HIGH The constant stream of Likes from people using my structures.
LOW One dreadful product placement.
WTF Guillermo del Toro’s character is voiced by someone else?
I was convinced that Death Stranding would be a trainwreck. Although Hideo Kojima is responsible for a considerable number of my favorite games, my praise for his work never comes without caveats for the gross oversexualization, the lengthy exposition dumps, the needlessly convoluted lore and the giddiness to showcase every piece of history and pop culture that he’s familiar with. I feared that a truly unrestrained Kojima would bring his worst impulses to the forefront.
Clearly, Jarrod – who wrote our main review – believes that’s exactly what happened. I fall on the opposite end of the spectrum. Not only does Death Stranding tell one of my favorite stories in recent memory, but it does so by exploring the unique potential of the videogame medium itself, using play mechanics to underscore its narrative themes. Here, at long last, is a Kojima who wouldn’t rather just be making movies.
In a post-apocalyptic world where the dead impede upon the realm of the living – and I am greatly simplifying here – a delivery man named Sam Bridges must travel across a condensed version of America, reconnecting the isolated remnants of human civilization. Since roads are scarce, most of the work must be done on foot, meaning that the vast majority of Death Stranding is devoted to long treks across barren landscapes.
This is one of the few games that can accurately be called a “walking simulator,” in that it recreates the experience of having to keep balance, maintain footing, and monitor fatigue. Although both human and spectral enemies will occasionally show up to complicate matters, the more persistent challenge is navigating harsh terrain while carrying a heavy stack of packages on Sam’s back, and players are in for at least a few dozen hours of this.
There’s no question that plenty of people will find Death Stranding boring, and I doubt Kojima would begrudge them for bringing a few podcasts to every session, since deliveries make up about 95% of the playtime. Although these tasks can be tense and even physically taxing (like when players need to hold the left and right triggers simultaneously to steady their cargo for long stretches of time) they’re generally just prolonged. However, the popularity of games like Euro Truck Simulator and Stardew Valley demonstrates the appeal of performing simple, drawn-out tasks with little stress — and in this case, we’re not just carrying boxes, but being told that our mundane work is holding the world together.
Even with this knowledge doing the work does feel arduous, but this gives way to Death Stranding’s coolest feature. While we’re initially offered only ladders and ropes to aid in our deliveries, the options substantially expand once we obtain 3D printing technology. This means setting up things like bridges, observation towers and shelters, and even repaving roads if players can supply the necessary materials. It makes subsequent deliveries easier and reinforces the idea that we’re re-establishing some semblance of civilization to a ruined wasteland.
What makes the feature especially unique, however, is that all of these structures are shared through Death Stranding’s online network, meaning that other players’ buildings appear in my campaign, and vice versa. The work I put into setting up safe, convenient routes benefits other people, and in return, their use of my structures awards me experience points called “Likes” – that universal, modern symbol of approval.
Not only is it rewarding to receive a constant stream of feedback indicating that other players are making use of my routes, but it plays into Death Stranding’s central themes of forming connections, and that trying times are easier to endure together. Sam begins as a quiet, reclusive figure whose skin literally flares up when other people touch him — Kojima is many things, but he ain’t subtle — so we know that he’s in for an arc that’ll have him opening up to human relationships. That development is so much more convincing because we’re learning that lesson right alongside him. It’s one of the most brilliant examples of interactive storytelling I’ve seen in the mainstream.
The more traditional elements of Death Stranding’s plot are difficult to discuss in detail, if only because they don’t pay off until the end of the campaign. Given that Kojima’s work with Metal Gear Solid has a history of being more cutscene than game, it’s surprising that Death Stranding’s lengthy middle portion is so light on story.
This pacing approach is a huge risk on Kojima’s part, given how bizarre the imagery is. Within the opening moments we’re introduced to rain that rapidly ages everything it touches, bottled babies that can sense invisible monsters, and Lovecraftian horrors that cover the landscape in thick black goo. It’s easy to dismiss it all as nonsense when the answers come so late in the story, and there’s a real chance that many players will lose interest during the 50-plus hours of menial labor it takes to reach the finish line.
Without spoiling anything, all I can say is that Death Stranding’s fictional universe is far more cohesive than I’d anticipated, and that its most perplexing mysteries – things like the buildings that emerge from the ground when monsters attack, or the repeating visions of a character played by Mads Mikkelsen – all have satisfying conclusions. Is some of it weird just for the sake of being weird? Sure. Does it all hold up to scrutiny? Probably not. Is Troy Baker’s hammy villain out of place? Definitely. But the script sticks the landing in the most important places, and particularly in regards to Sam’s arc. It’s a pleasant surprise when any title in the triple-A space concludes a story this well, and particularly so coming from the guy who wrote Metal Gear Solid 4.
While I do agree with some of Jarrod’s criticisms – namely that the human enemies aren’t very exciting to deal with – we part ways as he ended up hating the story while I adored it. Like many, I believed that giving Kojima an unlimited budget and zero oversight would expose him as this industry’s George Lucas, a hugely imaginative creative force that desperately needs to be reined in . Instead, he demonstrates how much he’s (mostly) matured as a storyteller, and being unshackled from the franchise he badly wanted to be done with has resulted in something weird, wonderful and one-of-a-kind.
No matter where anyone falls on Death Stranding, it’s an undeniable win that such an obtuse, experimental piece of work has become the biggest, most talked-about game of the year – there is nobody else in the industry who could conceive of something like this and amass the resources to bring it to fruition. Even better, Death Stranding’s risks genuinely pay off. I don’t know if Kojima’s claim that he’s invented a new genre is entirely correct, but he’s nevertheless brought us one of the most important releases of the decade less than two months before it ends.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Kojima Productions and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment.It is currently available on PlayStation 4. This copy of the game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the PlayStation 4. Approximately 68 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. The entirety of the campaign was played with online functionality enabled.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated Mature and contains Blood, Intense Violence, Partial Nudity and Strong Language. The violence isn’t especially graphic outside of some occasional blood effects. The dialogue is littered with F-bombs, however, and Norman Reedus’s naked butt is almost as big a star as Reedus himself.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: All dialogue is subtitled, but the text is comically small and cannot be resized. Although the game uses visual cues to indicate where threats are located (lens flares for human enemies and a robotic arm for otherworldly ones) they’re not quite enough, and I regularly found myself relying on audio cues in intense situations. The game is playable without sound, but certainly more difficult.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.