The RPG Greetings, traveller, and welcome to The Register Plays Games, our monthly gaming column back once again with some triple-A, PlayStation-adjacent "content" albeit this time on PC. Ah, it's good to be home. Promise we'll get back to something a little more indie once the lamestream stops churning out games we actually want to play.
Playing Death Stranding in 2020 feels strangely prophetic. Originally released as a PlayStation 4 exclusive towards the end of 2019, Hideo Kojima's debut after his divorce from Konami took social distancing to the extreme months before anyone uttered the phrase. Now the star-studded title has winged its way to PC as of 14 July.
The game came under close scrutiny from the moment it was announced thanks to Kojima's clout as creator of the long-running Metal Gear series. Bizarre trailers painfully lacking in context only helped to whip up the mystique – just as we can assume the veteran designer hoped.
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To call Kojima the David Lynch of video games is giving him too much credit, but his head would explode at the mere whisper of their names in the same sentence. Kojima originally set out to be a filmmaker, after all. Towards the end of his time with Konami Digital Entertainment, which did not appear to be an amicable split, the Japanese giant released Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, the last in the series and a confused, bloated mess despite its strong gameplay.
It was as though Kojima was getting too weird for his own good, too big for his boots. Maybe Konami thought so too. In any case, the reformation of Kojima Productions as an independent studio in 2015 meant he would be able to go as weird as he liked – and he did.
Death Stranding defies normal categorisation, which is a good thing for a statement of intent, and it's understandable that Kojima didn't want to make a Metal Gear-like. But it threw everyone for a loop all the same.
To sum up, the game depicts human society in the not-so-distant future following an apocalyptic event known as the Death Stranding, a merging of sorts between the realms of the living and the dead. It's sci-fi that assumes the existence of the soul and an afterlife so you'll just have to bear with.
When the dead, or "Beached Things" (BTs) as they're referred to, consume a human, an explosive annihilation event called a "voidout" occurs – something about the anti-matter of a BT interacting with the matter of the normal world – capable of deleting an entire city. Multiple instances led what was left of the US to try to understand the phenomenon, but humanity, in the Land of the Free at least, would be reduced to living isolated existences either in small high-security cities or underground bunkers far removed from the last holdouts of civilisation.
Outside BTs stalk the blasted landscape, imperceptible other than their hand prints to anyone who does not have the "DOOMS" condition, and the rain, or "timefall", swiftly ages anything exposed to it. The player takes the mantle of Sam Porter Bridges, portrayed and voiced by The Walking Dead star Norman Reedus, who was meant to play the protagonist in Kojima and Guillermo del Toro's canned contribution to the Silent Hill survival horror franchise.
Since ordinary folk are left to cower indoors, society relies on "porters" to transport goods between the distant settlements. Sam works as one for the organisation known as Bridges (clue's in the name really), which is also attempting to reconnect the country as the United Cities of America (UCA) via technology developed in the wake of the Death Stranding – a "chiral network" capable of printing much of what humanity needs and instantly sharing information.
So yeah. You're an essential worker, an Amazon delivery runner crossed with a broadband installation technician. I did say it was weird – and that's without mentioning the Bridge Babies (BBs), foetuses that straddle the realms of living and dead by virtue of being born to "stillmothers", brain-dead women sustained in intensive care at Capital Knot City (each major settlement is a "knot" tied in the metaphorical strand that binds them together). BBs live in jars that can be mounted on a porter's chest and are regarded as tools, not people, to help them detect BTs. Still with us? Great.
There's been talk of Death Stranding as a "walking simulator", a slur often applied in a trolling manner to games about exploration where a lot of walking takes place and little by way of action*. In this case, it's somewhat accurate. Sam travels the wastes hooking communities up to the chiral network and making deliveries of varying size. The weight of the cargo is important as it affects his balance and movement.
Sam's travels take him through a variety of landscapes, and a trailer can help carry much more freight
There's no turning on a dime like any old first-person shooter or action game – if you try it with a hefty load on your back, inertia takes hold and threatens to fling Sam face first into the dirt, which can damage the freight and your rating with it. Button presses can shift the weight right or left to counter this, but certain gadgets unlocked down the line can make bearing greater burdens easier, and tailoring loadouts for specific runs and treacherous terrain becomes crucial. A neat feature is that you can optimise your cargo through an intuitive management menu to be able to carry more and improve your balance.
As mundane as that might sound, it's not all postal work. The presence of BTs is signalled by timefall, which degrades cargo containers thus making their contents more susceptible to damage, and avoiding prolonged exposure is advisable as it also ages your equipment. The BTs are invisible, though Sam as a DOOMS patient can sense them, and activating his BB unit will reveal the shadowy figures floating above the ground.
Initially, sneaking past BTs is the only option, and your first encounter is mildly terrifying, but various weapons – infused with Sam's bodily fluids – are made available over the course of the game. Alerting them will result in a pool of tar forming around Sam and the dead trying to pull him under, semi-trashing his cargo. If they succeed, he will be washed away to confront a mini-boss.
There are also human foes, "MULES" – rogue porters who want to steal your cargo to deliver it themselves – and terrorists who use more lethal weaponry. Their territories are ringed by a sensor field that pings your freight, marking your location at intervals. Moving through these areas quickly is a good idea as they will hunt you down, and confronting them physically means risking your consignment, though equipping a container in each hand and swinging wildly is amusing – unless it is a mission-critical item, which I discovered to my cost.
Though Kojima helped to define the stealth genre, Death Stranding is not a stealth game nor is combat the focus. There are elements of it in how you slip past MULES, crouching behind scenery and hiding in undergrowth, but the mechanics are massively dumbed down compared to those of Metal Gear Solid.
You might recognise Mama (Margaret Qualley) if you've watched Tarantino's Once Upon a Time... In Hollywood
Regardless, Death Stranding is littered with Kojima hallmarks – the TV-like acting credits, the sometimes overlong cutscenes, the stupid character names (Fragile, Mama, Die-Hardman, Deadman, Heartman), the concepts that try to sound lofty but ultimately come across as nonsense. There's also the complex mission rating system – S, A, B, C and downwards – that drove many a Phantom Pain player to despair. However, it is much easier to win those coveted S ranks this time. Happily, obnoxious credits no longer roll at the beginning and end of every mission.
Yes, it is pretentious, and I'm no Kojima fanboi, but there's actually a lot here to like for gamers who sit down at the end of a hard day for a chilled experience rather than something more high-octane. The gorgeous graphics make lugging 300kg of random crap across grassy planes and craggy hills pleasantly meditative when combined with the lilting ambient pop soundtrack.
The actors and celebrity personalities are all impressively rendered, and it's quite the A-list cast. Directors Guillermo Del Toro and Nicolas Winding Refn lend their likenesses to Deadman and Heartman. Mads Mikkelsen of Hannibal fame plays the villain Cliff Unger. Old and young versions of Lindsay Wagner, now in her 70s, also take roles. I even found US talk show host Conan O'Brien hiding out in a cosplayer's den, and these are just some of the famous faces. The sci-fi aesthetics are very Kojima and the painstaking work that went into the design is obvious. Visually, Death Stranding may as well take place in the same universe as Metal Gear.
But what truly makes the game fun is its novel multiplayer. It's not multiplayer in the traditional sense that you can see other players moving about, but instead they leave their mark on the world by erecting signs warning of threats ahead, offering advice, or even giving gentle encouragement – think Dark Souls or Bloodborne, but more interactive.
Players can also leave items like ladders and ropes to help others overcome difficult terrain, and build larger structures like bridges and zip lines. The highways have fallen into disrepair thanks to timefall, but players can contribute materials to rebuild them, making it easier for all those who come that way to traverse the area using the small selection of vehicles. Completing a road yourself is hugely gratifying as the game informs you when another player has used your structure.
You can also pick up players' lost cargo from where they dropped it to deliver on their behalf or entrust it to another, and donate equipment at settlements that have been brought into the UCA.
The way players express their appreciation for each other is through Facebook-esque "Likes", awarded at the press of a button, and honestly it feels good to know you've helped someone out that evening. For a game all about connecting people, Death Stranding does a grand job of making its community feel friendly and supportive – and we could all do with a bit of that these days.
There are a few annoyances, however. This player structure has many thousands of Likes, but mine, which is infinitely more useful, has none? It's not always clear how the system works or what structures can be seen by others, though it may be a difference in how people interpret the landscape and the best routes to take. I also haven't died once in almost 60 hours at the time of writing – despite Sam's status as a "Repatriate", someone with the ability to return to life – so perhaps it's on the easy side, which is odd for a Kojima game. Timefall doesn't directly damage cargo either, only the containers, which feels like a missed gameplay opportunity.
PC ports often have a reputation for being iffy, but there were no issues here. Whether you decide to take the plunge on desktop or PlayStation, just be warned – it is not for everyone. I'm supposedly about halfway through so you need to be able to glean some satisfaction from playing delivery boy for what looks to be around 100-plus hours [update: it took about 75 hours].
I'd like to see things through to the end if possible and unravel the mystery of the Death Stranding. There's no disputing its originality. Somehow Kojima has made the maligned fetch quest interesting – dare I say enjoyable, even? On the other hand, if you'd rather play a game where you genuinely do next to nothing for extended periods of time, there's always Microsoft Flight Simulator. ®
*There's actually a parody game titled exactly that, or is it just the next entry in a new "strand-like" genre? Other games that can be categorised as such include Firewatch, Everyone's Gone To The Rapture, ABZÛ, and maybe even 99 per cent of DayZ.