Platforms: PS4 (Reviewed), PC (Later Release)
Fetch quests have gotten a bad rap. What can be more boring than interrupting your game to deliver a package? But what if that was the whole game? In perhaps the most Hideo Kojima move ever, that is exactly what Death Stranding is about. It’s not a horror game. It’s not a military stealth game. It’s a game about delivering packages and somehow it’s very compelling.
A true Kojima story
You take on the role of Sam Porter Bridges, a courier in the post-apocalyptic United States. The “Death Stranding” made humanity aware of the “beach,” a realm between life and death, but also invited “BTs” or beached things, essentially ghosts of what was, into the real world. Anyone who dies and doesn’t have their body burned becomes a BT who seeks to reclaim its body and generally cause destruction along the way.
Unfortunately, burning bodies, or really interacting with death in any way, produces an element called Chiralium which attracts more BTs, but can be harvested to essentially do magic-like things such as generate matter or teleport. In fact, that is your secondary purpose, aside from delivering packages. You need to use dog tags made of Chiralium to reconnect the surviving cities of America into the “Chiral Network,” a new magical internet that is routed through the land of the dead, and in the process form a new country, the United Cities of America.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s rainfall that accelerates time for everything it touches. There are terrorists that have kidnapped the daughter of the last president who is partially immortal. There are fetuses born to comatose mothers that are kept in jars to be used as a ghost radar. There’s an allergy to Chiralium that makes you cry and gives you superpowers. There are roving psychopaths who have become addicted to delivering packages. There are a handful of scientists that will go on long diatribes about the extradimensional properties of your urine…
You can tell that this was written by Hideo Kojima.
I hesitate to call the story good, but it’s definitely interesting. It is absolutely obsessed with world building. Every single mechanic has to be explained, usually in long cutscenes which are full of information dumps. Dramatic conversations detailing the dark pasts of characters and locations come out of left field. Every job you take reveals more about the grand mystery surrounding the Death Stranding, and unraveling that mystery will be one of your key motivations for continuing to play.
However, the story as a whole has a lot missing. Sam, for example, is a bit of a nothing character. He’s angry for no good reason and barely has any opinions. Norman Reedus certainly sells it, but he’s working with very little.
In fact, most characters are nothing characters, defined primarily by their character design and not their personality. You’ll remember Die-Hardman more for his black skull mask than for anything he tells you to do. He’s just a fiat character for quest giving, not really a person.
The same holds true for all the supporting characters and villains too. They all exist to fulfill some purpose. Deadman and Heartman are just there to exposit about the scientific side of Death Stranding’s world. Fragile is set up as an anti-hero but largely just explains about the world’s history. Everything that is said is done in service to the world building.
It’s almost charmingly amateur, in a way. It’s very clear that Kojima loves this world so much that he didn’t think twice about the motivations of the characters inhabiting it.
Package for you, sir!
As I said before, the core of Death Stranding is delivering packages. You’ll be given missions and cargo at different distribution centers, and then you have to figure out a way to traverse the map and get to your destination.
The map is the first major part of Death Stranding’s gameplay. It’s an open world map filled with uneven terrain, and it’s up to you to decide how you traverse it. You can use ladders and climbing gear to scale mountains. You can stick to flatlands by rivers. You can weave your way through dense forests or through ruined buildings. The choice of route is yours.
It’s very reminiscent of Breath of the Wild in this way. While you are given delivery missions, which is very unlike the open mission structure of BOTW, a huge emphasis is put on wandering the world and discovering what it has to offer. You are equipped with a scanner that will map out terrain and show you items in your immediate vicinity, and it’s entirely up to you whether you go pick them up or just keep going on your way.
You’ll encounter camps of MULEs, the aforementioned delivery psychopaths, which are absolute treasure troves of loot, but confronting said MULEs risks your cargo getting damaged or destroyed. Kojima clearly wants you to stop and think about how you get from point A to point B, and there are so many obstacles in the way that no two players will tackle any delivery the same way.
You are graded on how quick you deliver your packages, what condition the packages are in, how efficient your route was, and how many packages you deliver at once. Many missions will also come with special objectives. Pizza, for example, always needs to be kept flat and needs to be delivered before it gets cold. At the end of every mission you’ll receive a grade and “likes,” the social media styled equivalent of XP in Death Stranding’s world. Get enough likes in a certain category and you’ll level up, increasing Sam’s ability to carry more packages, traverse harder terrain, and so forth.
Of course, if this was all the game was it would simply be a fetch quest simulator and we’d all get bored. What keeps it interesting is the many systems that you have to contend with while going on your fetch quests. For example, packages don’t disappear into an invisible inventory. You have to carry them somewhere: on your back, arms, legs, in your hands, wherever. Pile your packages too high or too heavy and Sam will have a hard time walking and climbing, forcing you to lean left or right to avoid falling over.
Fall over too hard and your packages will scatter everywhere. Maybe they will get stuck in timefall (the aforementioned time altering rainfall) and erode. Maybe a MULE will steal it. Maybe it will fall into a river and wash away. All of these possibilities erupt from the simple question of “how are you going to carry this package.”
And this doesn’t apply to simply cargo. EVERYTHING in the game has to be carried. Health recovery items. Weapons. Raw materials. Grenades. Climbing equipment. Everything has to be placed somewhere on your body. You might want to kit Sam out with all the weapons the game has to offer, but then where are you going to put the pizza?
In a way, Death Stranding is something of an unfolding game. Early missions will confront you with simple tasks like getting to a location with a heavy and unwieldy piece of cargo, but as the game goes on your missions will get tougher and tougher. Some will send you through BT or MULE territory, giving you the choice between stealth, speed, or combat. Some will ask you to traverse huge bodies of water that can’t be simply walked through. Some will task you with somehow scaling a mountain that is nearly vertical. You’ll have to bring the right supplies for each job and plan your routes very carefully.
As the game unfolds you’ll get new tools to make delivering easier. You’ll get electronic exoskeletons that can help manage your load. You’ll get vehicles which will get you from one place to another quicker. You’ll get hover dollies that can double or even triple your carrying capacity. You’ll get weather scanners to predict the movement of timefall and BTs.
But each of these tools gives you more decisions to make. Vehicles are great on roads but horrible on rocky terrain and almost deadly in water. Hover dollies are great for carrying a lot of stuff but they slow you down and if your tether gets broken you risk losing a lot of gear all at once. New weapons will aid in your survivability against MULEs and BTs, but even confronting these threats in the first place risks damaging or even losing your other cargo. Every single step of the game gives you a new tool and a new decision to make, so much so that by hour 40 the game is still hitting you with new items and new tutorials.
Rebuilding the world together
One of Death Stranding’s most interesting systems is the asymmetrical online system. Supposedly there are other porters, other deliverymen in the world attempting to make deliveries and rebuild the world at the same time. You never see them, and that’s because they are other Death Stranding players and their actions will affect your game.
For example, say that another player has a run-in with an angry BT, drops come cargo, and runs away. That cargo doesn’t just disappear. It gets sent to the game world of another player who can then pick it up. If it’s a delivery, they can then complete it for likes. If it’s a weapon or item or materials, they can use it for themselves. In fact, players can purposefully leave items behind both on the map and in lockers in safe houses for other players to utilize.
Why would you want to do this on purpose though? Well, when you encounter someone else’s item in your game world, you can give it likes. Remember that likes in Death Stranding are XP, so getting a bunch of likes for leaving behind an item can suddenly skyrocket you through levels. In fact, I turned the game off one night only to wake up to a huge 20,000 XP bomb the next morning, solely for things I did for other players.
It’s not just items you can leave behind. You can leave behind vehicles, materials, gear, and the most important thing, buildings. Any building you make in your game will also be propagated to other players’ games as well. So if it’s useful to you it’s bound to be useful to someone else, and they will probably give you likes for it.
Buildings come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Watchtowers lay out portions of the map and mark where items are, roads make it easier to get from one location to another without going through tough terrain, timefall shelters repair your cargo and protect you from the timefall, safe houses provide save points and health restoration, bridges will get you over major rivers and ravines, and there’s so many more. Everything you use in Death Stranding was created by another player, and there’s something magical about that. It also means that everyone’s Death Stranding world will be completely unique to their game.
This all plays into the game’s major themes of establishing connections between people. You see, every action you take also helps others, and this strangely pushes you to be altruistic. If you donate 2000 raw metals to complete a section of a highway simply because it will help your travels, that’s great, but those 2000 raw metals will also be sent to another player’s game and assist in creating their highway. Even if they don’t stop and specifically give you likes, using that road in any way will automatically give you likes.
In fact, merely traveling along a footpath another player took before you on the same mission gives them likes and gives you a safe route through dangerous territory. It feels as if every player is looking out for one another, even if they aren’t, at least not to begin with. After a few major like dumps from helping out others, you’ll turn into post-apocalyptic Santa Claus, dropping items and buildings and vehicles everywhere.
And you know what the most magical part of this whole thing is? You don’t need PlayStation Plus to make use of these online features. In fact, the game would barely operate without them. As long as you are connected to the internet, you get to experience Death Stranding’s online world.
A full empty world
Death Stranding is a beautiful game… in trailers. It’s pretty clear that Kojima was putting his best foot forward there. As long as you are in a cutscene the game runs great and the performances of the actors are captured perfectly.
Outside of cutscenes it’s a different story. The world is beautiful but there aren’t really any other characters to speak of aside from re-used enemy models. NPCs only ever talk to you via holograms which are purposefully filled with static and poorly rendered.
And once again this speaks to Kojima’s laser focus on world building before characters. When you get captured by a BT, you are dragged across the world to a tarry battlefield that is superimposed on top of normal terrain, and that’s pretty amazing. When you build bridges and roads you can see the world change in response to them, large spires of stone floating in mid-air to support this new spectral pavement. Standing atop a mountain and looking off into the distance of the America that you helped to rebuild is an awe inspiring sight. It’s easy to forget that you are pretty much the only person inhabiting this world, especially since the unseen hands of the online player base are constantly helping you out.
This same feeling of being empty yet full extends to the soundtrack. Most of the game is silent, with nothing but the crunch of rocks beneath Sam’s feet to keep you company. Every so often, however, you manage to get onto a nice smooth road or flat plain with nothing but the vast empty world in front of you, at which one track from a band like Low Roar or Chvrches will play in the background, letting you mellow out and just take in the wonder of it all. Though, I have to say it’s hilarious when this calming music comes on right before Sam falls off a cliff onto his face.
The subtitle of this game should be “Lo-Fi chill hip-hop beats for Norman Reedus to fall down to.”
What does it mean!?
Death Stranding is not for everyone. In fact, it’s unabashedly not for everyone. Kojima did not compromise on his vision for this game at all. It doesn’t appeal to the lowest common denominator. It doesn’t try to get the shooter crowd in on the mix. It eschews common open-world tropes despite being open world itself. This is a game about package delivery and Kojima doesn’t care if that’s not your thing.
There’s something respectable about that. There has to be a place in this world for designers, auteurs so to speak, to make a video game in their vision despite what the mass market might think. Usually that space is the indiesphere, but Kojima managed to make it work as a AAA production. It’s a holy grail, a unicorn of interesting and experimental game design.
Is it good? That’s hard to say. Death Stranding will either grab you right from the beginning or it won’t. If you are looking for a game full of combat, this isn’t it. If you are looking for the next Metal Gear or Silent Hill, this isn’t it. However, if you are looking for a game to give you those same fuzzy terrain traversal feels that Breath of the Wild did along with a truly complex and interesting world, then Kojima has your number and won’t stop dialing it.
So keep that in mind when considering a Death Stranding purchase. Keep in mind that you’ll be doing tutorials for most of the game. Keep in mind that you don’t get your first weapon until midway through chapter 3. Keep in mind that many quests will have you walking over rocks while balancing a load on your back. Keep in mind that you won’t get a lot of answers even when the story is over.
But also keep in mind that Death Stranding is complex, intricate, and different from almost any other game on the market, and that difference alone probably makes it worth playing.
Simply put, you’ve never seen a fetch quest quite like this.