Death Stranding Review

December 5, 2019
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It’s not the destination, it's the journey — so the old adage goes. And whilst the wanderlust generated by this great philosophical insight doesn’t quite match the tone of Death Stranding, the idea of taking something at your own pace rings true. 

Hideo Kojima’s latest opus is not a game to be consumed quickly. Or at least, that’s my approach. If this game has taught me anything during my time playing, it’s that taking your time, being methodical and doing what you think is best is often the most advantageous route. After all, rushing could cause me to lose my cargo. Which, for the sake of analogy, is all of the tiny pieces of world-building packed into what, at first, appears as a desolate, post-apocalyptic, wasteland.

Stepping out into the world for the first time, alone, as Sam felt daunting. However, that feeling wouldn’t last long. Death Stranding is essentially an ever-developing task, with a simple solution. How you approach that task — how you get from A to B — is up to you. Traversal (by whatever means) and collection is 90% of this game and if that loop doesn’t click with you early then it never will. 

Death Stranding is not what I — or anyone, probably — would call traditionally ‘fun’. Hiking in the rain, a back piled high with cargo (that you carefully arranged for maximum efficiency), and balancing your weight to bisect a treacherous route isn’t likely to give anyone an adrenaline rush. However, this simple idea is strangely engaging. Whether that was working my way down a mountain side with a ladder and a climbing anchor or facing down a field of BT’s (the game’s ghost-like core enemy) and living to tell the tale, the sense of knowing that I had overcome the odds, to make it to my next delivery point and to generate another connection always felt satisfying.

Yeah, it's just down there on the left.

Connection is key in Death Stranding. Almost everything in the game is affected by other players — players that you’ll likely have zero connection with outside of this game. This unconventional brand of co-op firmly forges that idea of connection that has been so prevalent in the story, side-quests and every little piece of lore. 

Connecting a new hub to the Chiral Network — the world’s digital connective tissue — introduces simple aids like ladders and ropes, more elaborate structures like bridges and roads, and even vehicles to the game’s vast areas. The more you progress and rebuild this world, the more you are rewarded, be that with items, shelter, or safe passage to your next destination.

That feeling of being saved from a dire situation, or merely being helped along the way, is Death Stranding’s crowning achievement. It fuelled the hopeful tone that, under his game’s grim, gothic, exterior, Hideo Kojima is trying to promote. 

Building that connection with BB (your Bridge Baby) was equally important. Floating in a pod on Sam’s chest, the BB has become possibly the most iconic aspect of Death Stranding. Although pressed upon Sam that a BB is merely equipment, a tool to get a job done, it soon becomes clear that this isn’t going to be the case. Especially where the player is concerned. Take a nasty trip down a mountainside? You’ll have to soothe your BB by rocking him back to happiness with your DualShock 4. Yes, I’m being serious. Don’t worry though, this element of the game didn’t get in the way nearly as much as I expected. As it happens, BB is an important tool in powering your Otradeck scanner to help find lost cargo and, most importantly, detect the looming presence of BTs. Plus, who doesn’t need a companion on a journey as big as this?

It helps to take a load off.

And what a journey it is. Crossing a fallen America from coast to coast is no mean feat. Still, it was important to take time off and take in the breathtaking environments, whether that was looking up at an enormous mountain wondering “how am I getting up there?” to contemplating the chaos below when you’re up in the clouds. Death Stranding takes huge advantage of Guerrilla Games’ Decima engine to create some of the most visually arresting environments and stunning vistas of this generation.

It’s only when being let loose to explore the America of Death Stranding that the game starts to show its true self. The slow — some might even say laborious — pace of the game’s opening couple of hours could be enough to put people off. I’d understand why they turned away too. If you’re not sold by the time you enter the game’s second chapter, Death Stranding might not be for you. But for the Porters out there willing to weather what Kojima’s world wants to throw at you, you will (hopefully) discover the game that I have. 

As pretentious as that might sound, it’s true. There’s no doubt that Death Stranding is Kojima reflecting on the current state of the world and this is his response: to put players in a situation where helping someone else feels like the right thing to do. To be able to achieve that through gameplay instead of just story cutscenes is incredibly powerful.

That’s not to disregard the story at all. If you’re into Kojima’s brand of over-the-top weirdness, then you’ll find something to love here. It’s very much in his wheelhouse and wouldn’t feel out of place in the Metal Gear canon. However, the main goal of Death Stranding has taken a back seat to me exploring new areas for hours on end on more than one occasion. Whether that’s because the side stories that feel almost stumbled upon are more grounded than the occasionally clunky science-fiction story, I don’t know. However, those looking for a ‘proper’ Kojima story following the somewhat lacklustre attempts in Metal Gear Solid V should be happy.

Never, ever, travel light. Am I right?

Death Stranding is filled with memorable characters, the majority of whom are portrayed brilliantly (both visually and sonically), who made it easy to relate when everything else going on is hard to comprehend. The performances of Norman Reedus and Mads Mikkelsen, although brief, are fantastic, Margaret Qualley’s portrayal of Mama is understated but brilliant and Troy Baker steals the show as Higgs. These big story beats are so meticulously crafted and justify Kojima’s decision to do things his way. However, this means that when something is less than stellar it sticks out like a sore thumb and Death Stranding is not without these moments. 

Kojima’s uncompromising vision is what has earned him so many plaudits over the years. Fans — and I count myself as a huge one — will tell you what a treasure the man is, how he shaped videogames into what they are today. However, such an attitude has also been to the detriment of Death Stranding.

Some of the voice acting choices for side-characters are atrocious, but that’s almost forgivable in small doses. More egregious is just how overwritten (and therefore overcomplicated) the core story can be. Characters consistently repeat plot points (and even certain statements), almost as if they did two takes and decided to keep both. Thankfully, these unfortunate missteps are few and far between and rarely had an effect on the game as a whole. 

The reward of having such a creator at the helm has fortunately outweighed that risk on this occasion. Little things like Kojima’s ability to fabricate the required tone out of almost nothing astounded me. In a very early case, a simple switch in camera angle and a music cue were enough. Little moments like this only served to highlight the love and attention Kojima has surely afforded what could have turned out to be — and some will still argue is — a high-budget vanity project. If Metal Gear Solid is Kojima making an interactive Hollywood blockbuster, Death Stranding is his attempt at contemplative indie filmmaking. 

"There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realised" - Conan O'Brien

The job of a Porter may seem mundane and it can be a lot of the time. Death Stranding is not an all action thrill-ride. There will be long stretches of this game played in almost abject silence, particularly in the opening few hours. As you grow into the game, occasional chimes of positive reinforcement will become easily recognisable. These often come from an artefact — a sign, waypoint, or other such marker — left by another player. It’s a system not dissimilar to that of bloodstains in Dark Souls; a way of letting other players that they’re not alone in what is otherwise a vastly empty world, save for the occasional NPC in one of the ports.

The world itself is drip-fed to you little by little, allowing you to become somewhat accustomed to your surroundings before you’re sent off in a new direction and have to do the same thing all over again. It’s a strange and lonely gameplay loop — one that certainly won’t click with everyone — but one that can feel immensely satisfying. Who would have thought that playing an hours-long fetch quest could be this engrossing? I’m being incredibly reductive, but that’s what Death Stranding often boils down to. Go here. Get this. Deliver it somewhere else. Repeat. And yet somehow Kojima has made me care about doing this. Through little bits of intrigue and a plot that is achingly slow to be revealed, the game has me hooked in a way that few games manage to do.

My immersion is only broken when it comes to combat. This game is categorically not an action game — or at least not a traditional one. Guns and hand-to-hand combat have little place here. Coming across a human enemy is something that I rarely wanted to do. In the sections I was drawn into a fight I felt close to powerless. And perhaps that’s the point? After all, Sam is a Porter not a fighter. Or he is to me, at least.

The moments that Death Stranding asks you to pick up a weapon and turns into a third-person shooter were by far my least favourite parts of this game. It’s not even that the combat is gruelling, but it’s certainly cumbersome. So when I was forced into combat situations, whole sections of the game with no other option other than to shoot my way out, I was left a mixture of confused and annoyed. I actually dreaded the moments leading up to them. It’s not that these sections are particularly hard — outside of unlearning the majority of the game’s mechanics — it’s that they felt shoehorned in and unnecessary other than to appease an audience that, if they even bought it, will have already abandoned the game long before this. And whilst they do serve to further the story in a meaningful way, there was no other need for them to be there aside to tick a box. 

It's a little bit snowy, this feeling outside...

Death Stranding undoubtedly handles conflict the best when it gives you a choice. Thankfully, for the majority of the time, combat is optional. Wandering into areas infested with BTs almost always felt like a threat. Carefully weighing up the risk versus the reward of cautiously sneaking past them or going for broke and smashing right through them was a decision I had to actively make each time that alarm sounded and my Otradek scanner started doing its thing. 

After a few run-ins with BTs and the huge Eldritch monstrosities that follow them, that idea of nonviolence and partial pacifism was drilled into me: a combination of combat not being particularly fun and seeing the explosive consequences of failure. Getting caught out by BTs and being dragged into a world of tar-built monsters is one thing, but causing an explosive, world-altering, voidout is something you’ll want to avoid at all costs.

As the game went on, and I earned new tools and abilities, these encounters got easier to handle. Still, there was always the chance that I was going to slip up, and potentially decimate that part of the game world. A world that I’d otherwise worked so tirelessly to rebuild alongside tens, maybe even hundreds, of other players. Because yes, whilst you as Sam Porter Bridges are alone in the world of Death Stranding, there are other Sams out there, in other worlds, all working towards the same goal.

An allegory for the political and cultural divides in the modern world, Death Stranding carries a heavy message amongst all of its eerie sci-fi trappings. It somehow created a feeling that made me want to push forward. 

So... where to?

That kind of steely conviction is what has ultimately fuelled my time in Death Stranding. Not only did I want to take that next step into the unknown, I had to. This game captured me like few others and it did it in a way that was completely unexpected. I revelled in the silence, the frustration, fear and regret. I bought in to what it was trying to make me do in a way that, if you’d have explained it to me beforehand, I would have cynically dismissed.

Death Stranding is a game about connection. That theme runs throughout every facet of this experience. Despite it’s glaring flaws, I am convinced that this game is a masterpiece. The elements that are poorly executed, needlessly hindering or just plain bad, are outweighed by the sheer amount of good. Death Stranding is unlike any game I have ever played and I’m not sure we’ll see anything like this again. Not even from Kojima himself.

Be my, be my BB...

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Death Stranding is a game about connections, common understandings and hope. It’s also a game where the earth can swallow you up and you can be attacked by a giant tar monster. It manages to do both of those things whilst maintaining a consistent story and tone on its way to being one of the most compelling games of the generation.
Ant Barlow

Started with the PlayStation, now I'm here... with a PlayStation. Once skipped school to play the Metal Gear Solid demo repeatedly. I love stories big and small. Trophy hunter. Recent VR convert. Probably a hipster.