If you’re familiar with Death Stranding’s creative director Hideo Kojima and his past work, you probably know that the less you know about his projects before going in, the better. Death Stranding is no different in that regard, but you have to also understand that it’s a vastly different game to Kojima’s run on Metal Gear Solid. It retains his trademark for intriguing, strange, and engrossing storytelling, but stumbles a bit when forging a new direction with its gameplay. Death Stranding is still a unique and captivating game that has some poignant and moving moments, but it also takes a long time to get there.
Death Stranding puts you in the eternally degrading boots of Sam Bridges, a porter whose job it is to make deliveries across the desolate expanse once known as the United States of America. Cataclysmic events around the globe have eradicated humankind to the brink of extinction, as the worlds of the living and the dead have merged with horrendous results. It’s incredibly dangerous to venture out into the world, be it be due to age-accelerating rain or hungry spectres from the afterlife, forcing what remains of humanity to hole themselves up in bunkers and rely on physical deliveries. Deliveries that you as Sam, are perfectly equipped to carry out.
Working for a corporation called Bridges, which seeks to reconnect the pockets of life around America in a last-ditch attempt to survive, you carry out supply runs, aid drops and more for whatever life remains. Bridges entrusts Sam early on with the task of not only using his abilities to help those in need, but also tie together the dispersed settlements into a new country: The United Cities of America. Using otherworldly technology and new scientific breakthroughs, Bridges seeks to connect everyone so that he can reconstruct the past and forge a brighter future, having lost so much to the collapsing infrastructure you see abandoned during your travels.
Death Stranding is weird, there’s no getting around that. But its weirdness isn’t as vague and obscure as most of its previous trailers. There’s a tangible through-line here that ties together profound ideas concerning life and what comes afterwards, the role of humanity, our time on earth and our intrinsic ties to its history. There’re on the nose metaphors that are so beautifully realised that you forget about their lack of subtlety, colouring in unsettling moments of pain before breathing with short exhalations of humour. These moments are all striking, building up to an unrelenting conclusion that spaces out its answers in a teasing manner but eventually tying up all loose strands into a satisfying and thought-provoking finale. It’s one of Hideo Kojima’s strongest stories that he has co-written, presented with the same artistic flair that you’ve either come to love or loathe by this point.
The main cast of Death Stranding cement these themes with strong voice acting and incredible motion-capture performances, which go beyond just capturing likenesses with a surreal amount of detail, but also injecting subtle emotions behind the words that they deliver. Every moment with the main cast on screen is captivating, letting each get a moment to chew the scenery around them and revel in their performances. Whether it’s the cagey and intense Fragile exposing her past failures and future desires, the absurdity of the loop Heartman finds himself in or the blooming friendship between Deadman and Sam, each of these interactions demands your attention and never wastes it.
Issues arise, however, with the pacing of the story. Death Stranding’s opening hours are by far the weakest of the entire game. It’s excessively exposition-heavy, overwhelming you with terms and abbreviations you’re not meant to know, in a bid to quickly inject interest in its premise. It’s a misguided approach, given that most of the more interesting aspects of the narrative are neatly conveyed through tense opening set-pieces and gorgeously animated cutscenes. There’s no need for an extended ride in a truck with a character explaining to Sam aspects of the world that he clearly has to have understood by now just to get you up to speed just for everything to slow down to a snail’s pace before it starts incrementally building on its premise again in the later stages. Death Stranding is front-loaded with intrigue and only starts expanding on its best ideas once you’re around halfway through, bogging you down with routine deliveries with little gear to make the travels exciting.
These opening hours aren’t helped along by a slow trickle of mechanics to grapple with either. Death Stranding puts a massive emphasis on how you move through its world, which makes sense given that most (if not all) of your missions are centred around lugging cargo from one part of the map to another. You’ll have to balance packages on Sam’s back, shoulders, legs and pretty much anywhere else he can stow it. By the time you leave distribution centres, you’ll likely look like a sentient Leaning Tower of Pisa, dangerously swaying from side to side and potentially taking damaging topples over if you try to carry too much at once or distribute the weight unevenly around your body. There’s a sense of simulation to the way you manage your inventory, all of which is visible on your person at all times. It’s an occasionally hilarious but equally intriguing idea, putting an emphasis on the act of walking in a way that will make you take its simplicity elsewhere for granted.
The more cargo you take on at once, the more it’ll affect your balance, movement speed and stamina drain. With too many items being carried you’ll routinely have to readjust your balance using L2 and R2, or hold both in at all times to tighten the straps at your shoulders and move even slower. Some cargo makes this even harder due to the way it sways, while other packages might be incredibly fragile to any bumps and tumbles you might take when transporting them. Death Stranding makes the act of getting from A to B far more strenuous than just walking, but without specialised gear you eventually get later in the game the opening hours feel like a tedious and drawn-out slog.
It takes a good 10-15 hours for Death Stranding to find a mechanical rhythm, where you unlock augmentations that allows you carry more cargo at once or speed across uneven terrain without the fear of falling. Vehicles can be fabricated at this point too, as well as helpful structures like bridges to cross perilous ravines or massive ziplines to avoid a steep climb up a mountain. Using these tools to get around not only shakes up the monotony of the opening, but it allows you to explore the massive world of Death Stranding at a more palatable pace. It will encourage you to take on more orders than you likely would’ve passed on back when you were moving at a snail’s pace, since backtracking isn’t as much of a chore as it was before.
All your progress in the world contributes to other players too, as Death Stranding’s most impressive and intriguing gameplay mechanic unfolds. Each player is their own “Sam” in their game, but they contribute to the overall open world just like any other freelance porter. You can build post-boxes for public inventories to share resources, safe houses to make long trips between distribution centres less dangerous, generators to recharge equipment along a route, shelters to protect you from rain that accelerates time and so much more. Planning your routes to take the shortest path and maximize the number of player aids along the way is essential in more challenging deliveries with strict requirements (some require speed, others require cargo damage limitation and so on). When other players use structures or objects you’ve left in the world, they’ll automatically reward you with Likes – an arbitrary currency distributed by most facets of the game, that serve to give you a gratifying feeling when you’re making progress as opposed to a currency used or progression.
In one particularly notable instance, I was able to contribute to a growing network of ziplines that helped me navigate the vertically challenging mountains in one late game chapter. Jettisoning myself between anchor points placed by five players including myself felt great, since we all managed to improve upon each other’s experience by identifying a hardship and making it easier for those that come after us. It’s essential to play Death Stranding online to see these little flourishes of co-operative multiplayer, as well as adding another intriguing layer over the entire narrative when you start to consider the implications of other identical characters roaming the same world.
Having other players contributing to a shared world helps flesh it out in a way that playing offline just can’t. You’ll complete deliveries to scattered bunkers and interact with mostly just holograms of their inhabitants, who keep their conversations with you brief and typically vague. Most of their backstories and evolving narratives with you unfold through text-based emails and interview logs, which isn’t enough to give each new face a personality that is at all memorable. Aside from providing useful upgrades to your existing gear and new items entirely, there are few reasons to see the full circle of the smaller narratives each new bunker introduces, aside from the small introspective looks they provide on the history of Death Stranding’s world.
Aside from secondary camps off the beaten path (most of which you can’t even visit until a certain time in the main story) there’s really not much else to find in the massive world you’re set loose in. It’s remarkably empty for such a gorgeous and impeccably designed landscape, one that has naturally overlapping biomes that stretch far beyond the bright green vegetation and crystal-clear rivers of the opening area. A serene soundtrack helps make your more important deliveries feel especially special, setting the mood with relaxing melodies that beautifully accompany the loneliness of your travel. It’s just a pity that there’s not much incentive to poke around it more.
Enemy camps and dangerous BT infested zones pepper the map too, each providing a shake-up to standard cargo ferrying. Engaging the invisible BT spectres is the most intriguing of the two, forcing you to follow the directions of a mechanical arm powered by the Bridge Baby strapped to your chest. At first, you’re only able to circumvent the BTs, but you eventually gain access to weapons that make use of Sam’s special blood to expel them back to their realm. The complexity of these engagements doesn’t change all too much over the course of the game, but they’re suitably tense moments that remind you of the horrors that have devastated the world around you.
The same can’t be said for enemy camps filled with former porters looking to steal your cargo. Although you’re encouraged to employ stealth and strategy when raiding these resource-abundant stations, it was usually easy enough to walk in and dispatch every enemy in sight with a few shots from non-lethal weapons. These foes will routinely just let you take them out without strategising between each other, sapping the intensity from these firefights despite the satisfying gunplay behind it all.
Combat encounters are sparse enough (and just as easily avoidable, if you choose) that they don’t weigh down on the captivating groove Death Stranding eventually settles into. Rolling around with exoskeletons that helped me navigate tougher terrain with ease, letting me carry an abundance of ladders and climbing ropes while tugging along cargo on floating platforms I dragged behind me, there was an inescapable relaxing quality to it all. Balancing my stamina, managing equipment degradation and ensuring I had the right tools to navigate the route ahead all coalesced naturally; while it didn’t feel like I had to make hard decisions about what I took when heading out, making do with what I had chosen typically let me carve a path to my next objective with satisfaction. Other times I chose just to race to the next delivery point with a fast electric motorcycle across a highway contributed to by multiple players, letting me get by quickly thanks to the past efforts of other intrepid porters.
That feeling might never settle in if you’re used to more action-orientated experiences, especially those that Hideo Kojima is famous for in the past. And there’s no doubting that in this transition to something different there are edges that don’t come through entirely smooth. But there’s no denying how uniquely captivating Death Stranding is, especially when it eventually lets its premise develop naturally and finally gives space to its narrative to blossom. It’s an intriguing tale with delicate touches of humour and gravitas throughout, solidified by a strong cast with convincing and emotional performances. It’s just a shame it takes so long to pick up, because it’s truly remarkable when it eventually does.
Last Updated: November 1, 2019