While playing through Death Stranding’s long, convoluted story, I alternated between leisurely completing side deliveries and just ploughing through the chapters for the sake of writing this review. I’ve traveled thousands of miles, exterminated multiple BTs, delivered several packages and watched hours of cut scenes before reaching the end of Kojima’s latest yarn. Now that I’ve finished it, I can say that this is unlike any other game I’ve played, nor like any other game I’ll probably be playing for some time.
Death Stranding is both awe-inspiring and frustrating. At its core, the game is a walking simulator that demands you take your time balancing your load out and treading the world’s bumpy terrain. It encourages you to create easier ways to get to your destination, whether it’s by building ladders, roads, or safe houses. The combat scenarios where you deal with human enemies heavily discourage you from using lethal force via the emotional state of your BB and threat of spawning BTs. The plot is vintage Kojima, full of metaphors, on-the-nose symbolism and feature-length cut scenes that borrow from the DNA of the various science fiction films its creator adores. It throws you into the universe’s lore with little hand-holding, leaving you to comb the game’s various data logs in your spare time.
The game’s online system is easily its most distinctive feature. Kojima has stated more than once that Death Stranding’s main theme is about connecting with other people, which the player is encouraged to do by “liking” structures created by other players and leaving behind your own. There is virtually no reward you receive for doing this, save for the feeling of appreciation you’ll feel when receiving notifications that your creations have been used, or the feeling of gratitude upon spotting a system of climbing anchors while attempting to traverse a mountain, or a zipline that allows you to zoom from one location to another. Boss fights with BTs are made much easier by the variety of tools other player’s phantoms can toss in your path, and the possibility of receiving a response whenever Sam calls out to a player makes the world you’re living in just a little less lonely.
All of this sounds nice, but a key question everyone seems to be asking is “Should I play Death Stranding?” That depends on what you look for in a video game. The core gameplay loop stays the same throughout the 50-hour story, punctuating certain moments of travel with songs from the album of “Low Roar”. The feeling of joy you’ll receive upon coming across a motorcycle will quickly dissipate when it comes to navigating the uncultivated wild lands. You’re given the tedious task of collecting material that you can use to create an expanding arsenal of tools and gadgets. The few boss battles sprinkled throughout the game are disappointingly inferior to the Metal Gear Solid series’ medium defining sequences, mainly consisting of bullet-sponge enemies that repeat the same tactics over and over again.
If you’re someone who values storytelling in games, then Death Stranding will very much satiate that desire. While Sam is disappointedly one-note and feels more like an avatar for the player to control rather than a fully fleshed-out character, several of the supporting players, from Margaret Qualley’s Mama to Mads Mikkelsen’s enigmatic Cliff, are brought to life via outstanding motion capture and performances that redefine the concept of voice acting in videogames. Certain sequences where Sam is forced into war-torn battlefields are a welcome change for those who are growing sick of Death Stranding’s repetitive traveling. Yoji Shinkawa’s flawless art direction and Guerrilla Games’ Decima engine help make this one of the most visually distinctive videogame worlds alongside Red Dead Redemption 2 and the latter Uncharted games.
While it’s far from a perfect game, Death Stranding may very well be one of the most important games going forward into the new decade. While we have been truly blessed with the abundance of triple-A titles that have come out over the past couple of years, very rarely has a title been released that feels so different than what has come before. In the age of independent developers that are focused on giving audiences new and unusual ways to play video games, Death Stranding feels like the ultimate statement. It’s not always fun and while I can admit my main reason for picking it up again in the future would be to find all of the game’s collectibles, I also hope that Death Stranding will serve as the springboard for future entries into the “strand” genre, as Hideo Kojima has termed.