Death Stranding is the long-awaited adventure title from the prolific game designer Hideo Kojima. Most well known for his work on the Metal Gear Solid series, Kojima is highly regarded due to his interesting game mechanics and complex storylines. Since his departure from publisher Konami, fans have been eagerly awaiting the next mysterious and perplexing game from Kojima. From its announcement until its release, Death Stranding has been shrouded in secrecy, with few details known about both its story or genre of gameplay. Generally speaking, Kojima games usually deliver interesting worlds drenched in lore, compelling characters, and engaging gameplay. Does this third-person adventure game continue Kojima’s legacy as a master of game design, or is this an over-hyped and confusing dud? Let’s see if Death Stranding was worth the wait.
Beep Beep, Delivery
In Death Stranding, you step into the shoes of Sam Porter Bridges (played by Norman Reedus). Sam spends his days enduring grueling delivery treks across the post-apocalyptic countrysides of the United States. Death Stranding takes place in a reality where the barrier between life and death has collapsed after an event known as the “Death Stranding”. This presents Sam with plenty of problems, including invisible and hostile creatures known as BTs, rain that causes things to age known as “timefall”, and the general rocky and ruined topography that an apocalyptic event brings. Luckily, Sam can sense the murderous BTs due a condition known as DOOMs, in addition to using a baby contained in a jar that can sniff them out. It’s all pretty damn weird.
As a member of the Bridges faction, Sam delivers goods and resources to nearby cities, establishing both a literal and figurative connection between them. Whether its a shipment of drugs or supplies for construction, Sam is one of the last men in the country who is able to get it in the right hands. With orders from the President herself, Sam must sacrifice life and limb to deliver the goods and reconnect each location to one super-internet known as the chiral network.
It’s an engaging premise, spurred on by the signature oddball storytelling that Hideo Kojima is known for. Despite feeling incredibly overwhelming at the start, Death Stranding eventually settles into a somewhat enjoyable rhythm of fetch quests and narrative intrigue. Unfortunately, the game often prioritizes story and tone over entertaining gameplay, resulting in a severely lopsided experience. Overall pacing becomes an issue, with long stretches that mostly serve as a distraction from the main story. Although the mystery surrounding the Death Stranding remains interesting throughout the entire campaign, some of the ancillary content is more tiresome than intriguing.
Like most other games developed by Hideo Kojima, Death Stranding is filled with weirdly named characters with ridiculous backstories, as well as complex mysteries with heavy-handed symbolism. The story is presented as a continuing mystery, with the player usually left slightly confused but intrigued. Most characters are larger-than-life in attitude or motivation, resulting in a cast of memorable if slightly under-baked friends and foes.
These characters are often played by recognizable celebrities like Guillermo Del Toro, Mads Mikkelsen, and more. The game is also highly cinematic and incredibly dense with cutscenes. This cannot be overstated enough; playing Death Stranding is a lot like sitting down for a highly experimental movie. Expect lengthy cutscenes and long stretches of downtime.
In the early hours, the game strikes up an interesting and evocative mystery, with some truly chilling scenes. Dead bodies slowly deteriorate and shake violently, morphing into black figures and disappearing into the ground. Giant shadows loom in the clouds, and mysterious floating entities watch over the ruined landscapes with questionable intent. It’s all very weird and intriguing, which is enough to compel you through the beginning hours of the game. Unfortunately, Death Stranding often has too many ideas for its own good, which causes a lack of focus in terms of storytelling. At its best, the world and narrative of Death Stranding is intriguing, topical, and ripe with inventive ideas. At its worst, it’s self-indulgent, tedious, and aimless.
I Would Walk 500 Miles
Although Death Stranding may look like a sci-fi action/adventure game on the surface, it’s far more like a walking simulator of the most realistic degree. You’ll spend literally dozens of hours walking across the game world, tripping and falling over rocks and streams as you attempt to gain footing. As you collect more delivery crates and attempt to balance them on Sam, his weight will shift drastically, making movement an awkward and annoying dance. There’s a stamina meter that must be maintained at all times, and can be quickly regenerated by taking a swig of Monster Energy Drink (I’m not kidding) from your canteen. Inventory management plays a big part in preparing for a delivery; you’ll have to choose where on Sam’s body to load inventory, ensuring he is properly balanced. If you take your time and move slow, you’ll have fewer problems. That said, slowly walking for hours upon end is about as exciting as it sounds.
Death Stranding likes to revel in these long hikes, often pulling back the camera and starting up a particularly relaxing or evocative song. In that regard, Death Stranding does an excellent job representing its melancholy and isolated tones. There’s an odd beauty to be found in the slowest parts of Death Stranding, but that doesn’t always justify the abundance of arduous treks. Despite how rich the game’s lore and world-building is, it doesn’t alleviate the tedious nature that stems from the empty and barren-feeling map design.
As you progress further into the game, more transportation options open up, allowing for less cumbersome travel. This includes vehicular transportation, including battery-powered motorcycles and trucks. Various gadgets and futuristic tech become available to craft, easing the burden of exceptionally long travel routes.
The map itself also grows in size and variety, which is either a good or bad thing depending on how much you enjoy the terrain navigation elements. While the early portions of Death Stranding take place on rolling hills that are easy enough to navigate, the map quickly becomes filled with treacherous waterways and steep mountainous terrain. A fast travel system is also unlocked after some progress, but you cannot carry any cargo between fast travel points, rendering it useless during missions. If you do decide to fast travel, you’ll have to re-craft all of the weapons and gear you had on you previously, which isn’t a terrible trade-off depending on how many resources you have stocked up
Traveling from city to city, Sam connects cities to the chiral network, a sort of social media/data relay network that strengthens the bonds between each location. Apart from the narrative gain that comes with it, connecting a new city to the chiral network also grants significant gameplay advantages. Death Stranding exists in an ever-changing online world where other players can leave messages and helpful items for each other.
Players can construct helpful buildings and structures for other players to use, ranging in utility. Some act as cargo waystations or recharge points for your stamina and gadget energy, while others provide safe shelter from timefall and enemies. The most useful community-built structures are roads and bridges, which often require large amounts of resources to complete. Players are encouraged to chip in and complete roadworks together, as their presence makes navigation far less annoying.
If a particular player-created sign or structure pleases you, you can award the creator with “likes”, represented by the universal thumbs up icon. By tapping the touchpad during a certain window, you can flood an element with likes, boosting that player’s Porter grade. The “likes” system is also heavily present within the game world and story, as you’ll receive them from NPCs in a variety of ways. Much like in real-life, the level of likes you receive doesn’t make any hugely noticeable gameplay changes. You’ll earn more than enough through standard gameplay and can ignore the online stuff altogether, but it feels good to smash the touchpad and show your appreciation. As you work your way through the world, it feels reassuring to see signs of life from other players, adding a feeling of community to the experience.
Everyone Hates the Porter
Although the mass majority of Death Stranding revolves around delivering crates and supplies, there are still some action and stealth elements to shake things up. Renegade loot-hoarders known as MULEs occupy certain areas of the map, and will try to hunt you down and steal your goods. They can be dispatched with various non-lethal weapons like a Bola gun and stun grenades, but it’s often smarter to avoid them outright. Instead of fighting the MULEs, I found it far more successful to simply run away, escaping their clutches with relative ease. A handful of missions will force you to trek into MULE territory, but with some accurate Bola gun aim, you’ll have few problems.
The bigger threat in the world of Death Stranding are the mysterious creatures known as the BTs, which Sam must deal with on a periodic basis. Since they’re invisible and incredibly powerful (especially in the opening hours where you have no defensive or offensive options), you’ll often want to employ stealth instead of brute force when you wander into their territory. Thanks to your tub-contained Bridge Baby, you can sniff out BTs with a sort of flashing light/radar that indicates what direction they’re hanging out in. If a BT catches sight of you, it’s essentially an all-out race for your life. The area gets flooded with black tar, while faceless beings try to pull you under its swift current. You can fight back with some weapons and grenades once you unlock them, but it’s usually a lost hope. In order to truly damage the BTs, you’ll have to use some of Sam’s own blood, which presents an obvious risk to his health. Unless you come prepared with extra blood-bags, avoidance is usually your only option when dealing with BTs.
Apart from a few set-piece moments and the occasional boss fight, the action in Death Stranding is passable. I rarely felt motivated to run into a fight on my own accord, mainly because Sam is so under-powered for the majority of the game. The rewards rarely outweigh the risk and the combat and stealth are mostly middling. I appreciated the bursts of action when they came, especially as it relates to the game’s pacing, but I rarely jumped out of my seat in excitement. There are some remarkable action sequences, but I found the best moments of Death Stranding within the scenic and quiet walks.
A Boy and His Bridge Baby
In a game about forming connections, it’s pretty easy to get attached to both Sam and his adorable Bridge Baby unit. Strapped to the front of Sam’s chest for a large portion of the game, the Bridge Baby unit (referred to as BB for short) performs quite a few functions. In terms of narrative, BB units are an incredibly important element, as they are one of the few life-forms that bridge the gap between life and death (hence the name, bridge baby). As previously stated, they’re also essential when trying to avoid encounters with BTs, as BBs double as a sort of radar for the creatures. The story implications of the BB unit unravel as you progress, but your bond with it is obvious right from the start.
In many ways, the BB is just like any other baby. When things get exceptionally dangerous, it gets scared and needs to be soothed. This can be accomplished by taking a quick break and detaching the BB from Sam (they’re connected via a tube), rocking it gently by using the controller’s motion capabilities. The BB unit will also giggle with glee during joyful portions of your adventure, and even throw you a “like” from time to time. Neglecting your bridge baby causes them to become ineffective during stealth, rendering them useless beyond the cute factor.
In addition to soothing the bridge baby, you’ll also have to ensure that Sam is tended to from time to time. Walking long distances through muck and grime definitely takes its toll on Sam, and taking pit-stops is necessary for survival. At certain locations, Sam can hunker down in a private room, enjoying a nap, a shower, and a visit to the bathroom. Any time you visit a private room your blood and energy levels will fully replenish, making the short trip well worth your time.
Players are also free to swirl the camera around Sam as he relaxes, which can trigger some funny animations. This silly nature is further evident when he takes a step in front of the mirror, making ridiculous faces and sticking out his tongue. It’s quirky and comedic instances like this that helps Death Stranding retain its charm, encouraging players to fiddle with features and take their time.
The Bottom Line on Death Stranding
Overall, Death Stranding is an incredibly unique title both in gameplay and narrative. It’s incredibly ambitious and quite unlike anything you’ve played before, but it’s not without a handful of issues. While there are plenty of impacting emotional moments and intense action sequences, there’s also a smattering of frustrating design choices and underwhelming story arcs. I felt oddly compelled to continue playing Death Stranding over its 40 – 50 hour story, and I feel like that journey was worthwhile in the end. That said, Death Stranding is simply not a game for everyone. My recommendation comes with conditions.
If you are looking for a relaxing, intriguing, and infinitely weird story of a post-apocalyptic world, Death Stranding can provide that. As long as you have 50 hours of free time and you don’t mind taking a chance on something new and experimental, there’s plenty of fantastic stuff in Death Stranding. If you’re expecting an action experience with flawless storytelling on the level of the Metal Gear Solid franchise, you’ll be very disappointed. As long as you temper your expectations and enjoy the ride, Death Stranding can be wildly rewarding. Just know that those rewards come with a fair share of annoyances as well.