As I write this review, I am simply racked with anticipation. When my voice is dropped into the proverbial sea of opinions and discourse surrounding one of gaming’s most anticipated titles, I wonder if it will be with harmonious joy or cacophonous outrage. One thing is for certain: I believe Death Stranding is a true work of art.
Hideo Kojima’s latest is, put simply, a game about a blue-collar delivery man in a world full of terrible mystery and violent, supernatural entities. A cataclysm has torn mankind asunder, and only Norman Reedus’ boomer energy is enough to reunite them. Monster Energy in hand, sunglasses and hat equipped, I ventured westward on my journey from coast to U.S. coast, connecting the country one sip at a time.
For a game so veiled in mystery, the story is almost shockingly simple – at least to start. The obtuse-but-cool-sounding vernacular that defines the post-apocalyptic world is what gives this universe such grandeur. Chiral crystals. DOOMS. Bridge Babies. I became so inundated with these terms that I felt engrossed in Death Stranding’s mythos. This is a painstakingly crafted fiction, and it’s presented with all the confidence and ego one would expect from director Hideo Kojima.
I’ll avoid story spoilers and keep things high-level for now. Gameplay revolves around delivering packages of varying weight, size, and awkwardness to their destination as quickly and damage-free as possible. The first go-around, this means traversing uncharted territories full of rocks, rivers, cliffs, and unfavorable weather (more on this later). Using tools that can be crafted from materials, you’ll scrape by until you reach your destination — and then you’ll connect it to the “chiral network,” the United Cities of America’s continent-spanning service. This is where things get interesting.
The “Strand System” is more than just a buzzword, and I’m going to try my best to tell you why. Let’s say I just spent the better part of an hour delivering 80 kg of antique Seinfeld VHS box sets to what’s-his-face on the other side of the Rocky Mountains. Now, I’m told to go back the other way to pick up my next order. Rather than trudging across the same footpath I just laid, I can rely on the connections the chiral network provides me: those of other players. Now, there’s a bridge crossing the river that someone else built. There’s a visible, beaten footpath from other players walking on the same strips of land, and it’s easier to traverse than before. There are vehicles left by others — generators, ziplines, and more. My trek back has become two or three times as easy, and it’s all because of friendly players I’ve never even seen.
This isn’t to say Death Stranding is just a game about walking around, of course — although it mostly is. While the “walking simulator” moniker has been thrown around willy-nilly on over-hyped forums, walking itself is a meatier mechanic than you may expect. Sam’s weight will shift if his cargo is too heavy, requiring smart use of the trigger buttons to steady his pack left or right. Holding on with both hands helps when crossing rocky terrain or streams, or when descending rapidly downhill. Every step must be calculated, or you risk tumbling over and destroying precious cargo.
The preparation for each outing is nearly as important as the journey itself, as you’ll need to question what tools (and how many) you’ll be taking along with you. Everything has weight, so balancing the right tools with the necessary cargo can be a rewarding puzzle to solve before you’ve even stepped foot outdoors. Going along roads or well-traveled paths? Take a bike. Need to climb a huge mountain? Ladders and climbing rope should help. Long stretches of rough terrain? Floating carriers will lighten the load. Upgrades to your pack make carrying surplus supplies easier later on, but you’ll be leveraging this against a need for increasingly offensive tools.
The terrain itself may be the most dangerous element of Death Stranding, but there are more sentient foes at play as well. BTs (or “Beached Things”) are the stranded souls of the departed, and they stalk lands where heavy timefall occurs. Timefall is the rain that rapidly ages anything it touches – including your cargo. Not only do you need to get through these areas quickly; you have to do it quietly as well. This leads to some wonderfully scary stealth gameplay, where stopping to survey the landscape for BTs is punctuated by weaving between them with bated breath, praying not to stumble and alert the whole pack.
MULEs are the other enemy “type” that prey on wayward delivery men. These are former porters that lost their minds, and now they hunt for any cargo they can steal, eager to get high on the rush of a 5-star rating on Amazon. These bastards carry electric staves that knock Sam unconscious, and they seemingly multiply when alerted. The number of times I was awkwardly trying to outrun about ten of these things is embarrassingly high, but nonetheless thrilling. Infiltrating MULE camps is reminiscent of Metal Gear Solid V, where stealth gameplay and careful planning can win you myriad supplies.
Besides new gadgets, there are ever-changing new landscapes to tackle as well. Lush forests, snowy mountains, and massive chasms make up just a few portions of the massive map. Along with these, delivery modifiers such as timers, cargo conditions, and limitations on equipment spice up once-routine missions. Death Stranding does everything in its power to keep its slower burn interesting and challenging, and in my opinion, does so masterfully until the very end.
All that said, I could still see Death Stranding turning off more action-minded players. The deliberate pace of exploring vast regions of harsh nature won’t be for everyone, but the explosive last act along with the gradual ramp-up in overall action might win the day for some. I personally relished every long hike, every resting spot I carved out for myself, and every moment with my lovable companion BB. Repetition of side-quests is certainly a concern, but these are neither mandatory nor tedious, especially when taking advantage of player-made niceties like region-wide paved roads and zip-lines.
To keep things moving apace, story beats are delivered expertly at important junctions of the journey. Stakes are raised, questions are posed, and some seriously mind-bending boss fights are doled out. Just when I found things becoming the slightest bit routine, I was surprised by an interesting new character or tool. Music accompanies uplifting moments of relief when approaching some destinations, and these are some of the most impactful in the entire game.
While I won’t say much else about it, rest assured that Death Stranding features a fantastic, and thankfully complete, narrative. Performances are excellent across the board, and there’s some real chemistry between characters thanks to the star-studded cast. Sam’s personal growth is well-realized and harmonizes with the motifs of the game’s universe. Kojima is the master of obfuscating his stories to the point of madness only to bring everything together one minute to midnight, and this may be one of his best works yet.
Death Stranding is, without a doubt, one of the most captivating video games I’ve ever played. Its theme of togetherness permeates every aspect of its design, from exploration to combat. Helping, and being helped by, unknown players made every step of my adventure feel meaningful. Its uniqueness and vision are unrivaled by that of nearly any AAA game, and although I expect some will be confused or disappointed by it, I know for certain it will be remembered for a long, long time.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 Pro version of the game. A copy was provided by Sony.
Like any genre-pushing work of art, Death Stranding is sure to be divisive. That said, the unflinching vision of its director is a breath of fresh air in an industry increasingly unwilling to swing for the fences.