When Hideo Kojima and his studio parted ways with Konami, leaving their beloved Metal Gear series behind, fans were understandably devastated that they wouldn't get to play another Kojima directed game featuring Snake. It was a crushing blow and left many wondering what the much-loved Kojima would do next. We didn't have to wait long to find out that that game would be Death Stranding, a game shrouded in mystery and high-concept ideas that bordered on crazy talk. Kojima spoke of creating a new genre with his next game and wanted to focus on connection rather than the conflict we have become so accustomed to in games today. While I don't think Death Stranding is an entirely new genre of gaming, it does push the medium into uncharted territories in fascinating ways. It is one of the most emotionally affecting games I have played during my years on this earth. It will surely come off as hyperbole, but Death Stranding feels like it was made for me. I'm sure it will end up being one of the most divisive games of this generation. Still, for those like myself who the game resonates with, it is a storytelling masterpiece and an incredible journey that will have you wondering where else the gaming medium can go, and will leave you ruminating for weeks after the credits roll.
Death Stranding sees you in the role of Sam Porter Bridges, played incredibly by Norman Reedus. As Sam, it's up to you to travel across a devastated country, left in ruins by an event of biblical proportions. Humanity has been left in tatters after the Death Stranding, and the only hope we have of survival is rebuilding and reconnecting with each other. Kojima is known for his storytelling, and it's on display in all of its glory in Death Stranding.
I was concerned that the story would be hard to follow or to be honest, just plain bat-shit crazy. While it certainly is high-concept, it's delivered with remarkable restraint and focus. It shows that Kojima has listened to all of his talented film director friends like Guillermo Del Toro and George Miller. During my time with the game, I often thought about some of my favourite weird-fiction, like Jeff Vandermeer's Annihilation trilogy. This story is anything but ordinary and feels like it could be a big-budget slow-burn HBO show. I really don't want to go too much into the story here as I think experiencing it firsthand for yourself is crucial to the journey and to take that away would be doing you a massive disservice (I'm sure there will be plenty of YouTube videos if you want to spoil it for yourself). All I will say is that Kojima answers almost every question with a deft of hand and respect that shows the director/developer has honed his talents to a razor-sharp edge. I don't think a game has ever impacted me with such an unexpected force that I was left with tears rolling down my cheeks and my jaw firmly fixed to the floor during the final hours.
While I love a good slow-burn, long cutscenes and lots of exposition in my games, I know many out there do not. Just in case you aren't familiar, Hideo Kojima is prolific for featuring lengthy cutscenes and lots of dialogue (the Codec is back!) in his games. Death Stranding follows suit and is laden with hours of stunningly directed cutscenes, pushing the story and your relationships with other characters forward. If you get bored with too many cutscenes, this game is definitely not for you. For Kojima fans, the story delivers on every front and is, in my opinion, a new benchmark for the gaming medium. It didn't feel cliched at all, and everything feels so well thought out and explained. Keep your eye out for a great little nod to Director Nicolas Winding Refn when his character Heartman is introduced. There are also a lot of data entries you can read to further flesh out the story if you're the kind of gamer who likes that sort of extra detail. The world Kojima Productions has built here is fascinating and otherworldly in ways I did not expect.
There's been a lot of buzz about the big-name actors featured in Death Stranding and the majority of them put on incredible performances. Mads Mikkelsen, Norman Reedus and Léa Seydoux turn in performances in line with some of the best I've seen in a game (or movie or tv show for that matter) in years. It also helps that the facial scanning tech on display is fantastic. It reminded me of a much-improved version of the tech used in L.A. Noire with characters showing a full range of emotions in stunning detail (including lots of tears). Some of the characters you meet have devastating stories, and I felt genuinely connected to a few of them by the end of the game. That connection is the foundation of the journey and is wonderfully intertwined with the story and gameplay. One thing Metal Gear fans will recognize immediately is the immensely talented character and design work of Yoji Shinkawa. Every character is a sight to behold and feels just as memorable as some of my favourites in the Metal Gear series. His designs complement Kojima's vision so perfectly that it's obvious the two have been working together for years.
The story isn't the only thing that will have people divided. The gameplay will be too slow for many, but I found it elevated the game from me just watching the story, to actually feeling one with Sam and his struggle. The way you gradually feel like you are Sam during the course of the game is unparalleled for me personally. There's been a lot of talk about the game being a 'walking simulator' and while that's not entirely wrong, the care and consideration you have to take when traversing means you are continually evaluating the best path to take to your objective. The terrain is unforgiving and requires you to pay careful attention to your surroundings.
The crux of the game is in travelling from base to base, delivering items and reconnecting everyone. Almost every mission revolves around you either having to take something from point A to point B or travelling to a location to find a specific item and returning it to the order giver. It sounds dull, and while I wouldn't say its the type of fun we typically see in games, I'm not sure it's supposed to be. It's meant to be hard, and you're supposed to feel Sams resistance at not wanting to be involved in Bridges plan. Taking on an order that overburdens you with heavy cargo means you genuinely have to plan the journey ahead. From marking out the safest route on your map to making sure you have adequate supplies to make it to your destination, to even having to factor in weather forecasts. There's a surprising amount of involvement you have as you decide how to optimize your load best to keep Sam balanced (you can auto-arrange cargo with a button press too). You'll have to decide if you want to load up on orders, making Sam move that much slower, but able to get more deliveries done with less backtracking. Or you could take the bare minimum so you can get to your location faster with less risk. It's a constant game of inventory management and planning and will turn some off. I loved it and found myself getting into the flow of working out how I could get the most items delivered with the least amount of legwork.
Completing these deliveries, among other things, will net you likes from the NPCs and other players. These likes are essentially handled like XP and accumulating more will lead to unlocking better gear and items to make the journey easier. Some characters will offer unique items, like the Engineer, who once I helped, offered me exo-legs which effectively doubled my carry capacity when equipped. There are several very handy items and weapons you will unlock so it's well worth taking on as many side-deliveries as you can to unlock the best versions of each. From the hovering cargo carrier that Sam can tie to his waist to carry more or the improved climbing rope which lets you abseil down higher peaks, each new item makes a real difference to the difficulty you'll encounter when traversing. I took full advantage of all of the gear on offer and felt compelled to please as many people as I could to get those precious likes. You're graded on each delivery too, for things like package damage and delivery time, so it always pays to take care of your load. Because every single item you carry needs to be allocated on your person (be it hand carry, placed on a vehicle, or attached to your suit or backpack), It does at times look a little bit silly when Sams back is piled high with an impossible of packages.
When walking, you can hold L2 and/or R2 to make Sam hold his bag straps for each respective hand. Doing this slows him down but ensures he maintain his footing on treacherous terrain. You also have a terrain scanner which will show you any points of danger like steep hills or deep waters. Your destination may only be 500 meters away at times, but you may find yourself having to navigate significantly further to find the safest route. If you're loading up Sam to his weight limit, you'll have to continually press L2 or R2 to change you balance or hunker down appropriately. Even something as simple as walking along an incline will see Sams centre of gravity thrown off, so you'll have to factor things like that in too.
As you progress, you'll also unlock vehicles which allow you to take large orders that you wouldn't otherwise be able to carry on Sam's back. The main problem here is that the environment is so merciless that its sometimes easier just to walk. I found the vehicles to feel a bit slow (still much faster than walking, for the most part...) On two occasions, I had a fully loaded truck, set out on my delivery, only to get the truck stuck on rocks a kilometre down the road. I reloaded when this happened as there was no way to safely get my packages from the now-dead vehicle to their destination.
You'll also encounter items and objects like bridges that other players have built. There were several times when another player's well-placed ladder or rope got me out of a bind and saved me from taking the long way around. It's very cool to see paths slowly form in the world where players travel the most. The feeling of being connected to others, despite not being able to see them left me wanting to leave handy items in the world to help others on their journey (which also nets you those precious likes). If you would prefer not to have other players making your journey more manageable, you can also remove any items placed in the world, or you can just play offline.
While making deliveries, you will inevitably encounter Timefall. In the Death Stranding universe, this rain brings BTs (creepy corporeal, floating enemies, AKA Breached Things) with it and also causes everything it touches to age exponentially faster. This affects everything from your packages, to the gear like ladders and bridges placed in the world. It is a constant threat and avoiding it can be the difference between making a successful delivery and losing your goods. Making your way through an area being pelted by Timefall, all the while having to avoid BTs is at times harrowing. Thankfully you can place Timefall shelters or come across ones other players have left. This lets you rest in safety while you wait for the weather to clear, hopefully making your trip a bit less stressful.
Perhaps most surprising for me was the fact that I did not encounter my first boss fight until I was ten hours deep. It was a further five hours before I shot my first gun too. Those going into Death Stranding expecting Metal Gear levels of action will be left wanting. Combat largely takes a back seat to the traversal/delivery gameplay, and I think it was a wise choice. The game is about creating life, not destroying it, and for the first time in my gaming life, I played through an entire game that has guns, without taking a single life. Death in this game is not handled like others, be it yours or your enemies. When someone dies in this world, their body must be disposed of within 48 hours; otherwise, it will trigger a voidout. If Sam is caught by one of the bigger BTs, his death triggers a massive explosion which creates a huge crater where you died, leaving the area devastated and impassable for Sam. When you do die, you won't often see a game over screen (only during certain missions). Instead, you are sent to a sort of limbo (again, I'm trying to avoid spoilers here) where you move in first-person and must reconnect with Sam to return to the world of the living.
Luckily Sam is accompanied by Bridge Baby. BBs allow their user to detect BTs and are essential to making your way through an infested area. The BB is connected to an Obradek scanner which points to the nearest BT and spins faster and faster as you get closer to them. BTs are also invisible unless you are standing still, which leads to some genuinely unnerving sections as you balance your stamina with holding your breath to sneak past. Hold your breath too long, and Sam will gasp for air, alerting the BT to your presence. From there you have moments to quietly put some distance between you, but failing that the surrounding area will be enveloped in BT oil and you'll have to face one of the more giant scary looking beasts. When these fights pop off, I genuinely felt unnerved and uneasy at the creepy, almost Lovecraftian creature design. Thankfully Sam is equipped with several weapons to send them back to the other side. From assault rifles to grenade launchers, Sam is more than equipped to take on any attacker. I will say on normal difficulty; I didn't die once so if you're a seasoned gamer, I'd recommend bumping the difficulty up (there's also an easy mode for novices).
BTs are not the only enemies you will encounter either. You'll occasionally have to travel through MULE controlled zones. These guys are essentially loot bandits that will chase you down and steal your precious cargo. You can fight them with some rudimentary melee combat, or you can use stun weapons or your trusty rope to knock them out. Sneaking into these small camps was a blast and reminded me of my time with Metal Gear as I used my Obradek scanner to nullify enemy scans, all while hiding in long grass and looking for lonely enemies to stealth attack for a quick knockout. You can also use handheld cargo to knock them out in one hit, but this results in massive damage to your goods. More often than not, I found myself avoiding these camps as trying to make your way through with a fully loaded backpack rarely ends well. We've also seen some combat sections that looked to take place in a World War II setting. These are the more combat-heavy moments in the game, but I really don't want to go into any real detail as to how they are presented. It's not something you'll be doing often, but it does provide a nice change in scenery and pace when these moments pop up.
The stunning use of music also deserves special mention and is possibly my favourite score/soundtrack ever. The song choice and score fits so incredibly well and has had me listening to the featured bands like Chvrches and Low Roar regularly since playing. The way a haunting song plays as you approach a new location and the camera pulls back offers this fantastic sense of satisfaction in making it so far. I think that was my main emotion when playing the game. I felt like it was a constant struggle but the sense of elation and relief when making that final approach to your destination left me feeling like I had just been on a long journey myself. I don't recall ever feeling so connected to my character and the hardships they faced. While many will no doubt cry afoul that Death Stranding is a glorified delivery man game, peeling back those layers and systems reveals so much careful consideration and understanding in how to evoke an emotional response from players. The theme of connecting is pervasive throughout and carries with it a strong message that many of us need to hear. All too often, we're only connecting with others on a superficial level. How well do you really know the people you love and how well do they know you? It's a question I'm sure many have asked themselves as it feels like we become more and more separated by devices and technology in our modern lives.
On the performance side of things, the game runs on Guerilla's Decima Engine (last seen in Horizon: Zero Dawn), and it works beautifully. Snow-capped mountains and moss-strewn riverbeds are all impressively detailed. Playing on the PS4 Pro, I didn't come across any significant bugs and did not encounter any crashes or performance issues. Graphically the game is an absolute powerhouse and borders on next-gen with its environments and performance capture. There is a fair amount of clipping as you load up Sams suit with packages, but it's nothing too egregious. Sam will also occasionally do strange things with his feet when traversing up some rocky mountain faces. Still, for the most part, the way he interacts with the environment feels heavy and tangible in ways I'm not sure I've experienced before. The sense of place is just so strong, and the detail the world is presented in left me constantly admiring the stunning views. I would have loved a photo mode, but I'm sure that will be coming later on.
Hype is always a very dangerous beast. We often build an image in our minds of what we expect, and if the final product doesn't meet those lofty expectations, we're left wanting. For me, Death Stranding surpassed my expectations and tugged on my emotions in ways I did not anticipate and will go down as one of my favourite games of this generation. I know that it is likely to get me a ton of flack, but a review is just an opinion, and this was one of the hardest I have ever had to write. I felt torn trying to factor in those that would not like the game, but I think those people already know who they are. If you're not sold on what you've seen up to this point, the game likely won't change your mind (and I won't even attempt to either), but I implore you to go in with an open mind and think about whether gaming is a medium for only delivering "fun" experiences. I think Death Stranding shows that, much like movies, games have the opportunity to evoke conflicting emotions in us. They should challenge our preconceptions and in that, Death Stranding is a success on every front. I may be accused of being a part of the Kojima-cult, but no one can deny that the man is trying new things, and that is precisely what I want more of in the industry. He may not have exactly created a new genre, but I'm hoping Kojima Productions can keep building on this incredible foundation for the inevitable sequels.
By the time the credits rolled, I had inhabited the role of Sam for fifty hours. I did quite a few side-deliveries, but I can easily see that playtime hitting closer to the sixty-seventy hour mark if you want to unlock extra gear and upgraded versions of existing items. There's no doubt in my mind that Death Stranding will be one of, if not the most divisive games of this generation. It's definitely not going to be for everyone; it felt so preciously tailored to me personally, and I can still see a lot of people being enamoured by it. I'm still lost in thought about the game and have already started from the beginning again so I can unlock more items to make the journey a bit easier for my second run.
In the end Death Stranding is a game about hope. Hope that we can maintain our humanity and stay in touch with each other no matter what comes our way. It's a lovely message, and I'm thankful that it was delivered in a video game of all things. If you're a fan of the gameplay you've seen, I can't recommend it highly enough. Death Stranding is easily the most impactful game I have played in recent memory and is a masterpiece in storytelling and cinematic gaming. It will understandably have its detractors, and there is nothing wrong with that. Life would be dull if we all loved the same things. I went back and forth with myself a lot about this score, but I feel it accurately represents the experience I had and the profound effect the game had on me. I hope it can do the same for even a few of you reading this because we need more creative forces in gaming that go against the grain instead of just 'the way things are done'.
+ Amazing sense of place in the world.
+ Satisfying and deep story with plenty of answers.
+ Beautiful score & soundtrack.
+ Excellent graphics & performance.
+ Slow-burn gameplay compliments story perfectly.
+ Lots of amazing cutscenes.
+ Genuinely feels like you've been on a hard journey.
+ Evoked emotions I did not expect.
- Will be too slow for many. (not me)
- Too many cutscenes for some. (again, not me)
- Some clipping.
- Sam often moves a bit strangely on tricky terrain.
- Looks a bit silly when Sam has massive a pile of packages on his back.
- Most Bridge bases look exactly the same.
- No photo mode yet.