. There were a couple of trailers at first and all of us found them as engaging as they were confusing. What kind of game is this? A horror one with some black tar and invisible enemies? A time travel story mixed up with some philosophical pondering straight out of Metal Gear Solid? We could only guess. Then the game came out and in the effort to boil it down to the basics it was labeled as a walking simulator. After playing it non stop for the previous week, I can say it is that and so much more. It is an incredibly topical game with an atmosphere that slowly grows on you and of course, it wouldn’t be a Kojima game with some philosophy sprinkled through it.
The game is set in the post-apocalyptic USA, where the cataclysmic event known as the “Death Stranding” caused BTs (Beached Things) to appear and consume all dead beings if they’re near them. BTs are said to come from the “Beach”, a realm said to be linked with the afterlife. BTs are also known to cause “voidouts”, huge explosions triggered when they consume the dead. They also produce “Timefall”, a type of rain that deteriorates and ages rapidly anything it hits. The remaining population has confined itself in remote colonies, known as “Knot Cities” and they all form “United Cities of America”. And then, there’s you. Sam Bridges, a delivery man traversing through unpleasant terrain, avoiding BTs and all sorts of dangers in order to get your precious cargo from point A to point B.
You deliver stuff through abandoned cities, mountain valleys, and snowstorms. There will be a lot of walking. Occasionally some driving and gunplay once you unlock the required tools but all in all, it is a pretty lonesome game. Not to say it’s boring. Death Stranding has been out on PC for a while now but it’s clear how polarizing game it is. Either something “clicks” in you and you get immersed in its world or it will be seen as a waste of time and money for some. There is no middle ground. Funny enough, even though it is seen as an open-world game where you pick what to deliver, it is best to run through the story as soon as possible and only then have fun with optional content. The reason for that is that some important upgrades are story locked and things get a little easier when you can rush through the terrain with an electric bike or a truck. Aside from terrain, the ever-present danger is BTs and enemy porters (aka delivery men). Those porters will stop at nothing to steal your precious cargo and deliver it themselves, sometimes even employing deadly weapons against you. BTs are a different story, however. They’re usually invisible, but you can get a glimpse of them when crouching still. Any contact with them will summon an otherwordly entity that you have to defeat in order to escape. They are an enraging nuisance until you develop some weapons and tools to properly evade or destroy them. And lastly, the most important enemy in the game is you. Well, your cargo. There is a limit of how much you can carry on your back and exceeding the limit will mess with your balance and stamina. It’s especially tricky to balance 60+ kilos of anything on your back while climbing up and down the mountain slopes. One thing I have to point out regarding the gameplay is that the game is surprisingly easy, even on normal. There is this annoying story spot from Chapter 2 to Chapter 3 where BTs become a serious threat and you have exactly zero tools or ways to deal with them (besides completely avoiding them and sneaking at a snails’ pace). Other than that, every other gameplay mechanic such as stamina and cargo management is incredibly easy to master.
Death Stranding is the first game that welcomes the DECIMA engine on PC. It feels like an improved version of FOX ENGINE from Metal Gear Solid V. Not a resource-heavy, incredibly well optimized, and a reason behind some of the most gorgeous screenshots on my Steam profile. It’s impressive how the developers made it all work on the visual front considering how little they had to begin with. You basically have three types of terrain in Death Stranding – snowy mountains, endless green pastures, and occasional ruins of the civilization scorched by the black tar. But with clever combining and some insane creativity in open-world design, you barely notice the scarcity of the said elements.
Kojima wouldn’t be Kojima if he didn’t try to introduce us to some good artists in all of his games. Metal Gear Solid V made me discover Joan Baez and Midge Ure and with Death Stranding, we got the magnum opus of a post-rock band called Low Roar. The band’s discography is featured heavily in the game and their muffled tones complement heavily the desolate atmosphere of the game. It would also be unfair to not mention the absolutely stellar voice acting by the crème de la crème of Hollywood. The cast includes Guillermo Del Toro, Mads Mikkelsen, Lea Seydoux, Nicolas Winding Refn, Norman Reedus (as the titular character) and occasional celebrity cameos such as Conan O’Brien.
As I played through Death Stranding, I couldn’t help but think about it’s strange but impeccable timing when it comes to a PC release. The society lives in a self-isolation hiding from an invisible threat (reminds you of something topical?) and the only connection with humanity in the game is seen through our eyes, as we control our character. The civilization as we knew it is long gone, people live in shelters but the technological advances and the connections are uninterrupted. You can be connected with anyone and anytime in the world of Death Stranding and then….there’ you. A single delivery man traversing on foot in order to connect already connected cities. With technology but not by human factors. And while the game is a well-rounded experience I like it because you can see Kojima’s personal growth here in terms of storytelling. He managed to achieve the right amount of subtle while not beating you over the head with crystal clear metaphors. Death Stranding is a serene and philosophical journey disguised as a walking simulator that will make you ponder more and more about what it means to be human as you travel through its desolate areas.
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