Review: Death Stranding

Hideo Kojima has made a name for himself with his exponentially long-winded, yet highly-compelling stories that mesh modern warfare with sci-fi. The Metal Gear franchise has been going on for over three decades, and it was thanks to him and his teams that they became massive successes, selling into the tens of millions and spawning numerous releases. His tenure at Konami unfortunately didn’t last, though, as the two parted ways on less-than-stellar terms, but due to this unfortunate event, we have seen the beloved director join forces with Sony to produce his first new IP in over fifteen years. Setting his goal to work with even more Hollywood talent, we see a star-studded cast in Death Stranding, from Margaret Qualley to Mads Mikkelsen; this has the chops to be something special from a production standpoint. Kojima clearly doesn’t want to go too far outside his comfort zone with Death Stranding as the menus, sound effects and numerous mechanical designs resemble the last couple of games he worked on, but there’s one element he forgot to include: fun.

Let’s start off strong with the plot. Kojima is well known for his directing prowess and it’s on display in Death Stranding. It’s not the best, most well-constructed story you’ll find, but what Kojima Productions has built will no doubt compel you to push forward, even through some of the slog that we’ll talk about later. This is crammed full of Hollywood celebrities, such as Norman Reedus, Margaret Qualley, Mads Mikkelsen, Stefanie Joosten and Tommie Earl Jenkins, among various others. They even have Guillermo del Toro, Nicolas Winding Refn and Lindsay Wagner lending their likeness too. Similar to Kiefer Sutherland in Metal Gear Solid V, Norman Reedus doesn’t have a whole lot of say; heck, del Toro’s Deadman (who is voiced by Jesse Corti) has significantly more dialogue. There are countless scenes where he just sits back and lets everyone talk around him, having his character contribute little to nothing other than being apathetic. By the end of the campaign, it’s hard to care about him as it feels like we barely got to know him outside of his haphephobia. He’s not a mute and probably speaks a little more than Punished Snake, but he teeters on becoming a silent protagonist more than most games.

You play as Sam Bridges, a man who in a post-apocalyptic world deliveries packages across the country and is caught up in a revolution to help reunite America. Sound familiar? If you’ve ever read David Brin’s novel, or seen the 1997 Kevin Costner film, The Postman, this shares a similar premise. The only difference of course would be the supernatural elements. Sam is literally walking from the east coast to the west coast, linking settlements along the way into a greater, high-tech network, allowing them to pull from numerous resources. BTs (Beached Things) are a huge threat as they popped up a many years ago and devastated the world. Humans basically can’t even die properly anymore, as if they’re not cremated, they can go “Necro” and potentially cause a “Void Out” which results in what could only be described as an atomic blast. A single person can devastate an entire city if not properly maintained. To see these invisible, ghostly creatures, a person must have DOOMS, and can work better if linked with a BB (Bridge Baby) because they somehow have a connection to the other side… I can go on, but if you’re familiar with Kojima’s storytelling style, you likely get the picture.

The lore of the world is easily the best part of Death Stranding as it touches heavily upon our connection to the afterlife, along with time. It’s one that will no doubt suck you in, but unfortunately, the largest issue here is the pacing. While bits of information are lightly scattered throughout, the vast majority of story and its events happen within the last fourth of the campaign. It really drags its feet for the first eight chapters and then dumps everything on you at the end. It’s fortunate that the last fourth is nothing short of breathtaking, and while the ends don’t always justify the means, it makes it better knowing you stuck it through. In traditional Kojima fashion, it does run on for quite some time, namely after defeating the final boss, there’s more than two hours of cutscenes and expositions before the credits begin to roll.

Now it’s time talk about where Death Stranding truly falls apart. Mechanically speaking, it feels similar to Metal Gear Solid V. Outside of slowdown when you’re spotted, gunplay retains a certain weight to it — even though encounters with human enemies feel sloppy at times — and stealth is overly gratifying, adding a level of horror. You’d think this would make for a fantastic game. Unfortunately, the biggest and most excruciatingly disappointing chunk of Death Stranding is the mission structure. There are roughly seventy main missions and almost all of them are delivery missions — heck, almost all side quests are exactly the same. Take one package to another location, pick up another quest to do the same thing over and over again until you get to the ninth chapter. You know something has gone wrong when you’re praying for a fetch quest because you know they’ll force you into a BT-rich area where you’re required to play stealthily (or action if you don’t fancy sneaking around). Never should a game take thirty-five hours before it actually starts becoming fun. Even worse, there’s excessive backtracking that could be entirely avoided. For example, we’re instructed to essentially travel across the map to a settlement, only for them to tell you to shove off. Sam’s solution is to return 8.5 kilometers to where he started, and transport someone through the rough, BT and scavenger-filled terrain once more in order to convince the settlement to join the cause. It’s these poorly-designed missions that extensively pad out the content, where you’ll find yourself unnecessarily walking or driving across harsh terrain to your objectives. It’s downright insulting as if there’s one thing to take away from Death Stranding, it’s that it doesn’t respect your time.

Bosses are also a letdown. When you think of Kojima, you’ll probably remember encounters such as The End from Metal Gear Solid 3 or the mind-boggling fight with Psycho Mantis in Metal Gear Solid. There’s nothing mechanically imaginative in Death Stranding. When you encounter a BT, it’s exhilarating because there’s some rather disturbing monster designs, but most of them amount to bullet sponges that go in and out of tar, and that’s including the final boss. Unfortunately, the scripted events lack any sort of strategy or hook. There are a handful of encounters with a reoccurring individual, and each one amounts to, that person spawning adds, and all you need to do is find him and pump a clip into him. He’ll regroup and you will repeat this process two or three more times before he finally has enough. It’s only until the final fight with him that they actually introduce the ability to properly play stealthily, although even then, it’s comical to hide in waist-high grass when there’s a five-foot backpack sticking out. These battles are visual spectacles, but they fall apart mechanically as repetitive and uninteresting quarrels. All of these issues are frustrating because there’s a make-up for a great game here. It’s as if the developers had an outline of where they wanted to go with the world and lore, but in the process forgot about everything else on a mechanical level.

In Metal Gear Solid V there was a fascinating idea behind the online component that saw players either building nukes to fight one another off or decommissioning them to better the world. This ideal somewhat carries forward into Death Stranding as there’s functionality to actively aid other players in their journey. You can contribute to building highways to drive across, bases to rest at, charging stations to ensure exo-suits and vehicle don’t die halfway to your destination, and by far the best creation out of everything: zip-lines. Players can setup points where they’re able to instantly travel great distances (starting at 300 metres), getting through hazardous and BT terrain with little worry. I even built a series of zip-lines around half the world so if players have the network unlocked in the areas, they don’t even have to touch the ground. Mind you, you shouldn’t have to build a system that relies on other players to essentially fix your game’s world to be more fun to play, but at least it shows the anonymous camaraderie among others to pull through it. It’s this asynchronous feature that helps build the world into something more meaningful and enjoyable to trek through.

We can’t end this review without talking about the presentation side of things, and boy does Kojima Productions bring a lot to the table. For starters, the soundtrack is without doubt the best part of Death Stranding, as the original and curated music from musicians such as Alan Walker and Low Roar are exquisite, and the way they’re implemented in the world makes walking from destination to destination more bearable. Using Guerilla Games’ Decima engine, Death Stranding is also a visual treat, at least for the most part. Character models are spectacular, with some bridging on uncanny valley during cutscenes, while the environments are hit or miss. From a distance they can look gorgeous, but up close there are areas that lack much detail, leaving the quality inconsistent at times. The world could have also gone with a day and night cycle as, while the environmental effects are a nice touch, stumbling around in the dark with invisible BTs could have added to the horror element even more. As mentioned before, set pieces are an absolute treat, with visual effects going off in every direction and putting you in a more controlled environment. The visual and audio departments will no doubt leave a lasting impression.

Closing Comments:

Death Stranding is a cerebral experience that isn’t fun. It’s a 45-hour monotonous slog that backloads everything engaging into the final act. Mission after mission we are mistreated to same old delivery formula, with a couple of fetch quests thrown in for good measure. It just doesn’t respect your time; where a game such as Red Dead Redemption 2 is dense with content, Death Stranding is void of anything to do outside of going from point A to point B. I sound harsh, but this isn’t a bad game as there is something here after you dig through all the mediocrity. Granted, it’s not amazing by any stretch, and doesn’t live up to the Kojima name, but there are elements that are compelling enough for most players to see it through. The interconnected world brings everyone together to overcome adversity, and the sci-fi mumbo jumbo lore is fascinating and pretty much what we’ve come to expect from the creator of Metal Gear. While the setup falls short, the gunplay remains solid and the stealth horror component adds a layer of enjoyment we didn’t know we wanted — even though it more so reminds us Silent Hills will never see the light of day. The music is arguably the best part of Death Stranding, and the visuals, while fluctuating in quality depending on the area, have some of the best-looking character models seen in any game. If Death Stranding wasn’t so padded out it could have been something special; instead, we’re left with a repetitive letdown that’s far more enjoyable to watch than play.