Over three years after the initial announcement, Death Stranding is finally here – is Kojima’s latest the masterpiece we were hoping for, or did it not turn out like we had anticipated? We played through the game’s lengthy campaign on a Playstation 4 Pro.
Out of all the eagerly anticipated blockbusters this holiday season, Death Stranding was probably the biggest question mark. You know what to expect when a new Call of Duty arrives, and you know what to expect from a new FIFA as well. Heck, we weren’t even that surprised that The Outer Worlds and Control turned out as well as they did. But Death Stranding was a new project by Hideo Kojima, and as much as his legacy is celebrated, he’s mostly associated with the Metal Gear series of games. Would this one live up to the legacy?
What also cast doubt over Death Stranding is how little everyone actually knew about the game and how it would play. We had seen a bit of gameplay and a few trailers, but most people were left with a notion that it was going to be weird, different or eccentric – which doesn’t say too much about the quality of the game. Death Stranding felt like a possible dark horse, but now that we’ve played it we can safely say a lot of the gamble has paid off.
Part of what makes Death Stranding different is the premise to its narrative. Featuring a sci-fi, post-apocalyptic setup, the game plays out in a world in which the worlds of the living and the dead have started to overlap and concepts of life, death and time aren’t as we know them today. Remember acid rain? Death Stranding has a rain that will age anything that it touches at record speeds, so you want to stay from that whenever you can. The same goes for “beached things”, also known as BTs – entities that stayed on earth after death and will attempt to devour the living if given the chance.
In order to survive under these new conditions, mankind has retreated into city strongholds and settlements, guarded and shielded off by walls rather than being interconnected with one another. In this fragmented society, known as the United Cities of America (see what they did there?), you play the role of Sam Porter – essentially a delivery man portrayed by Norman Reedus. There’s a stellar cast at work in the game, which also includes Rogue One’s Mads Mikkelsen and Léa Seydoux from the James Bond flick Spectre.
As Porter, your play an important role in trying to rebuild what was lost, not just by delivering packages but also by connecting cities back to an internet-like service called the Chiral Network. There’s a meta-like gameplay element to this as well, which we’ll talk about later, but this network is also important in the narrative sense. Will the connection between people be a source of new hope, or will it only put them in more danger?
Death Stranding’s story is long. Very long. We only managed to complete it just before the embargo lifted, and clocked over 50 hours worth of gameplay with only a moderate amount of exploring done during that time. Luckily, the story is peppered with interesting characters and many different plot directions – with multiple ones happening at once at almost any given time. This can make the central narrative hard to follow at times, with key moments where puzzle pieces suddenly fall into place sometimes being spread out a tad too far.
Part of that is due to Death Stranding’s core gameplay mechanic, which sees you delivering cargo from one city to the next across long stretches of nature. That sounds like a long hike and potentially boring from a gameplay perspective, and to a degree that is true. Travel in Death Stranding is done on foot, and while you can aid your trek by using ropes to rappel up or down, or ladders to cross chasms, you’re walking for large parts of it. Without the convenience of a 24 hour store on the side of the road, it becomes important to manage your loadout, your weight and your power use – and while that’s potentially complex in nature the game does a good job of making this easy to handle. It’s something that takes up time, but this fits with the pedestrian pace at which some of the game unfolds – which is for good dramatic and narrative reasons, but will also not sit well with everyone.
Excitement during your long treks comes from the dangers that lurk in the outside world, which is where stealth gameplay comes in. Your cargo is often a small baby locked in a liquid-filled jar, so it’s precious cargo indeed and something you want to keep safe. As a young life, your little “bridge baby” (or BB) also connects you to the world of the dead – alerting you to dangers you want to avoid. Combat’s an option, but rarely your standard course of action. When it is, it’s usually in the shape of a big boss fight that is delivered in a spectacular audiovisual fashion.
Great visuals aren’t just reserved for these boss fights, but permeate the entire gameplay experience. With perhaps some of the most gorgeous visuals we’ve seen on the PS4 to date, even the areas devoid of human life are a marvel to look at and explore, and the acting performances that deliver the story elements are all great. I wondered if Guillermo Del Toro, who appears on the other side of the camera this time, helped out with the narrative direction as well. Either way, Death Stranding, at its best, is a mesmerizing blend of art and entertainment. It’s even getting a separate soundtrack release at launch, which is worth a listen even when you’re not playing.
At the same time, with the long breaks in between story elements, Death Stranding can drag a little and isn’t for everyone. The desolate nature of your treks is of course intentional, and they can be construed as powerful by those patient enough to traverse them. Others might lose interest, but the game has a dynamic online element to it that could make all the difference there. As you connect the various cities and locations to the not-yet-global Chiral network, you also start connecting to other Death Stranding players. While you don’t encounter them in the game (this is a single player tale), their actions do resonate in your gameplay. The way this plays out is that if they’ve built a bridge in a certain location, you can also make use of it – making things a lot easier for you. The same principle applies the other way around too, so you can help out others with what you do.
I preferred playing without this effect during my initial playthrough to emphasize how large the distances between humans had become, but it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out. Especially post-launch, where there’s a risk of areas becoming too cluttered, too easy to navigate or something that doesn’t feel like it goes with the core narrative premise as well anymore. Time will tell, but I can certainly see the appeal in creating things for others and subsequently getting props from them for doing so.
In the end, I assume that Death Stranding will be divisive among gamers. There will be those who will love its artistic side and how it delivers a gameplay experience that bolsters the narrative premise, whereas others will lament a lack of streamlined direction and the long stretches where boredom can set in if you’re not “feeling” the setting. It’s a game that’s filled with deeper and almost philosophical meaning at times and the narrative is rewarding even if its pacing can feel uneven. It’s an experience that’s certainly unique and a landmark achievement is gaming design, but be prepared for something that’s very different from the norm.