DEATH STRANDING: A Mature Masterpiece

DEATH STRANDING is a masterpiece, proving to be one of the most unique and rewarding experiences from the last two decades of my gaming journey. This is kind of like a love letter for what is now easily one of my favourite games ever.

(the article doesn’t contain any spoilers)

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I’ve loosely followed the development of this game because it was touted as the next big thing from the enigmatic Hideo Kojima—who was now also independent, having set up his own studio Kojima Productions following a somewhat controversial departure from Konami.

I’ve never played any of his previous games, but the masterful trailers of DEATH STRANDING certainly intrigued me, especially as they left everyone scratching their heads over what the game was even about. As a result, I was quite enthusiastic leading up to its release.

Unfortunately, my excitement was almost completely extinguished after seeing the initial reviews which gave the impression that this is a rather boring and repetitive »walking simulator«.

However, there was something about DEATH STRANDING that simply didn’t let me forget about it, so I decided to give it a shot after compulsively picking it up on sale—more than a year after its initial release. I’m very happy to have made that decision!

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Once, There Was An Explosion

I didn’t know what to expect, but I was hooked from the moment I heard the introductory narration of our protagonist Sam, played by the rugged but extremely likable Norman Reedus, with the wonderfully fitting and melancholic song titled »Don’t Be So Serious« by Low Roar playing in the background. The game opens up with some beautiful cinematography that easily rivals top Hollywood productions, illustrating the harshness of the world in the unspecified but near future (possibly the second half of the 21st century).

We quickly get a sense that something is terribly wrong. While the landscape is strangely beautiful and full of greenery, it is almost completely devoid of life. We see birds that fall out of the sky, suffering the consequences of extremely accelerated aging due to rain that is now appropriately called Timefall. Unfortunately, as we learn, this is just one side effect of a fairly recent cataclysmic event that’s now known as Death Stranding.

DEATH STRANDING offers an endless amount of breathtaking vistas. And yes, you can climb those mountains in the distance. You can go pretty much anywhere your heart desires within the cleverly designed boundaries of the game world.

It began everywhere around the world with simultaneous explosions of unbelievable magnitude and initially unknown origin. This resulted in the world of the dead and the living becoming interconnected, which devastated the entire ecosystem. These events damaged the world’s infrastructure beyond recognition and almost completely decimated mankind.

Our story takes place in the land of the former United States, where the remaining population now resides in colonies known as “Knot Cities”. After the first 90 or so minutes of the game—which are heavy on cutscenes (luckily, you can pause them)—we finally set out on our journey to travel from the east to the west coast of the newly formed United Cities of America. It is our task to make supply and equipment deliveries, and link the disconnected cities onto a newly formed Chiral Network. Think of it as sort of like a sci-fi version of a spiritual successor to the internet.

The goal is to reach the former US president’s daughter—also Sam’s sister—on the east coast where she is being held hostage by a terrorist organization. The story gradually unravels through mindboggling twists and turns, where you start to think that Kojima cannot possibly wrap it all up into a satisfyingly coherent whole and connect all the dots. But oh he does, and then some! The game’s finale is truly phenomenal.

DEATH STRANDING has an incredibly deep and expansive lore that, for the sheer amount of refreshingly original ideas, cannot really be compared to any other piece of creative content I’ve ever read, seen, listened to, or played.

The narrative has epic proportions, but you can still easily identify with the lead characters thanks to an ensemble cast that includes Mads Mikkelsen, Léa Seydoux, Troy Baker, Tommie Earl Jenkins, and Guillermo del Toro, just to name a few. Kojima borrows their likeness as well as their voices, which culminates in some of the finest in-game acting performances I’ve ever seen, if not the very best.

The game engine Decima that was used for the game offers some stunning visuals both outdoors and indoors, while the results of performance capture are second to none.

***

Making Deliveries

The bulk of the game is spent making deliveries, which means that yes, the jokers saying this is a mail carrier simulator are actually kind of right. But those that say it in a derogatory way are doing it a huge disservice because making deliveries in DEATH STRANDING turns out to be oddly satisfying. Also, I’d just like to point out the fact that 92% of people gave this game a positive review on Steam, making it one of the most highly recommended games on the platform, so this must surely be a sign that there’s something more to it.

I will briefly illustrate what an ordinary delivery looks like. You walk up to a terminal at a so-called distribution center and you usually have multiple delivery requests that usually vary by distance to destination and cargo weight. You may have to deliver some medicine, food, materials, antique art, and so on. Sometimes even pizza! 🍕

The standard formula is that the longer the distance and the heavier the weight, the larger the reward. Furthermore, some requests have a time limit, and you can choose premium delivery where you guarantee that the delivery will be made extra quickly and with no damage to the cargo. If you succeed, the reward is even higher. You can take on multiple deliveries at the same time, which is good practice if multiple requests are in the same general direction as your furthest destination.

After you accept the delivery, you can fabricate equipment that will help you to efficiently reach the destination. A miscalculation here can lead to plenty of headaches during the trip as you may find yourself in front of an insurmountable obstacle and without proper gear to carry on. For example, you may come across a cliff and find yourself without a rope with which you could repel down, leaving you with no other choice than to use another, potentially much longer and dangerous route. Once you get to know the environment a bit, forward planning becomes second nature, and quite a bit of fun.

The trusty truck was my transport of choice for hauling cargo that measured in excess of several hundred kilos. Just make sure to stick to flat surfaces, preferably roads. Shallow rivers are acceptable, but you really don’t want to get stuck in a hostile area with more cargo than you can carry on foot.

When you fabricate the equipment, you have to strategically place it on your body to avoid imbalance while on foot. You can choose to place each piece of equipment either on your back, hips, or arms. With some cargo, you have to be careful to place it strategically, for example, the pizza must be carried horizontally. The game can optimize this for you automatically, in which case you just have to worry about not exceeding the cargo weight limit. Your capacity will improve as you level up, but you can also fabricate different types of exoskeletons that will drastically increase your speed, strength, and stability. Alternatively, you can place your cargo on a vehicle, so you definitely have plenty of options for tackling any given delivery.

You will progressively unlock motorbikes (good for maneuverability), trucks (good for carrying lots of cargo), and the absolute coolest of all—ziplines (especially useful in the mountains where you can’t drive and walking is extremely slow). You can also build roads—although they are the only type of structure with a pre-determined layout/location, so you just have to show up at specific locations with the necessary building materials.

The clever bit of game design is that you will never have one approach that would fit all situations. Through the progression of the game, you will learn what works best for a given situation and you will slowly build infrastructure which will make subsequent deliveries faster and easier. DEATH STRANDING is probably the only open-world game I’ve played where simply traversing the environment provided so much fun and such a cool challenge due to endless micromanaging and planning. This may not be for everyone, but I certainly love it.

And just to mention, about halfway through the game you also unlock delivery robots that can do some deliveries for you.

The map is your constant companion and it is critical for planning the best route for your next delivery. You can draw a route that you wish to follow and it shows your past travels. It shows uncovered enemy territories and usable structures, and it also gives you a weather forecast, which is especially handy if you want to avoid the rain.

When you set out into the world, the challenge will come in many shapes and forms. One of them is an extremely unforgiving landscape filled with crevices, rocks, cliffs, rivers, and so on. Luckily, you have a very cool little gadget for scanning the environment called an Odradek scanner that’s mounted on your shoulder. Among other things, it gives you precise information on the steepness of the ground and the depth of rivers, telling you exactly where you’d lose grip on land or get swept away in the water.

The next environmental challenge is rain, or timefall as we’ve learned to call it. Timefall can severely damage your cargo, but the bigger problem is that it always comes with the possibility of encountering “Beached things“, or BTs for short. I won’t get into details, but suffice to say that they are Kojima’s interpretation of the dead roaming the lands of the living. More precisely, they are stranded in the world of the living. Avoiding them is luckily not particularly difficult, but it can become somewhat of a chore after the first couple of encounters.

Then there are enemy territories of an organization that’s obsessed with collecting cargo. They have scanners that pick up on your cargo, and if they detect it, they’ll be on you in no time, trying to take you down and steal it from you. You can either engage them in combat or flee the area. Usually, I’ve just tried to avoid their encounters alltogether.

Once you complete the delivery, you will receive a score for Delivery Volume (total weight delivered), Cargo Condition, and Delivery Time (speed of delivery). There is also a score for Miscellaneous and Bridge Link (likes from other players, more on that below). Leveling up each of them will grant you plenty of perks, like increasing your cargo weight limit for example.

Rain is frequent in the world of the Death Stranding, and with it come the BTs. Sam carries a pod that simulates the conditions of a mother’s womb, and in it an unborn fetus that has been taken from a still mother. These babies are called bridge babies (BBs) and they reflect a state between life and death. Connecting with a BB gives Sam the ability to sense and detect BTs.

***

Making Connections

I’ve come this far, but there is one brilliant element of this game that I haven’t touched on yet. And that’s the quasi-multiplayer cooperation aspect. It is something that sets this game apart from the rest in my eyes. It can be turned off, but I don’t understand why anyone would do that other than purposefully trying to make the game a bigger challenge.

The central theme of the story is making connections with people, and the game incorporates a wonderful meta mechanic through which you can also connect with other real people playing the game. You will never actually meet other players in real-time, but you will certainly see their handy work, and they will see yours.

So how does this work? Well, let’s say that I build a bridge over a deep river. When I do this, the bridge will not only show up in my game world, but also in the world of a select number of other players. If my bridge was helpful to other players, they will be able to award you with likes. These likes get accumulated throughout the game and they are nothing more than just a number, but it’s incredibly satisfying to receive them because you know that you were able to help someone on their journey.

And it is equally satisfying to give likes to other people’s structures. There were plenty of times where I had medium-transcending experiences due to this. I remember one such instance where I found myself in the middle of a particularly rough rock formation—basically a cliff wall—and with zero equipment to help me get to the bottom without risking serious injuries or even death. But luckily there was a rope left behind by another player, and it helped me get to the bottom safely. Needless to say that I smashed that 👍 button for this player.

Packing at least a couple of ropes is always a good idea before setting out into uncharted territories.

Ladders and ropes can always be dismantled for future use, but I pretty much always left them in place for other players precisely because I was aware that they can be a literal lifesaver. Besides, they may come in handy for you as well because you may be going down the same path sometime in the future.

Some structures (bridges, watchtowers, timefall shelters, etc.) are meant to be more permanent as they require a lot of materials to even be built, so they are usually very appreciated by other players and get a large number of likes as a result, especially if they are strategically placed.

Other players can also help recover and deliver cargo that you may have lost along the way, and you can do the same for them. You can always search for lost cargo by using your Odradek scanner.

How exactly this matching with other players functions on a technical level is a secret, but it works great in a way that it never over-populates your world with online structures.

The result is a very helpful online community and an incredibly uplifting feeling that everyone is working for mutual benefit.

A simple ladder can really be a lifesaver in so many situations. If I didn’t have it here, I’d have no other option but to turn around and go a really long way back.

***

Building A Unique Atmosphere

Every once in a while—usually at the start of a new chapter, after a difficult journey, or close to the chapter’s end—the game will reward you with a song from the excellent soundtrack. The majority of the songs are provided by Low Roar and I have to commend whoever picked them because their songs perfectly fit the game’s atmosphere.

One such instance is actually in the opening few minutes of gameplay, and I loved everything about it. That’s when I got a brief taste of the kind of experience that this game offers, and I knew that I should never have listened to the naysayers. This is not a fast-paced action game, but a patient gamer’s dream. You are completely free to set your own pace, and you will be rewarded if you let the game take you in.

I’m fully aware that describing these moments is like describing the taste of food. At the end of the day, you just have to experience it yourself. Nevertheless, I’ve added one such moment (that doesn’t include any spoilers), just to give you a small taste of the atmosphere.

Moments like this are masterfully woven into the fabric of the game, giving you time to reflect on the journey and to have a breather. The incredible scenic beauty combined with a gentle song gives you a sense of hope and optimism for what lies ahead.

***

Conclusion

I command Kojima for staying true to his vision and creating a peaceful and meditative Triple-A game title that doesn’t simply copy from the tried and tested formulas.

DEATH STRANDING has a mind-bending but beautifully original story that maturely deals with the often taboo topic of death, combining it with surprisingly addictive gameplay mechanics.

The game was released just before the outbreak of the covid-19 pandemic which gives the overarching theme of human connection that much more power. It’s simply one of a kind.

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