How do I even start with Death Stranding? Star studded cast led by Norman Reedus, Mads Mikkelsen, and Lea Seydoux. Creepy baby in a pod. Delivery simulator. All sorts of assumptions could have been made about what the game was and we would have barely even scratched the surface.
We’re exactly a week away from the launch and almost everyone, save for us reviewers, still know very little about the game due to this intentional marketing tactic by Kojima and Sony. I actually bought into it and purposely went into the game blind, avoiding videos and trailers that popped up left and right. I wanted to preserve as much of a fresh game experience as I could and was successful to a certain degree.
Before we dive into the review, know that I WILL NOT be discussing any part or aspect of the story whatsoever, except for a very short premise. Death Stranding demands that you experience the story for yourself, creating your own understanding of the world and its events. I’ll let you discover it on your own but without spoiling anything, expect extreme levels of mindf***ery, as it is a well known Kojima trademark. I mean, you’ve seen the FLYING WHALES, right??? Heck, I’ve finished the game already and I don’t even know the meaning to about half of what went down! We’ll be discussing everything in between, so let’s get right to it.
It’s no secret that the goal in Death Stranding is to reconnect a fractured society. This isn’t a spoiler, as it’s literally plastered across most of the trailers that have been released. For purposes of this review, all you’ll need to know about the story is that Sam Bridges, portrayed by Norman Reedus, will be traveling from coast to coast in order to rebuild America. With what? Why? How? Again, I highly encourage you find out on your own. Not because I can’t explain it, but because a Kojima game requires personal immersion and first hand experience. It’s an integral part of the whole that makes the overall experience such a satisfying one.
By that statement alone, you may have already guessed what our rating for the game is, but read on to find out how we got there. For transparency, we finished the game in 41 hours and 40 minutes playing under Normal difficulty.
“Let’s tell the truth, just for once…”
Starting out, I would hardly call this game a blast, at least for the first few chapters. As a personal rule, I always allow a game to draw me in during the first 4-6 hours. If I’m not satisfied with the pace or the action, I’ll move on to the next. Death Stranding took me well over 8-10 hours to finally get into the groove of things. I’ll be brutally honest with you, if this wasn’t a Kojima game, I would have stopped.
I’m glad I didn’t.
The gameplay of Death Stranding will be very controversial for most players. You’ll either love it or hate it. Death Stranding, for the most part, is a HUGE fetch quest. Bring this from point A to point B. Almost all, if not all, of the missions revolve around you bringing something over to a designated location. Whether it’s resources or hardware or even a pizza that you shouldn’t carry sideways, the most basic point of the game is for you to deliver something to someone. And why not, you are a porter after all.
Death Stranding takes a lot of cues from Metal Gear Solid V, most noticeably the mission based progression. Before a delivery, you’ll be able to choose your “loadout” based on conditions along the way. Running through a mountainous region? It may be wise to bring a couple of ladders to make the climb easier. Expecting some resistance in between routes? Best equip yourself with a weapon to even out the odds. In my experience, a lot of the missions can be completed without obsessing over your loadout but if you’re always aiming for good ratings, this is an important step before heading out.
Deliveries take on many different forms and variations. You can only carry so much weight on your back, so you can choose to hand carry some items or even attach them to your suit. Managing how much you carry on a mission is key because it will dictate how mobile you can be. Carrying cargo on your back frees up your hands but if you stumble over, the packages will suffer damage, unlike when carried by hand. While walking, you’ll tend to lose balance and you’ll need to shift your weight left and right via the L2 R2 buttons. The control scheme is very intuitive and responsive, no complaints here whatsoever, the game handles like a dream.
There’s also a stamina gauge you’ll need to keep track of and this will serve as your guide on whether you’ll need to take a quick rest or keep going. Stamina will deplete faster when performing certain actions such as crossing shallow waters or silencing your breathing. There’s quite a number of things to consider when finishing up a delivery, but don’t fret because it’s nothing too complicated and you’ll easily get the hang of it after a few missions.
As with a game that emphasizes travelling through huge plots of land, the map menu plays a huge role, allowing you to see surrounding areas and topography, weather conditions, and will let you plot routes you can take. It’s very useful and holds a bunch of information that can help you, so choose to use it as much as you can.
Completing deliveries will net you certain points depending on various criteria. If your mission was to deliver a package in the least amount of time, then completing the trip faster will get you a higher rating which then results in you leveling up, increasing various aspects of your character like the max capacity you can carry, balance, longer time before you get tired, etc. Whether you choose to complete deliveries on foot or using vehicles is all up to you, just know that there are options you can take if you feel like you’re tired of walking.
Sound exciting enough yet? I’m not one to mince words so whether you believe me or not is a choice you’ll have to make but this core gameplay loop really bored the hell out of me during the earlier parts of the game. I was not invested enough in the world that Kojima was building just yet to get through this section without catching some shut eye in between.
“But this is Death Stranding, one of the most anticipated games of 2019, or maybe even ever. Is that all there is to it?!”
“Let’s open up to the sky…”
Still looking for what makes the game so special? It’s everything else in between.
The world you’ll be exploring is very empty, and by empty I mean you won’t see anything else other than you, the environment, and facilities scattered in between. No semblance of other players, hardly any personal appearances by NPC’s… It’s just you and your cargo for the better part of the game.
Vast fields, snow capped mountains, steep slopes, rocky crevices… It’s almost empty to a fault. The world isn’t filled with enemies either, although there are a few here and there which we’ll get to later, but know that one of your main challenges in the game will be the environment. Ever played Skyrim? Ever tried getting from point to point via a straight line instead of following to proper path, even with a mountain in between? You’ll be trying to do a LOT of that here but this time around, you’ve got help in the form of ladders and climbing ropes and other apparatus that you or other players will be laying down. Again, traversing the world isn’t exactly the most exciting thing to do and if the sound of this turns you off, then I’m sorry buddy, the game will feel like a chore for the next 40 hours, maybe even more.
During deliveries you’ll experience what the game calls Timefall, which is basically rain or snow that will deal damage to your cargo as it is exposed to the elements. This affects your mission rating, preventing you from possibly getting that S rank for the mission. Timefall not only affects your cargo but the surrounding terrain as well. Rain will make it more slippery to cross some areas, wading through snow will also slow you down and will cover rocky parts of the terrain that could cause you to lose balance.
Perhaps the biggest effect of rain is the appearance of BT’s, or Beached Things as the game calls it. Rain signals the emergence of the first type of enemy you’ll face in the game. You may have seen these in the trailers, some sort of apparition that you normally wouldn’t be able to see if not for your BB, or Bridge Baby, and your trusty mechanical sensor or Odradek. Early on in the game you’re left defenseless against BT’s but this won’t last long, as you’ll soon be able to fend for yourself as the story progresses via some “weird” weapons. Trust me, weird is the gentlest word I can say.
BT’s aren’t as challenging as you would think, but stealth will be key. Crouching will lessen the sound of your footsteps but you’ll need to be even more silent so that the BT’s don’t track you as they are attracted to sound. Another “tool” in your arsenal is the ability to cover your mouth for added silence but be warned that this depletes your stamina gauge so move about smartly. If and when caught by a BT, you’ll need to make your way out of this pool of tar that they conjure up or else they’ll drag you down to your death. It’s easily one of the more tense moments in the game that will keep you on your toes as you head to your delivery point.
Your BB, or Bridge Baby, plays an important role in spotting out BT’s from afar. As with any other thing being exposed to these ghosts of sorts, your BB will suffer from what the game calls Autotoxemia which increases its stress levels and if you don’t soothe or rock the baby to ease then you’ll have to make do with exploring the world without its help. It’s a nice touch that furthers your connection with your BB and while some may find it wildly unnecessary, it’s part of the experience that is not tedious to do at all. Your BB is not just a simple tool or device, as you may have guessed, so you’ll learn to warm up to it as the story progresses.
The second type of enemy you’ll be encountering will be what the game calls “Mule’s”, human counterparts of BT’s that are more interested in your cargo than you. They’ll come at you with weapons and in groups but you’ll have a number of items at your disposal to deal with them. Stealth, similar to BT’s, will be your best weapon here as there are tall patches of grass where you can hide and sneak up on them to knock them out, using your trusty rope “Strand” for some close quarters combat. Alternatively, you’ll be able to equip a bola gun quite early in the game, tying them up and incapacitating them for a bit. Other weapons will be available but taking another cue from Metal Gear, you’ll want to avoid attacking them with lethal weapons to lessen BT spawns the next time around. Customize your loadout well to account for sticky situations and you’ll breeze right through them.
Dealing with these threats will require different means and weapons depending on the situation. There are lethal and non-lethal variations but an additional consideration would be ammo. BT’s will require a special kind of ammo crafted from your blood, Hematic rounds if you will. Why? Part of the story. You’ll find out early on in the game but this is an additional consideration you’ll need to manage.
The world of Death Stranding may be treacherous and harsh, but there is indeed beauty in madness because everything looks breathtaking. Overall, the game is an artistic masterpiece that surely pushes the limits of the PS4. Often times you’ll stop to look around and just take in the landscape, everything looks so picturesque that you’ll enjoy admiring the view especially with a 4K capable screen. Each element of the world looks, sounds, and acts like you would imagine it to, upping the immersion factor even further. Performance is hardly an issue as frame drops were very few and far in between if any at all, even during moments when I was being swarmed by BT’s. For the most part, you’ll be enjoying a silky smooth experience which is rare nowadays, a testament to the level of excellence the developers strived to achieve for this game.
One fantastic touch that I liked is while exploring, you’ll hear nothing but ambient sounds but soon after, a vocal track from the soundtrack will start playing. I never knew how much I wanted a music track to play during a game until Death Stranding. I’m not one to fire up my Spotify playlist over a game because normally I’d get lost in the beautiful world BGM or battle music in RPG’s but Death Stranding takes a cue from Breath of the Wild and elevates the experience with an equally superb soundtrack.
And speaking of soundtrack, the Death Stranding OST is officially FIRE. Mind blowingly good, the OST features tracks from artists like Khalid, Alan Walker, Au/Ra, Major Lazer, Missio, and Chvrches, who perform the titular track “Death Stranding”. The soundtrack ranges from compositions with haunting melodies to synth laden beats, it’s a perfect match to the game and really gives it the pop that it needs to break the monotony of exploring the world. You can give the song a listen below, but beware of its power to make you play it on repeat for the rest of the day. or week.
“Maybe together we can make our mark in the stars…”
And so we ask again, what makes the game so damn special?
Death Stranding is a completely new type of action game, where the goal of the player is to reconnect isolated cities and a fragmented society. It is created so that all elements, including the story and gameplay, are bound together by the theme of the “Strand” or connection. As Sam Porter Bridges, you will attempt to bridge the divides in society, and in doing create new bonds or “Strands” with other players around the globe. Through your experience playing the game, I hope you’ll come to understand the true importance of forging connections with others.“
Kojima explained it best. It’s easy to dismiss this game as a delivery simulator from all the trailers and videos that have been released, which is not completely wrong, but at its core is a world building title unlike any other. As you travel the world, you’ll be able to build a myriad of items – from a ladder to a generator, a bridge, or even a highway. Each of these things you build will help not only you, but also other players, complete their journey.
You know how in Dark Souls you can leave notes on the ground to warn fellow players of impending danger? Multiply that by a hundred, or a thousand. Trouble crossing a stream? Create a bridge. Long trek draining your batteries? Set up a generator halfway. These items you build can and will be seen by other players in your game instance and they may use it as well. In the same way, all the other players can likewise build other structures that in turn will eventually help you. Kojima and Sony never did give anyone a peek at this aspect of the game and for good reason as it is the defining feature of Death Stranding. Everyone does their part to reconnect the fragmented society and this feature alone is well worth the price of admission. Reviews can only convey so much about this “Strand” system but seeing it work first hand in the game is truly overwhelming.
Does it mean that if you let other players advance through the game before you do, you’ll have an easier time because of all the structures they’ll be building? Well yes and no. You see the world of Death Stranding is divided into chunks. Connecting a facility to the Chiral Network (Similar to synchronizing a viewpoint from Assassin’s Creed) will allow you to see all structures built around that area. If you are not connected to the network in that place, then you won’t be seeing anything. Things would be easier in a sense, yes, but you’ll have to synchronize with the area first.
Death Stranding’s game design is thoughtful and elaborate, with almost every possibility and question answered. You may think that eventually, the whole map would be flooded with all of these redundant structures and while that is a possibility, there are a lot of factors that contribute to the ever changing world.
I mentioned about Timefall, which is a degradation element in the game that not only affects your deliveries but will also affect every structure built. Players may choose to repair that structure if they find it useful enough or let it rot away. Alternatively, any player can dismantle any structure or sign they come across but they will only remove it in their personal game, not affecting the global economy, so to speak.
Players cannot just build a hundred bridges because they are limited by 2 currencies – Resources such as metal or resin and Bandwidth. Resources can be found scattered throughout the world, but they can’t be used in their current state unless you make them part of the cargo you deliver. Bandwidth, on the other hand, is limited and can only be had by connecting facilities to your network. Each structure you build will cost resources and bandwidth, so choose wisely and work with other players to build the necessary structures to help everyone out. You may have enough resources but if you’ve used up all of your bandwidth, then you can’t create any more structures unless you dismantle some of your older, less useful creations.
Resources aren’t just used to create structures but they can be used to upgrade them too. Upgrading structures would add some customization options like having a hologram greet a weary traveler as you approach it or even play a tune. Ultimately, upgrading structures boosts Timefall resistance, ensuring that it lasts longer over the course of the game. Of course upgrading is a monumental task to do alone and will take a toll on your resource stock which is why everybody in the world can choose to help out, as long as the structure is useful enough to warrant the upgrade.
There are various facilities in the world that will be responsible for assigning you missions but within them are Private Rooms where you can rest up, regain your stamina and restock your ammo, as well as do some other personal shenanigans like take a shower or even a dump. There’s some basic customization to be had here, like changing the color of your suit or of any of the accessories you acquire, but that’s about it. Obviously you can’t change Sam’s facial or body features, but I applaud you for thinking of it at least.
These facilities will also allow you to recycle items for additional resources, donate to a shared pool of items that other players can access, and likewise take what you think you need from that shared resource pool. You may choose to be THAT GUY who just takes whatever but the game encourages you to give back to the community, and it will reward you in doing so.
It’s really a creative stroke of genius. In this time of crowdsourcing and crowdfunding, the game brings the concept to life in such fashion that only Kojima could. This feature alone and how it was implemented in game turned my impression of the game around, complete 180. It felt especially good, seeing players from around the world use the structures that you’ve put up. You’ll be notified of it too! Imagine some streamer or content creator playing the game, giving you a shout out because of some zip line you built at the right location? I don’t quite know who these people are personally and where they come from but receiving a pat on the back for helping out is a great feeling.
It works, brilliantly. And the reward of it all? Likes.
Yup, you read right, likes. You can choose to give likes to structures that you’ve found useful during your journey and if you build something useful, the same will be done by other players in the world. Likes are a social currency with effects being much more concrete, allowing you to level up upon receiving enough likes. The feeling of contributing to the rebuilding of the world around you is next to none as the impact of these structures is almost immediately felt by everyone and the likes you’ll receive will only serve as validation of your good work.
“What will become of us all if we dare to dream?”
Death Stranding can be compared to watching a 40 hour long movie unfold. As is a Kojima trademark, expect a LOT of cutscenes. If I remember correctly, during my first 3-5 hours I think the time I spent controlling Sam was less than the time spent watching cutscenes. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, as each of these is masterfully crafted, directed, and important to the overarching narrative.
Motion capture quality is top notch, along with great writing and voice acting. One can only imagine the immense budget needed to pull this off but you can immediately see the quality and care put into producing each cutscene.
One more similarity to Metal Gear are the characters. Each of the characters in the game have wonderful stories to tell, with almost everyone being given appropriate screen time to develop. Norman Reedus totally kills his role as Sam Bridges, but let’s not discount the rest of the cast like Mads Mikkelsen, Tommie Earl Jenkins, Guillermo Del Toro, Lea Seydoux, Margaret Qualley, and others. Everyone has a performance to remember but I especially liked Mama (Qualley) and Fragile’s (Seydoux) storyline a bit more over the others. They had touching storylines that deeply affected me and if anything, I wish there was a way to have a playlist of all the cutscenes in the game. Pretty sure I’m not the only one wishing for that!
Celebrity appearances are quite plentiful in Death Stranding as well. You may have already seen Conan making an appearance and a lot of people were asking if it was just a simple cameo, it’s not! Geoff Keighly is also in the game but keep your eye out for a lot more, you may be surprised as to who else makes an appearance.
Transitions between scenes are near seamless due to the graphical quality of the game as you can hardly differentiate the game from a cutscene and once you’re in a mission, there’s hardly any loading screen. Death Stranding employs techniques used in other games like Persona 5 where instead of a loading screen, you get to see some extra scenes or animations which hide loading times very well.
One thing about Death Stranding that I absolutely enjoyed was the pacing and progression of the game. It may start a bit slow for most (like me), but after a certain point, the pace really picks up in terms of gameplay and story. It’s so good, in fact, that even at my 40th hour of playing, I’m still finding out or accessing something new, whether it be a weapon or a plot twist. Not all games can put up pacing and progression like Death Stranding can, and it’s really a huge reason why you’ll want to keep playing on.
As with Kojima games, you probably cannot expect to understand everything on your first go so there’s a big possibility of you replaying the game to catch all the little details. At the moment, there is no new game plus but after the story ends, you are free to wander around the world at your own leisure, finishing up deliveries to max out some connections. That said, replay value of the game is a bit weak only because of its story driven nature but if you’re the type of person who wants to fully immerse yourself in the lore and understand every detail, a replay would be in order.
The world Kojima dares to create wraps itself up beautifully, with each element of the game complementing each other. The theme of creating “strands” is woven into EVERY aspect of the game in a thoughtful manner and not some shoddily put together mechanic, making sense of all the deliveries you’ve been doing. It also tackles mature and sensitive themes that require immense focus to understand thoroughly and this alone is proof that the Strand system extends even outside of the game, as evidenced by the discussions you’ll be having with your peers as to the meaning of it all.
Death Stranding is a game that won’t be embraced by everybody, I’ll have to admit that even I had a hard time getting past the first few chapters but the game only asks that you give it a chance, and that’s probably more than enough.
What we liked:
- Game design and progression is spot on
- Graphical and cinematic masterpiece
- Hardly any glaring bugs with a very high level of polish
- Superior soundtrack
What we didn’t like:
- It will take a while for the game to “hook” you in
- Core delivery gameplay may be boring for most
- Action is scarce and is not too much of a challenge
Verdict: Buy it!
Death Stranding is a masterclass in game design and production value. It is a genre redefining effort. Some may find the core loop of delivering items boring or tedious, and with good reason, but you’ll really need to look beneath the surface to gain a deeper appreciation for the game. It’s a unique world building experience – I’ve crossed a bridge built by YouTube sensation YongYea, warned by walkthrough website PowerPyx before entering into hostile territory, and have even driven a bike left behind by our good Indonesian friend Jagat Play. Seeing the connections built with these players from around the world is indescribable and over the course of reviewing the title, I’ve even gained a couple of new friends just because of some random zip line I set up, thanking me for making their lives easier through a rough part of the game.
Death Stranding is a very strong game of the year candidate for a lot of reasons. I could go on and on about them but truth be told, I think it’s simply because of the fact that after so many games and mechanics and storylines over the years, a title like this can still break boundaries and introduce a transcendent experience that’s hard to follow. Death Stranding did not play it safe and it was all the better because of it. It took risks, it took a leap, and it definitely stuck the landing.
I nearly didn’t give Death Stranding a chance. 41 hours later, I can’t wait to play it all over again. The game nearly lost me in the first few hours but to draw me back in AND blow me away at the same time? That was more than enough reason for me to give this game the rating it deserved.
*Death Stranding was reviewed on a PS4 Pro through a review code provided by the publishers.