Death Stranding: An Excellent Journey with a Cumbersome Conclusion
Novelty is difficult to find in AAA videogames. The prevalence of a few major game engines has led to a standard toolbox of mechanics which are combined like building blocks and then given marketing-friendly art direction in order to ensure that production times are shortened and player expectations are never irritated. The moment I tried to describe Death Stranding to a friend by comparing it to other games, it became apparent to me that it stands alone. Its brooding atmosphere combines with totally unique traversal, which is constantly refreshed by different objectives and equipment. Yet, while its graphical realism pairs with stunning art direction in a one-of-a-kind presentation, the plot is impossible to follow and over-saturates the final hours of the experience.
Death Stranding’s playable character, Sam Porter Bridges (Norman Reedus), is a legendary delivery man capable of hauling hundreds of pounds of goods by foot across a post-apocalyptic, future America ravaged by ghost-like beings called “BTs”. Called upon by the last remnants of the US government, Sam honors the President’s dying wish to connect the only cities left in the land via a special network so that their cooperation might prevent their extinction in the face of oblivion.
This leading mission explains what the player “does” when actively playing the game. Sam is given loads of cargo which is stacked in hilarious proportions on his person, and in order to deliver it to the various waypoints on his journey across America, the player must keep him balanced on his two feet while he walks across difficult terrain through a wide number of natural environments.
The basic experience in Death Stranding is marked by the player constantly evaluating their current path, and then making adjustments when uneven ground, rivers, steep slopes, or cliff faces get in the way. Basic hardware like ladders can be used to bridge gaps or climb over rocks, while climbing ropes brings Sam up and down cliffs. It’s useful to have as much gear as possible, but tension lies in the weight added to the character, which makes staying upright more difficult and walk speeds slower. There’s a significant sense of satisfaction when cutting across harsh landscapes using the tools you managed to add into your delivery load.
The game designers have tuned the experience by limiting your access to structures and gear left behind by other online players so that embarking into a new area for the first time is a solitary trek assisted only by the equipment which you chose to bring along. Once you’ve punched into new land and brought a city into the game’s fictional network, those community resources also come online, peppering the map with a patchwork of extra ladders, ropes, bridges, umbrellas, and even paved roads.
This contributes to a growing sensation of conquering the map piece-by-piece; the game mirrors the real perception that traveling back the way we came always feels faster than when embarking the first time. Time spent in a given area leads to more infrastructure, making traversal faster and easier, which makes larger loads more bearable, allowing for bigger deliveries that dovetail into more resources for equipment.
Those resources can also upgrade the items placed on the map by other players, granting bonuses to everyone else who comes into contact. This loop is why the extra cargo scattered across the landscape becomes an appealing temptation that beckons the player off their maiden path to add more weight to their already huge burden.
Death Stranding is at its best when the player is excited about packing their suit with just enough equipment and just the right gear for the job so that the biggest haul possible can be delivered in the best possible condition. The map can be used to plot a step-by-step path through mountains and over water, while weather forecasts help to avoid cargo-damaging rain. Cargo is loaded, the route is set, and then you enjoy the ride.
The best real-life road trips are ones where surroundings, movement, and sounds blend together into a particular presence of mind after setting the cruise control, and Death Stranding is able to deliver these moments of zen through its excellently crafted atmosphere. Moody grey skies, the sound of thunder and rain, and a sense of purpose given by your target destination make the journeys feel peaceful. Punctuating these moments is a fantastic soundtrack which plays a host of songs that bring an indie-folk, Radiohead-esque texture to your activity.
Whereas Red Dead Redemption was the first to use well-placed songs with lyrical content to deliver some of gaming’s most memorable moments, Death Stranding keeps the tunes coming over ten-or-so tracks, delivering them at just the right times. They envelope the rest of the player’s activity and melt into the overall character of the experience, creating a mood that is something other than its parts.
Nevertheless, the player has other enemies to fight besides gravity and cliff faces. The ghostly “BTs” dot the map, invisible to the eye but detectable via hardware on Sam’s back. When these specters stand in the way, the player reacts by slowing movement and navigating away from whichever direction their sensor points. It is an incredibly eerie experience embellished with otherworldly sounds, the sense that you’re surrounded but alone, erratic noise from the sensor’s reactions when the beings draw nearer, and the shocking action sequences that give way when spotted.
It is possible to fight them; in fact, they’re really not difficult to stop once they’re aware of your presence. As long as you have the right equipment on hand, you’re good to go. This lack of difficulty doesn’t diminish their role in the game, it actually just heightens the satisfaction in the gear planning phase mentioned earlier. However, using anti-BT weapons depletes Sam’s health, so there is an interesting interplay that arises from protecting yourself and staying alive.
It is worth mentioning that the other opportunities for combat with human NPCs was largely forgettable, and I was able to avoid them throughout most of the game. The only insight I can offer here is that my desire to skip them altogether affirms my belief that they don’t strengthen the game as a whole.
Permeating Death Stranding’s unique traversal gameplay and the cycles of route planning, cargo deliveries, and “hidden-in-plain-sight” stealth segments are hours of cutscenes and audio recordings that combine with distinctive visual art direction to build the game’s overall story.
The spectacle is a kaleidoscope of unique logo designs, architecture, costumes, and settings that contribute to a sense of place, which makes screenshots from the game unmistakable. Babies in pods, reaper-like ghosts with umbilical chords, floating wales and dead crabs, exo-skeletal power suits, tar-black creatures with golden accents, cigarette-smoking cool-guys: it’s an insanely interesting display.
It would have been enough for the game to offer this montage of optical elements and then allow the player’s mind to make abstract connections between all of it, weaving their own interpretations and sharing unique explanations for how it all fits together as if responding to a sleek, future-tech, apocalyptic Rorschach test.
Instead, Death Stranding’s storytelling severely breaks down in its attempts to explain the why and the how of its world and plot. To its credit, it always offers a very straightforward and obvious explanation for the motivation behind the player’s immediate goals: “connect the cities to the network”, “confront the terrorist”, “bring the weather station online”.
On the other hand, describing the unfolding story beats and how they are connected to an outside observer makes one sound like a raving lunatic. This isn’t to reject the story because of its alien nature or openness to interpretation; movies like Inception and games like Inside prove that undefinable conclusions can serve a purpose.
The problem is Death Stranding attempts to present something coherent and explicitly logical within the world it has created, and I legitimately don’t think it is possible to understand what transpires without consulting a wiki or a detailed synopsis.
Overall, the art direction and innovative gameplay would be enough to excuse the narrative missteps, but what keeps me from being an apologist is the grossly uneven experience offered in the final chapters of the game. Once the closing action sequences are completed, the player is locked into a couple hours of cutscenes featuring the incomprehensible story exposition.
Here, the controller isn’t even necessary, and I seriously wonder how players with limited play time would be able to manage getting through these final sequences. Moreover, the massive exposition dump offers such a dizzying amount of information that it was difficult to maintain the focus or interest required to follow along.
Worst of all, the primary, one-sentence-long spoiler at the heart of this game is so ridiculous that it sounds like a joke uttered by a comedian doing a stoned-gamer impression.
The final consolation prize of Death Stranding’s story are the standout characters who are rendered in a stunning realism that begins to show us what the future of graphics could look like when actors “star” in leading, virtual roles. I can’t think of a single title that offers a more life-like depiction of human characters. The motion capturing combines with arrestingly rendered likenesses from the lead actors and then is given life by great voice acting. Enrapturing still is the incredible character designs imagined by the art directors.
I seriously can’t get over how cool some of these characters look, and the scenes where the camera drinks in their poses, costumes, and facial expression truly electrified me.
In spite of the overly-complex, flimsy appeals of deeper meaning offered by the plot as a whole, Death Stranding does deserve credit in its commitment to its core themes of life and death, purgatory and resurrection. Many primary characters, with their action-figure names (Die-Hardman, Heartman, Deadman), are based on an a full exploration of these motifs, as exemplified by a mother whose baby lives on in the otherside, still connected by a phantom umbilical chord, or a scientist whose heart condition throws him into the land of the dead every twenty minutes.
The final product results in a mixed experience. Death Stranding is truly inventive in its core gameplay, and I was eager to take on new deliveries, plot my course through the world, and relax my mind to the great music along the way. What makes the title difficult to recommend is in discerning if the player can tolerate its weaknesses in order to enjoy the greater quantity of positives. Regardless, Death Stranding stand’s alone from the rest of the AAA gaming industry and it’s visual identity makes its immediately identifiable against the backdrop of contemporary releases.