Kojima Productions' Death Stranding was shrouded in mystery for years following its reveal, but last month we finally got answers about what the game really is. The short version is that it's a game about carrying cargo from place to place, but in truth, there's so much more going on under the surface, and that unfolding sense of mystery is one of the main reasons why it's earned a place on our Games of the Year list.
The premise is that you - Sam Porter Bridges (Norman Reedus) - have been enlisted by the United Cities of America (UCA) to head from the east to west coast of the country formerly known as the USA to reconnect Knots, which in turn will unite the country in a network that was previously established by your friend Amelie. She has been captured and is on the West Coast though, which is another reason why you must find her.
Many thought the game would be obtuse given the lack of information provided before release, and while it does bombard you with weird characters and unique storylines at the beginning, by the end this is all wrapped up in a nice little bow to make sense of it all, in a narrative that's definitely original and exciting. It's safe to say that nothing like this story exists in games, for better or worse, and we found ourselves mulling it all over long after all was said and done.
This is helped by a star-studded cast of characters, with Mads Mikkelsen, Norman Reedus, Troy Baker, and more playing key roles, alongside other cameos (such as The Game Awards host Geoff Keighley). All of these characters bring something special to the table, and Kojima does a good job of giving each of them their time in the spotlight, even dedicating particular chapters to each character in order to flesh them out.
These stories unfold within the overarching plot of connecting East to West, and to do this you have to visit different Knots, which are in-game hubs. Here you have to undertake tasks and deliver cargo for the occupants to convince them to join the UCA network, and as such you get a sense of the isolated communities and the world in which it all takes place, bolstered by extra details like emails you receive.
And that's where the bulk of the gameplay lies - carrying this cargo. As Sam Bridges, you need to distribute this cargo on your person, with most of it on your back, and Kojima Productions has made sure that this is a realistic and weighty system (pardon the pun). Carry too much and you're more likely to tip over, and falling over will subsequently damage your cargo, affecting the rating you get when you eventually drop it off.
There's a lot to consider here, and there's something awfully mesmerising about making sure you're carrying all you need while also watching your footing, leaning your weight, using tools like ladders and ropes to navigate, and more.
The studio does a great job of layering on mechanics too, and soon you'll be finding bikes, cars, and more to help you navigate your way around. There are even weapons to craft (you'll need to carry all this, remember!) and other gadgets and gizmos, some of which may help with the human enemies that are looking to grab your loot and take it for themselves.
There are effective horror moments as well, as the BTs - the floating, spectral beings - provide very tense moments as you hold your breath to sneak past them, hearing gurgles and roars as you go. It's a taste of what might have been with Kojima's Silent Hills projects, although admittedly this gets less scary when you can throw grenades made out of your own urine at them (to great effect, we should add).
As you explore further, the game world is constantly unfurling and changing as you go, so that you never get bored, although those who are looking for extra rankings and 'Likes' from their fellow players can always do extra missions aside from the main objective, in order to get the all-important Platinum or for an extra layer of challenge.
One of the most surprising aspects of Death Stranding, however, is the social system, as you're always connected to other players in a loose sense. You never see them, but they interact with you in a tangible way, leaving objects for you to use (bridges, ropes, etc.) and vehicles that you can utilise, and you can also give back for the chance to earn some valuable Likes and make some friends.
Not everything in Death Stranding hits the mark, but Kojima Productions' debut game is certainly engaging and unique, which is a remarkable feat considering how much this departs from the norm in almost every way, from the narrative right down to the core gameplay loop of carrying cargo safely. It's a bizarre title that works because of its quirks, and we had a really fun time seeing how it was going to unfold. It's worth the wait for sure, and definitely one of the most memorable experiences of 2019.