Review copy provided by Sony. Reviewed on PS4 Pro.
Death Stranding is a distorted vision of the open-world genre, pulled apart by its individual threads, deconstructed, and sewn back together in the image of its director, Hideo Kojima. It’s obsessed with religion, with folk religion, with birth, death, the afterlife, social connections, social media, social isolation, social strands (whatever those are), video games, films, albums, pop culture, pop music, pop psychology—and Monster Energy Drinks, of course. Death Stranding is obsessed with itself. But it’s always fascinating. It’s an astonishing, compelling and provocative experience, even if it isn’t always as exciting to play as it is to think about.
Death Stranding’s only constant is that it demands the audience’s submission. If you begin the game expecting a new take on Metal Gear Solid V’s open-world stealth infiltration, prepare to be disappointed. This game revolves almost entirely around the delivery of parcels from one location in its large open world to another. If you are looking for an “action game,” look elsewhere. This game is defiant in its lack of traditional action, punishing players for engaging in combat at all, let alone killing. As a complete package, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever played, although individual elements have been found in many other places.
A game built around the delivery of parcels from one location to another may sound mundane, but it’s built on interesting gameplay fundamentals. At times, navigating main character Sam through this world feels less like moving a character and more like controlling a complex delivery vehicle. Players must shift weight to maintain a proper balance with the triggers, while always considering factors like speed, momentum, and environment.
Don’t mistake this for a relaxing voyage through a beautiful open world: while the world may be beautiful, it is treacherous and rarely relaxing. It’s full of micromanagement. And the world is mostly empty: rather than being a typical open-world dotted with activities, Death Stranding’s game world is more like a massive obstacle course, with several paths designed to funnel players down a number of more carefully designed routes from one node to the next. This game is less about exploration, and more about navigation.
If players trip and fall, they can damage their parcels, their footwear, or even their Bridge Baby, or BB, the name for the mechanical pod containing a human fetus strapped to the front of Sam’s suit. Sam’s shoulder-mounted scanning device, known as an odradek, plays a crucial role in keeping players informed of their surroundings. It can scan for nearby abandoned parcels, survey the environment, and later, even cancel enemy tracking equipment if its pings are timed correctly.
The odradek relies on the information provided by its connection to a BB. BBs are said to be special infants with the ability to bridge the world of the living with the world of the dead. Removed from the womb and integrated into the mechanics of the suit, BBs develop an intelligence and awareness of the outside world beyond a typical fetus, and the game’s insistence on referring to them only as equipment, not as the living, intelligent creatures they clearly are, is provocative, and will unnerve some, especially when they’re expected to cradle and comfort it with motion controls by gently rocking their controller.
Combat and enemies
You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned combat yet. That’s because, while it exists and is enjoyable when it does occur, it’s never the primary focus. It took nearly fifteen hours before I had my first proper combat encounter. The open world of Death Stranding is dotted with occasional outposts of enemies known as MULEs, who are obsessed with hunting and recovering cargo. While MULEs can’t track Sam, they can occasionally send a radar ping that will highlight the current location of any package he is carrying. When these strange foes discover Sam’s location, the ensuing stealth and combat sections are thrilling. But engaging directly in battle is rarely the best option. Combat tools are limited in the early game, and ammo is sparse even when more options become available. At best, combat is a tool useful to temporarily disable a small group, or slow down the last few stragglers hunting Sam.
Sam’s death can trigger a massive crater in the world that can severely hamper players abilities to progress, as well as attracting phantoms called Beached Things, or BTs. If players try to take an entire group head-on, they will almost certainly be overwhelmed. And if they accidentally kill someone, punishment is severe. Unless the dead body is carried to an incinerator and cremated, a painstaking process, it creates more BTs.
The first few encounters with BTs are terrifying. These ghastly outlines appear as human-shaped clouds of black particles, with phantasmic umbilical cords tethering them to the world of the dead. But you will eventually learn to avoid or confront them, as they drag Sam to the world of the dead, where larger, more dangerous foes await. There is also timefall, a supernatural form of rain which ages everything it touches, causing parcels to deteriorate faster when the weather shifts, and a system known as repatriation, where Sam can return to his body after death, touching the spirits of other deceased players along the way to obtain in-game bonuses like extra items.
Players have the ability to construct structures ranging from ladders and climbing posts, useful for scaling cliffs, to large buildings with garages and private rooms. These structures can be placed almost anywhere in the world with enough space in a manner reminiscent of real-time strategy games, and, like in that genre, they expend valuable resources. Inventory space is limited, and every gun, rope and ladder is a parcel Sam must carry, that adds to his weight and slows him down. It’s a joy to get lost in building, and easy to lose track of the main story path while paving new roads, crafting watchtowers, and connecting generators. While vehicles are available, their electric batteries have limited range and they can’t navigate rocky terrain well.
Death Stranding doesn’t always succeed. The movement feels surprisingly clunky and unpolished at times. There are moments when Sam somehow manages to lunge across massive chasms, yet misses other, much smaller jumps. It’s frustrating when he seems to slip and fall down a cliff for no reason, or fails to grab a handhold he should be able to easily grasp.
These moments are surprisingly common, and while the physics system is remarkable, with changes in weather, wind patterns and direction affecting Sam’s movement, it too often feels like it breaks its own rules and sends Sam tumbling or suddenly off-balance without explanation. The product placement, for Monster Energy Drink and Norman Reedus’s basic cable show Ride, is awful and immersion breaking. A central mechanic is a canteen that turns rainwater into Monster Energy Drink. I don’t have to say anything else.
Some sections feel repetitive. In one later area, Sam is asked to reconnect isolated, snowy outposts with the central network. Trudging through the snow at a snail’s pace, overloaded with parcels, feels novel for one or two missions, but it edges dangerously close to becoming a repetitive chore, despite the addition of tools which ease the burden. Luckily, it’s the only segment of the game where the pacing feels seriously off.
It’s an unusual way to structure a game, with sections that will speed up only to slow down afterward with a lengthy open-world sequence, giving players time to reflect on the strange events they’ve just witnessed, but it’s successful at ratcheting up the mystery and tension of this strange game world while providing the opportunity to fully explore the mechanics that make up the bulk of Death Stranding. New mechanics are introduced at a suitable pace, building until Sam’s toolset is larger and more varied than in any previous Kojima game.
And trust me, there will be plenty of time to explore. In a playthrough focused mostly on the main story path, I completed Death Stranding in around 60 hours. It’s easy to see that ballooning closer to 100 hours for those interested in a deep dive into the smorgasbord of side missions and optional activities, like exploring the game’s building system or further expanding the network. I would recommend postponing most of those activities until later in the campaign, when Sam’s massively expanded toolset provide players with more flexibility, but some may find the limitations imposed by completing them as they unlock rewarding.
Death Stranding also features a unique asynchronous social multiplayer element. While players don’t directly interact with other users, buildings they construct will often show up in other players worlds, where players can thank their fellow users by providing them with “likes” that help increase their rank as a porter. I highly recommend playing Death Stranding online, as finding a bridge or ladder left behind by another player can be extremely helpful in navigating this treacherous world. It appears that the game will attempt to fill this with pre-determined structures left by NPCs, but I couldn’t thoroughly test this, as online structures will remain in the game world even after disconnecting. Regardless, while you can play Death Stranding offline, be prepared to miss out on part of the experience.
I want to avoid saying as much about this remarkable story as possible and leave the many twists and turns for players to discover for themselves, but fans of cinematic storytelling in games will find Death Stranding essential. Set in the near future, after a mysterious near-apocalyptic event called the death stranding linked our world with the world of the dead and sent humanity underground, Death Stranding revolves around Sam Porter Bridges, a courier who is tasked by the mysterious Bridges organization with travelling from one coast of the former United States to the other, rebuilding the so-called “Chiral Network” along the way in service of a new successor state to the United States, the United Cities of America or UCA.
The Chiral Network is a successor to the internet in this future world, carrying not only information, but the ability to manufacture goods and construct buildings through local facilities known as Chiral Printers. At the end of Sam’s path is Edge Knot City, where the next President of the UCA, the hilariously-named Samantha America Strand, or Amelie, is being held by a radical separatist group called the Homo Demens, who intend to use her as a bargaining chip to secure the independence of Edge Knot City from the UCA. After the current president, Bridget Strand, asks Sam on her deathbed to rescue Amelie and reconnect America, he reluctantly sets out, guided by the mysterious Bridges director Die-Hardman—and yes, nearly all of the names in this game are ridiculous.
Those worried about a lack of story sequences after Metal Gear Solid V’s sparse, disappointing narrative can rest assured. There are plenty of cutscenes here, and they tell an engrossing story that is at turns electrifying, confusing, rewarding, and deeply moving. These moments are much more evenly spread throughout the story, too, with cutscenes lasting minutes, rather than hours, and often punctuated by snappy gameplay sequences. Every aspect of storytelling is a big step up from MGSV.
Some of the twists later in the game recall the mind-bending peak of Kojima’s career, Metal Gear Solid 2. The game’s second half is self-aware, often breaking the fourth wall, and subverting and twisting the well-known video game cliches it introduces in earlier hours. It’s filled with references to Egyptian, Greek, and First Nation cultures, but its New-Agey mishmash of cultures isn’t always as deep as Kojima seems to think it is.
At its best, it confronts the audience with unforgettable, stunning, surreal images. But it falters when it dives into lengthy expository dialogues, and there’s no doubt people will feel confused by the piles of information, character names, and sequencing details heaped onto their heads in some later cutscenes as twist piles on twist. Not everything here makes literal sense, but it works as a statement, and delivers an effective and interesting message, with a powerful emotional punch. Luckily, an in-game log fills out more of the lore without feeling essential to understand what’s going on. If you want to read more, you can. But unlike MGSV’s tapes, you can fully grasp the story without it. And, despite the game’s mysterious marketing, it’s not difficult to grasp the fundamentals, and mysteries almost always have a proper explanation at some point.
Kojima has created some of the medium’s most interesting and iconic protagonists, so it’s disappointing that Death Stranding’s lead, Sam Porter Bridges, feels like something of a missed opportunity. Sam has a condition which makes him fear human intimacy to the extent that he refuses to hug or even shake hands. While I understand Kojima’s desire to make a point about social isolation, Sam functions mostly as a stand-in for other characters to emote at. Norman Reedus can be a compelling actor, but his talent is underused in a role that mostly consists of wandering around looking pensive, moping and whispering gruffly about how he can’t save America. He plays his single note well, and in later sections that tune expands, but Sam is still no replacement for Snake.
Luckily, Death Stranding has plenty of other excellent characters for players to become attached to. In an interesting reversal from Metal Gear Solid V, whose portrayal of Quiet was nauseating and childish, Death Stranding’s most interesting characters are women. Fragile is the mysterious head of a rival delivery service, Fragile Express, portrayed with great skill, style and depth by the wonderful Léa Seydoux. Her character’s role is ambiguous, and she sometimes leaves the player with more questions than answers. But when those answers do eventually come, she packs the dramatic moments with convincing anguish, wit and humanity.
But the standout performance comes from Margaret Qualley, fresh from her sinister role as a Manson acolyte in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. She can be at times both electrifying and reassuring in her dual role as Bridges technician Mama, and another character I won’t mention. Mama is the empathetic foil to Sam’s stony emotional detachment. She functions as the game’s emotional center, grounding shocking moments with a sense of decency and compassion.
I also want to pay tribute to Troy Baker’s excellent work as the leader of the terrorist faction known as “Homo Demens.” His performance is physical, over the top, and veers between camp and menace. He’s a delight to see every time he comes on screen, and provides the closest thing to a Metal Gear Solid-style villain here. It’s a very good job of acting. The results are more mixed when Kojima Productions uses the technique of scanning actors and replacing their voices. While it may not be an issue for those less familiar with their real life counterparts, I found it distracting to see familiar faces like Guillermo del Toro speaking with voices that sound so unlike their real ones.
Swedish composer Ludvig Forsell returns from MGSV, and his original score is an absolute triumph. Ambient string drones bubble and gurgle like tar rising from the landscape, sparkling synth arpeggios twinkle in the background, and huge string swells fill the soundstage with emotional depth. It’s one of the best scores in recent memory and achieves a near-perfect synergy of tone with the gameplay and narrative beats.
The game also features a number of licensed songs from artists like Silent Poets, Low Roar and CHVRCHES, and these are also stellar, highlighting emotional moments with minimal drum machines, plucked acoustic guitar, and melancholy vocals, although there’s one or two moments in the campaign where the song choice doesn’t quite strike the right tone. Sound design is uniformly great, with great attention paid to details like the strange emergence of the BTs tar, the gurgling cries of BB, and the futuristic whoosh of a scanner ping, with a good sense of positionality, balance and clarity in the audio mix.
Death Stranding is gorgeous to look at. It’s amazing that such a small team have created a game with this level of environmental and character detail. The faces are among the best in any title on any platform, and they animate with a totally convincing clarity, brilliantly capturing small movements of the eyes, of the facial muscles, the pursing of the lips, the gentle straining of the face. Interface design is sleek and functional, with gorgeous 3D maps and menus that map perfectly onto the game’s futuristic, digital feel. Produced with the in-house Decima Engine, co-developed by Kojima Productions and Sony’s Guerrilla Games, the results are a spectacle, especially for 4K TV owners with a PS4 Pro.
Environments are stunning. Kojima Productions have used rocky, volcanic Iceland as a stand-in for post-apocalyptic America, and it gives the landscapes a destitute, almost alien feel. Individual hairs of moss peek out from rocks which, in stills, approach photorealism. Unfortunately, the amount of pop-in can be jarring at times, and it’s particularly bad with the wider frame and faster movement provided by vehicles. It’s one of the few blemishes on an otherwise exceptional looking game. It’s remarkably stable, other than a few strange animation issues. I didn’t notice any frame rate drops, other than very brief loading stutter when cutscenes transition to gameplay, and my experience was almost entirely devoid of bugs or serious glitches.
It’s ironic that a game about forming new connections, about healing the divisions between people and places, is bound to divide. Some may feel that Death Stranding stretches what a game should do past its useful limits, and becomes an exercise in tedium. I’m certain that many will be alienated by its slow introduction, lack of combat, and surreal story. But when I put the controller down, I couldn’t stop thinking about Death Stranding. I wanted to return to its strange world, to sneak past more BTs, build more bridges, to hear BB’s gurgling laugh. It feels like Metal Gear Solid did, all the way back in 1998: a new beginning, a remarkable strand of life ready to filter out into the world, creating new connections, and unleashing all manner of chaos.
4 Nov. 2019: an earlier version of the article didn’t properly explain the voidout system. It’s now been updated with the correct information.