Strands Across America

HIGH The online sharing is one of the coolest things ever in a game.

LOW The storytelling is absolute junk.

WTF Hideo Kojima has all the subtlety of a custard pie to the face.

In hindsight, it’s funny how we (collectively, as the gaming audience) spent the last few years wondering just what the hell Death Stranding is — the first gameplay footage was just Norman Reedus walking around with packages on his back. As far back as three years ago, director Hideo Kojima roughly explained the core story and at TGS 2019 he spent an hour playing and showing people exactly what it is.

So, for all those asking if Death Stranding is really a game where one walks around and delivers packages for 50 hours, the answer is, for the most part, yes. In fact, its issues only arise when one isn’t delivering packages.

In Death Stranding, players are tasked with connecting a fractured America after a global catastrophe using a pseudo-super-internet known as the “Chiral Network”, and along the way they’ll also need to also deliver medicine, equipment, old data and media, cosplay items, a pizza, and a litany of other items.

The core loop of being the world’s coolest mailman is the thing that dragged me all the way through Death Stranding, but be forewarned that things start slow. The first eight hours are, to be frank, not particularly enjoyable since players won’t initially have the equipment to carry large loads or traverse difficult terrain. Also, there are no roads, no vehicles are unlocked, and it’s generally a slog to get through — but it’s an intentional slog.

In Death Stranding, one has to walk before they can run, and there are a lot of systems underpinning the experience that take a while to unfold. However, once a player starts ‘running’, they’ll be thankful they got all that walking practice in. Near the end of the campaign when players are using power suits to climb mountains with stacks of cargo twice the size of the main character, one may marvel at how far they’ve come.

I found the entire premise to be incredibly refreshing, original, and surprisingly enjoyable. The game judges the player after each mission by grading them on time and the structural integrity of packages when delivered, and it made me think carefully about the path I was going to take and what equipment I would need because I had the desire to be a top-tier porter. It’s one thing to force me to be cautious, but it’s another thing entirely to make me want to be cautious.

Norman Reedus and Guillermo Del Toro both make appearances in Death Stranding, the new game from famed game designer and writer Hideo Kojima.

As parts of the map connect to the Chiral Network, players participate in a shared experience where people online can use and help construct things asynchronously to make traversal easier for everyone. While building a power generator solo isn’t too difficult, building a cross-continental mega-highway is not something one person can do alone. With this in mind, whenever I would walk by a half-built section of highway or a partially-constructed rest area, I could deposit some minerals and help the cause, and later on I would see (and use) the fruits of our collective labor.

The map of Death Stranding is huge, weird amalgamation of what is supposed to be the United States, and there’s a lot of backtracking. However, but the backtracking is mitigated by a world that was ever-changing thanks to the online. I would often realize I had to go back into an area that caused me all kinds of trouble the first time, only to discover that other players had built roads, bridges, power generators, supplies, and all kinds of stuff to make the trek more bearable. This shared singleplayer experience is without question the highlight of Death Stranding and the thing that I suspect will stick with players long after they complete the story.

Sadly, while his capabilities as a game designer may be at an all time high, Hideo Kojima has regressed as a storyteller. Many fans of his work celebrated his ‘freedom’ from the ‘shackles’ of Konami, and while I shared their excitement in seeing what Kojima would make post-Metal Gear, I was also petrified that there was now no one overseeing him or reining him in.

While he is justifiably considered the father of all things Metal Gear, we forget that the first three Metal Gear Solid games had a co-writer in the form of Tomokazu Fukushima. MGS4 and MGSV didn’t have that other voice in the room, and the quality of the narrative clearly took a nosedive after his departure. Since then it has become crystal clear that Kojima needs an editor, and he will never, ever have one again as his cult of personality continues to balloon.

I don’t want to turn this review into a Metal Gear comparison because I’m happy Kojima was finally able to do something else, but what made Metal Gear work for me was that it was inherently kinda stupid in the best way possible. In contrast, so much of the main plot of Death Stranding is so damn joyless. There are ample zany ideas and moments like babies in pods, poop grenades, fourth wall breaking, and Conan O’Brien wearing an otter mask, but these bits clash harshly with main story beats that take itself as seriously as Schindler’s List.

The narrative also happens to be miserably paced, with story being mostly present during the first and last ten hours, while seemingly nothing happens in the middle twenty. The game also spends so much time explaining everything in these laborious cinematics. The final few hours in particular are a chore as they repeat cutscenes from a slightly different perspective in case the player didn’t pick up on what’s really going on (which really isn’t that difficult). It’s almost as if Kojima spends so much time drilling ideas into our heads because he thinks we’re just not as smart as he is — or maybe I just find it too “difficult to understand” because I’m an American who only likes shooty-shooty bang-bang.

The star-studded cast all do a great job, but their performances can only drag this limp script so far. Norman Reedus is good as protagonist Sam Porter Bridges (GET IT?!?) but he’s given little to work with as Kojima continues his recent habit of making his main characters almost exclusively an exposition delivery mechanism for the player. Reedus says maybe ten sentences during the middle 20 hours of play.

Many people have shown a disdain for the antagonist Higgs, and while I agree his motivations don’t particularly add up, I liked him simply because he adds some desperately needed levity and zest to the proceedings. He doesn’t really fit, but Troy Baker turns in an excellent performance and, frankly, I think the plot would’ve benefited greatly if Death Stranding‘s tone was slightly more aligned with his chutzpah. He’s a bright ball of personality whose light only serves to show how dull and dreary everything else is by comparison.

Apart from the script, my biggest issues with Death Stranding were with the combat.

While traversing the world is a challenge that requires careful planning, most combat encounters are an absolute cakewalk. The main adversaries are a crazed group of ex-delivery men called MULEs, and they never killed me, or even came close to doing so thanks to Sam’s super-effective three-hit combo, and they become trivial once weaponry becomes available. The stealth sections against ghostlike BTs are more interesting as players have to rely on a sonar system to detect their presence, and these encounters can be tense considering the high cost of being caught. Again, once the player has the means to fight back, it becomes easy to brush the BTs aside and it’s not that difficult to sneak past them in the first place.

To be clear, it’s not that the enemy encounters are necessarily bad, but they detract from the experience due to how often they pop up and act only as unnecessary obstacles taking me away from the obstacles I wanted to overcome — things like climbing mountains or hunting for minerals to put towards my online community highway.

With that said, the few boss fights in Death Stranding are bad. In fact, they’re absolutely wretched. The most interesting one is repeated thrice, none of the others are particularly memorable, and the closest thing to a final boss is shooting a [redacted] thing for five minutes. These sections also highlight issues with the inventory management — why do I have to carry four separate rocket launchers with eight rockets each instead of one rocket launcher and 30 rockets?

Death Stranding is without a doubt the most daring and audacious big-budget videogame since, ironically, Metal Gear Solid 2. It’s so deliberate in implementation that I’m sure this is exactly the game Hideo Kojima wanted to make, and by golly, he made that game. I respect the sheer gall of this project, and it is, inherently, a net positive for the industry that there’s at least one publisher left who’s willing to write a blank check to a bonafide madman and tell him to go nuts.

In the end, there is much to like about Death Stranding, and I can’t stress enough how much I loved rebuilding America with thousands of concurrent players — that spirit of cooperation was magical. It’s just tragic that the core gameplay loop was let down by dodgy combat scenarios and a listless, meandering story. Death Stranding is still one of the most memorable gaming experiences I’ve had in a while and I certainly don’t regret playing it, but I can’t rate it higher when it whiffs so hard on so many areas that needed more focus.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Kojima Productions and published by Sony Computer Entertainment. It is currently available on Playstation 4. This copy of the game was obtained via purchase and reviewed on a PS4 Pro on a HDR Certified 4KTV.  Approximately 44 hours of play were devoted to playing the game, and the game was completed.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M For Mature and features Intense Violence, Blood, Strong Language, and Nudity. While not the harshest M rated game in existence, there’s plenty of blood splatter and foul language to make parents wary. There’s also some rather disturbing imagery concerning infants, and some people may find those scenes rather shocking.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind options

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: The game features subtitle options but offers no way to resize them or change the color. The game features no necessary audio cues but there are sounds without visual cues such as the noises a BT makes when approaching, or when BB is distressed. While much of the information is displayed via text, I do believe the lack of certain visual cues could make Death Stranding more difficult for players with hearing issues.

Remappable Controls: This game’s controls are not remappable. Death Stranding features an in-game control layout. Players control Sam with the left analog stick and the camera with the right analog stick. Players can click in the left analog stick to run, the D-Pad brings up the inventory, and the L2 & R2 buttons are used for balancing weight. Nearly every single button is used on the controller and many sections required multiple presses at any given time.

Jarrod Johnston
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