'Death Stranding': Game Review

Deep themes, strange fare, Norman Reedus, babies — Hideo Kojima has returned.

Visionary video game director Hideo Kojima returns with a heady trip through a bizarre new world.

There was perhaps no bigger moment in gaming back in 2016 than legendary director Hideo Kojima walking out onstage at the Shrine Auditorium shortly after his departure from Konami and declaring “I’m back!” to an audience fervently awaiting what he would make next and when they'd get to play it. Cue the screens above him showing ghostly handprints pressing into black sand as Norman Reedus makes his debut as protagonist Sam Porter Bridges to the tune of indie band Low Roar's “I’ll Keep Coming” and two thoughts raced across my mind: Video games have never looked better and what in the hell is Death Stranding going to be?

Three years and 58 hours of gameplay later, I can finally say that I (kinda) have an answer. 

Death Stranding drops you headfirst into a universe that screams “something just isn’t right." The game opens with Reedus' Sam riding his bike through a desolate and pristine countryside, ferrying a delivery to an unknown recipient. What may seem simply a bit of mood-setting at first, the rain that drenches this pastoral locale heeds an ominous warning. Birds fall from the sky like lawn darts while metal oxidizes almost instantly as death encroaches in the form of a rapid-aging process dubbed Timefall, something that plays a major role in not only the lore of Death Stranding, but also how the game is controlled.

Sam and the others living in this new vision of America (the game's title is a reference to a cataclysmic event of the same name which removed the barriers between the living and the dead) are still finding their way to survive. Rainsuits are a necessity and burning the dead immediately is commonplace to make sure that bodies don’t necrotize and cause atomic bomb-like phenomena called voidouts, while the U.S. is a shell of itself trying to claw its way back to normalcy.

Sam, meanwhile, is but a cog caught up in all of it. His job (and, by extension, the player's) is to deliver packages, as implied by his name, Porter. Frosty and standoffish, it's clear Sam enjoys being a loner and, coupled with his aphenphosmphobia (the fear of being touched), his current occupation suits him for reasons both personally and professionally. Think of him like a surly cat: you’ll take all the affection you can get but don’t expect to be met with hugs at the door. 

One of the first interactions Sam has is with a character named Fragile (Lea Seydoux). Like Sam, her name reflects aspects of her personality and profession. Fragile works for a rival delivery service shares a special “gift” called DOOMS with Sam, a quasi-X-Men mutant factor. Depending on how much DOOMS an individual has, they'll receive different abilities. Sam’s DOOMS, for instance, lets him detect when BTs (souls from the side of the dead) are nearby, while Fragile can use her advanced version of the power to teleport herself through time and space.

Also revealed early on is that Sam is rather well-known in the world of Death Stranding, some kind of deliveryman celebrity due to his work with the Bridges company (the other major delivery system in the world). Certain interactions in the game play out with a weird Cheers effect where everyone actually does know your name.

Once Sam has finished his initial delivery, he gets the call from Bridges command that he's been tasked with a corpse incineration job and that's when the game's main narrative kicks into action. Things go south, quickly, and Sam wake up in what seems to be a hospital room where he's met by Deadman (who is modeled after Oscar-winning filmmaker, and Kojima bud, Guillermo Del Toro but voiced by Jesse Corti). Deadman tells you a little about where you are and then gives you the task of delivering medicine to the dying U.S. president. 

The game's plot revolves around the rebuilding of U.S. infrastructure through a system of information nodes called the chiral network. This network not only allows people to talk with one other but also to transmit data in mass quantities, a way to pull themselves back into society. 

One of the main questions — outside of general, "What the hell is going on?" queries about the game's narrative — surrounding Death Stranding is its gameplay. What do you actually do in this game? The short answer is that Death Stranding is all about fetch quests. The majority of the game is taking a package from one place to another (had I named the game, there would be a subtitle under the words Death Stranding in 10-point font that reads “An Ode To The Postal Service”). Your rewards for shepherding said packages come in many forms (equipment, upgrades, cosmetic adjustments) and depend on the condition of your deliveries when they arrive.

Another big part of Death Stranding's gameplay are Likes. Much like real-world social media, Likes in Death Stranding allow you to, well, like various objects and locations in the game which, in turn, upgrades Sam's carrying capacity and his balance. It sounds amazingly silly (and it is) but those boosts come in handy when you’ve thrown 200 pounds on your back and have to move down the side of a super steep mountain. The Likes system also plays into the pseudo-multiplayer layer of the game. Like Dark Souls, you’ll have the ability to leave markers that will give information to other players in the game world. 

Sadly, the game misses the mark when it comes to connection with its various non-player characters. With the exception of a couple standouts, most of the people Sam meets respond with a languid raised hand of appreciation. I hoped that these interactions would broaden out the world in great ways, but instead all I got were canned lines that made me want to jump back in my van and continue my quest to save America.

It's not all making deliveries, however. Death Stranding also features some combat as Sam faces off against BTs and other enemies throughout his journey. Whenever Timefall rain starts to fall, BTs are likely right around the corner. If you’re quiet, you can sneak around them. If you aren’t, splotches of black goop start to chase you in an effort to drag Sam down to confront a boss character. Even when you’ve gotten to parts of the game where Sam can handily dispose of BTs, they're are still anxiety-inducing and not having the right gear in the wild can be terrifying.

In Death Stranding, Kojima has delivered a game that digs into conversations and topics around environmentalism, war, politics, the rifts we see in society and culture and notions of American exceptionalism. I came away from the game exhilarated, confused and wanting to find others who have played it not only to put together the missing pieces but to commiserate about the experience. In a clever meta twist, Kojima has created a game that begs for a larger discourse, a connection for all those who have played it to share.