Review | Death Stranding
When Hideo Kojima formed Kojima Productions, we knew he had a unique vision for the games he wanted to make. Never satisfied with following conventional standards, his newest idea, Death Stranding, was finally realized. Not your typical action game, Kojima defines it as a “strand” game, which becomes easier to understand as you play. As the first strand game in existence, it may be hard to judge, but there is a lot to take in with this title. Does Kojima’s latest game live up to the high expectations his fans have set out for him? It probably depends on how much of it you play.
The story of Death Stranding is something that I can’t picture anyone but Hideo Kojima to orchestrate. The game stars The Walking Dead’s Norman Reedus as Sam, a man of many talents. One of those talents happens to be transporting cargo across large distances. After the cataclysmic Death Stranding event happens, the spirits of the dead now cross into the world of the living. When the spirits, known as BTs, capture the living, it causes a voidout, blasting the area into a crater. This effect basically destroyed the USA, causing an organization known as Bridges to form. Their sole purpose? Rebuild America as the United Cities of America. With the help of Sam, they believe they can do it. We won’t go too into details, as it treads a lot of spoiler territory.
There are a lot of things to process in the narrative, and while it starts out convoluted, it gets easier to understand with more progress. This is pretty typical, but the way it’s handled in Death Stranding is actually really well done. Several characters appear throughout the story, many with a past so shrouded, they use masks and code names. These characters eventually reveal all to Sam, but only after he has truly connected with them.
Death Stranding is full of symbolism and themes that cover the entire basis of the game. As a strand game, the idea is about connection and creating one big network for the country. Forming strands, or bridges, between people to bring them together is one of the primary goals of the game. These words, and many others, are reoccurring throughout the entire experience, having multiple meanings and uses. It’s a little more than necessary, but it works with the overall consistency of the game. It also helps that the production values give it a huge boost in presentation.
As far as console games go, Death Stranding is absolutely gorgeous. The 3D scans of the actors create incredibly lifelike character models, especially with Sam himself. Norman Reedus isn’t known for expressive actions, but that doesn’t stop Sam from being impressively animated. Other characters look fantastic as well, and it allows the actors to truly emote, which gives the game some spectacularly powerful performances. Actors like Tommie Earl Jenkins, Lea Seydoux, and even Troy Baker all have moments to act their heart out. Then there’s Mads Mikkelsen, whose whole character is perhaps the most mysterious of them all. Bottom line, Death Stranding is a tour de force of acting in video games.
The environments are also breathtaking, reminding me of a more realistic Breath of the Wild. The terrain is vast, full of tons of open space to explore in a somewhat therapeutic way. Mountains, grassy plains, abandoned ruins and beaches show a ravaged world affected by the Death Stranding. These areas create a contrast to the technology of the world, which is far more advanced than our own. The clean looking facility buildings clash, but it feels intentional, showing mankind’s effect on the world. Adding to that, players can make constructs themselves in the large open spaces. What makes this truly great though, is that the world is shared with other players online.
Building this network is more than just a story point, as it’s a gameplay element. Once a facility is connected to Bridge’s network, it becomes a part of the online world. Constructs, vehicles and more appear from other players, making the world feel more complete. It’s a metaphor for social connections, driven further with the “like” system. When players come across constructs from other players, they can give a number of likes. These likes work similarly to experience, and fill out different categories of Sam’s abilities. Whenever Sam finishes a job or mission, he’ll also receive likes from NPCs too. It’s an interesting mechanic, but it falls in line with the social media culture the real world has become.
As far as the main gameplay goes, Death Stranding has been generally coined as a “walking simulator”. As simplistic as that title might be for the game, there are some truths to it. Yes, there is a lot of walking and running in the game. Despite this, never have I seen a game with so much attention to the actual walking gameplay. Playing as Sam is as technical and methodical as actual walking in some cases. Players have to maintain balance, be careful with rough terrain, and even monitor their endurance. This becomes even more important when carrying cargo, which can be anything from a single package to a tower of parcels stacked on Sam’s back. It can be frustrating at first, but you really grow to master it with time.
The game doesn’t give many options for combat when it starts, but more opportunities rise over the course of the game. Early on, Sam will come across MULEs, essentially cargo pirates living out in the wilderness. They’ll often have weapons while Sam will only be able to use punches, kicks, and swing cargo at his enemies. Eventually, Sam will gain access to non-lethal weapons with the design to incapacitate, and finally, he’ll gain lethal weapons. Killing enemies is heavily discouraged, as creating more corpses can create a BT area after a certain amount of time. As for the BTs, their combat is a different story.
BTs start out as more of a stealth situation in the beginning. Players will often crouch and sneak around an area to avoid contact with a BT. This isn’t exactly easy either, because players can’t always see them. They have to rely on their Bridge Baby and Odradek to detect them. The Ordradek is the little device on Sam’s shoulder, snapping in the direction of spirits and turning orange while spinning when close to one. During certain moments, the outline of a BT will appear, but it’s temporary and isn’t a reliable method. Overall, it adds a sort of tense horror element to the game, which changes the pacing quite a bit.
If Sam makes contact with a BT, then it will open a sequence where several will grab him from the ground, trying to drag him into a pool of tar. Failing to struggle free from the BTs will drag him across into a large boss battle. If he manages to defeat the boss, the area will clear itself of BTs. Should he fail, then it will cause a voidout, and the area will become a crater. As mentioned before, this is rather difficult in the beginning, but later on, Sam will gain weapons to help him combat the BTs. Otherwise, the only real weapon players will have is Sam’s own urine. You read that right, and it’s not the only thing in Sam’s body players will use to fight BTs. It’s an interesting setup, slowly ramping up the action as the game moves on.
As far as losing fights go, Sam will either fall unconscious or die, though he never truly dies. Sam is a Repatriate, which gives him the rare ability to return to life after death. By piloting Sam’s soul back to his body, he’ll always end up waking up in the aftermath of a situation. Of course, there are some exceptions depending on the conditions. It’s a really unique way to explain a common gameplay mechanic, but it does add to the overall craziness of the story. With this shared world, one thing that feels like a missed opportunity is that players can reload their save data. This feels like a game that should auto-save and have players live with consequences, especially in the event of a voidout. Reloading almost feels like cheating.
Sam also has a condition known as DOOMS, allowing him to not only sense BTs, but also giving him special connections to the other side. This condition carries over to other characters in the game as well, giving more connections between them. DOOMS and Repatriation add more to the lore of the game, though it can raise more questions than it answers too. In a lot of ways, it’s reminiscent of the more fantastical elements in past Metal Gear Solid games. Either way, the game does well enough to explain a lot of these things with interview data and emails that Sam receives.
When it comes to presentation, Death Stranding will often feel like a cinematic masterpiece. Moments of roaming around the land will often lead to a camera change while music from Low Roar or Silent Poets plays. The sound design and other music fits perfectly and makes for an exhilarating experience. The game has a large amount of references, cameos and homages too. Even the HUD allows for players to fully enjoy the scenery without getting in the way. You’ll also have real world product placement like Monster Energy and Norman Reedus’ own AMC television series.
Despite the high production values of the game, there are still some flaws with the presentation. Death Stranding has some amazing cutscenes throughout the plot, but the majority of interactions leave a bit to be desired. As Sam connects the facilities, he comes across holograms of the inhabitants that live there. These interactions are often one-sided, usually never having any dialogue from Sam himself. A couple facilities do change it up at least, but it really does seem out of place when compared to the more grandiose cinematics. The acting from these characters also takes quite a step down from the other performances. The UI also has a few issues when it comes to the equipment management, though it’s not unlike previous Kojima games.
While walking is going to take a lot of the center stage, there are vehicles in the game. While it helps to get from point A to point B faster and often safer, there are some issues. The driving physics seem to be all over the place, as vehicles sometimes feel like they have a mind of their own. Of course, this is more common when driving in areas where driving isn’t ideal. Occasionally, players may even get a vehicle stuck. While it’s usually possible to get out most of the time, there are moments where it’s best to just ditch the vehicle. It’s ultimately a choice to speed things up, but the best use comes from the ability to carry more cargo. Without vehicles, some missions are next to impossible.
Death Stranding also adds a new meaning to escort quests when it comes to using body bags. This is either for corpses, or even for live bodies in certain situations. Not only does this feel inconvenient in combat scenarios, but it ultimately hinders your ability to balance. Luckily, these missions aren’t common enough to give a bad enough impression on the overall game. There are other types of cargo with special conditions too, some more frustrating than others. Like the body deliveries, they don’t overstay their welcome long enough to matter. In a lot of ways, they simply pose new challenges to the delivery methods.
The game will likely take many players about 40 hours to finish on a normal run. If the player decides to do all the various sidequests and orders, then it will take much longer. Sadly, many of the sidequests will feel more or less the same, adding some repetition to the game. This length also brings some pacing problems to the forefront. Over the course of the game, there are over a dozen episodes, and they vary in length. Players can complete many episodes in an hour or two, but then you’ll have a random episode that takes half a day to finish. It’s inconsistent, and some that don’t have the patience may fall off early on because of it. For those that stick it out, they’ll be rewarded, but it’s a journey to get there.
A walking simulator or a strand game, Death Stranding is still an amazing work. It’s a gorgeous interactive experience that keeps players on entertained by ideas from the mind of Hideo Kojima himself. While there are pacing problems and minor issues with the presentation, it’s something a player should at least try to experience. The impactful performances from the many actors in the game can bring out many emotions from the player. The game has an amazing sense of detail and does well to build this grim world into one of hope and promise. Death Stranding may not be a perfect game, but it’s still a work of art, and we definitely appreciate it. There is so much to say about the game, but we encourage you to play the game and find out for yourself.
Final Score: 9.5 out of 10