Screenshot: Death Stranding (Sony)

There has never been a game quite like Death Stranding, at least not on the scale of a big-budget, high-profile title with a bunch of famous people playing all of the major characters. It’s the first new game from creator Hideo Kojima since he parted ways with his longtime publisher Konami. But it’s determinedly not the second coming of his legendary Metal Gear Solid series. That was one of gaming’s great franchises, appealing to both fans of military action with its unique stealth gameplay, and fans of fantastical storytelling with its iconic brand of sci-fi nonsense. Death Stranding is a much harder title to pin down. Some people will hate it, saying it’s a miserable, pointless slog. Others will hold it up as the ultimate expression of interactive entertainment. But neither feels right. It’s a game with flaws that are clear and hard to ignore, and yet it also seems aware of those flaws and is making them work in service of a higher purpose.

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Death Stranding is a game that wears its themes on its sleeve, going so far as to name characters after their literal purpose in the story—like some kind of post-apocalyptic Young Goodman Brown. Kojima famously said that it’s a “strand” game—which doesn’t mean much since it’s a new genre he completely invented—but the word does permeate nearly every aspect of the game. You play as Sam Porter Bridges (Norman Reedus, in face and voice) in a future-America that has been utterly decimated in the wake of an event called “the Death Stranding.” The exact details of the Death Stranding remain vague for most of the game, but the important part is that it provided humanity with definitive proof of the existence of an afterlife—called “The Beach.”

Unfortunately, with that new knowledge comes a new threat: BTs, or “Beached Things,” which are (generally) dead people who have returned to our world in the form of shadowy ghosts tethered to the sky with spectral umbilical cords (strands, if you will). If a person dies and their body is not properly disposed of, they will turn into a BT. If a BT makes contact with a person, it will destroy the surrounding area and leave nothing but a crater. Also, clouds of particles from The Beach have entered the atmosphere, making air travel and wireless communication impossible, while also creating a new weather phenomenon called “Timefall,” which is just like rain except it rapidly ages whatever it touches (whether it’s people or plants or buildings). The combination of BTs and Timefall have destroyed nearly all of the major population centers in America, forcing the surviving humans to move underground into scattered city-shelters or solitary “prepper” bunkers.

Sam, a loner with an aversion to physical contact, works as a deliveryman, carrying supplies from one shelter to another all by himself. That changes when he’s drafted into a mission by President Bridget Strand (Lindsay Wagner) to establish connections between all of the shelters, and bring them together under the banner of a resurgent federal government and the new United Cities Of America. To do that, Sam has to walk from the ruins of Washington, D.C. to the ruins of Los Angeles, providing useful equipment and gear to survivors in need. Sometimes he gets vehicles, but mostly you just have to walk the whole way. Rather than just pushing the control stick forward, though, walking in Death Stranding involves navigating difficult terrain or finding ways to cross deep rivers without getting swept away and losing the gear on your backpack. These navigation challenges constitute the major bulk of the game’s actual gameplay, and force you to reckon with its connective themes on an extremely personal, almost-granular level.

That granularity extends to the control scheme: The shoulder buttons control Sam’s hands, so, for example, you hold the left button to carry something in Sam’s left hand—or, if he has a lot of heavy stuff on his back, you can hold both shoulder buttons to stabilize it. You’ll have to do that constantly on steep slopes, but if your hands are full, you won’t be able to scale rocks or steady yourself while sliding down a hill. You can lay down equipment like ladders or climbing ropes (strands), but you always have to be aware of what you’re carrying and how it will affect your mobility, not just because Sam is very prone to stumbling, but because he has a stamina meter that constantly depletes based on how heavy your load is. Your shoes can also deteriorate, requiring you to replace them, and you can refill your stamina with Sam’s personal water bottle of Monster-branded energy drink. (Yes, really.) None of this detail work is extremely oppressive, but you always have to keep it in mind.

This is all without acknowledging the most important piece of “equipment” that Sam has: BB, the “Bridge Baby” strapped to his chest that is Sam’s only method of detecting nearby BTs. To be very clear: BB is an unborn baby in a little pod on Sam’s chest, and if Sam falls or gets attacked, the BB will start to cry (through the awful speaker on the PlayStation controller) until you stop, take it off your chest, and rock the little pod (with the motion controls on the PlayStation controller). BB, despite clearly being a human child stuck in a pod, is officially designated as equipment by the team supporting Sam, especially corpse expert Deadman (played by Guillermo del Toro, though he does not do the voice).

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It’s through BB that some of the obvious themes of the game start to become even more obvious. Sam’s goal is to make America stronger by providing people with connections to each other (strands), but Sam himself has an aversion to connections—except for the one he has with Amelie, the daughter of the president who has been captured by terrorists (led by Troy Baker’s Higgs, with the longtime voice actor giving one of the most entertaining performances of his entire career). Obviously, Sam quickly builds a rapport with BB, treating the child like a proper partner instead of just another ladder, and this attachment coincides with a growing bond between Sam, the aforementioned support team, and a mysterious woman named Fragile (Léa Seydoux). As Sam makes the United Cities Of America stronger through the connections he’s forging with different survivors, his own connections with the people he knows become stronger, and he’s able to get more help on his journey—like better ladders, new customization options, and even access to a fast-travel system.

The bonds that Sam has with characters and settlements are also literally quantified in Death Stranding through another one of the game’s deliberate head-scratching conceits: a Facebook-style “Likes” system that rates how well he’s been performing his duties as a post-apocalyptic WiFi provider. Rather than any kind of currency or traditional experience points, you get Likes for everything you do, and you get a star rating from each person you interact with on your journey based on your connection to them, one that goes up faster depending on how many Likes you have. This is where the clever online component comes in as well: Ladders and ropes and cargo you drop on your journey will appear in other players’ worlds, and you’ll get a Like every time someone uses something that you placed. So, if you have a particularly annoying cliff that gets in your way a lot, put a ladder there that other players can use, and their Likes will start rolling in. It also keeps track of players whose equipment you interact with often, establishing a real world connection (strand) between you and other players.

Likes are fun, but the rewards you get from helping other characters are one very tangible way that Death Stranding’s message about making connections comes through in the gameplay. The more things you do to help someone, the more they like you. The more they like you, the more gear they’ll provide you with. One thing that Death Stranding’s difficult terrain traversal does extremely well is incentivizing you to get and use new pieces of equipment, and it’s paced in such a way that you’ll generally go through some bad new area that really sucks to navigate—like a big rocky field with a lot of rivers—immediately before meeting a survivor who gives you a piece of equipment that helps immensely in that specific area (and, ideally, others). That creates an interesting effect across the whole game, where the journey becomes progressively easier, more fun, and more entertaining as you go. What was originally a pain in the ass becomes a breeze when you’ve got roads and an awesome motorcycle, and it’s all the more fulfilling when you know you’ve got those roads because you made friends with somebody.

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It’s all a little on the nose, admittedly, with the game really hitting you over the head with the importance of connecting with other people. But some of the game’s other ideas are a little more worthy of being unpacked. There are some discussions going on in Death Stranding about whether or not this new connection to the world of the dead is good or bad, with one character (Heartman, played by Nicolas Winding Refn’s face, but not his voice) equating it to the discovery of fire—sure, it’s dangerous, but the benefits could be astronomical if properly harnessed. There are also questions about blind loyalty to a cause, with the exact goals of the new UCA government being distractingly shady sometimes. (Did we mention they put unborn children in pods and treat them as “equipment”?) And a few characters make a good case for why mankind might be better off without restoring the government and forcing everyone to reconnect—as Sam notes early on, the apocalypse happened despite “covering the world in cable,” so who’s to say things will be any better if they do it again?

Then there’s the combat, which comes up so late here that it often feels like an afterthought. Coming off of Metal Gear Solid V, which felt great, Death Stranding is surprisingly clunky in the early action sequences, before you have tools to deal with BTs or roving bands of mean humans. The first thing that resembles a gun unlocks after about a dozen hours, and even then, it’s a bolo launcher that will knock enemies down (with a rope or “strand”). Before that you get grenades made of Sam’s bodily fluids (it’s a whole thing, thankfully unobtrusive) that mostly just annoy BTs. But you don’t get proper weapons until much later—and even then it’s more about giving you a better shot at survival than giving you an edge in combat. Sneaking is also weirdly simplistic, given the pedigree, but that might have something to do with Kojima’s inability (or maybe even active refusal) to use any of the tropes that Metal Gear established. No giant question marks over anyone’s heads, or hiding in lockers, for Sam Porter Bridges.

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Death Stranding is a game that demands to be argued over and analyzed for years. It starts rough, and then gets better and better as it goes along, culminating in an ending that is both hugely important to its universe, and also very small and personal to Sam. It has big ideas for things it wants to say, and then it layers them in with heavy-handed messages about togetherness and bonding with your fellow man. It’s also a story about the reconstruction of America that takes place in a world that bears absolutely no physical resemblance to the real America, lending it all an allegorical tone that allows some of its metaphors and weird imagery to breathe in a way they might not if this were a more “normal” or “realistic” game. It’s hard to say if it’s fun, and it’s hard to say if it’s a good game, but it is undeniably interesting in a way that not enough games try to be. If you buy in to what it’s trying to do—if you allow it to make that connection—Death Stranding will stick with you, one way or another.