After the past three years of cryptic and confusing teaser trailers, the question on everyone’s lips has been, “What exactly is Death Stranding?” Well, now we know, and the answer is… complicated.
The first game from famed designer Hideo Kojima since his dramatic departure from publisher Konami and his long-running Metal Gear franchise is a boldly inventive slab of sci-fi, fastidiously crafted to host to some of the most breathtaking sights I’ve ever witnessed in any medium — video game or otherwise.
It’s also a cross-country crawl that frequently finds itself mired in an exhausting amount of inventory management, backtracking, one-note mission design, and unprecedentedly arduous travel.
It’s evident that Kojima and his team at Kojima Productions have worked extremely hard to build Death Stranding, but it’s also painfully clear that they expect us to match their determination in order to fully enjoy it.
The “Death Stranding” in question is the name given to a cataclysmic event that only small pockets of humanity, the Monster Energy Drink corporation, and an apparently universally accepted Facebook-style social status system have survived.
Since the Death Stranding, natural wildlife has been wiped out and rain has transformed into “Timefall”, a deadly form of precipitation that instantly ages everything it touches.
Lurking within each downpour are the BTs (“Beached Things”), paranormal entities who prey indiscriminately on survivors, leaving society confined to the safety of subterranean shelters.
You are Sam Porter Bridges (Norman Reedus), a post-apocalyptic postman with a ghost-detecting baby strapped to his chest named BB who, like most infants, is as adorable as he is insufferable.
Sam’s quest is certainly a compelling one; to reconnect the isolated remnants of civilisation by completing an endurance-testing sequence of delivery jobs from one city to the next, earning the trust of their citizens, and bringing them back online in the government’s “Chiral Network” as he makes his pilgrimage west across North America.
Sam is allied in his pursuit by a quirky cast of characters with quirkier names like Heartman and Die-hardman, and opposed by Troy Baker’s wonderfully maniacal villain Higgs, who has an appetite for both licking faces and chewing scenery.
Sam has additional motivation to undertake his epic expedition: his sister Amelie is held hostage by Higgs on America’s westernmost edge, a destination appropriately called Edge Knot City.
If Death Stranding sounds like a series of glorified fetch quests, it’s because that’s exactly what it is
It’s definitely an intriguing story setup, but if you think that playing the role of a courier makes it sound as though Death Stranding could be one continent-spanning series of glorified fetch quests, it’s because that’s exactly what it is.
The vast majority of its 70 main story missions are structured in the same way as the optional side missions we’ve all run in countless other open-world games.
With the exception of certain tutorial missions which introduce the basics of the combat system, boss fights, and a handful of other combat-oriented diversions, advancing the plot in Death Stranding amounts to taking item X from location A to location B, over and over again.
Sounds pretty repetitive, right? Well, the good news is that there are also side missions in Death Stranding. The bad news is that these side missions are also fetch quests, undertaken mainly to unlock additional items or customisation options.
The Walking Dread
What makes the repetitive objectives somewhat bearable is that the scorched landscape of Death Stranding is staggering in scale and rich in detail, to the point that initially I wanted to slow down and pore over every inch.
And it’s just as well, because I wasn’t really given any say in the matter; the opening hours are so ploddingly paced that it makes the whole thing seem like a personal attack on the speedrunning community.
We’re all accustomed at this point to walking through vast game environments carrying an arsenal of weapons and items — that’s a description that could define anything from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild to Grand Theft Auto V and just about everything in between.
But Death Stranding turns that routine into a grueling exercise in frustration thanks to what is possibly the most aggravatingly literal inventory system ever conceived in a video game.
With rare exception, every piece of cargo, weapon, ammunition and tool you pick up has its own physical presence on Sam’s body, and its own heft, all managed by an incredibly fiddly inventory menu.
Of course, the concept of inventory weight limits in video games is not new or unique, and I’m traditionally a bit of a role-playing game packrat who’s prone to becoming over-encumbered and forced to shed superfluous items or stubbornly walk slowly back to town, on occasion.
But Death Stranding takes that idea to exhausting new extremes. Not only does Sam’s personal inventory and cargo very easily become a comically oversized Jenga tower of flight cases teetering on his back, but it also makes the act of taking Sam for a short walk up a slight hill feel more like trying to push a wheelbarrow full of bricks up a flight of stairs.
Taking Sam for a short walk up a slight hill feels more like trying to push a wheelbarrow full of bricks up a flight of stairs
Movement in Death Stranding is effectively the antithesis of the empoweringly fluid parkour of Assassin’s Creed or Marvel’s Spider-Man.
Whereas in those games you hold a button to watch your athletic and nimble character effortlessly glide over objects and up and down vertical surfaces, in Death Stranding you alternate between holding the two triggers to maintain balance and wrestling with the thumbstick to keep Sam’s sensitive momentum shifts in check.
The result of all of this effort is purely to walk a few metres up a gradual incline without him toppling over and scattering his painstakingly packed luggage rack like a boozed-up bellhop.
Mercifully, there is an ‘auto-arrange’ option in the inventory menu to optimise where exactly each piece of cargo sits on Sam’s body, and once I’d discovered it I used it for absolutely every subsequent delivery, because why on Earth would anybody not? (The only time it backfired was when I was sent to literally deliver a pizza — the auto-arrange shoved the pizza onto my backpack sideways, thus ruining some poor bloke’s dinner.) Yet even with Sam’s load packed more efficiently, it doesn’t entirely stabilise his toddler-like equilibrium should you take a false step or attempt to carry too much.
Encounters with these spectral nasties certainly ratchet up the tension to survival-horror levels
Even after I had a grip of the overly stubborn movement controls, I still had to maintain a slothful stride at all times thanks to the presence of BTs in most of the many rainy areas of the map.
Sam is initially defenseless against these supernatural enemies and must crouch-walk past with bated breath in order to avoid them.
Encounters with these spectral nasties certainly ratchet up the tension to survival-horror levels the first few times around, turning otherwise unassuming dunes into scary Silent Hills, but they quickly become yet another of Death Stranding’s many mechanics seemingly designed to cause the friction that slows your progress as much as possible.
Hideo Kojima earned his legions of fans by allowing them to be a Snake. In Death Stranding, he’s asking them to be a snail.
Strand and Deliver
Things do pick up, though it takes a lot longer than I’d have liked. Roughly 10 hours in, during the lengthy third chapter, Death Stranding settles into its most consistently enjoyable rhythm.
In relatively quick succession you’re given access to auto-pavers that can be fed resources to flatten out predetermined stretches of the landscape into smooth roads, along with the means to craft vehicles like a nimble reverse trike, a slow yet high-capacity truck, and a floating cargo carrier that also doubles as a nifty hoverboard.
All of these help to minimise the hassle of getting from point A to point B, which of course is still what you’re doing almost the entire time.
It’s here that combat, effectively restricted to stealth takedowns and unarmed fisticuffs up until that point, blossoms to become exponentially more dynamic.
Weapons and gadgets are suddenly thrust upon you at a steady clip, and I found that Death Stranding’s Metal Gear Solid lineage became more evident once I began to infiltrate enemy camps, create confusion amidst the human highwaymen with smoke-based decoys, and use the non-lethal sticky gun to hilariously whip cargo right off their backs from afar like a frog’s tongue snatching a fly.
Just as Death Stranding is threatening to become consistently enjoyable, the setting shifts
There’s a satisfying amount of nuance afforded to the combat tools as well. Take the bola gun: firing it to wrap around an enemy’s torso will briefly immobilise them as they struggle to eventually wriggle free of the cord, buying Sam a precious few moments to scurry into denser foliage or behind a rock to break the line of sight.
Alternatively, if you fire a charged up shot at an enemy’s throat it will choke them out and leave them lying unconscious on the ground.
Death Stranding’s combat doesn’t ever quite reach the same level of flexibility as that of Metal Gear Solid V, but it does introduce a much-needed sense of play amidst the monotony of manual labour.
Just as Death Stranding is threatening to become a consistently enjoyable video game, though, the setting shifts and the story progress stalls once again, this time in intensely mountainous terrain where vehicles and road construction become impractical, human enemies are scarce, and BTs begin to lurk in snowstorms instead of scattered showers.
By this stage I had unlocked the means to confidently tackle BTs in their monstrous form head-on, and there’s no question that each face-off against Death Stranding’s most imposing threats are a slick slice of pure, full-fat, Kojima-style spectacle.
Allow Sam to be discovered and dragged down by the BT’s clambering shadow hordes which emerge from swelling pools of tar that form beneath his feet, and he’s suddenly sluiced on his back through the ooze and resurfaced in a landscape that has been completely transformed and inhabited by a muscular, physical manifestation of the BTs in a rising pool of bubbling blackness. It’s one of Death Stranding’s most stylish tricks and honestly an incredible sight to behold.
Yet even when you do manage to scramble and take down one of these nightmarish beasts your victory is often insultingly hollow; your reward is typically a handful of crystals for crafting equipment, and the onerous task of manually fetching each of the dozen or so canisters you were carrying that were scattered when Sam was swept off his feet, one after the other.
It feels like being declared the winner of a food fight, only to find out that your prize is a mop and bucket.
Thus, fighting BTs is just another part of Death Stranding that soon becomes more trouble than it’s worth, causing anxiety as a result of tedium instead of terror, and as a result I reverted to avoiding them wherever possible as I patiently checked off each order on Sam’s seemingly never-ending list of deliveries.
It feels like being declared the winner of a food fight, only to find out that your prize is a mop and bucket
One particularly torturous late-game story mission required me to carry a hefty weight on my back through a visibility-masking snowstorm and over near-vertical stretches of terrain.
It took me 51 minutes to complete. Spending close to an hour schlepping heavy cargo through waist-deep snow, up and down mountains, constantly pushing against fierce winds, in a pair of shoes that wear out over time isn’t an enjoyable video game mission — it’s a lecture your parents used to give you when you complained about having to walk to school.
At least in some of the lengthier treks like this Death Stranding will cue a licensed piece of music (a la Jose Gonzales’ Far Away in Red Dead Redemption), which is nice to walk to, although honestly a podcast would have been far more appropriate.
It is true that while vehicles are impractical in the mountains, on-foot traversal is gradually made easier via the addition of powerful exoskeletons and the ability to craft zipline structures.
Yet while there is some satisfaction in systematically forging your own zipline trail up a particularly rocky escarpment (or extending partially existing ones), it’s also somewhat deflating to finally get the medical supplies you’re transporting to the summit only to be ordered to turn around and take some other kind of medical supplies straight back down again.
Strand By Me!
But Kojima Productions’ willingness to experiment, for better or worse, is evident in all facets of Death Stranding, and its boldness is commendable. The asynchronous multiplayer component, known as “Bridge Links”, shows the effects of other players on the world without ever bringing you face to face with them.
It’s a system designed to function in concert with Death Stranding’s major themes of connection, where ‘strands’ with other players are automatically cultivated and, as a result, the vehicles they abandon, structures they establish, or objects they drop all persist within the environment of your game and are free for you to make use of.
This evokes a sense of unspoken collaboration, as weapons and building materials can be stored in special shared lockers in a sort of honour-based ‘take a penny, leave a penny’ fashion for other players to grab.
I was particularly inspired by the cooperative way you can build, customise, and maintain structures like bridges and watchtowers. And, after finally crossing the breadth of the continent in the final stages, I was both surprised and delighted to revisit a stretch of road I had built some 20 hours earlier on the other side of the map to find that it had long since sprouted into a lengthy highway all thanks to the persistence of others.
A stretch of road I’d built some 20 hours earlier sprouted into a lengthy highway, all thanks to the persistence of others
This hard work doesn’t go unrewarded, either, since doing good deeds for others — whether intentionally or not — can net you ‘Likes’, which is the currency used to boost Sam’s stats and improve his reputation with his customers.
Likes are also what you receive for completing each delivery, in quantities apportioned relative to certain criteria such as your distance travelled, the damage taken by the cargo, and the speed at which you complete it.
In fact, your mere existence in Death Stranding seems to net you a never-ending number of Likes, almost as though you’re the one Kardashian who managed to survive the apocalypse.
But the Bridge Link system has its downsides. For one, it makes almost every one of Death Stranding’s major boss fights shockingly easy, since Bridge Linked avatars regularly pop-up by your side to keep you fully stocked with weapons and health-replenishing blood packs, leaving you overpowered and virtually invulnerable.
Unwanted assistance aside, these bosses are merely surface-level cool; they look amazing but have fairly one-dimensional attack patterns and easily pinpointed weaknesses.
Meanwhile, structures assembled by other players — while helpful at times — can just as often mislead, such as the many times I went out of my way to use a user-created zipline marked on the map to cross a wide chasm in Death Stranding’s mountainous area only to find it half-completed and inoperable, or climbed a ladder that went to nowhere.
It’s true that you can log off from the Bridge Link system and play in a strictly single-player manner, but I wish the options were more granular — perhaps allowing you to toggle on the ability to share building resources but toggle off the cheat mode-style boss assists. Playing Death Stranding in its offline mode seems in direct opposition to what I perceive to be the deeper meaning of it all, and I’d hate to lose that even more than I hate the baggage that comes with it.
I’m Still Stranding!
And yet despite all of my gripes I still found myself being pulled, albeit slowly, towards Death Stranding’s story climax. That’s mostly due to the sense of nobility that comes from rebuilding a fractured America, the pioneering spirit of finding out what, exactly, was over the next hill (even though more often than not it was just slightly larger hills), and the lure of uncovering the mysterious cause of the Death Stranding itself.
The latter remained particularly tantalising, teased along the way by cryptic visions of Mads Mikkelson’s enigmatic Clifford and frequent communications with Margaret Qualley’s Mama. It almost went the distance, in fact, before tripping and falling into the prolonged exposition dump that is Death Stranding’s home stretch.
I was sustained by consistently sublime artistry and ingenuity
Elsewhere, I was sustained by consistently sublime artistry and ingenuity, both great and small. There are imposingly large waterfalls and monolithic man-made structures, boss enemies big enough to go toe to toe with any of the 16 giants from Shadow of the Colossus, and an in-game weather system that allows you to predict rain patterns up to 30 minutes in advance, which is crucial in order to plot your routes to safely avoid BTs.
Then there are the myriad minor touches. Like the way Sam can pick up and throw items with either hand, but his dominant right hand will always throw farther.
Or how if you crouch to hide in tall grass you can still be spotted by an enemy if the luggage stack on your back is tall enough to remain visible.
That’s not to mention all the cheeky fourth wall-breaking nods and winks you’d expect from the mind behind Metal Gear.
When ads for actor Norman Reedus’s real-life television show appear splashed across the vanity screen everytime Sam uses the toilet, it’s clear that it’s Kojima who’s really taking the piss.
It’s clear that it’s Kojima who’s really taking the piss
But Death Stranding is a bit like a frosted piece of glass; no matter how polished it may be, it’s still pretty dull.
You really need to work incredibly hard to enjoy any of it, because so much of Death Stranding feels convoluted and requires far more effort than it has any right to. Take the fast travel system, for example.
If you want to warp to another area, you need to slow travel to very specific facilities on the map, then hold a button to trigger a sequence of three different cutscenes showing Sam descending on an elevator to his private room, lying down to sleep, and waking up from sleep (thankfully you can hit pause on each of them to skip them), then finally pan the camera around his private room to find and use the teleporting umbrella which Sam is forced to keep hung on the wall of his private room instead of, oh I don’t know, carrying it on his back? It’s just a thought.
Podcast Beyond: Special Death Stranding Review Discussion Episode
Death Stranding has been, quite simply, the year’s most divisive game around the IGN office. Some of us love its gameplay, others find it frustrating, and aspects some of us enjoy others find annoying.
Tristan’s review does an excellent job of capturing the many disparate parts of Death Stranding, and in the most recent episode of our weekly PlayStation show a few of us who have been playing dive into our thoughts of the first few chapters.
We discuss why Kojima’s latest is so polarizing from the jump, which aspects do and don’t work for each of us, and much more about the beginning of Death Stranding. So be sure to watch the discussion below!
Certain landmark games in recent years, like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Red Dead Redemption 2, have managed to successfully tread the line between the rigidity of realism and the exhilaration of pure escapism.
But much like its stumbling protagonist, Death Stranding just can’t consistently get the balance right despite possessing equally lofty ambitions and countless inventive ideas.
There is a fascinating, fleshed-out world of supernatural science fiction to enjoy across its sprawling and spectacular map, so it’s a real shame that it’s all been saddled on a gameplay backbone that struggles to adequately support its weight over the full course of the journey.
It’s fitting that Kojima Productions’ latest is so preoccupied with social media inspired praise, because in some ways I did ‘Like’ Death Stranding. I just didn’t ever love it.
Developer: Kojima Productions
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Release Date: November 8, 2019
Platforms: Playstation 4, PC
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