Review: Kojima's 'Death Stranding' a heart-pounding work of staggering weirdness

Review: Kojima's 'Death Stranding' a heart-pounding work of staggering weirdness


You set foot across America in "Death Stranding," the enigmatic new game from "Metal Gear Solid" creator Hideo Kojima releasing Nov. 8.

Kojima's America doesn't look like ours. It's haunted by vicious specters called BTs, disrupted by a new mineral called chiralium, and pocked with craters left where the BTs have claimed victims called voidouts. Even though this new mythology doesn't entirely make sense without a wiki — I only found out BT stood for "beached thing" midway through the 40-hour game — it's nonetheless a visionary mixture of science fiction and supernatural horror. Those genres were present in "Metal Gear Solid," in its nanomachine future and its mystically powered bosses, but never for too long. In "Death Stranding," they define your experience as much as the melodrama, the offbeat humor and the on-the-nose etymology. The game is peak Kojima.

His America also doesn't look like ours literally. As Sam Porter Bridges (Norman Reedus) — a loner deliveryman assigned by the president, who's also his mom, with the modest task of reconnecting the country — the ground under your feet is never easy. Boulders and crags litter the landscape everywhere like corpses on a battlefield, from the eastern greenery to the snowy peaks gating the west. Gorgeously rendered as it is, the country is also scaled down to an almost comical degree. You can get from Pittsburgh to Chicago in less than an hour. But you'll see few traces of any city, and certainly nothing you'll recognize from our America. You also won't see the Great Plains, because that would be too easy for Sam to run across.

Much as Kojima's America doesn't look like ours, though, it does feel like ours.

Sam has to reconnect the country because to be an American in his futuristic time is to be alone. The BTs and the mysterious Death Stranding event that birthed them led to that, but so did technology. So did politics. The ability to exist remotely, to have everything you need left at your doorstep by drones, led to the state of things in Kojima's America as much as any supernatural reckoning. Just as the "Metal Gear Solid" creator foresaw the paralyzing effect of information technology in the second game in that series, in "Death Stranding" he stares down the automated, tribalistic path we're currently on. And it leads to total alienation. Everyone in the game cries a lot, and though we rarely know why, we always understand. They're quite lonely.

It's hard not to understand. We are on that path. And it's because our time is already so lonely that playing "Death Stranding" has such appeal. Touted by Kojima as a new kind of action game, it mainly consists of traversal. Sam has to take packages from one point to another, and that's it. But because the topography is so impassable, and because Sam can only carry so many kilograms on his back before he teeters over and damages his cargo, traversal is itself as difficult as the central action in any shooter, any game that hands you sticks instead of ropes.

In a clever move, though, Kojima makes that action collaborative. You can leave ladders and ropes for other players to follow you up and down the same cliffs, build generators for them to charge their batteries and even fabricate vehicles and fast travel points. And others can do the same for you. When Sam links a segment of America to the government's chiral network — a combination internet and 3D printer — it syncs with the same segment as other players have traversed it, making that collaboration possible. You can also "like" the items left by another player. And though I don't know the exact benefit of this social media function in "Death Stranding," using items that cut my travel time in half made me smash the button with sincerity.

Though less common than rivers and cliffs, there are other obstacles to your delivery routes in "Death Stranding." BTs present a stealth challenge. You can detect the ghostly beings, but only when you're not moving, thanks to a mechanical device that also scans your surroundings for cargo. It works in conjunction with Sam's BB, a capsulized (bridge) baby strapped to his chest. Still, slipping past BTs requires walking at a slow crouch and holding Sam's breath with the R1 button. It's as suspenseful an experience as any I've had playing a video game this year.

There are also human enemies. Whether it's mules — deliverymen addicted to the rush of carrying packages — or just bloodthirsty terrorists, Sam sometimes has to mix it up. Stealth is an option against them, too, but before the game introduces guns, you can just mindlessly pummel one after another with a single button press until the threat is gone. After Sam is armed, the prospect of killing poses another problem, because dead people mean voidouts. But the game curiously introduces nonlethal guns at the same time, so you never have to weigh that consequence. The open map also lets you circumvent encounters altogether. Kojima's stealth and shooting are as polished as they were in "Metal Gear Solid V," but far less essential to playing "Death Stranding."

The most compelling moments in the game may be its cutscenes. In their supporting roles, Mads Mikkelson, Lea Seydoux and Margaret Qualley lend their likenesses to some of the most nuanced performance capture ever seen in the medium. Mikkelson, whose character is connected to the bridge baby, channels all the demon-in-a-human-suit dark energy of his Hannibal Lecter. Seydoux is a marvel in spite of Kojima stripping her to her underwear for a scene that revisits his ugly male gaze tendencies, though thankfully not for long, and not as grossly as in "Metal Gear Solid IV" and "V." And Reedus may go underappreciated, if only because he's around all the time, but there's undeniable leading man charisma in his defensive eyes and gruff, Snake-like voice. 

Indeed, "Death Stranding" finds Kojima at the height of his idiosyncratic storytelling powers. The game is paced superbly well, and not too heavy on the kind of information dump exposition that ruins similar attempts at worldbuilding. There will be times when the weird particulars of that world are unclear — this review doesn't even scratch its mythological surface — as well as times when Kojima succumbs to his tendency to overwrite in order to conceal weak plot points, especially toward the game's end. There will also be times when walking Sam across the country just feels tedious.

And sure, Kojima's humor can be so indulgent and self-referential it's silly. You might roll your eyes at the obviousness of his metaphors, such as everyone's smartphones wrapping around their wrists like handcuffs, and the president's last name being "Strand," of all words. And where does one begin with the many Reedus nude scenes in showers and hot spring baths, the ability to piss out the Monster Energy drinks he chugs for no apparent reason, or the posed selfies you can take in Sam's bathroom mirror? "Death Stranding" is the definition of "a lot going on."

But for all its quirks, Kojima's strange new America is full of wonder and resonance from sea to tar-black sea. The stakes, emotional and otherwise, are always clear. As is the unwavering conviction of the game's creator. "Death Stranding" is Kojima's America, but we don't live in it. Not yet. Not if we remember the importance of collaboration, of connection. Not if we choose the rope over the stick.

Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox.



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