Previously: Episode 2.
As I’ve moved on to playing the next game in my list, which happens to be Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, a game whose story also requires a lot of processing, I’ve sort of lost interest in processing Death Stranding in writing. But I shall valiantly try to press on and remember some key points.
This post covers Episodes 3 through 8, which represents the vast majority of the player’s time spent in the game. For me, getting through to the end of Episode 8 consumed about 70 out of the 80 hours I spent in the game. The final hours of the game is incredibly story-heavy, but I’ll get into that later.
Starting with Episode 3, we leave the Eastern Zone and enter the Central Zone, starting at Lake Knot City. The two zones are not physically connected, so you can’t walk from one to the other. We have to traverse a lake or use the fast travel system, which unlocks at the end of Episode 3. In game terms, the Eastern Zone is a small tutorial map, sort of a starter zone, while the Central Zone is the first massive everything-goes map. The Central Zone continues into the Western Zone, so it’s technically two big maps connected together (which you can walk across).
Reminder: Massive, story-ruining spoilers below.
Episode 3 “Fragile”
Each “episode” in Death Stranding, generally, introduces us to a character and/or gives us a deep dive into their background. We started with Sam himself in the prologue, then Bridget Strand, then Amelie.
After a boss fight where we’re introduced to Higgs, the main antagonist in the story, we enter Episode 3 and learn about Fragile’s backstory. I won’t go into it in much detail. I liked Fragile, and I loved her accent (French is my favorite accent, because it’s one of the most exotic and foreign-sounding accents to me-I just can’t wrap my mind around why French sounds like French), but I didn’t quite understand her story role. She certainly has a tragic backstory that made me feel for her, but it had an odd ring to it. After seeing what happened to her, it’s difficult to believe that she’s still alive and functioning as well as she does.
Over the course of the game, we see Fragile the least. Once episode 3 is over, we don’t see her again until the end of the game. The way the game is structured, each character’s story arc essentially ends at the end of their episode. They all return again at the end for a big Superfriends moment, but that’s about it.
It also happens that Episode 3 is where the game “opens up” into a whole new world, and we finally start to spend more time with the gameplay than with cut scenes. This is the part where we connect from Lake Knot City all the way down to South Knot City, which is a big chunk of the game. This is when we can start building roads and riding motorcycles and trucks, which changes everything.
Episode 3 (and the boss fight at the end of Episode 2) is where we’re introduced more to Higgs, our primary antagonist throughout the game.
Episode 4 “Unger”
By the time you get through Episode 3, you think you have a pretty good handle on Death Stranding. You think you’ve seen everything the game has to offer.
Then you reach the Combat Veteran, and it all goes out the window.
To make a long story short, you’re sucked up into a weird chiral tornado and dropped down in the middle of a World War I battlefield. It was like switching to an entirely different game, for no discernible reason. I’m not even going to try to explain the game logic for it, because it’s been a while now and I don’t remember and I’m not sure I ever fully understood it anyway.
Your mission is to “escape the battlefield,” which involves defeating the Combat Veteran, who is the guy played by Mads Mikkelsen. It’s a boss fight, essentially.
My mouth hung agape for the first few minutes of this mission, because it was such an unexpected left turn. There had been little or no combat in the game up to this point (this was roughly 40 hours of play time later for me, mind you), and suddenly you’re assaulted by explosions and screams and tanks and crashing planes you have to pick up guns and shoot them at enemies. Shotguns, assault rifles, and grenades lay around the battlefield for you to pick up and use.
And this is one of my criticisms of Death Stranding: It’s not a very good shooter. In fact, I dare say it’s a terrible shooter. The mechanics of movement and aiming and shooting were frustrating, especially for me, because I was using a XIM APEX mouse-and-keyboard adapter to play on the PS4. The handling of ammunition was weird, to say the least. Each gun has a fixed amount of ammunition, and once you run out of ammunition, you have to throw away the gun and pick up another gun with full ammunition. Guns and ammunition were tied together in a very puzzling way.
Episode 5 “Mama”
In this episode we get a deep dive into the character of “Mama,” played by Margeret Qualley. We hear her voice a lot prior to Episode 5-in fact she’s the first hologram we talk to way back in the doomed Central Knot City in the prologue-but this is the first time we see her in person and learn her story.
Personally, she was one of my favorite characters in the game. I thought her performance was fantastic, and her backstory compelling. (And strange.)
The high quality performance capture and facial animation throughout the game slipped a little bit during one of her scenes though: The cave-in scene. You probably know what I’m talking about if you’ve seen it. It definitely went into uncanny valley territory as they tried to do too much. (It was similar to the Hellblade 2 reveal trailer: Getting lips to peel back and show teeth and exaggerated facial expressions convincingly is still a bit beyond the grasp of game technology.)
Since I warned you about spoilers, I’ll just tell you that Mama dies to “reconnect” with her twin sister Lockne. (The names of the twins Målingen and Lockne are significant but I don’t remember why… some reference to literature or mythology I believe. It’s explained somewhere in the lore of the game.) They live on together as one person.
Anyway I thought the way her story played out was both sad and beautiful at the same time. It had a very Anime feel to it.
Episode 6 “Deadman”
With Episode 6 we roll into the Western Zone and the snow-covered mountains. I found the change in terrain really interesting. Instead of walking across rocks and grass, now we’re trudging through thigh-high drifts of snow, depicted with stunning realism by the game engine. There are times when the game has you walk into snow storms that simulate whiteout conditions, and it’s very realistic and immersive. Again the game seems to have a pretty good sense of when to throw a new thing at the player just when they’re starting to get tired of the old thing. Here we also get to play with Ziplines, and I had great fun building them to zoom back and forth through the snow.
In the story department we get to learn a bit more about Deadman. He’s apparently “made” from the body parts of dead people, and therefore doesn’t have a soul. I didn’t feel much of a connection with this character so it didn’t really impact me very much. I just shrugged and said, “Okay, if you say so.”
There were some funny scenes in this area though, particularly when Deadman jumps into the shower with Sam so he can talk to him without anyone overhearing. The entire scene Deadmen keeps trying to lean closer to talk, while Sam, with his phobia, keeps trying to lean backward.
Another important story and gameplay change occurs in this episode, because we have to give up BB for “repairs.” We’ve spent the whole game getting used to having this baby strapped to our chest, and for this period, we don’t have it anymore. Which means, we can easily stumble blindly into BTs which can ruin our day. This presents a big challenge because there are a few places we have to get through in the mountains that are infested with BTs. I ended up building ziplines around the problem areas.
Episode 7 “Clifford”
When we meet Deadman at a cabin in the mountains (for some weird reason), we are whisked away into another tornado that drops us down into another war zone, this time in World War II.
It’s another bizarre chance to fight Mads Mikkelsen, and it’s very similar to the first one, except this time Deadman is there too. The mechanics are much the same, the imagery is equally horrifying and strange, and it still makes little or no sense. But it’s definitely a change from the average ho-hum doldrums of forging a path through snowy mountains.
Episode 8 “Heartman”
Returning from World War II, we’re asked to deliver another corpse to Heartman. This time, it’s the corpse of Mama, who, it turns out, doesn’t decompose. We need to deliver her to this guy named Heartman, who we’ve had periodic contact with over the radio, for science, or something.
After trudging through the snow for a while with a corpose on our back, we get to Heartman’s winter chalet which is a pretty weird place. Heartman is modeled after Nicolas Winding Refn, a famous director that everyone knows that I’ve never heard of before. He’s voiced by Darren Jacobs, though. He’s perfectly normal and has no unusual characteristics. Just kidding! It’s Death Stranding, after all.
Heartman wears a device on his chest that stops his heart every 21 minutes. He then spends 3 minutes searching the afterlife for his dead family before the device shocks his heart again and revives him for another 21 minutes. Perfectly normal. His reasons make sense in the context of the game-kind of-but still, you’d think the game would have run out of its capacity to throw surprises at you after so much time, but you’d be wrong.
There’s a shift in the focus of the game’s story around here. Previously we’ve been told that our goal is to connect all the cities from the East to the West Coast and rescue Amelie. Now, we start to learn about archaeological evidence that the Death Stranding, the event that destroyed the world, has happened before. We start to hear about the five previous extinction events in the history of the world, and that we may be facing the Sixth Extinction.
I didn’t really understand the change in narrative, to be honest, but I just went with it. If you make it this far into the game, that’s the only choice you have. In hindsight, I feel like this whole aspect of the story, which ties in with Bridget and Amelie, was the weakest in the game. It was all very interesting, and there were plenty of beautiful story beats that came out of it, but I just didn’t feel like it held together logically.
At any rate, during this part of the story, we spend most of our time trudging around the mountains fetching and delivering archaeological samples from place to place. There are new kinds of BTs to engage (or avoid) here too.
And that’s about all I can remember, here as I type this some two weeks after I finished the game’s story. (In fact, I’ve already finished playing Hellblade, the game I mentioned at the top of this post.) Next I’ll try to summarize my thoughts about the remaining episodes in the game. Now to find some pictures.