Death Stranding Review
A strange and largely dull adventure that only a select few will appreciate
Hideo Kojima is a prolific Japanese video game designer, perhaps best known for his Metal Gear franchise. His trademark stealth gameplay and over-the-top storytelling have both confused and fascinated fans for years. But after a high-profile fallout with former publisher Konami, he founded his own studio Kojima Productions, and ventured towards Sony for his first new project, Death Stranding. This new title retains a lot of the strange and convoluted nature that this game maker is known for; however it lacks the necessary cohesiveness and editing to bring the narrative together. Further, while story blemishes in the past have been propped up by some excellent gameplay, this offering lacks severely in this regard. As such, Death Stranding is less a revelation and more like an off-brand imitation of Hideo Kojima's previous works.
The in-game world is a complicated one. Set in what remains of the United States, we learn that the country has been devastated by a cataclysmic event known as Death Stranding. This event had dire consequences for humanity, as it unleashed ghost-like creatures known as BTs, who sporadically roam the land and consume anything they come into contact with. They also cause massive explosions (voidouts) by consuming any dead human bodies with necrosis, wiping out entire cities. Last but not least, the land is under constant threat of Timefall – whether rain or snow, all precipitation speeds up the passage of time for whatever it touches. It's in this difficult situation that the last remnants of humanity attempt to survive by barricading themselves in cities and underground shelters. Even inside however, the humans aren't safe from unwillingly venturing onto the Beach, an interdimensional place that seems to connect our world with the afterlife.
Players assume the role of Sam Strand, a delivery man who is one of the very few that remain outdoors to deliver packages between the settlements. He feels isolated and unattached to any one community, thus choosing the life on the road. But he's also no ordinary human; Sam has a so-called DOOMs disease, which allows him to, at least partially, sense BTs and thus avoid getting into confrontation. And even further to that, he is a Repatriate, which allows him to essentially resurrect from fatal injuries. In the first few hours of the game we get to witness these abilities first-hand, as Sam is asked to help dispose of a freshly dead body. But the team doesn’t make it to their destination, are attacked by BTs, and another voidout explosion occurs, leaving a massive crater in its place.
After coming back to life, Sam receives a message from Deadman, a member of the organization known as Bridges. Sam's mother is unwell and needs some medicine delivered – his mother is Bridget Strand, the current President of the United States. Sam brings the medicine, but he is too late; with her dying breath, she begs Sam to finish what she started – deploy a Chiral Network between the remaining cities in the country, so that they can all communicate again. Sam refuses the request, however his sister Amelie Strand appears via hologram and begs him to complete this request. We learn that Amelie attempted to reunite the country, but she did not succeed - and is now being held against her will in the last city on the West Coast, who do not wish to join the new UCA (United Cities of America). Feeling a close connection to his sister, Sam reluctantly agrees to join Bridges and follow in his sister's footsteps to reunite the cities and settlements along the way and rescue her.
To help on his journey, Sam gets a BB – a so called Bridge Baby, a premature child that mysteriously connects our world and the next, but in functional terms, they allow the carriers to more easily detect and avoid BTs and other abnormalities. They are treated as tools, rather than human children, and are fairly heartlessly produced and disposed of. Sam not only comes to use his BB a lot, but he also realizes they have some sort of bond, as each time he connects to the BB, he sees visions of its past. It is there he learns of a mysterious military man, who seems to be coming after BB and Sam. Not to be outdone, there's also a terrorist organization led by a man named Higgs who seems hell bent on wiping out the country not to mention he has his own powers that let him control BTs.
The above is just the first few hours’ worth of narrative, as Death Stranding knits together an extremely in-depth world, which is impressive. But if you're familiar with previous works of Hideo Kojima, you'll sort of know what to expect as far as storytelling and writing are concerned. The story is both fascinating and self-indulgent, confusing and poorly paced, and yet occasionally enthralling. There are moments of great drama and intensity, and yet these are very few in number. The individual stories of the main cast offer the more personal and interesting moments. Aside from the opening and closing hours, the vast majority of your playtime won't have much narrative at all, as you simply trek across the land between various outposts. For a game world with so many variables and potentially interesting lore to explore, the story being told is superficial and too dull to be stretched over such a long campaign. It doesn't really reach the excellence of the Metal Gear Solid franchise, as there are too many confusing and dimension-traveling moments that not even nanomachines could explain. People regularly shed tears because they are allergic to BTs / the Beach and with character names like Die-Hardman, Sam Bridges, Heartman, and so on, there are enough off-beat moments to muddy the atmosphere of an otherwise serious story. Depending on your interpretation, it's a narrative full of metaphors and double meaning, or perhaps it's just nonsense.
The lengthy cutscenes that dominate the opening and closing hours are also rather dull. The general advice of "show, don't tell" is completely ignored here, as characters monologue for long periods of time and often repeat themselves. Every outpost you visit consists of the same copy-pasted lifeless metal bunkers, and you interact with holograms of characters, as many folks refuse to even meet you in person. They still choose to share their whole life story, however, and after a while the urge to just skip all this optional dialogue becomes very strong. Again, none of this should surprise those familiar with Kojima's previous work, but the fact remains that some severe editing and trimming was really needed. At least the cast does their best with the material – the voice acting and likenesses of Norman Reedus, Léa Seydoux, Mads Mikkelsen, Margaret Qualley, and Troy Baker, among others, all give solid performances. There are also characters modeled after Guillermo del Toro and Lindsay Wagner, but with different voice actors handling the role. All said and done though, it's difficult to recommend Death Stranding just for its story or mystery, because while the lore seems incredibly detailed, the actual events are poorly handled and rarely thrill or engage.
With the narrative established, however well you understand it, it's time for Sam to head out. And hopefully you're ready for this – the majority of Death Stranding gameplay consists of delivering packages. That's right, this is a crazy post-apocalyptic version of those Truck Sim games, except you're on foot most of the time. The game consists of two open-world regions, spanning many kilometers, terrain types, and dotted with settlements. Your task is to deliver packages carried on your back between these locations. On average, and of course depending on the terrain and the destination, you spend about 20 minutes simply walking from place to place. It would not be fair to call this a Walking Simulator though, because there are plenty of challenges along the way, but this is what the core gameplay loop is, and so you've been warned. Fans of Truck Sims or Sunless Skies-type of experiences will feel very much at home here, but others may find themselves rather bored.
Of course, it's not just a matter of walking. Before you even set out, there is some inventory management. Each object that you carry has physical dimensions – specifically weight and size – that defines exactly where it can be best fitted on Sam's back. You have a weight limit, and going above which will prevent you from walking very far. Each object also takes up physical space, so you can't load up a tower above your head as you will easily stumble over. Thankfully, there is an auto-arrange button that at least takes care of the arrangement problem; the weight you will have to keep an eye on. Once you're loaded up, you can head out, and depending on how much you're carrying you'll quickly be met with the movement mechanics. Think of the deliveries as one never-ending balancing minigame. Once you go above a certain height/weight of cargo, Sam will be constantly off-balance, and making sharp directional changes while walking/sprinting will send him into a tumble. The only thing you can do is hold R2+L2 to grip the straps of the backpack – this makes it very easy to keep steady, but slows down your pace, and it's annoying to hold the controller triggers for such long periods of time. Falling down is bad news – not only might you spill some packages and have to pick them back up, but they might get damaged. Best case, you get a reduced rating, and worst case, it might end the mission and force you to start all the way back from previous save. You'll also often get caught in Timefall precipitation – your cargo will start to degrade, and you best get a move on, or use the special repair spray on it.
Finding balance isn't easy because the game's physics engine is fairly finicky, but also because the terrain you'll be crossing is quite rough. It brings to mind Greenland with uneven, rock-covered environments. You have a map and compass to ensure you're never lost, but the natural navigation is one of the game's best features. Sam can use a pulse scan to point out which hills are too steep, and which river currents are too strong; it also highlights objects and lost cargo, as well as BTs in some cases. You choose which direction to head in, where and how to cross a fast moving stream, to go up or around a mountain, and so on. Some of the game's best moments are navigating these rough lands and coming out the other side, using nothing but your sense of direction and keeping an eye out for any good slopes. The game world certainly feels natural and believable, and seeing your destination on the hazy horizon is immersive. On the other hand, though, Death Stranding doesn’t want players to deviate. The idea that outposts may not want to join the UCA network is barely explored, and if you find any outposts by natural exploration, before the story tells you to go there, you literally can't do anything or bring them online.
The natural landscape and its many physical obstacles aren't the only dangers. There are also bandit territories that you have to pass through a few times. You often have the freedom to give them a wide berth, so it's up to you if you want to risk it. The bandits operate within a very rigid area, visible on your map, and they send out scans to detect you. Once your location is known, they come to investigate. There's a very basic stealth mechanic that lets you hide in tall grass (that only exists in bandit areas). As visual contact is made, they will engage and try to forcefully take your cargo. The melee combat is simple – you have a punch button and a tackle move; you can also pick up cargo by hand and slam / throw it at the enemy. You spam the punches until the enemy gives up the blocking, and take them out. It's simple, and it mostly works. The AI is very basic and will rarely attack in groups. They also have electrical spears, and rarely guns, but both are easily dodged. If you happen to lose, your cargo will be stolen and needs to be recovered from the bandit base. On the whole though, encounters with the human enemies are more annoying than anything, and once you've got vehicles, it's best to just drive right through and pay no mind.
The other enemy you'll be encountering are the BTs. At first, these are tense moments of stealth, as Sam must make his way across BT infested areas as the float in the air, barely visible to the naked eye. His BB always helpfully points in the direction of the nearest enemy, and the sensor spins faster depending on how close you are. In tighter environments, when a delivery job asks you to cross through ruins or to retrieve something form an abandoned factory, it becomes a harrowing experience as you try to slowly maneuver around the BTs. If you're spotted, a pool of goo expands all around you, slowing you down, as shadow figures try to grab and drag you under. You can try to make your way to the edge of this pool to escape it, but if you're caught, you can get carried right into a boss fight with a large BT creature. Eventually though, you realize that you can often outrun the danger even if you're spotted by a BT, or give them a wide berth, or just run out of the goo circle (even in a large BT battle). It makes BTs trivial, just like human enemies.
Whether it's the awkward walking, stealth or combat, Death Stranding’s mechanics are simply not all that polished or fully thought out. Delivering cargo over the rough terrain results in tons of sketchy animations, awkward falls, and a general sense of rather basic traversal that's not really as clean as you'd hope in a game focused entirely on walking. This can seem amusing at times; like having Sam get carried away in a strong river current and losing his cargo. After pedaling ashore, you have to comically run down the river and try to recover your boxes. On the other hand, if that cargo was fragile or was not supposed to be submerged in water, you're going to restart from the last save – losing who knows how much walking time. The stealth is a non-starter, and the combat is very lackluster. The melee is entirely basic, as weapons that you unlock overtime handle rather terribly. It culminates into the extremely uninspired, recycled, and basic boss encounters, as you simply shoot at the target. Further, you must often stop and sort your inventory in the middle of battles as you pick up additional weapons and ammo.
Much like the narrative, the gameplay of Death Stranding offers some perceived depth, but it all seems unnecessary. Sam has the health and stamina gauges, which are permanent and refill overtime with rest. But then you also have a second overlay on top of those, in the form of adrenaline, that kicks in during difficult climbing or enemy encounters. The weapons in the game can use either regular ammo or Sam's blood (as it damages the BTs, since he has DOOMs). So anytime you fire, you're using up blood, which can make you faint; so you need to carry blood bags around, and wait for the automatic blood transfusions to complete. Oh, and to get grenades, Sam can either purchase them, or visit the shower/restroom as they are automatically crafted from his bodily fluids. More finicky mechanics come into play with the BB, as it will start crying and get stressed out around BTs or if you fall down, requiring you to manually lull it. All of this is just so needlessly complex, and doesn't affect the gameplay in any big way.
If there's one thing the game borrows and gets right it's the RPG and strategy game elements. As mentioned, fans of Truck Sims and similar titles will enjoy the fact that they continuously expand their routes by visiting distant outposts and bringing them online. Each outpost has optional delivery jobs that you can pick up, as well as material stashes. Sam has a private locker at each facility, but they are all separate from one another, so if you need something elsewhere, you have to carry it. Fast travel is only available between large outposts, and you cannot bring anything with you. The cargo is mostly boxes for delivery, or crafting materials; sometimes you get special requests like deliver within a time limit or no more than 25% damage. Materials are used for crafting, as there's not really any currency in the game. You earn Likes and have a reputation, but materials are stocked at each outpost and you can add more by recycling. As you progress, you unlock more items to craft. Special power skeletons help you carry more weight or tackle harsh terrain, and new boots replace those you wear out. Of course, all this stuff needs to be carried and takes up valuable inventory space and weight, leading to some difficult decisions.
After the first 10 hours or so, the game world opens up as vehicles become available. You might think that your problems are now over – that's false hope, but the cars and bikes certainly do help. Players can manufacture bikes and SUVs from the main distribution centers, and load them up with cargo, far more than Sam could carry by hand. However, given the rough terrain, it is difficult to get very far. Just like Sam's walking, the physics engine for vehicles is very sporadic and you can get stuck on the smallest rocky outcrop. You do have a small jump ability, but sometimes the vehicle just gets so stuck that it's impossible to dislodge, leaving you quite stranded and possibly unable to continue on foot as the cargo is just too big. You might have to make multiple trips, or if the cargo is precious and cannot be left behind, reload a save. Both vehicles and Sam's power suits require battery power that drains over time, leaving you with more aspects to consider during the journey. As such, while certainly useful at times, vehicles can be just as headache inducing as simply walking.
So you should always be prepared to walk all the way, and to that end you can bring climbing items and PCCs (construction kits). Traversal items include ladders and climbing anchors, to go up cliffs or span across small rivers. The PCCs are even more useful and can be deployed almost anywhere in the game world, as long as the region is already connected to the Network. You can build Timefall shelters, storage lockers, generators for battery power, zip lines (immensely useful to help speed up travel), and watchtowers to help observe the surrounding area. Some PCCs simply unpack themselves on the spot and a ready to go, while others require you to bring materials. Structures requiring materials include large bridges and safehouses, where you can fully rest as if at a distribution center. The game world also has road pavers that will build out parts of a highway if you bring enough materials, making travel through the region so much easier. With so many useful item construction options, you can really make a section of the world a breeze to travel across – though of course it requires a lot of resources, taking up valuable space that could be used for cargo. And to keep things dynamic, structures can be upgraded with even more materials to improve their function, and they also degrade overtime and may need repairs.
This brings us to multiplayer. Death Stranding features an ingeniously designed asynchronous multiplayer component that's crucial to having a good time and reducing the grind. In a smart bit of design, multiplayer aspects don't become available in a region until you've brought it online, so your initial trip remains a challenging solo journey. But once online, you can see signs from other players, like in Dark Souls, which can warn you of incoming dangers or other items of interest. Much more crucially, players can work together by sharing items and equipment. Each depot features a Shared Locker, where you can either donate or claim materials shared with other players. This includes items, weapons, resources, and vehicles – this essentially means you're never going to be short on something, and there is no cost to withdraw. But perhaps the best part is that you will find player constructions everywhere in the game world, typically in very useful places, leading to a much easier journey on your repeat deliveries. You can of course build your own, or contribute materials to ongoing constructions of other players. Watching roads get completed or new structures appearing helps the world feel more alive, despite you never coming into direct contact with others. There's no better feeling that seeing a well-positioned bridge that saves a ton of walking time, or a random vehicle in the middle of nowhere.
As you travel, you will also find random cargo thrown about, either to be delivered to a specific outpost or lost by another player. You can bring this cargo to a depot and at least leave it in the safety of others, or you can even pickup and complete those deliveries to their intended destination. You don't get much for it except Likes, the game's experience / rank system, so it's all for the betterment of the community rather than any tangible rewards.
The multiplayer gives the game an amazing sense of community, although how its algorithm works remains a mystery. On the one hand, you can watch as an area flourishes, players work to donate materials and get the roads built, upgrade facilities, and leave plenty of items to share. On the other hand, another region might remain barren and you have to do everything yourself; you might find unfinished projects that never get done, or zip lines that lead nowhere. Still, multiplayer is an invaluable part of Death Stranding that significantly reduces the grind. If you're not connected, all structures will remain in your game, but no new online ones will appear.
Whether doing construction or inventory management, you will spend quite some time in menus, and they are fairly complicated and have a font that can be too small to comfortably read. There's a lot of menu interaction and not all of it is intuitive, with multiple clicks needed to get things done, but you do get used to it eventually. Also, the map is filled with items and all user constructions, but there is no filter of any kind. The user interface isn’t terrible, but it's not all that instinctive either.
The visuals and sound effects are about on par with any modern release. Some of the natural observation spots you will come across look quite beautiful, thanks to great lighting and weather effects. There is no nighttime, but you still get varying weather conditions that alter the feel of the environments. Characters are well animated, and the cutscenes certainly have a cinematic look. Some of the indoor environments are rather bland however, and feature a surprising amount of blurring and jagged lines. There are low-key indie music tracks that kick in during certain portions of the journey as you head out on a key delivery, but sadly you can't just listen to music anytime you want – except when in your private resting room.
With Death Stranding, Kojima Productions have created a multifaceted and complex game world, with deep gameplay mechanics to match, and yet a lot of it feels superficial. The convoluted story tries to teach us about mankind, the future, the past, other dimensions, and the meaning behind the world's biggest catastrophes, but it does so with way too much dialogue and dry exposition. Over the course of a 30+ hour game that loads its story content at the beginning and end, there's just too much of a dry spell in the middle. As you trek across the wasteland of America, fans of similar cargo management games will get some enjoyment out of it – but others may find themselves bored and frustrated by the awkward mechanics. At least it has great asynchronous multiplayer to help encourage you along and get you out of tight situations; online elements are rather critical to having a good time, so play now while the community is still robust and servers are online. It's a good looking and sounding game as well, with the real-life cast doing their best with the often confusing story and overlong monologues. Death Stranding is at times interesting, but overall a rather dull new IP from Hideo Kojima, and whether or not you're a fan of the brilliant Metal Gear series, there's just too many jagged edges here for the game to keep comfortably steady on its own two feet.
A digital code was provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.