“Humans aren’t made for living alone. They’re supposed to come together, to help one another.”
This is the sentiment that echoes throughout Death Stranding, Hideo Kojima’s first independent game following his turbulent departure from the game studio that made him a household name. It’s an undeniably pretty concept, further explored through original gameplay concepts and a weighty narrative threaded with themes of loss, parenthood, and maintaining human connections. Clearly, Death Stranding is a real passion project for Kojima, but has this newfound creative freedom allowed him to deliver a-once-in-a-lifetime game, or a license for him to marinate in his own sense of self-importance?
“Once there was an Explosion…”
Underneath the narrative’s Christopher Nolan style grandeur lies an engaging sci-fi set up. Several years in the future, civilisation has become fractured after an apocalyptic conflict. A single courier, Sam Porter Bridges, is enlisted to reconnect the USA by traveling from the East Coast to the West on foot. Though beautiful and verdant, the natural landscape has become a hostile wasteland. The restless spirits of the dead wander aimlessly on Earth and even the rain has become toxic, hyper-accelerating the passage of time for anything it touches.
This is all established through some great cutscenes early on, bolstered by some remarkable performances from the star-studded cast. Norman Reedus plays Sam as if he’s done mo-cap all his life, and though he wears a gruff facade, a slight flicker in Sam’s eyes is enough to betray his vulnerability during key scenes. Mads Mikkelsen on the other hand has an electrifying screen presence that silently commands authority; his scenes are among the game’s best despite not appearing until a little later in the game. However, anyone who’s played a Metal Gear game will know for every good cutscene, there’s ten bad ones on the horizon. Sadly, this is still the case for Death Stranding.
Where the storytelling begins to fall apart is in the writing. It wouldn’t seem out of place if any of the glassy-eyed cast begun unironically reciting Rutger Hauer’s final monologue from Blade Runner. There’s creaky dialogue here that would test the faith of even the most devout Kojima fan. Character’s repeat themselves, speak in technobabble, and at worst, say something irredeemably insane. One character asks Sam ‘Do you remember being inside the womb?’ Unsatisfied with his silence they go on to say ‘I do…’ This was the point the rubber band snapped for me and the writing never managed to pull me back into its fold.
Thankfully, the soundtrack does most of the emotional heavy-lifting whenever the writing fails. Rooted in melancholic science fiction, Ludvig Forssell’s score is frequently breathtaking and lends a real cinematic flavour to the package. Licenced tracks breathe life into cutscenes and gameplay with expert timing, enhancing the mood of the moment without lecturing you on how you should feel. It’s easy to get swept up in Death Stranding’s story early on, but the longer it lasts, the more it’ll test your patience and empathy.
Though Death Stranding’s story is complex, it’s gameplay is refreshingly simple. On his mission to reconnect the world, Sam must visit local distribution centers, collect cargo and deliver it to increasingly westward parts of America. While there are a smattering of vehicles to use, Sam’s journey will mostly be made on foot. If that sounds intimidating, it’s because it is. In real time, a single trip can take up to 10 minutes of unadulterated walking, though much like going on a real life hike, once you surrender yourself to the journey ahead, it can become quite a meditative experience. How high you pile on the cargo is mostly up to you. If you want to keep things light and breezy, take a little bit. If you want to feel the crushing burden of responsibility then lay it on thick. Controlling the distribution of your weight and your momentum becomes the metagame, alongside maintaining your hydration, fatigue, and footwear levels as they gradually deplete while hiking. Trekking around seldom becomes boring since you’re always making little decisions and marvelling at the gorgeous landscapes – it won’t be long before your body clock adjusts to the pace of the game as the hours melt away.
Everything changes when storm clouds appear. For every second Sam is in the rain, his cargo will begin to deteriorate. Suddenly your carefully planned route runs into a frenzied scramble. You’ll begin slipping, start making risky leaps of faith and leave lost packages to the elements – anything to flee the downpour. On a dime, your gameplay focus becomes primal and survivalistic, lending a welcome sense of intensity to excursions. Over the 35 hours I spent with Death Stranding, some of my best anecdotes can be attributed purely to the rain.
Occasionally you’ll feel the need to build ladders or climbing ropes to help you traverse the landscape, and this is where Death Stranding’s online functionality manifests to reveal the game’s best idea. Anything you place in the world can be used by players in your instance and vice-versa. While you won’t see them running around in real time, you’ll see indications of the paths they took by the things they’ve left behind. Stumbling across them is like uncovering a long lost civilisation, bridges, power generators and even zip-lines are all remnants of another player’s journey, all placed to aid the collective cargo runs. Using another player’s bridge to cross a once-perilous ravine or waiting out the rain under someone’s shelter evokes the game’s themes elegantly, rekindling your faith in the concept that man-kind can be a force for good.
Large-scale constructions can often only be completed when several players collaborate. During my playthrough, I frequently donated my resources to help construct a road, one of the most expensive and useful buildings in the game. It started as a small stretch of tarmac but over the course of a few days, we eventually built a superhighway that spanned a vast portion of the continent. One good deed sparks another in this world, and it was beautiful to see that sentiment ripple again and again throughout my playthrough.
The only thing I never looked forward to before strapping on my rucksack and heading out on another long walk was the onslaught of menus to navigate beforehand. Any time you accept a new job, you’ll go through a screen for selecting your mission, a screen for building equipment and a screen for packing your weight, and if you’re lucky, your radio chatter will only interrupt this process once. Microscopic text size and an intimidating UI design make this process even more exhaustive to acclimatise to. It’s also disheartening to see the same distribution centers copy+pasted throughout the game. The world has been meticulously crafted, down to the type of shoes your character wears, but we never see any indication of civilisation living and breathing in these supposed cities.
Old Habits Die-Hardman
Combat and stealth also manages to slink into Death Stranding with various degrees of success. BT’s, the invisible spirits of the dead, stalk Sam upon entering their territory and because the consequences of getting caught by one is so dire, sneaking past them becomes your best option. A beeping motion detector is the only means of spotting them, but even then you can never be too certain of their proximity to Sam. Cradling your crying baby as BT’s draw ever closer is a harrowing feeling, and your first handful of encounters with them are truly terrifying. During later portions of the game their effectiveness is diminished due to some unlockable Ghostbusting equipment so they become more of a speed-bump in your travels. Mules on the other hand, act like conventional open-world bandits, eager to get their hands on your cargo. Wandering into their turf un-equipped for battle is often a bad idea; stealth is a viable means to take them out, but once you’ve been spotted you’d best start running for the hills. Fleeing from Mules is genuinely more interesting than engaging them, like prey escaping its predator, weaving through their attacks is hair-raising and barely surviving a chase can result in another exciting campfire story.
Boss fights are easily the weakest part of the package because simply put, Death Stranding’s systems don’t support gunplay. Instead of carrying ammo packs, Sam is forced to carry multiple guns of the same kind on his back thus making the typically simple task of weapon swapping an unwieldy mess. Aiming and firing weapons feels clunky and gargantuan enemy health bars mean that fights quickly outstay their welcome. Shooting things in Death Stranding is like cooking a three-course meal on a steam iron. With enough will power it’ll get the job done, but you’ll pine for when it’ll be all over.
The Low Down
Between the dodgy boss fights, repetitive mission structure, and bloated story, you may begin to wonder why you keep fighting for the world of Death Stranding. ‘Tomorrow’, whispers Kojima in a mysterious and overly-earnest voice, an answer dripping in the sentimental schmaltz you’d expect to see in a late 90’s Hollywood movie. But when you get to physically experience the collective good humanity is capable of through gameplay his answer begins to make sense.
Kojima’s projects have always championed pacifism and mankind’s capacity to create a better world, and in many ways, this is his most tactile execution of those ideals to date. The warmth that comes with sharing a bridge with the invisible player base gracefully encapsulates the game’s themes while making Death Stranding an oddly social experience. This doesn’t excuse all the games foibles (and there are several), but it ends up making the experience feel a lot more interesting to digest.
For what it’s worth, I liked the game. I enjoyed spending time in its world and dwelling on the ideas it puts forward, and when 90% of the game is walking, you can bet I had plenty of time to do just that.
This review of Death Stranding is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game.
Kojima’s ambition is simultaneously Death Stranding’s greatest and most damning quality. It’s best moments occur during long stretches of quiet walking, punctuated only by understated social elements that can reaffirm your faith in humanity. It’s a little self-indulgent, but that shouldn’t stop you from experiencing Death Stranding for yourself.
Writer of words for tired eyes and lover of games that make me smile. Blogger and YouTube content creator who can’t keep quiet when it comes to gaming. Don’t like my work? Fight me IRL in Smash Brothers.