Death Stranding (2019) Gameplay Review

Death Stranding is an action game developed by Kojima Productions. It is the first game from director Hideo Kojima and Kojima Productions after their disbandment from Konami in 2015. It was released by Sony Interactive Entertainment for the PlayStation 4 in November 2019 and is scheduled for release by 505 Games on Microsoft Windows in mid-2020.

The game is set in the United States during the aftermath of the eponymous Death Stranding, which caused destructive creatures from a realm between life and death to begin roaming the Earth. Players control Sam Bridges (Norman Reedus), a courier tasked with delivering supplies to the fractured and isolated colonies that remain and reconnecting them via a wireless communications network.

Alongside Reedus, the game features actors Mads Mikkelsen, Léa Seydoux, Margaret Qualley, Troy Baker, Tommie Earl Jenkins, and Lindsay Wagner, in addition to the likenesses of filmmakers Guillermo del Toro and Nicolas Winding Refn, as supporting characters. Death Stranding received generally favorable reviews from critics.

Gameplay

Death Stranding is an action game set in an open world, and also includes asynchronous online functions. Kojima compared the genre to how his earlier game Metal Gear – now considered to be a stealth game – was called an action game during its release because the stealth genre was not considered to exist at the time.

The player controls Sam Bridges, a porter for a company known as Bridges. The player is tasked with delivering supply cargo to various isolated cities known as KNOTs, while also connecting them to a communications system known as the Chiral Network. The player is evaluated by the company and recipients based on their performance (including via “likes” similar to social networks), including whether the cargo was delivered, and if it is intact among other factors. These merits are, in turn, used to level up the player’s statistics (such as stability and weight capacity) and increase their standing with individual locations and characters (which can improve rewards). How cargo is packed by the player, and the overall weight being carried, can affect Sam’s ability to navigate through the environments.

The player’s main enemies include otherworldly creatures known as “beached things” (BTs), as well as MULE—a cult of rogue, bandit-like porters influenced by an obsession with cargo, who attempt to steal deliveries so they can deliver it themselves. BTs are surrounded by a rain known as “timefall”, which damages the player’s armor and cargo by speeding up their deterioration. BTs are normally invisible, but Sam’s suit is equipped with a robotic sensor that points towards BTs he is in close proximity to, and the player can then scan the area to reveal them.

As Sam is a “Repatriate”, he is taken to an underwater world known as the “Seam” if he is killed, where he can “swim” back to his body to revive himself. However, being killed and consumed by a BT also results in a destructive explosion known as a “voidout”, which permanently damages the location of the death with an untraversable crater.

As players expand the coverage of the Chiral Network, they can access maps of areas, and use blueprints to produce consumable items and structures with the Portable Chiral Constructor (PCC, a device similar to a 3D printer), including ropes, bridges, and power generators used for charging battery-powered equipment. The Network is also used as the basis for the game’s online functionality, where players can leave supplies, structures, and messages that can be viewed and used by other players, although structures will eventually be destroyed by Timefall after a period of time. The player can also recover cargo lost by other players to complete their delivery. The player does not directly encounter other players in the world.

Plot

The game is set in an apocalyptic United States, where a cataclysmic event known as the “Death Stranding” caused “BTs”—invisible creatures originating from the “Beach”, a land said to be the link to the afterlife—to begin roaming the Earth. BTs cause explosions known as “voidouts” when they consume the dead by necrosis, and produce rains known as “Timefall”—which rapidly age and deteriorate whatever it hits. These events damaged the country’s infrastructure, leading its remaining population to confine themselves to remote colonies known as “KNOTs”, which form the remaining “United Cities of America”.

These colonies have since relied on the services of a company known as Bridges, whose porters brave the BTs, bandits, and terrorists to deliver supplies to the cities. Bridges also performs various governmental functions on behalf of the UCA. If they achieve a mental connection to a “Bridge Baby”—a premature child reflecting a state between life and death—it is possible for a person to sense the presence of a BT. Porters carry a bridge baby with them, which is stored in a pod simulating a mother’s womb. A condition known as “DOOMs”, depending on its severity, also allows a person to naturally sense, see, or even control a BT. There are also individuals designated as “Repatriates”, people who can travel back from the Beach upon death, effectively coming back to life, though their deaths will still cause voidouts.

Synopsis

Sam Porter Bridges (Norman Reedus) is transporting cargo when his progress is interrupted by Timefall, and receives assistance from Fragile (Léa Seydoux) in evading a BT. When she leaves, Sam continues his delivery. He arrives at his destination Central Knot City, only to be warned that one of the citizens has committed suicide and their corpse is on the verge of necrosis. Due to being both a Repatriate and having DOOMs, Sam is assigned to transport the corpse to an incinerator to safely dispose of it, but an attack from BTs prevents him from stopping it from becoming a BT and causing a voidout, destroying Central Knot City. He awakes in Capital Knot City and meets Deadman (Guillermo del Toro/Jesse Corti), a doctor from Bridges. Sam is then tasked to deliver morphine for the dying president of the UCA, his mother Bridget Strand Lindsay Wagner/Emily O’Brien. He also meets Die-Hardman (Tommie Earl Jenkins), the director of Bridges and Sam’s former boss before he left the organization. Bridget pleads with Sam to rejoin Bridges and help rebuild America before succumbing to her illness. Sam transports Bridget’s body to be incinerated, but refuses to incinerate BB-28, a Bridge Baby that has been marked for retirement. With BB-28’s assistance, Sam is able to evade a horde of BTs and return to Capitol Knot City. Sam decides to take BB-28 as his own Bridge Baby, nicknaming him Lou.

Upon his return, Sam is reunited with his sister Amelie Strand (also Wagner/O’Brien). She tells him that over the past three years, she has led an expedition across what is left of the continental United States, making contact with the remaining cities and survivor settlements and setting up terminals that would allow them to connect to the Chiral Network, a system that would allow instantaneous communication across vast distances. However, upon reaching the last city on the West Coast, Edge Knot City, Amelie was captured and is being held hostage by an anti-UCA terrorist group called the Homo Demens to guarantee Edge Knot City’s independence. Even though she is a hostage, she is still allowed to freely communicate with Bridges via the Network. She tells Sam that he must follow the path of her expedition and use a special Q-pid key to activate the terminals she left behind. Then he must rescue Amelie and bring her back so she can take Bridget’s place as the President of the UCA. Sam reluctantly accepts the mission since it is his only opportunity to find and rescue Amelie.

Sam then embarks on his mission to connect all of the remaining cities to the Network. Along the way, he delivers valuable cargo, assists other Bridges staff like Mama (Margaret Qualley), Heartman (Nicolas Winding Refn/Darren Jacobs) and Mama’s twin sister Lockne (also Qualley) in researching the Death Stranding, and thwarts plots by the Homo Demens and their leader, Higgs Monaghan (Troy Baker). He also views Lou’s memories, which show Lou’s apparent father, Clifford Unger (Mads Mikkelsen). Clifford himself, now a spectral entity, occasionally attacks Sam in an effort to recover Lou. Sam’s journey finally culminates in a direct confrontation against Higgs in Amelie’s Beach. Higgs reveals that Amelie is actually an Extinction Entity, a godlike being that can use the Death Stranding to trigger mass extinction events. However, Higgs seeks to trigger more than a mass extinction, but a Last Stranding, which is the complete annihilation of all life on Earth. Sam defeats Higgs, who commits suicide to avoid being trapped on the Beach. Sam is forcefully ejected from the Beach by Amelie. He later discovers that as the Extinction Entity, Amelie and Bridget were both the same being, with Bridget existing in the world of the living while Amelie could only manifest on the Beach. In addition, Amelie was the true leader of the Homo Demens, seeking to trigger the Last Stranding to end the cycle of extinction. Sam confronts Amelie one final time and convinces her to stop, though the only way for her to avert the Last Stranding and delay humanity’s extinction is to permanently separate herself and her Beach from the world of the living.

In the aftermath, Die-Hardman takes Amelie’s place as the President of the UCA, with the rest of the Bridges staff dedicated to keeping the UCA safe. Fragile resolves to rebuild her trading company. Sam is told that Lou has died, and is assigned to transport the corpse to the incinerator. He connects with Lou one last time, and discovers the memories he has been viewing aren’t Lou’s, but his own, making him Clifford’s son. Clifford died trying to smuggle the infant Sam out of a Bridges lab. Sam was also killed in the incident, but was revived by Amelie, establishing their connection and turning him into a Repatriate. Since Sam was no longer suitable to be a Bridge Baby, Bridget instead decided to adopt him and raise him as her own son. Back in the present, Sam decides not to incinerate Lou and manages to resuscitate them.

In the final scene, Sam refers to Lou as “Louise”, revealing that she is in fact a girl.

My Personal Thoughts

The force that conjures this alluring sense of melancholy is rooted in the pervasive loneliness tied to deliveryman Sam Porter Bridges, a self-imposed outcast with no ties to the world – or anyone. 

Bridges inhabits an America that is left fractured, courtesy of the mysterious phenomenon known as the Death Stranding that led to complete societal dissolution. From the ashes, well-meaning institutions attempt to reconnect the country by expanding a curious communication system called the chiral network, where porters deliver cargo to remote waystations in exchange for recruiting them as members of the newly-established UCA (United Cities of America). 

However, as the network begins to bridge the gaps formed in the wake of the Death Stranding, the increase in the strange material known as ‘chiralium’ causes weird environmental phenomena to plague the world. This leads to an upsurge in alien BT activity, an increase in rogue splinter factioneers known as MULEs, and the motives of those with seemingly benevolent intentions blur into a bubbling grey area, as terrorist Homo Demens begin to expose the inner monsters in each and every one of us. 

The first few hours of the game are quite confusing, with each revelation fostering a variety of new ambiguities. Mechanically, the beginning mostly asks you to traverse harsh terrain while keeping delicate cargo intact. As you cross impassable abysses and sinuous rivers, the involuntary descent into loneliness is juxtaposed with a solemnity that is, despite itself, quite warm. 

You begin to ruminate, even meditate, on the here and now, and the world around you blurs, soft hues blanketing harsh surfaces. The story is, at least at the beginning, superseded entirely by emotional presence, and although the trajectory becomes increasingly linear as you progress toward the endgame, the beginning is wide open, littered with side quests and hidden secrets ripe for discovering in a second playthrough.

The magical thing about this is that it beautifully sums up what’s at the thematic core of Death Stranding: the overt bleakness of this decadent world ultimately begets the truth that sincere hopelessness is an impossible feat. Hope is a human inevitability, an inexorable product of existing against the will of fate. And so this dystopian travesty that has gluttonously swallowed up countless innocents is at all times present, but as a reason to persevere more so than a cause to give in. It’s the single justification for trudging on through the tragically impossible, and wrenching it into a state more compatible with restoration. 

The entire Death Stranding experience is deeply cinematic. Characters are introduced as they would be in a film, and even moment-to-moment play is framed as though each individual angle has been emphatically directed. 

It’s easy to haphazardly assign a major release a “gorgeous visuals” tag, but Death Stranding truly earns it – not because of realism, or frame rate, or any technical jargon, but because of how unflinchingly unique it is both stylistically and tonally. This, much like Metal Gear games in the past, has the potential to adjust the way in which games are presented. It’s an evolution of aesthetic, a maturation in form, harrowingly gorgeous and alluringly atrocious. 

Take, for instance, an early scene in which a bird is violently wrenched into the obstinate clutches of death: it is struck by Timefall, a curious form of precipitation that causes everything it comes into contact with to rapidly age. 

Death Stranding’s environmental critique is courageously unsubtle, with nature itself being far more cruel a mistress than any kind of enemies. In fact, you can eschew violence for stealth in any given scenario — the rain is your most treacherous enemy, alongside the anomalous creatures known as BTs it attracts. 

Combat with BTs is far more interesting than combat with humans, which is remarkably unfun when compared to stealth routes. With BTs, however, it becomes very enticing about midway through the game. Before then, your only real way of affecting them is to hurl grenades of your own blood at them, or use a weak gun that infuses droplets of your blood with regular bullets. 

These are quite sluggish encounters for the most part, but when a new feature is developed for your cufflinks – the handcuffs that allow you to bring up the main menu and access information about cargo, quests, the world map, and mail – you can stealthily approach BTs and snip the umbilical cords grounding them in reality. 

BTs, however, are invisible. The only way to sense them is to rely on your BB, the baby confined to the pod plugged into your suit. This BB, or bridge baby – a bridge between the living and the dead, as Guillermo Del Toro’s Deadman puts it – powers a fan-like mechanism attached to your shoulder, which begins to whir ferociously as you approach a BT. 

By holding your breath and inching forward with caution, you’ll be able to advance without startling it, and have the option to cut the cord, sending it on a one-way trip to the land of the dead.

What makes Death Stranding truly special, however, has nothing to do with combat. In the wake of countless imaginings of apocalyptic sunsets, Death Stranding fosters awesome monotony. You are quite literally a delivery man, tasked with transporting cargo from one waystation to another. You have to manage your cargo in a way that balances out — too much weight on your left and you’ll constantly be hammering the right trigger to keep yourself steady, slowing progress and almost indefinitely ending in a nasty fall, damaging your cargo and reducing the amount of likes – a sort of leveling currency afforded to you by other players and NPCs alike – you receive on arrival. 

This constant need to balance yourself, to make sure you move steadily onward without hitting the deck, makes all traversal meaningful. You can’t just hold the analog stick forward while you make a cup of coffee. You will, inevitably, fall. This, coupled with the necessary use of the scanner attached to your shoulder, makes studying the terrain in its entirety an essential undertaking prior to an expedition.

As you progress through the game, you gradually gain access to even more planning procedures like weather forecasts, which make plotting routes even more ostensibly monotonous yet weirdly captivating. Before long, you find yourself religiously using the map’s topographical functions – pressing the touchpad and tilting the controller enables you to analyze height and harshness of the terrain –  in conjunction with methods of actively avoiding Timefall, remaining outside MULE camps, and avoiding BTs. 

This sort of calculated preparation might culminate in what looks like an unnecessarily long trek, but planning for level ground and as few enemy encounters as possible testifies to that old proverb about the tortoise and the hare, and does so in such a way that the former seems all the more appealing.  

In terms of mechanical complexity, Death Stranding is meticulously intricate, yet somehow retains fascinatingly functional systems. The UI is stylishly unintrusive despite the amount of information it needs to communicate. New mechanics and features are introduced regularly throughout the whole game – some passively, which is perfectly suited to gradual progression – and yet nothing is ever overbearing, or without merit. 

There is a use for each and every item the game provides you with, and the online permanence of structures makes placing them all the more important. For example, a ladder placed in your world will appear in the worlds of other players, and could be the very tool a fellow porter stuck in a rut desperately needs. For this, the fortunate porter in question may reward you with as many likes as they see fit, increasing your rank and inching you ever closer to the prestigious title of ‘The Great Deliverer’. 

After you finish Death Stranding, you can continue to set up structures in early areas, invisibly helping newcomers as they set out on their own quest to make America whole again. It’s quite a special thing, as placing structures and leaving either warning or encouraging signs are the only online components available to you. It’s impossible for toxicity to fester in this world, despite how broken and desolate it is. Hope persists. 

Death Stranding’s story is, at parts, seemingly convoluted. However, without giving anything away, it ties its conclusive knots with the learned hands of a seasoned sailor – weaving its strands together seamlessly. Almost all of its characters are deeply fascinating, with the exception of one relationship not quite hitting the mark – more because the others are so effortlessly organic than because it’s actually uninteresting. 

The characters are all played superbly, with personalities like Norman Reedus, Lea Seydoux, and Guillermo Del Toro stealing the show – Troy Baker is, of course, typically spectacular. The plot points, although sometimes arbitrary at first impression, are inspired and original. The entire narrative is stitched together like a majestic quilt, each individual thread bearing its own equal-weighted significance in the conglomerate whole. It’s an emotional odyssey, where the dull parts only serve to suck you in before the explosive ones detonate.

Death Stranding is a game where monotony is innately imbued with intangible subjects of the extraordinary. On paper, the premise shouldn’t work. A deliveryman, a ruined world, a convoluted plot centered around dejection and the abnormal Weird. In execution, however, it’s perfect, unwaveringly confident in itself and assured of its place in the zeitgeist. 

It’s a game, an experience, where introspection is derived from futilely confronting the macrocosm of a decaying world. It’s a story where hopelessness is the source and adversary of an unquantifiable, incomprehensible desire to persevere. 

I will rate this Gameplay 10/10.

Developer(s)Kojima Productions
Publisher(s)Sony Interactive Entertainment 505 Games
Director(s)Hideo Kojima
Producer(s)Hideo KojimaKenichiro ImaizumiJames VanceKen Mendoza
Designer(s)Hideo Kojima
Programmer(s)Akio Sakamoto
Artist(s)Yoji Shinkawa
Writer(s)Hideo KojimaKenji YanoShuyo Murata
Composer(s)Ludvig Forssell
EngineDecima
Platform(s)PlayStation 4Microsoft Windows
ReleasePlayStation 4November 8, 2019WindowsQ2/Q3 2020
Genre(s)Action
Mode(s)Single-player

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