Death Stranding (PS4) Review

I don’t like giving up in games. But there’s a mighty test of my hardened patience in Death Stranding where giving up felt so easy. Half way up some snow-capped mountain with a nuclear bomb strapped to your back, where any slip, slide or bump can end your excursion instantly. It’s the kind of instant-failure states that make people run for the hills. But this is Death Stranding. A Hideo Kojima game. With Kojima, hardship and difficulty isn’t always so clear cut.

Take Metal Gear Solid 4 as an example. Remember that submarine sequence? Where Old Snake crawls through an irradiated hallway, where you end up hammering the triangle button repeatedly, constantly, exhaustively, for about… yep, 3 minutes? To the point of utter exhaustion? It’s hard to play that part and not feel some kind of early onset of carpal tunnel syndrome, but actually the genius of that segment is that Kojima managed to find a way of marrying Old Snake’s death throes to the sensation of our hands nearly falling out of their sockets. Kojima was conveying was struggle. In the moment, that life or death struggle was a dreadful slog across an irradiated hallway. It meant life or death. Kojima wanted us to feel that struggle. Well, it worked – it’s one of the most memorable sequences from that game, much like the ladder scene from Metal Gear Solid 3, and the fourth wall mind bending twist at the end of Metal Gear Solid 2.

Kojima is the master at that. He loves to play with audience expectations, manipulating us like willing hosts of his vaudeville digital theatre. To play a Kojima game properly, you have to take part in all the pre-release hype. You’re part of an extended theatre piece, and the cherry on the cake is the game he makes. Metal Gear Solid 2 is the perfect example of that. He lead everyone up the garden path with dreams of action hero Solid Snake taking down a deadly terrorist cell. But the game people actually got to play, though? It was a big practical joke. And you were the subject. You were the hero trapped in a deadly video game, being manipulated and prodded apart by a simulation.

So Death Stranding, then, is no exception, although admittedly he’s a lot kinder on folks than he was with the aforementioned 2001 masterpiece. But you’d be wrong if you told me you knew what this game was going to be about. Angular pre-release trailers hyped a naked Norman Reedus, staring bleary eyed and tearful into a grey horizon, cradling a baby. I guess you could argue that it seems like Kojima started with some bizarre imagery first and worked his way outwards. I’d be inclined to agree. But that doesn’t make the journey to the core of Death Stranding any less intriguing.

“Journey” is a key word, here, too. This is about as real of a journey as you’ll get – for better and for worse. The peaks of which have Sam (Norman Reedus) chugging along a freshly built highway, delivering packages and picking up supplies to build more highways. A simple but bizarrely addictive loop that had me up late on more than one occasion. This is broken up by a sort of soft fatigue system. Sam isn’t some machine – he has to take time off from hoofing it across mountains and through rivers. Not just for his own health but for the health of BB, a sort of time travelling baby stuck in an incubation machine on his chest. So for a large chunk of the mid-game you’ll be hustling hard to rebuild infrastructure across the game world and balancing that against looking after yourself and your baby companion. And half way through all of this you start to wonder why this isn’t more common, why more games don’t create addictive and compelling gameplay loops around peaceful, constructive activities, rather than relying on mindless death houses.

I mentioned that this was a journey, and in any good journey there are of course devastating lows. This is where we find us back on that snow capped mountain. Sam’s movements have inertia and momentum to them, which means traversing hazardous terrain is as dangerous as it is in real life. You can’t just Skyrim yourself up a vertical wall here. Anticipating a journey ahead requires a lot of foresight and disaster planning, but nothing truly prepares you for how hard Kojima pulls the sadist card in the games later mountainous sections. But this is all on purpose, of course. This is, for better or worst, the Death Stranding nuclear hallway section. Sam will be up to his knees in snow, wading through it with a dwindling health bar and a BB that is, by now, screaming and crying. And then the BT’s come. Right at your weakest moment. Right when you really, really can’t afford a fight. Kojima, you bastard. I nearly gave up on you. But I’m so glad I persevered. And I believe that, in the end, is what he wanted to portray. A struggle for survival – a love letter to the human spirit.

And that appears to be the ultimate message Kojima sends out to the world, too. Sam Bridges starts the story of Death Stranding as a broken, grief-stricken man. His inability to touch and be touched, his jaded, cynical demeanor… it all points to the idea that Sam is someone who really, really just wants to be alone. But the game is about pulling Sam out of his comfort zone and connecting with other people. The cynical old man inside of me can’t help but notice how hollow Sam feels as a character, though, and often he comes across like a bit of a vessel for an admittedly very beautiful idea. The idea that social media has fractured our world into tiny little pieces, that it’s harder than ever to glue back our broken society into something basically functional but it almost feels like Kojima simplifies it a bit too much. I appreciate the sentiment. I just wish there could be a little more… nuance?

Regardless of what I think of the story, though, Kojima proves with Death Stranding that he has such a great eye for cinematic flair. What hasn’t been mentioned enough in response to the game is the incredible facial capture technology. This stuff is getting so close to perfection that at times I stopped acknowledging that the faces i’m looking at were scanned into the game and started actually believing those were the real actors, actually standing there, living inside my Playstation 4. It’s the kind of acceptance you get with great movie sets. When they’re done really well, you don’t even notice it. you just believe it. With Death Stranding, Kojima has managed to navigate through the uncanny valley introduced in LA Noire to somewhere that looks totally convincing and believable. The line between “that’s impressive” and “that’s actually them” is almost totally sanded away, now.

It’s not perfect, though. I’d say this isn’t as surprising or as unique as the pre-release hype had lead me to believe, feeling more like a bit of an experiment than something wildly different, experimenting with the idea of a non-violent open world game with crafting side-loaded on to it. Don’t get me wrong, it works. Miraculously, it somehow works. But all the esoteric game trailers, the bizarre, avant-garde video packages with Mads Mikklesen shushing, all the cameos by Kojima’s famous celebrity friends. It feels like he could have pushed the boat out more if he wanted to, but pulled his punches. Perhaps my tolerance for Weird Shit™ is getting ahead of itself or perhaps (and probably more likely) Kojima just doesn’t have as much contempt for players as I do.

Kojima has been teasing his next game in interviews and social media. Rumour has it a horror game is being considered, which is a no brainer considering how terrifying PT was looking before it’s untimely demise. Until then, we have Death Stranding. A surprisingly addictive experiment in open world game design with plenty to say about peace, a love letter to the human spirit, regardless of how shallow it may seem. Certainly what the world needs, but perhaps not quite what we was expecting. Kojima, as always, defies expectation.