505 Games completed delivery of Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding to PC players last week and after much anticipation, we’re not quite sure how to feel about it.
Enigmatic in the extreme, Hideo Kojima’s latest title defied expectations when it launched on PlayStation 4 back in 2019 and while much of its mystery still remains for players that choose to face a dystopian future, PC gamers picking up Death Stranding will at least know a little of this future. Set in an unspecified future, humanity seems under siege by the dead. In the afterglow of a seminal event, called the Death Stranding, what used to be the United States lies torn apart. Instead of large industrial hubs fueled by the open arteries of industry. Instead, a small conglomerate of disenfranchised cities now clings on while the dead roam the open space between. Scattered among the post apocalyptic nightmares and dangers that lie in wait, a few brave porters roam this massive open world, delivering critical supplies, and keeping what is left of civilisation from descending into the darkness.
A New Future
This caleidoscope of ideas speaks volumes about Death Stranding. Strip back several layers of themes and Death Stranding can be deconstructed and described as an open-world adventure. Playing as Sam Porter Bridges, players will make their way in the world with a series of missions that weave their way across a huge landscape, picking up quests and delivering cargo between safe zones in the wild world. Along the way, you’ll follow a central narrative, complete side quests, alight at interesting zones, take the odd photo, and occasionally engage in combat.
What sounds lie a stroll in the park compared to Sony’s upcoming robot dinosaur hunter, Horizon Zero Dawn, isn’t as serene as it sounds. After the Death Stranding descended, it caused plenty of problems for modern-day society. Infrastructure isn’t quite what it once was and players will quickly find that they are central to the survival of civilization. Piling on deliveries and picking a course through treacherous terrain between small enclaves of safety is a huge part of the core gameplay loop in Death Stranding, and lugging a shipment from city to city wasn’t ever really likely to be easy. If you know anything about Death Stranding already it is probably that the game’s central protagonist can fall over, and this is just one of the mechanics that you’ll need to master. Before stepping outside, you’ll spend plenty of time getting to know how to stack and distribute cargo for the long journies ahead. Sam can carry a set weight of material strapped to his back, legs, arms, and pretty much anywhere he has space available. Keeping a central column of evenly distributed weight is key making any delivery successfully. Getting too keen or overstepping your physical ability will find Sam scurrying off to the left or right, pushing the player to right this errant delivery driver’s weight before he comes crashing down and damages the cargo that is, sometimes, critical. With barren wastelands, freezing rivers, mountains, and forests all in the way, it only gets more difficult when it rains.
The Great Outdoors
It would be nice if “slippery when wet” was the only problem to expect when the skies open up on the great outdoors. Unfortunately, rain brings other problems for any potential porter. While rain in Death Stranding is gorgeous to sit and listen to, the pitter-patter of droplets on your hood invariably heralds the return of a terrifying obstacle. BTs, supernatural entities that seem to scour the plains of the world, can be found floating around the arrival of rainbows in the sky. With nothing more than a vague sense of where they are and what they want, the roll of thunder quickly turns Death Stranding from a walking simulator into a stealth game where players must balance their eagerness to get out danger against alerting these BTs to their presence, and that’s while continuing to keep your cargo intact. You won’t find yourself entirely alone during these long and dangerous treks. A BB unit, the almost iconic baby from the game’s trailers, will alert players to the presence and direction of BTs and Sam cannot die. This is, however, largely because your cargo is really more important than keeping the player alive. Early in the game, coming face to face with BTs is akin to a survival horror. The literal balance of cargo, insurmountable terrain, Sam’s own health, and the BB unit’s wellbeing all throw a multitude of systems at the player as they try to keep away from these spectres, pushing your stress levels enough to make it one of the game’s more engaging early elements.
Balancing the requirements of any delivery, avoiding totally exhaustion, and evading ghostly apparitions isn’t the only thing you’ll need to worry about. There are multiple other dangers from mercenaries to stamina bars that plague the player with distractions during their early to mid game experiences. Once you’ve mastered these, the game can settle into something of a monotonous rhythm. Delivering cargo and driving players through the world makes Death Stranding a slow burner in many respects and the extensive use of cut scenes to drive home some of the game’s concepts very early on can make it even harder to immerse in the narrative. This relents somewhat as the game jumps forward several hours, providing players with the opportunity to revel in just experiencing this gorgeous port of the PlayStation original.
While a small but vocal section of the console owning fraternity baulked at the idea of a PC port of this former PlayStation exclusive, it was always going to make an incredible looking game look even better. Trudging out into the green pastures of early areas like Central Knot City instantly present a sight that hard to overstate. Horizons that crawl off into the clouds or highways that race along at a frantic pace all look incredible, and the optimization seems to allow this to tear along at 1440p or 4K with ease, even on mid range devices. There’s been plenty of to and fro about the benefits of powerful PC graphics cards, but I can’t help but feel that the audio landscape is what really shines on PC. The processing of PC audio hardware brings the sort of impact already touted for next-generation consoles right to your ears, today. Dedicated processing hardware, DAC, and headsets like the Drown left me awash in a soundscape that seemed to stretch out forever and surround Sam. Thunder seemed to echo, rolling up and over the distant horizon and the patter of rain is odly mesmerizing, despite the imminent sound of danger that accompanies it.
A Watery End
Should this danger catch up with you and your cargo then Sam might end up being dragged down into a watery grave, of sorts. The theme of water, used in this way, in this way is quite deliberate, and something that is repeated throughout Death Stranding. The Beach that Sam returns to on several occasions, the concept of crossing over between life and death, and the timefalls that literally wash the past away are all very obvious metaphors and don’t think it gets any more subtle than this. While Hideo Kojima could simply be two steps ahead of the rest of us, it seems that the themes of Death Stranding need to be driven home with the upmost force, incase players might ever miss any of them. Cut scenes explain how the world is disconnected and the network players will build will help bring it together. Even the game’s multiplayer mode becomes an allegory of ‘stronger together’, as Death Stranding rewards progression in the main narrative by unlocking the ability to construct signposts, and more permanent tools, to share in the open environment. While this share and share alike idea borrows from games like Minecraft and can prove incredibly useful as a mechanic, it can feel like a sledgehammer rather than the seed of an idea at times.
Thankfully, this isn’t all that Death Stranding has to offer and while this puzzling mix of building mechanics, open world quests, walking simulator, and stealth missions manages to defy genre tropes, it does become more action packed as Sam creeps from East to West coast. While rebuilding a more united world, Sam will have to tackle his own fears and fight for a future that isn’t bound to the Bts. You’ll even find the odd boss fight set among vast and awe-inspiring environments, that make Death Stranding stand out among many other games.
Death Stranding is a cinematic experience that is beyond comparison. Defying genre expectations, it presents a world that is so immersive that you could easily drown in it. Despite the monotony of the mid-game open-world experience, this tale of belief and communal purpose, even in the darkest of times, is a glorious and beautiful experience that you will love and probably hate in equal measure. Death Stranding is out now on PC. You can check it out over at the official website now.