Tomorrow is in your hands.… or on your back
So far, Death Stranding has been what I expected as much as anyone’s able to expect something from Hideo Kojima. As a longtime fan of the Metal Gear Solid series, there were few ways that a game by Kojima Productions could have disappointed me, and after about 12 hours of the new developer’s debut title, I have to say that I’m excited for more.
SPOILER WARNING: This impressions post covers Chapters 1 and 2 of Death Stranding. There will be some light plot spoilers ahead, but the majority of this update will cover my early impressions of the gameplay and some of my antics from the game’s first area. If you’re familiar with the game and want to skip the more remedial content, I encourage you to skip straight to the antics.
Although the plot of Death Stranding has become less enigmatic since the game’s announcement, I feel the need to lay down some of the basics: You play as Sam Porter Bridges (Norman Reedus), the post-apocalypse’s delivery man. Alongside BB (that pickled kid he’s carrying around in all of the promotional material), it’s Sam’s job to walk across picturesque landscapes, rife with hazards, to bring the disconnected people of the UCA (United Cities of America) what they need to survive (or sometimes just what they want).
The core of Death Stranding‘s gameplay focuses on Sam fulfilling orders for the few communities that have survived following an event that merged the worlds of the dead and the living (more on that later). For a good chunk of the game’s early hours, this is done by foot. Sam piles an absurd load of hard cases onto his back (and sometimes even his body), and he lugs it all between settlements. Many have characterized the title as UPS The Game or the truest vision of a walking simulator, and that’s not entirely unfair. However, these characterizations are complicated by a few caveats.
You begin the game’s delivery missions at settlements. As you load Sam up with deliveries, the weight and balance become more unwieldy. If you’re carrying a lot or it’s unevenly distributed, you may find that turning too quickly requires you to correct Sam’s balance by holding the L2 or R2 triggers. You’re encouraged to make efficient use of each journey, taking as many orders as you can fit onto Sam without overloading him or making the task of moving forward too arduous for yourself (the player). But you need to strike a careful balance, especially since you won’t always have the privilege of walking on the safe, flat pavement of a city – far from it.
If you’ve picked up other containers along the way, either dropped by NPC porters or even other players, you can also deliver them to sweeten your reward.
First, there’s the terrain. While gorgeous, the land between cities is peppered with obstacles such as boulders, rivers, steep inclines, and sheer cliffs. Depending on how much you’ve placed on Sam’s back, even some of the smallest pebbles could send him careening into disaster. Fortunately, you’ve got a friend in the form of a robotic arm that extends from Sam’s back, referred to as the odradek. When activated, this device will identify the difficulty of the terrain ahead, dotting a swath of land with indicators of both simple and rough paths forward. With this device, you’re able to avoid pitfalls that would otherwise be less apparent and take better care when crossing streams that are a little swifter than they appear.
All of this is necessary because Sam is rated on the condition of the materials he delivers. If he stumbles to the ground or gets swept away by water, there’s a chance that his delivery could be damaged. The better the delivery looks upon arrival, the more “Likes” he’s going to get from the recipient. That form of payment can help Sam reach higher levels, making him a better porter, and can also increase his rank with different settlements, each offering their own upgrades that can better serve him on the next leg of the journey. If you’ve picked up other containers along the way, either dropped by NPC porters or even other players, you can also deliver them to sweeten your reward.
While this system works surprisingly well overall, in one recurring case, I’ve been confused by how my delivery has been damaged. When Sam stumbles, there’s often the opportunity to course correct before he tumbles to the ground. A number of times, I’ve reacted fast enough and he’s stayed upright, but he seems to strike a nonexistent wall and indicators flash that my cargo has suffered as a result. The damage is usually minimal, but when you’re looking for a perfect run, these little shunts can really make a difference, especially if your containers have already been compromised.
Beached Things are creatures that have crossed from the other side and seem bent on bringing the living back with them.
Trekking between cities, you will eventually run into Timefall events, areas where it appears to be perpetually raining. However, Timefall is different from normal rainfall because it ages anything it touches. Sam wears a protective raincoat, so his skin never comes into contact with the Timefall, but his cargo doesn’t get the same courtesy. While Timefall seems to be able to damage certain consumable equipment beyond repair, it will only wear away the container of your cargo, making it more susceptible to damage if you fall victim to a hazard. Initially, these sections seem to simply heighten the stakes of wiping out, but they are often coupled with another dangerous element.
Beached Things (BTs) are creatures that have crossed from the other side and seem bent on bringing the living back with them. They are mostly invisible to Sam, but BB can sense them, and the odradek reveals when a BT has become too close for comfort. Usually, moving stealthily and avoiding the direction the odradek points will keep you safe, but if you’re unlucky enough to be discovered by a BT, the game transforms into a heart-racing house of horror.
Here are the Promised Antics
The game’s first section features an area called the Wind Farm, a place where strong winds are bound to prevail over Sam’s awkward burden of cargo. While struggling to remain upright, I also combated terrain that looked like an asset dumping ground (trees, rocks, and streams galore), and then it started to rain. When my odradek scanner alerted me to the BTs’ presence, I was only armed with a couple of vials of Sam’s urine and a vague sense of how to use them (I now realize they can be used to ward BTs away, but the game expects you to figure that out for yourself and I had yet to make any significant discovery). The environment had a higher number of BTs than I had yet to be exposed to, and it wasn’t long before they began closing in.
When a BT reaches Sam, bodies covered in oil slick reach out from the ground and try to pull him under. It was the first time this had happened to me, so I assumed that was Game Over. I was found and I’d be sent back to a checkpoint. However, when I was prompted by a quicktime event, I frantically tapped square and breathed a sigh of relief when I escaped the onslaught. I had lost my bearings and a cargo container in the frenzy, so I wandered a little to recover what I had dropped, all while continuing to dodge the remaining BTs. My case was only a few meters away, but my odradek was already flashing rapidly in that direction, telling me that getting any closer might be hazardous. I decided to risk it, and that brought me face-to-face with another BT.
This time, instead of being swarmed by bodies, the environment began to flood in the oily substance and Sam was dragged across the environment, completely dislodging any compass bearing I still had. When he was let go, a creature burst out of the muck. It was a small, tentacle-faced whale (a large dolphin, maybe?) made of the same black goo, and it was after me. I panicked, slogging through the slick just to get away. Fortunately, the opposite direction of the eldritch horror’s position was the shelter of my destination, only a hundred meters away. I tried to climb up onto rocks to move out of the thing’s path, stopping every so often to turn and hurl some bottled piss at it, an act it did not seem to enjoy. It would pause and thrash in place, giving me more opportunity to make my escape. I finally reached the outpost. The flooded ground dissipated, and the creature fled.
Death Stranding is a game about planning and being really careful.
My return journey from the Wind Farm was still a pain in the ass, courtesy of the natural elements, but it seemed that my encounter with the BTs had caused them all to disappear, a turn of events I was most grateful for.
As you can probably tell, all of the game thus far had been completed on-foot, but prior to the misadventures of the Wind Farm, there was another settlement that offered the promise of a Reverse Trike, a vehicle that could immensely shorten travel time between locations. I was informed that the trike’s battery was out of juice, but it just so happened that I had recently acquired the schematics for a generator from the Wind Farm. After getting beaten bloody by that experience, I was eager to lighten the load on Sam’s back and start cruisin’ UCA.
For the most part, Death Stranding is a game about planning and being really careful. Don’t overload yourself or you’ll have to babysit R2 and L2 for an hour, don’t run too fast over those rocks or you’ll trip and bust up your cargo, don’t get too close to BTs or you’ll have to throw human excrement at Moby Dick’s evil pygmy cousin. In my eyes, the trike was an allowance, an earned reprieve from the game’s constant constraints. So, I built a generator next to the trike, hopped on board, and flew on towards my next order.
The trike handles like an in-game vehicle should. The controller’s triggers send you forward and backward, and it stops with relative ease. It really is handed to you at this point as a reward for having to hike for so much of the early game.
I tore through BT territory without my odradek giving me a moment’s hesitation. I bounced over rocky terrain and cut across rivers that had swept me away numerous times before. I noticed that somewhere I’d picked up some lost cargo for a settlement I had previously forgone up in the mountains. With the trike beneath me, I could go anywhere now.
Within 15 minutes, I had lost the trike. After visiting the mountain shelter owned by the Ludens Fan, I wanted to loot the stores of a nearby MULE base. MULEs are human enemies of the UCA who exist to steal porter cargo. Whenever you enter their territory, you’re encouraged to either hide or run because these enemies will work in numbers to knock you out and swipe your stuff. I’ll admit I was feeling powerful on top of the trike and maybe a little too confident. These guys had given me a lot of grief up to this point and I was looking for a little payback.
When I rolled into town, I was spotted almost immediately. With no way of defending myself, I rode along a cliffside to make my escape. Just as I was trying to determine if the height might be too great, the trike rolled over the edge. It was irreparably damaged, cargo flew everywhere, BB went ballistic with crying, and the MULEs were well on their way. Head hung low without any way to replace my vehicle (or the cargo strapped to it), I fled the scene and proceeded to walk the known map two more times before heading into Chapter 3.
One aspect of Death Stranding that I haven’t covered yet is its social system. I’ll likely go into further detail on this in a subsequent impressions post, but I will say that it has so far been one of the most enjoyable parts of the game. In light of it, the core courier gameplay feels like a front for delivering a world where players can contribute resources, structures, and just some genuine good will. Whenever I encounter another player’s lost cargo in the wild, I feel a strong pull to do the right thing and deliver it for them. When I find a watchtower built by someone else, helping me scout the area ahead, I stay the few extra seconds to mash the touch pad and give them 500 likes. I know that marks I’ve left in the world have appeared for someone else, and I know that they will do the same for me, not for any incentive but because we’re mostly alone in this world and even finding another’s footprint makes us feel together.
Now you can watch me fuck up my trike.