- It's unafraid to be political and probing
- Low Roar adds to the beautiful soundtrack
- Delivering cargo never felt so relaxing
- Brings new and interesting sci-fi concepts to the table
- Interacting with players online is pleasant and enriching
- The acting is phenomenal
- Kojima has trouble writing female roles
- Occasional hitching, even on a PS4 Pro
- Loose vehicle controls
- Hair technology is a little janky
- The product placement is a tad too weird
Death Stranding is not for everyone, but in my experience it's one of the best games of the year brought down by one glaring black mark. It's Mad Max without the desert.
Minor spoilers ahead.
After making a few successful deliveries, I think I understand the rhythms of Death Stranding. Delivering cargo by foot is thankless work, but it makes the people in this world happy, and fills me with an addictive zen-like ease. There are tense moments when Timefall pours from the sky and beached things (BTs) start to gather, but I feel confident. Ready to take on whatever the game has to give. Looking at the terminal, I notice my next destination has two deliveries queued up. Without thinking, I take them both on only to realize that there are so many packages involved that I’m over-encumbered and everything’s spilling out of my inventory faster than I can handle. Laughing, I reload my save and feel glad a game like Death Stranding exists. It’s a strange title with problems that need discussing, but in this moment I manage a smile at my own mistake.
Playing Death Stranding requires a good deal of patience. Where other titles might offer tight gunplay and speedy movement-based mechanics, this game is about keeping balance and moving as carefully as possible with a hundred kilograms of cargo strapped to the main character’s back. Weapons are a last resort, and while they control fine, that’s hardly the point. Subduing enemies with non-lethal weapons is always best because if someone should die, their body will undergo necrosis and turn into a BT that could destroy cities filled with thousands of innocent lives in an instant. If you ignore this warning and leave corpses on the field, it will eventually catch up to you. The only way to avoid it is to burn each and every body.
In the right context, some of these mechanics might make Death Stranding sound like a stealth game. As the latest project from Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima, those conclusions aren’t terribly out of place. However, surface comparisons aside, Death Stranding is a much different game. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic America where an event known as the Death Stranding wiped out large portions of the country. Those who survive now hole up in big cities called Knots, or by themselves in Prepper Shelters. Mass communication is possible, but threadbare. Most people keep to themselves and rely on Porters to brave the elements and bring what they need.
Sam Porter Bridges (Norman Reedus) is among the best Porters around. One day, thanks to his murky past, he’s entrusted with a special mission by what’s left of the United Cities of America (UCA) to rebuild the country. To do that, he’s expected to deliver packages Knot by Knot and, more importantly, upload every Knot and Shelter across the country to a new version of the internet called the Chiral Network. Though it takes a lot of convincing (and, apparently, a ton of officially-branded Monster Energy), Sam agrees to help.
The reasons why are buried several layers deep in Kojima’s storytelling. Suffice to say, the plot is straightforward, but the details are handed to the player one random puzzle piece at a time. It’s a style that’s hard to take seriously at times, especially when names like Sam Porter Bridges or Die-Hardman pop up. However, between the wacky events and characters and the unsubtle theme about bridging communities together, there exists a fully-realized world filled with interesting sci-fi concepts. Experiencing this story reminded me of sitting down with a Phillip K. Dick compilation, where I’m just excited to see what strange ideas could pop up next.
Many of these concepts ask for a willing suspension of disbelief. For example, take Bridge Babies (BBs), or the fetuses of children taken from the bodies of brain-dead mothers and kept in a womb-like container because of their abilities to sense the invisible BTs. In many stories, the mere idea of BBs would seem nonsensical, but Death Stranding begs the player to consider the horrors of a world that would stoop to these drastic measures to survive. There’s also Timefall, which is like rain and snow, but ages anything it touches by an exponential amount. The idea of it conjures up terrifying thoughts of being stranded in the rain and aging to death. Though Death Stranding is not completely a horror game, the ideas it plants in the minds of the players can make it scarier than any jumps or sanity meters ever could.
However, as much as I appreciate Kojima’s world-building and commitment to hard sci-fi, his writing is never without serious issues. Part and parcel with some of his games is a consistently negative treatment of female characters. Death Stranding is no different. At first these things might seem like minor coincidences, like whenever Sam has to carry humans as cargo it’s always women, or a flashback cutscene dedicated to the humiliation and torture of Fragile (Léa Seydoux) that feels gross. But over time they add up. There’s another scene where Mama (Margaret Qualley) tells Sam about her experience being buried under rubble while about to give birth, and the sense of grief and loss is as palpable in her voice as it is in the lingering flashback. The game focuses so much on her pain, that though it’s a great moment for Qualley to shine as an actor, the whole moment feels especially exploitative compared to some male characters whose stories are told with more restraint.
It’s hard to square how gross these moments feel with the impressive things Kojima has done. One of the most interesting things about Death Stranding is its use of several well-known actors and celebrity personalities to fill out the cast. Fulfilling the promise of earlier attempts by L.A. Noire and Beyond: Two Souls, I had no problem seeing these faces I knew as these new characters. The performances are so good, they sell any line that’s thrown at them, even when it’s Norman Reedus and Lindsay Wagner (both playing President Bridget Strand and providing the likeness for Amelie) talking about Mario and “Princess Beach.” Yet, even as I reflect on that, there’s that part of my mind that still winces at the scene where Fragile is stripped naked and forced to walk into Timefall.
There are still plenty of other things to enjoy. I appreciated the moments when, after a particularly hard trek through the mountains, I’d come down on the other side and see my destination in the near distance with the sun ahead of me, a light fog rolling in, and a song by Low Roar piping in on the soundtrack. When I talk about zen-like moments, it’s these beautiful images that do it for me. They set me at ease, and make the act of carrying cargo seem like it’s nothing. I could do it for another hour. Or another seventy.
Something else I want to call special attention to is the way this game weaves online elements into its world. Any bridge Sam builds or ladder he lays to cross a river has the potential to show up in other people’s worlds, just as their resources can show up in yours. This turns progression through the game into a community project, where there’s just as much opportunity to find a strategically placed safe house as there is a ladder that leads to nowhere. People can also leave signs and warnings like in the Souls games. Should you as the player like anything you see or use, you’re encouraged to spam the Like button as much as possible to help whoever built it level up their progress. It’s a fascinating, mutually-benefiting system that encourages kindness and makes what would otherwise be a solitary journey feel not as lonely.
As with any game, there are other small gripes here and there I could go on about. Loose vehicle controls for one, weird product placement being another. But these issues never seriously impacted my enjoyment of the game. They’re there, but they’re manageable. The big black mark that stains Death Stranding and prevents it, despite all of the beauty and transcendent moments I felt, from being my favorite game this year is the disgust I felt watching some of the cutscenes unfold. When a character like Heartman (voice of Darren Jacobs, likeness of Nicolas Winding Refn) has a tragic backstory that’s told with restraint and respect for his pain, it makes the lingering shots and focus on femininity Fragile and Mama face feel even more out of place.
Death Stranding is a political game. It’s a title that doesn’t care what the current trends are and cashes in on Kojima’s status as an industry luminary to be as weird, wild, and wholly original as it can possibly be. There’s so much of this game I love, I hope designers take heart and create more titles like it as we move into the next decade. I also hope this is a learning experience that people can take away from, too. Even Kojima. Sometimes, one errant detail can shatter perfection. This one thing didn’t take everything away from my experience, and I hesitate to say one single person is to blame for it as Kenji Yano and Shuyo Murata are credited writers as well. However, Kojima’s legacy issues shine through in full force, and though I recommend this game as one of the definitive experiences of the year, that recommendation isn’t as full-throated as it could be.
Platform: PS4 | Publisher: Sony Interative Entertainment | Developer: Kojima Productions
Release Date: 11/8/19 | Rating: M for Mature
This review was conducted on a PS4 Pro using a physical copy of Death Stranding I purchased on launch day. It is exclusive to the PS4 as of now, but coming to PC in 2020. Somehow, Death Stranding has been the focus of everything I’ve written this month in some way, and if you’re interested, you can find those articles here, here, and here. For those who aren’t interested in the game, don’t worry – we’ll be moving on soon! If you’d like to get in touch with me, you can leave a comment below or follow me on Twitter. You can also reach me via email at dcichocki(at)tiltingwindmillstudios.com.