In some ways, Death Stranding had an insurmountable mountain of expectations to climb. Not only is this revered Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima’s first new project since forming his own newly independent studio Kojima Productions after splitting from Konami in 2015. The title is also filling a void for some fans left by his cancelled Silent Hill project, with actor Norman Reedus and collaborator Guillermo Del Toro returning for this new project. For better or for worse, it seems like Kojima and his team ignored all expectations for Death Stranding, instead going in a vastly wild new direction, creating arguably the most niche AAA game in recent years.
Death Stranding takes place in a fictional interpretation of America, a number of years after the titular cataclysmic disaster turned the world on its head, vastly altering the landscape, wiping away civilisations and forcing most humans to live their lives in underground bunkers. In the game, players control Sam Porter Bridges as he’s begrudgingly tasked with delivering packages to different outposts across the country, connecting each of these outposts to the Chiral Network (essentially the story’s magical MacGuffin, acting as a super internet of sorts re-establishing communications across the country).
Delivering packages across the country isn’t an understatement or a simplification of what players will spend the bulk of their time doing in Death Stranding either. It’s the core gameplay hook, with a plethora of systems and mechanics giving it a strong backbone to rest the game upon. Getting from A to B with a few packages isn’t as simple as it sounds, with players having to account for dozens of small variables that can turn a smooth delivery sour very quickly.
These range from having to plan your most efficient and timely route through various terrains; avoiding Time Fall (Death Stranding’s variation on rain) which can degrade your packages; packing ladders and climbing anchors to cross canyons and descend down steep cliff faces; and making sure to pack a spare pair of boots for when one pair starts to degrade. These are only a fraction of the elements that need to be considered, with things like stamina and weight capacity also adding a layer of complexity to the trips players will be making across the desolate countryside.
While these systems might sound boring or frustrating on paper, there’s something oddly gratifying about becoming more accustomed to the mechanics at play, and gradually being able to perform these deliveries more efficiently. A lot of this is helped along by the progression system, with a hefty number of upgrades being unlocked throughout the course of the journey. These upgrades are directly tied to Death Stranding’s social media-inspired “like” system. When completing deliveries, you’ll be graded at the end based on numerous factors, such as delivery time and the condition of the cargo overall. Higher grades will reward players with more “likes”, which in turn translates to a higher Porter grade and a higher-level connection with a certain outpost. Each outpost offers specific rewards upon attaining a certain connection level with them, which can range from cosmetics to higher tiers of previously obtained gear, while a higher Porter grade can positively impact Sam’s own abilities, such as being able to carry more weight or being less likely to lose balance.
“Likes” aren’t only received from NPC’s, but from the unique multiplayer functionality of the game as well. When playing Death Stranding with an online connection you’ll find yourself stumbling across various structures and signs that have been left by other players who are also playing the game. Conversely, players can also use equipment you’ve left around, and the two parties can leave each other “likes” as a show of appreciation. While it’s not direct co-operation or multiplayer, there’s a sense of unspoken community that’s truly unique in Death Stranding, leading to many memorable encounters that significantly enhance the experience. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been trudging through the rain with my cargo slowly degrading, only to find an unknown saint had previously built a rain shelter that I could take refuge under while I waited for the sky to clear up. It’s a system that’s completely unconventional and manages to reinforce Death Stranding’s positive message about connecting to others, bringing strangers together in a way that I have never seen before in a game.
All of the interesting traversal and the unique social online systems are wrapped up in a world that’s just downright gorgeous to look at and spend time in. Not only is it visually impressive from a technical perspective, but the large range of environments and colour really bring out a lot of much appreciated aesthetic variety. The world also has a very distinct atmosphere, with a certain sense of melancholy permeating through the lengthy, lonesome treks through long-deserted landscapes. This is further enforced by the occasional sombre music tracks from artists such as Low Roar and Silent Poets that appear during specific sections of the game, making the usual absence of music and silence more pronounced.
While the world itself is the main obstacle for Sam throughout his journey, there are also some much more immediate threats in the form of the humanoid faction, MULEs, and the ghostly apparitions BTs. MULEs are a bandit-like group who will aggressively chase after Sam if their territory is entered, stealing all of a player’s cargo and taking it back to their camp if they manage to take Sam down in combat. Encounters with MULEs can lead to bursts of panic and tension, as you’ll not only have to sprint away from them while also making sure not to tumble and damage or lose your cargo due to the uneven terrain that you’ll likely be forced to cross while escaping. This is especially true early in the game where your combat options are extremely limited, or when you unknowingly stumble into one of their camps while traversing an area for the first time.
This is unfortunately short lived however, as the MULEs AI doesn’t make them particularly threatening when prepared, even when they largely outnumber the player. Assuming a player is properly equipped with some combat equipment, wiping out an entire MULE camp can be performed extremely easily, and when this is done once any sense of threat they had is diminished for the remainder of the game, with them instead feeling like more of a nuisance. This is also disappointingly the case for BTs.
BTs only appear during heavy periods of Timefall, and while they’re invisible to the naked eye, Sam’s Odradek (a mechanical arm that hangs from his shoulder to scan items) is able to track them in tandem with the Bridge Baby that Sam carries with him, which is a semi-artificial baby that has ties to the afterlife. If a player doesn’t pay attention to the position of BTs and isn’t taking their time when moving past them, they’ll get grabbed by the entities which spawns a mini-boss encounter with a larger BT. While it’s an intimidating proposition at first, especially given the monstrous designs of the larger entities, they’re actually extremely easy to deal with. They can either be fought head on or the player can simply run and escape from the encounter. It’s hard to be taken down when fighting head on due to their slow and predictable attacks, and escaping only takes a bit of perseverance and stamina, which isn’t much of a cost to avoid a fight.
Main story related boss fights also suffer from being mechanically basic, with the game’s combat feeling like an afterthought compared to the immense amount of detail and consideration that’s prevalent in the traversal, but at least they have narrative stakes to make them more engaging and are often visually more interesting. Outside of one late-game boss encounter which feels like the game’s lowest point in terms of tedium, they at least punctuate bigger story moments with some spectacle to gawk at.
Much like the gameplay as a whole, the narrative in Death Stranding is an eclectic mix of different ideas, with some working out better than others in their execution. For a large duration of Death Stranding, specifics regarding the inner workings of the incredibly dense world-building and various character motivations are left a mystery, and it’s the mystery that makes the earlier parts of the game intriguing, with each new piece of information or character interaction giving the player a small nugget to nibble on as events start to unfold. Thankfully a lot of the mystery pays off well, with the game managing to tie together it’s varying wild concepts and ideas into a satisfying conclusion.
Even though some plot lines are stronger than others (Cliff who is portrayed by Mads Mikkleson being a personal highlight), each actor who portrays the main cast brings a top-notch performance, which helps to sell their characters in a way that might not have been possible without them. Not one actor phones it in, and it leaves the impression that they each deeply cared about the project as a whole, putting Death Stranding’s celebrity inclusions over most titles. Norman Reedus in particular turns in a performance that I’d argue is his strongest yet, even eclipsing his performance as fan favourite character Daryl Dixon in The Walking Dead.
Despite the actors putting their heart into their respective characters, sometimes the material they’re given to work with doesn’t meet the same standard. At times the game can be incredibly touching on a personal level with certain character moments and developments, as well as being poignant with its surprisingly balanced criticism of the political climate, with both the left and right being given their dues. At other times, subtlety is thrown out of the window as characters explain numerous metaphors in painstaking detail, completely undercutting a lot of writing and symbolism that upon reflection could have been clever.
It’s a shame too, because without the sabotaged subtext the story could have been genuinely great as a whole. Instead, it’s a narrative that flops between moments of brilliance and points of jaw-dropping stupidity. In a lot of ways, that’s indicative of Death Stranding as a whole – a game that’s got a lot of great qualities, and a game with a number of blemishes that hold it back from true excellence.
It’s hard to blame Kojima for potentially getting a little bit over-excited with the wild amount of ideas in this game after being stuck on Metal Gear Solid for so long, and in a lot of ways, it’s impressive that any game could feature all of these ideas. It sometimes feels like a case of quantity over quality, but overall the game manages to hit the mark more than it misses. It’s an uneven ride and it’s certainly in need of a bit of an edit, but it’s hard not to forgive the missteps at the end of the journey. Death Stranding might be the most unique AAA game of the generation, with an addictive core gameplay loop that manages to combine a new concept with tried-and-true design philosophies, and a story that - while messy - has a sweet emotional core that’s likely to stick with players long after the credits roll. It’s not a complete home run, but it is a wildly imaginative success overall, and if Kojima Productions’ can cram even half of the great ideas that are in Death Stranding into future titles, it’s likely to be a studio that will continue to succeed well into the future.
Death Stranding (Reviewed on PlayStation 4)
This game is great, with minimal or no negatives.
Death Stranding might be the most unique AAA game of the generation, with an addictive core gameplay loop that manages to combine a new concept with tried-and-true design philosophies, and a story that - while messy - has a sweet emotional core that’s likely to stick with players long after the credits roll.