When Japanese designer Hideo Kojima talked about his new game Death Stranding, it didn’t often make much sense to us. We often asked ourselves, what does he mean by all this, what will the eagerly awaited title be like to play, and what makes it unique?
“Damn, it seems like there’s just going to be some wilderness going back and forth. And why not show some action, some real gameplay,” wondered many gamers. After tens of hours in the world of Death Stranding, I can declare that what Kojima had to say about the new game surprisingly accurately describes its gameplay and faithfully captures its essence.
All those bits, bobs and pieces that made no sense to us now fit perfectly into the puzzle. Everything makes perfect sense, and each of those strange videos and ideas eventually has its rightful place in the game, even though I was reluctant to believe it myself for a long time.
Let’s get one thing straight from the start. I came to Death Stranding with apprehension, expectation, and a fair amount of skepticism. My doubts grew primarily in the gameplay mechanics, as Hideo Kojima never disappointed me as a storyteller. What if the game simply isn’t good enough?
The famed Japanese developer certainly wasn’t automatically guaranteed success. And to know where Death Stranding stood, I ultimately had to walk a similar path to protagonist Sam. Now, however, there is another problem.
I have to be able to convey to you what the novelty is and what its magic lies in without spoiling all the exploratory feelings you’ll experience while playing it a week before its release. There’s an excellent reason that Hideo Kojima hasn’t just kept the details of the story from us but also the gameplay itself. I want everyone to enter the world here with a similar sense of the unknown and pioneering enthusiasm as myself.
What is Death Stranding?
This game’s biggest critics were right when they described it as nothing more than a glorified FedEx messenger simulator. At the same time, they missed what a brilliant idea it is and what a varied, adrenaline-fuelled and memorable experience such a game can be, mainly when set in a breathtakingly beautiful landscape that is roamed by ghosts and demons, unlike anything the human eye has ever seen (literally).
Indeed, the core gameplay of Death Stranding is really about finding your way through the wilderness and delivering an often very fragile package to the other side.
But at the core of the EXPERIENCE of Death Stranding is so much more. It is a story told with such cinematic power that you will love at least some of the characters, whether you’re made of stone.
It is a mystery that constantly surprises and drives you forward to uncover its next face. It is a moving meditation on the beauty of nature and the poetry of human courage and determination, supported by a soundtrack full of beautiful, tragic songs.
It is a furious action in which you fight a host of deadly enemies with guns, explosive devices and more complex weapons, which I won’t divulge. Death Stranding is so much more than it may seem at a first or tenth glance. As they say: nobody can explain this to you. You must experience it.
Let it be said that Death Stranding is not a game for everyone. In the same way that the best football or the best car racing in the world doesn’t have a chance of charming a person who isn’t into sports or cars, death stranding is for people who like (or at least can tolerate) hours of cinematic sequences, slower and more thoughtful pace of the game most of the time.
Or maybe a “typically Japanese” dose of pathos, which in its extreme warmth and sincerity is somewhat unnatural for a European or American (but this is helped to compensate by the top European and American actors with their unmistakable expressions).
What is the story of Death Stranding about?
Considering that the game’s story is built on the foundations of a major, world-altering catastrophe, I expected the game to begin with an introduction explaining what happened.
Not so – just as the developers have kept us in suspense with all sorts of disjointed demos over the years, they will keep you in suspense and ignorance for much of the game. They will throw you headfirst into this drastically scarred and changed world. Weird things will happen all around you, and no one will explain them.
For the first few hours at least. Gradually, of course, you will experience enough to begin to understand the mechanics of the “new nature”, and eventually, if you peruse emails or recordings of conversations with characters while resting at the base between expeditions, the puzzle will begin to come together in a thoughtful web of cause and effect.
Sam is, after all, a deliveryman in a fragmented world of separate cities and bunkers, something his unique abilities predestined him for.
He is one of the few humans with heightened sensitivity, thanks to which he registers the presence of washed-up things even without the necessary equipment (by equipment, of course, we mean an unborn child, mechanically and virtually connected by an umbilical cord to a dead mother, thus allowing him to see dead things in the world of the living).
This is an essential ability in a world where dead things roam the world of the living. For if living matter makes inappropriate contact with dead energy, a “void out” explosion follows, which is comparable to the explosion of an atomic bomb. Simply a collision of matter with antimatter.
Despite the cosmic horrors and ecological-paranormal disasters, the story of Death Stranding, like all good stories, is primarily about people. Sam, who’s struggled with his hypersensitivity all his life and is comfortable being lost in a wild landscape, away from people. Fragile, who, although her terrible “accident” destroyed her body, has strengthened her spirit to a completely unbreakable level.
Amelie and Bridget, the president and her daughter, appear almost ethereal with their lofty ideals. Yet both hide a very human weakness. Deadman, who examines the world of the dead with medical interest and detachment until it touches him personally. Heartman triggers his heart attack at regular intervals to be dead for at least a few minutes and search for his dead wife and daughter on the other side.
Lou. And many more. Death Stranding’s characters are easily the story’s greatest asset, particularly supported by a terrific world-class cast. One week after finishing, I am still drawing diagrams to navigate the layers of the story and the continuities of the game’s central mystery. Yet, my breath hitches when I think of the people I was unraveling the mystery with.
Death Stranding as it plays out
The game’s vast open world contains many biomes, ranging from tranquil green valleys, woods or streams to deserts or sharp cliffs to the infested ruins of ruined cities or snow-capped mountain peaks. It might not be the greatest in-game map in video game history, but no game can make you feel its landscape like this at literally every turn.
It’s one thing to walk a given distance, but another to not destroy or lose the shipments you’re carrying. Carefully studying the map at the base before each journey is quite crucial to your success, as is being able to improvise when your route is thwarted by an unexpected complication or a Timeworm (a special suit protects your body from the lightning-ageing fluid, but just like your shipment containers, it will wear out).
Naturally, here you gradually improve your equipment with more durable materials and upgrades; however, the weather in the game world also continually deteriorates as the end approaches.
There’s a good dose of action, too, naturally. Just how much depends a lot on you – the difficulty level you’ve chosen (on the easiest one, the game is for those who “just” want to see the story and therefore kill everything in almost one shot) and, more importantly, the way you handle encounters with enemies: you almost always have the option to sneak past them or avoid them by changing your route.
However, if you choose to fight, you must carefully distinguish arsenal versus alive from arsenal versus dead. You don’t usually want to kill the living because that risks Voidout, which can start the very process of the “soul” leaving the body. The dead you usually don’t want to provoke, as you never know what monster they’ll bring from the other side.
But, over time, you’ll gain equipment and abilities that allow you to ignore these limitations, allowing you to shoot at will. A separate chapter is the warfare battlefields, where you have no choice either.
Usually, I hate this because it feels cheap and unfair, yet Death Stranding is such a “mysterious” game that I’ll use this crutch to help explain it. The game world is beautiful, open, and filled with Zelda-like physical gameplay mechanics.
The game’s arsenal, stealth, and action mechanics are unmistakably reminiscent of MGS5. Of course, MGS is also reminiscent of the long cinematic animations (in one of the last chapters, you can expect to see easily two hours of follow-up movies with almost no gameplay).
At times the gorgeous landscapes are reminiscent of games like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. The extreme sensitivity of incorporating sung songs into the passage through the landscape will bring tears to your eyes more than once and unmistakably recall Red Dead Redemption’s best moments.
A beauty for the eyes and ears
For those in the know, Horizon: Zero Dawn is technically and aesthetically one of the most stunning games of our time. If you don’t believe it, try looking up some of those pictures or videos.
Much of this is due to the truly extraordinary Decima Engine technology, which among other things, precisely erases objects that the player is not looking at because they may be standing with their back to them to render what the player is looking at even greater detail.
This is also why you can see, for instance, an ant carrying blades of grass up a tree trunk in the forest. Kojima got Decima as a gift for Death Stranding, in addition to an enhanced version of her (since the release of the first Horizon). And he let his traditional team, used to making objects, costumes and environments as realistic as possible for the MGS series, take on it.
The results are sometimes incredible, photorealistic graphics. Particularly in cutscenes or passages where you walk alone through a desolate landscape, I repeatedly got the “that can’t be graphics, it’s just a photo/film” feeling. However, what’s even more impressive is the feel of the characters.
The writers of the game, headed by Kojima, have repeatedly mentioned the goal of making the character in the game not look like Norman Reedus but to be Norman Reedus. They shot thousands of tiny movements that the actor often did entirely out of character.
Coupled with the awesome photorealistic character graphics, Sam often comes to life on screen in a way I’ve never seen in any other game. Towards the end of the game, there is a passage where the colour palette loses some of its vibrancy – in those almost black and white moments. I was sure I was looking at a live person on the TV.
When asked if, with such technology, it would one day be possible to create characters without actors, Kojima replied, “absolutely not – then you need a human soul, and you need a human being to evoke human emotions”.
However unlikely it may sound, the sound side of things perhaps still surpasses the visual. Apart from the wonderfully atmospheric soundtrack of the landscape (the sound of wind and water, the sound of the Time Rain on the rocks or your equipment, the gurgling of a great waterfall, the roaring of a snowstorm, the thousands of different sounds of your footsteps on the materials), it is specifically about the music.
The powerful narrative is duly held together by Ludvig Forssell’s traditional film score, which in addition to the orchestra, leans effectively on synthesizers, as we’ve come to know from the unmistakable theme tune from the trailers (which, of course, features in many variations right in the game).
However, what will steal your heart are the carefully chosen and beautifully wistful and hopeful songs from the band Low Roar (who have a gig in Prague in a few weeks!), whose musical qualities match those of the lyrics. The game usually plays its song when you’re heading out on an important quest or, conversely, when you start approaching your destination city with relief after a hard trek. Its force field is already in sight in the distance.
The songs by the Silent Poets are also beautiful, though there are fewer of them in the game. Other than that, you’ll find the faster, more poppy tracks in the game more as bonuses outside of the main game. Unfortunately, I didn’t figure out a way to play the songs on command, except on the jukebox at the base.
Death Stranding Multiplayer
I don’t want to write about this one at all. How the game uses online connections with other players is incredibly varied and imaginative, making these often some of the best and least predictable surprises in the game.
However, on the simplest level, players can leave simple messages (sort of like Dark Souls) and even equipment.
However, suppose you do find equipment in a shared bunker mailbox. In that case, it makes you wonder if a player has put it there for themselves or if they wanted to donate it to others. If you can find scattered equipment in the landscape, it is obvious that someone had an “accident” there.
One unique feature that is particularly important given the game’s focus is the ability to leave clues in the landscape. It happens automatically; just by walking through the landscape, you leave footprints that another player can find on the ground.
The latter then has to wonder where the person in front of them might have gone and whether that might be a suitable clue and route for their journey. This is even more important, as you often end up at a dead-end (I usually struggled for maybe an hour with the unforgiving terrain in such a case, rather than just giving up and going back and trying a different route).
That’s why good routes are worth a lot of money. Moreover, if a sufficient number of players walk the same route, they’ll tread a more easily visible path. And in certain circumstances, cooperation between multiple players can build a real highway, too, so that you can hop on one of your bikes (yes, there are multiple types with different functionality) or cars.
The other significant effect of online players on your game world is leaving constructs in it. These can be small things like a ladder across a chasm or a rope from a rock. Still, they can also be more substantial things like a generator (batteries for your endoskeleton or vehicle are an essential resource) and even a bunker for hiding from TimeRain, monsters, poachers, or terrorists.
Using another player’s item automatically “likes” them, adding points to their experience. In addition, you can manually do extra likes. There is also a mechanic in the game to tag your favorite “teammate”. The game will prioritize infiltrating their items into your world over items from other players.
But the best part of the whole system is that the landscape never fills in, as Timeline gradually decomposes things again. And, if you’re going into a new area that hasn’t been connected to the network yet, you won’t even be able to find any items or traces of other players in it.
Kojima is only human
I am quite annoyed by the statements of detractors that Kojima Productions fans are passionate supporters of some Kojima cult. Unfortunately, this is an accompanying manifestation of the immaturity of the gaming medium because, say, no one would call fans of Quentin Tarantino’s or Steven Spielberg’s films cult fans.
However, Hideo Kojima is simply a creative personality with an unmistakable signature. It shows in his stories, game mechanics, and overall concepts. If one game of his suited you, there’s a good chance you’ll like the other.
Anyway, Kojima’s the fact that he organizes his studio management, writes the story, suggests the design, etc., results in a noticeably unified vision for the entire project. Perhaps that’s also why he was able to produce Death Stranding in just three years with only 80 developers.
“I’m not trying to create new genres on purpose, just new kinds of entertainment that have a chance to surprise the player and give them something new. When I started showing Death Stranding, though, many people asked me what genre it was. They didn’t really classify it, and I didn’t either.” Kojima said about the game.
“So I thought I’d just call it something and started calling it a “strand game”. Lots of modern games are good and fun, but that is it. I just wanted to create something that catches you off guard, like a collision with the unknown. You may even need time to digest it. Perhaps a lot of time. But you might still remember it a year from now, even five years from now.” He added.
Beyond originality and new kinds of fun, what Kojima also tries to convey in each of his games is a message, a core idea. Several of his past games have been helpful to me at various stages in my life or have adjusted my view of the modern world.
Be it “your genes aren’t what define your life – you make that for yourself, through your choices” (Metal Gear Solid) or “the internet will be increasingly overwhelmed with information and the most important thing will be not to drown in it, not to get processed by information propaganda or demotivated by information chaos”. Of course, you can expect a strong message on the theme of alienated and fragmented society, bonds between people and our relationship with nature here.
Change is good
One of the best moments of various trade shows and conferences over the years has been the unveiling of the new Death Stranding trailer because each time, it meant a new dose of fantastical madness that fired the imagination of all viewers.
Some were moved, some were impressed, and some were simply confused. I’m almost sorry that the era ended like this. But a new era has replaced it: an era of players discussing whether they got this or that part of the story right. What the wildest quests in the game had been.
What annoyance they had when they stumbled due to carelessness and that one crucial shipment fell into the river. They had to run downstream to get it, how they persisted in trying to make their way and refused to give up at the edge of the cliff as they cried at this or that scene or were startled when this or that song played across the landscape.
It takes 50 hours to get through the story, depending on the difficulty and completing the side activities (mostly much tighter delivery orders rewarding you with new types of equipment). Still, there’s a solid endgame in the game that I haven’t managed to finish yet.
I expected a lot from the game, but it still managed to surprise and delight me even more. However, what made me the happiest was probably the journey of my colleague, who spent the last year bitching about how overrated it is. This oddity doesn’t appeal to him and repulses him about almost everything.
The same colleague eventually started playing it as well. I gradually started getting messages from him, varying in tone from “I don’t understand anything at all, wtf!” to ” I love this game”.
This made me very happy, as if Death Stranding managed to win him over; after all this long-lasting opposition to it, there is a good chance that it will win over other people around the world. There’s a good chance it will win you over, too. So enjoy it, and do not be discouraged by the fact that you may not understand many things at first.
Death Stranding Score: 9.5/10
Death Stranding is not a perfect game, but it is a beautiful, inventive, and bold game that will give you a lot of unique experiences and will have you thinking about it every night before you fall asleep, after which you’ll even dream about it.
It is a good enough and different game to be worth a try for anyone even remotely interested in story games, games with unique mechanics and principles, or those on the cutting edge of technological advancement. It is a game for anyone looking for more than just entertainment – for anyone looking for an unforgettable experience.
- Excellent story that doesn’t leave you with questions
- Innovative gameplay combining single and online
- Working together to change the world around you for the better
- You start to see the landscape in a whole new way
- First-class engineering and immersive music
- Superb acting and cinematic direction
- Novel mechanisms that others will emulate
- The much-needed originality that we keep crying out for
- Wild, dangerous and diverse open world
- Needless advertising inserts don’t fit the fictional world
- The mission objectives and mission skeleton feel a bit generic at times
- Sometimes the game forces you to visit the same locations repeatedly
Death Stranding Trailer