Death Stranding Review: Brilliant, yet Unwieldy
Slight gameplay spoilers ahead…
I was convinced that I was going to hate Death Stranding. As a self-professed fan of weird fiction, the initial announcement of Hideo Kojima’s new IP captured my interest. It looked that special kind of uncanny that I can’t help but love. Granted, I had no idea what or who this game was about, but it looked daring in a way that most AAA games don’t. My excitement level was sky high… and then I saw the first gameplay trailer.
The game appeared to be a series of long, dull walks across a barren landscape. Was Death Stranding just a delivery man simulator? When gaming journalists eventually got their hands on the game, many venues I love and respect had only halfway nice things to say about it. I love weird, but if I’m going to drop 50-100 hours into a game, that game has to be good. As we neared Death Stranding‘s release date, I decided that I’d skip out on buying it.
Then I started thinking about the Redbox by my house. I had a few hours on Sunday morning where I could just play games, and I had nothing else that I really wanted to play. Three dollars and I could play a few hours of Death Stranding. It seemed like a good way to see what the game was about without really committing my money and time. So, I picked it up. That’s when the unexpected happened.
I LOVE this game.
I want to talk for a moment about what Death Stranding actually is. Most of the trailers have been cryptic at best. You play a porter named Sam Bridges (played with a quiet grit by Walking Dead’s Norman Reedus). It takes place in the United States after a cataclysmic event known as the ‘Death Stranding’ has left the world barren and broken. Supernatural entities called BTs haunt the world, causing destruction and degradation at every level. You are soon tasked with a job by the President (who is also your mother?) to help restore a nationwide digital network to unite humanity once again. Like most other open-world action games, you also have a mystical jar-baby strapped to your chest at all times.
Let’s say this: Death Stranding is (essentially) a delivery man simulator. You’ll be given a job and you will begin the arduous journey of hiking to your destination. The minute to minute gameplay is spent balancing cargo on your back, carefully navigating over rocky terrain, and using tools to pass over rivers and cliffs. You’ll also sneak by the terrifying BTs and battle nomadic criminals called MULES. The BTs alien influence has caused a phenomenon called Timefall, which degrades your cargo and equipment rapidly. If you deliver faulty packages, you’ll be dinged for doing a bad job. A slip-up during your delivery can also damage your equipment as well. Trust me….It’s far more interesting than it sounds.
Though you are doing literal fetch quests, the simple act of walking requires constant input to get right. My major complaint with the minute to minute gameplay is how unintuitive it all feels. You will slip because Sam doesn’t climb a ladder the right way. Sam stumbles and falls at the drop of a hat, often spilling your precious cargo everywhere. On top of that, a lot of your time is spent managing that aforementioned cargo in different menus. These menus will confuse and confound you. Clicking through them (especially as you get more tools and gear) can become frustrating very quickly. Even after almost 20 hours, my brain still struggles with what should be second nature by now. It feels like a design oversight. To make things worse, the quest design feels outdated and exceedingly one note. The new tools and systems do keep boredom buried, but you may find yourself rolling your eyes at the idea of backtracking once again.
But these are minor quibbles. You could argue that the blatant disregard for modern game design is a perk. After all, Hideo Kojima is known as an auteur that carefully designs his systems and seeks innovation at every turn. He always marches to the beat of his own (strange) drum. As you journey, you’ll see other player’s equipment popping up in your world. Your structures will also populate other players’ maps as well. They might take the form of a bridge over a river or a ladder leading over a steep cliff, among other things. They are almost always lifesavers, and a perfect testament to Hideo Kojima’s vision. It’s all about unity. It’s about banding together to rebuild a shattered world. Every delivery you make is a step forward. Holograms of characters will pop up to thank you for the work you did for them. You’ll come out on the other side of a long delivery tired and ready to rest. But Sam must continue on, and you must do it with him.
This game is not for everyone. I thought I would hate it. And while the controls feel odd and the cut scenes can be way to long, Kojima has created something special here. Death Stranding is a game of slow accomplishment and Capra meets Tarkovsky optimism. His affinity for the esoteric and horrific creates tension and intrigue every step of the way. This started off as a rental for me. I bought my own copy the very next day. It may not be Kojima’s crown jewel, but it’s a treasure in its own right. Death Stranding is an odd game created by a man with a powerful vision.