The PlayStation 2 sure was a console, wasn't it? It's easy to forget what a unique time it was for games as developers large and small threw ideas at the wall just to see what stuck. I remember a friend getting me a copy of Katamari Damacy for my birthday. I had originally planned on skipping it??—too weird?—but as I rolled about gobbling up blocks, animals, and eventually people, I discovered that I loved its weird, wonderful sensibilities. The PlayStation 2 era was full of such games, which is perhaps one reason why it's remembered so fondly.
These days, strange and inventive games like Katamari Damacy mostly rise out of the indie space. In the high stakes world of blockbuster game development, developers are content to stick to established formulas. Just look at the games of this fall: Call of Duty, Borderlands 3, Jedi: Fallen Order. Even The Outer Worlds is a pretty conventional RPG when it comes down to it. That makes Death Stranding a curious anomaly—a big-budget throwback to the wilder days of the PS2.
In one of his more grandiose quotes, director Hideo Kojima claimed that Death Stranding would be the foundation for a whole new genre, and it certainly is difficult to describe in conventional terms. It's a little like when people tried to put Katamari Damacy in a box back in 2004. It's uh… a game where you roll around a ball and destroy the world.
At its heart, I guess you could say Death Stranding is a post-apocalyptic survival game; one where the dead have flooded in from the afterlife, and Amazon delivery people have become feral rogues. But mostly it's about delivering packages. Lots and lots of packages. It might be Kojima's boldest and most interesting game to date. It may also be his most tedious.
In Death Stranding, you are cast as Sam Porter Bridges—Kojima has a thing for extremely literal names—sometimes referred to as "The Great Deliverer." Bridges is one of the few capable of ferrying critical packages across a hostile landscape crawling with bandits and BTs—ghostly creatures from another plain of existence. Playing as Bridges, portrayed by The Walking Dead's Norman Reedus, you are charged with rebuilding America by connecting it to a high-tech network that grants access to knowledge lost in the apocalyptic event called "The Death Stranding," as well the ability to 3D print structures on a mass scale.
"Sam, if we don't all come together again, we're finished," Sam is told by President Bridget Strand, America’s first (and last) woman president. Her sentiment seemingly gives voice to the hand-wringing you see among boomers. Whatever happened to the America I used to know? Why are we so divided?
When I heard the original premise for Death Stranding, I worried that it was some kind of trite political fable about America coming back together—The Postman, but with ghosts and babies in jars. Thankfully, Death Stranding doesn't go in that direction. It's more apocalyptic than that. If anything, it bears a greater resemblance to Neon Genesis Evangelion, which probably shouldn't be a surprise given Kojima's affinity for mecha. Fans will detect more than a few similarities to that classic anime in Death Stranding, starting with the eponymous event that reshapes the world, which resembles Evangelion's apocalyptic Second Impact.
Upon finally accepting the mission to rebuild America, Sam sets off on the first of many journeys to deliver goods to the shelters scattered across the country. These trips comprise the bulk of Death Stranding's gameplay, and they are both an interesting strength and immense weakness. I have no doubt that more than a few players will quit in frustration and boredom after being asked for the umpteenth time to backtrack to Lake Knot City to deliver another generic package. Personally, I loathe fetch quests—I consider them an egregious waste of time and avoid them like the plague in other games—so it's a miracle that I don't hate Death Stranding with every fiber of my being.
What keeps it from becoming unbearable is the method by which you get from Point A to Point B. It's pretty much the exact opposite of games like Assassin's Creed, where all you need to navigate rough terrain is to hold a button. Before setting out, you need to arrange the cargo on Sam's back, which at times resembles a Jenga tower as it sways dangerously back and forth. Once you're in the wilderness, you need to carefully negotiate rocks, cross rivers, and manage fatigue, all while Sam stumbles and slips as you hold the shoulder buttons to keep him upright. If you go too fast, Sam will slam awkwardly to the ground, sending his cargo everywhere. If you try to ford a river that's too deep, Sam will lose his footing and his cargo will go floating off a waterfall. There's a grittiness to the traversal that's absent in other big-budget games, and it goes a long way toward selling the notion of Sam being all alone in the wilderness.
As your proceed along your route, you're apt to run into BTs, who drift aimlessly above the ground, mostly invisible to the naked eye. You are warned of their presence when the sky suddenly darkens, your breath becomes visible, and your scanner activates. It's memorable and terrifying the first time it happens, as you're entirely defenseless against them in the early goings. The best you can do is to press R1 to hold your breath as they drift past. It gets even freakier if they successfully catch you and carry you away in their muck, bringing you face to face with a massive shadow creature intent on devouring you. The giant shadow creatures were clumsy and never seemed to catch me, but the aural and visual experience was such that I still consistently found my heart racing as I dodged across rooftops rising out of black pitch, desperate to get away.
These moments are some of the most intense that Death Stranding has to offer, adding a dash of horror to its mish-mash of genres. It's perhaps a taste of what we might have gotten out of Silent Hills, which Kojima and Guillermo Del Toro briefly collaborated on before Konami ultimately pulled the plug. It makes you wonder if Kojima missed his calling as a horror director. He certainly has the imagination and flair for it, along with a seeming fascination with the dead which permeates many of his later games.
In any case, once you finally make it to your destination, you and Sam will both be exhausted. BTs and bandits will leave you covered in blood and muck, and much of your equipment will be rusted out thanks to Timefall—a periodic patter of rain that rapidly ages anything it touches. After making the delivery, you can head to a private room, where Sam will collapse into bed and fall into an exhausted slumber. The ability to take a hot shower afterward, which also awards you weapons, is a blessing.
These moments make you empathize with Sam in ways that few games can manage. While he has superpowers, including the ability to return from the dead, he will also bend over exhausted, struggling to catch his breath after a particularly difficult boss battle. His constant companion, a living fetus riding in a jar named BB (or "Bridge Baby"), is similarly sympathetic. You are encouraged to soothe BB after the game's scarier moments, rocking the controller gently back and forth as they stop crying and begin earnestly sucking their thumb. When departing your base, you get flashes from BB's perspective that seem to hint at his past. I can't say I've ever liked babies (actually, I think they're pretty gross), but Death Stranding made me like BB. Maybe it was just the absurdity of toting around a prenatal child in a jar.
Kojima's games have always been rather good at featuring moments like these, which I suspect is a large part of why they have such a cult-like following. A lot of people joke about Death Stranding being "Kojima Unchained," but in the end, he returns to many themes that should be familiar to fans of his work. Killing, as in the Metal Gear Solid series, is heavily discouraged. If you actually kill anyone, you have to ferry their body up to an incinerator and dispose of it, lest they turn into a BT. Several of the weapons are non-lethal. A simple rope, referred to as The Strand, is one of Sam's most potent weapons, as it allows him to quickly disarm and incapacitate bandits. The story; the BTs; the fact that your bullets are made from Sam’s own blood (and urine); the little mementos that collect on your shelf as the story progresses—all of it feels in keeping with the vibe established in Metal Gear Solid.
I'm glad that Death Stranding continues Metal Gear Solid's tradition of deemphasizing killing—a rarity among big-budget games. It encourages more creative solutions, and a feeling of helplessness tends to lead to heightened emotions. When Death Stranding does fall back into more familiar action sequences—as it does from time to time—it's at its worst. I won't say anything more for fear of spoilers, but there are a couple sequences in particular that really highlight Death Stranding's weaknesses as a third-person shooter—from the lack of true cover mechanics, to the way that your own cargo tends to block your peripheral vision.
As long as we're on the subject of Kojima's particular foibles, I'll add that Death Stranding also can't resist making hay from women being traumatized, including a wince-inducing cutscene featuring leering shots of a character in her underwear as she is basically being tortured. On the whole, Death Stranding is far more restrained than Metal Gear Solid 5, which will never really live down its handling of Quiet, but it's a reminder that Kojima is really gaming's Quentin Tarantino—and I don't mean that as a compliment.
Ultimately though, its biggest weakness is just how exhausting it can be to haul medicine, parts, and other miscellaneous materials from one point to another. It starts to feel like filler at a certain point, particularly during one chapter where you're literally just passing time as part of a particular story conceit. The terrain changes, but it almost never resembles the real United States, and landmarks are basically non-existent. When you arrive at a new shelter, it looks just like every other shelter. I get that it's the apocalypse, and most everyone is living underground, but god, a little variety, please. When a secondary character actually emerges from a shelter to engage with you face-to-face, the effect of seeing a "real" person instead of a non-descript hologram is dazzling.
The same can be said for the sidequests, which are once again comprised almost entirely of fetch quests. These stories are sold on the notion that you're building connections with people around the country, and that you will find yourself having to think about, say, the old man who is depending on you to deliver medicine even as you get pulled further and further away by the story. The trouble is that the sidequests are almost never interesting by themselves—just more deliveries. There are interesting stories to be found in these sidequests, but they're almost all told via a wall of text in an email. It's an unimaginative approach to storytelling that Death Stranding falls back on more than it should. After a while, I found myself skipping them, even knowing that I was missing out on certain equipment that would make my life easier in the long run. The story has enough fetch quests as it is.
What ultimately kept me trudging forward was the need to finish the game for review. But every time I started to wonder if I was fully out on Death Stranding, I found something new and cool to like about it. I enjoyed going out and raiding the local bandit camps, where I would creep around with my Strand subduing enemies in a lighter version of Metal Gear Solid 5's outstanding stealth gameplay. I also found the online hooks, in which you can build structures and share them with other players, to be really neat. I rarely built myself, but I always made sure to leave a "Like" when I came upon a bridge, safe house, or shelter built by someone else. It made the moments when I stepped outside the bounds of the "chiral network" I was building especially impactful, as all the player-created infrastructure would disappear with it. I can totally imagine a metagame emerging around these elements—one where players raid bandit camps for materials to build bridges and highways across Death Stranding's America. Maybe that's what Kojima meant when he said he was creating a new genre.
And okay, I'll admit it, I also liked the story, That One Cutscene aside. It's defiantly old-school in the way that it tells its tale primarily through non-interactive cutscenes; but those cutscenes are often gorgeous, and they lay out some compelling mysteries. How did the apocalypse happen? What's the deal with the Bridge Babies? What's the real agenda of the United Cities of America? Just how much scenery can Troy Baker chew before the story is over? There's a bit of old-fashioned Metal Gear paranoia, but some heavier themes as well. It winds up tapping into the existential fears of our time—to the point that I kind of want to ask Hideo Kojima if he's okay. He seems to have a lot on his mind
It will no doubt go down as one of the most memorable games of 2019, for better or worse. It's bound to be divisive as fans and critics point out its various flaws: the repetition, the pacing, the often awkward gunplay, Die-Hardman's acting. It's also bound to be ferociously defended by those who admire its genuinely clever online design and its determination to downplay violence. I mean this in the nicest way possible: it truly is a PS2 game in disguise.
It's for that reason, if nothing else, that I come away with broadly positive feelings about Death Stranding, even if in some ways I struggle to wholeheartedly recommend it. Out of all the big-budget games this holiday season, Death Stranding comes the closest to capturing that feeling I had when I played Katamari Damacy for the first time. In the stultifyingly conservative space that is blockbuster gaming in 2019, I think that's worth celebrating.
Death Stranding might be Kojima's boldest game to date. It may also be his most tedious. Either way, its originality outweighs its sometimes exhausting structure and poor pacing... but only just. Maybe not a game I would recommend to everyone, but certainly one of the most interesting games of 2019.