Death Stranding review: The great deliverer
Hideo Kojima's latest game is a dazzling work of art that redefines what video games can accomplish. Our review.
I’ve been dreading writing this review ever since I jumped into Death Stranding.
I’m certainly not disappointed, and I don’t have bad news. I just don't think Death Stranding is the type of game that you can truly do justice by evaluating it as if it were just another run-of-the-mill shooter or bland indie platformer. I don’t think it’s fair to compare it to “blockbuster” releases pumped out by studios primarily interested in rushing out their next iteration year after year. Talking about Death Stranding requires a much different approach, and an understanding that many games don’t ask of their players. It feels like it’s on another level entirely, one that many developers haven’t reached or simply won’t.
With that said, Death Stranding isn’t for everyone, but at the same time it’s about everyone. It’s about finding deeper connections that bring us all together and figuring out ways to honor them. I know it won’t resonate with everyone the way that it did me, but it doesn’t need to. It stands alone as one of the most unique titles I’ve ever played, and I feel truly richer for the experience of having played it.
For those who want me to shut up and cut to the chase, yes. It’s that good. Yes, you’re probably going to think it’s “weird.” Sit down. I’ve got a lot to say.
Connecting the strands
The narrative really isn’t as complicated as everyone has made it out to be based on the glimpses we’ve had through trailers up until now. It’s quite straightforward, actually. You are Sam Porter Bridges, and your job is exactly what your name implies: a porter, or a glorified delivery person. Porters are tasked with hand-delivering cargo to a now-fractured America. Following a mysterious event known as the Death Stranding, society is now a mere shell of its former self. As a member of the organization Bridges, lead by President Bridget Strand, Sam is an invaluable part of the efforts being made to make the country whole again – or at least some semblance of it, as the United Cities of America.
But this isn’t about a symbolic connection. Your job is to literally connect people living in every corner of the country to the chiral network, which is similar to the internet, but a more evolved, instantaneous method of communication. This enables everyone to readily get in touch with each other, as they’re separated miles apart, at least some of them. It also allows them to utilize items known as chiral printers to create materials they may otherwise not have access to. There are some individuals who don’t believe in Bridges, the UCA, or the chiral network. Too bad. You’ll have to change their minds eventually. Keep delivering cargo to them, and eventually they’ll come around.
Of course, there are several more layers to this narrative that I’m going to purposefully leave out so as not to spoil anything beyond what you’re able to ascertain from the trailers and other marketing materials. I’m bound by a very strict embargo, so I’m actually unable to speak about what happens past Chapter 3 (and there are several chapters.) The story is the most sacred part of Death Stranding, and something you should be able to watch unfold on your own – but just know that when you start playing and seeing all the scenes from the previously obtuse trailers happening in correct chronological order, you’ll know exactly what’s going on.
That’s what I love so much about the story, in fact. It’s never misleading or confusing, always feeding you just the right amount of information until everything clicks. There’s also plenty of supplemental reading to be found in the massive amount of mail Sam can receive during the game. He’ll get notes from everyone, riddled with fun emoji and teeming with useful information.
Some characters offer hints at where you can find certain items. Others offer additional insight into some of the peculiarities of the world, with some interesting surprises and hints at further lore reveals that Kojima may see fit to speak more on in the future. Many want to say thank you for helping them get connected to the chiral network or for consistently offering awesome delivery service.
While Sam is the only playable character you’ll see out in the field (the rest are NPC porters), he’s not alone in his mission. He’s assisted by Die-Hardman (portrayed by Tommie Earl Jenkins), Deadman (portrayed by Guillermo del Toro and voiced by Jesse Corti), Heartman (portrayed by Nicolas Winding Refn and voiced by Darren Jacobs), Fragile (Lea Seydoux), and Mama (Margaret Qualley). Each individual comes with their own fleshed-out back story and narrative with unique personalities and quirks that let their actors’ expressions and voices truly shine through.
What I can say about the narrative, ultimately, is this: if it were a film, it’d be an Oscar contender. It will make you giggle occasionally, continuously wipe tears away, become enraged, and fill you with wonder, sometimes all at once. There are gruesome sights you won’t want to see. But there are beautiful sights that make it all worthwhile in the end. Bottom line: Whatever you think you know about it, you don’t know the half of it.
You’re always actively participating in Death Stranding’s narrative. Sam's primary job is to traverse the landscape, connecting private citizens and settlements to the chiral network. It's a straightforward enough task, but a monumental one all the same.
To do this, Sam must travel (mostly on foot at first, with vehicles later) to various settlements across the country. In the beginning, he travels light, but as you amass cargo he becomes more and more encumbered, to the point where you need to keep him from swaying (using the controller’s shoulder buttons and leaning into the direction of his movement) as he walks across the landscape. Sam’s extremely resilient, and super strong as it is, though. You’d be amazed at how much he can carry. You can load him down with boxes and boxes of cargo, and even when overloaded he takes it all like a champ, much more so than any regular human being. Of course, you can still give him too much to carry. This will cause him to creep forward, nearly buckling under the weight of his cargo. That’s why you have to be smart about what you carry.
You need only carry essential cargo while completing orders, but you can also pick up optional missions along the way. When you’re carrying so many deliveries, you have to be creative about where Sam puts his items. He can attach them to his pack, stack them on his back, or even carry them by hand. While you can customize where you put certain items, I found that having the game optimize how Sam carried his items was the easiest and most beneficial way to ensure he didn’t keep teetering as he traveled.
When you get your items together and set out on your delivery, you have a few tools at your disposal to ensure you don’t wreck your cargo and receive the best grade possible from each recipient, who will grade you and often give you an item for your time. That’s where things get interesting.
Sam is equipped with a baby in an artificial womb-like device known as a BB Pod. You need BB because the world, following the death stranding event, is now riddled with bizarre, ghost-like beings found throughout certain areas. They’re called BTs, or “beached things.” Sam cannot see them, but using his BB and his scanner known as an odradek, he can scan for them (as well as receive information on the terrain around him.) You’ll know when they’re about to appear, because they only hang out in areas where timefall is currently occurring. Timefall, punctuated by an inverted rainbow, is a kind of rain that ages everything it touches. Sam is protected by his suit, but his cargo isn’t – so that’s another thing you have to watch in addition to BTs showing up.
If one appears, it’s in your best interest to continue scanning, walk slowly, and even have Sam hold his breath. Because if they spot you, they’ll reach out with their ghostly hands and try to drag you down into their world (a beach), where you’ll have to face off against larger BTs. And if you happen to die, Sam is taken to the Seam.
The Seam is a world from which Sam can “repatriate,” or come back to life. The process is a precarious one, because sometimes you don’t have to fear dying, but being swallowed by a BT. Should you be pulled down into the BT’s beach world and a larger BT manages to consume you, an event known as a voidout will occur. Essentially, this means an enormous crater will appear in your world – corpses left to necrotize will turn into BTs, disappear, and then cause said voidouts. It’s the same with Sam. There won’t be any corpses left over in the craters afterward, but there will be massive holes in the world after they occur.
There are also bandit-like characters called MULEs, who are obsessed with cargo. They’ll attack you with electric javelin-like weapons if they happen to spot you, and they’ll try to steal away anything you’re carrying. Basically, they’re an enormous pain, and the more you can avoid them, the better. If you get pinged by one and get on a MULE’s radar, you can usually lose them pretty easily by running away, but they’re still irritating.
Luckily, you have plenty of ways to fight back against these malevolent forces. Sam can wriggle away and push away BTs before it comes to combat, but when he’s forced to fight he can use hematic grenades, made from his very blood that happens to be BT-resistant thanks to an affliction he has called DOOMS. You also get other types of weaponry to defend yourself with, but a good portion of your offense will include arms like these grenades and those made out of Sam’s waste as well – yes, number one and number two. They’re very effective against BTs big and small.
There are also ways for Sam to interact with the environment beyond fighting off BTs or staving off MULEs. You can spend time in hot springs that have regenerative properties and urinate in areas that aren't close to structures or other people. Doing so will result in the growth of a small mushroom when he's finished. The mushrooms don’t have any discernible function, though Kojima initially stated others would make them in their games and you’d be able to see them in yours. I don’t recall seeing any other mushrooms during my lengthy time with the game, oddly enough.
You could also urinate on a BT if you want, which I tried out a few times. It wasn't as effective as the grenades made out of Sam's waste, of course, but it did affect enemies enough to help me get my bearings by slowing them down a bit. I'm glad there wasn't more focus placed on this aspect, because that's all anyone could focus on to begin with, just another testament to how juvenile people can get when faced with something that takes them out of the comfort zone like this game does.
There’s so much to do that I honestly feel that, even with this exhaustive overview, I’m only scratching the surface of just how complex all of the game’s interconnected systems are, as you’ll see when you dive into the game. Perhaps the most daunting thing about it all is that you have to manage all of these things all while caring for BB and soothing it as if it were a real baby. It gets cranky when you go through all these ordeals, and you’ll often have a crying baby on your hands if you don’t take the time to be a good “parent.”
While this could be annoying at times, you don't really have to do much to soothe BB. When it cries, you do need to cradle the BB Pod and slowly move the controller back and forth to rock it back to sleep. However, it's only really a problem after Sam takes a tumble or you face BTs in a fight. Most of the time, BB is satisfied to gurgle happily and even give Sam "likes." As someone who detests children, I found it really cute. It’s easy to get attached to BB, and you’ll form an emotional bond with it quickly despite many characters’ encouragement to see it as more of a tool than a living being.
Then again, if you just don’t want to hear BB crying and don’t care about dealing with BTs, you can always let it cry and cry until it becomes autotoxemic – essentially non-functional – and it won’t make noise anymore until you’re forced to return to a private shelter and rest. BB won’t help you find BTs while autotoxemic, but that’s one way of not listening to its cries, if you’re an actual monster or something like that.
Tomorrow is in your hands
Making deliveries isn’t as easy as just figuring out the best way to carry everything on your way and then avoiding the dangers on your path. You also need to plot a course to your destination, which is a huge part of completing each delivery recipient’s order. You have a map and markers to follow so you can travel in a general direction, but otherwise the path you take to a location is ultimately up to you.
If you see a location you'd like to travel to, so long as you have the proper equipment and patience, you can go there. Granted, it might wear out more than a few pairs of boots (which you do have to carry and swap out if they get too worn), and BB might be a little fussy, but you can do it. In some open world games, you can go everywhere and do basically anything, but the story may not always be strong enough to push you to want to, or even care to. Here, you know you can traverse that ridiculously steep hill because you have to see what happens in the next city. You never know what surprise revelation is waiting around the corner.
Eventually, you may even find that there’s a much better or more efficient way to travel once you proceed further through the game, especially when using others’ structures that they’ve created during their playthroughs. That’s all thanks to everyone else who takes the time in-game to help assist by investing their own time and materials for everyone else.
Death Stranding’s multiplayer mode is one that can affect your world, too. You’ll see other players’ structures like bridges, ropes, timefall shelters, and electric chargers dotting the landscape. You can stop by and use these as you see fit and award their creators likes.
Likes are an important form of social currency, but you don’t use them to purchase anything. Instead, they contribute to the most intriguing and altruistic version of multiplayer gaming I’ve ever seen. There aren’t satisfying rewards for playing through the game without helping others. You’re always encouraged to stop by and tap the touchpad on the DualShock 4 controller and “smash” that like button, so to speak. Likes can help raise your social standing and your porter ranking, which ultimately can help you raise your stats.
So you’re driven to help and be helped by others. This may mean putting a sign out where BTs are found, contributing materials to build a bridge over a particularly tiresome body of water, or creating a highway that runs through the central city areas. In my game, many of us had built a network of roads that made it so much easier to get from one area to the next, and that kind of collaboration felt so meaningful.
A treat for the senses
A quiet beauty permeates every single area of Death Stranding. There are moments where you simply must take a step back and appreciate the allure of the world surrounding you. Snowy cliffs, cascading waterfalls, and lush greenery are in view as far as the eye can see. The game isn’t marred by dirt browns and boring grays. It’s vibrant, alive, and beautifully wild in a way that makes you feel as though you’re really there instead of playing along at home.
I was especially impressed by just how detailed each character was, particularly Sam and Die-Hardman. Visuals aside, the voice cast assembled for the game is outstanding. Of course you have the celebrity cast mentioned earlier in the review standing in to lend their talents to the game. Though Norman Reedus does an exceptional job as Sam, I was blown away by Tommie Earl Jenkins’ performance throughout the game, as he displayed range and believable emotion that drastically changed my opinion of the character throughout. Troy Baker also played a believable grouse in the form of the Southern leader of Homo Demens, Higgs. This time, he was mo-capped using his own likeness instead of only providing his voice, as he’s typically known for. I honestly don’t have a single bad thing to say about the voice cast, which is a rarity when it comes to many video game productions.
There isn’t much ambient music to be found in-game. In fact, most of your journeys are pretty quiet, save for key moments during your treks where music from ambient artist Low Roar play, or a select few other artists. There's a sense of longing and isolation that leaks into every part of the game. When you're not hearing chatter from characters, music blaring from other players’ structures, the MULEs' odd rock guitar alert riff, or BB's nervous cooing, the rush of a new song from Low Roar is a surprising but welcome one.
There were times when I was chugging along, Sam loaded down with cargo, when a song crept up out of nowhere and I became emotional. There wasn't anything significant happening at that point in the game, as I was just entering a city, but I was awash with feelings. These musical moments happen all throughout the narrative, with one in particular that reduced me to a sobbing mess. I can't speak on the circumstances surrounding it, but it was the moment I was acutely aware of just how much the musical cues of Death Stranding amplified its emotional effects. It may not be immediately obvious, but music is a massively important part of the game, and I was pleased to see how it was used to great effect here.
Keep on keeping on
I was hard-pressed to think of any real complaints I had about my journey through this veritable masterpiece, and when I sat down to map them out, they seemed frivolous. For instance, I found it somewhat disappointing that the entirety of Death Stranding's landscape that was meant to be America didn't really look like America at all, and instead resembled Iceland, which I know the map was inspired by. I would have appreciated a bit more clues that this was once the America I know such as additional dilapidated buildings, but in the grand scheme of things, this doesn't matter much. Looking back now, it felt more like traversing Iceland, but who’s to say the futuristic America before the death stranding didn’t turn out to look that beautiful?
There were some small issues I did have, though. When traversing higher mountains, Sam would hit what felt like an “invisible wall” where he couldn’t continue climbing and he’d slide to the bottom, dropping all his cargo in the process. It would happen in areas that didn’t feel like they should have been gated off, so perhaps these were bugs. It wasn’t fun picking everything I had dropped back up or losing progress while climbing a mountain.
Sometimes, I also found that when hopping into vehicles and zooming along the terrain, I’d occasionally get stuck without a way to move the truck. This forced me to abandon it when I didn’t want to do so. I also hated being made to leave a nice, new truck right where it could be destroyed by timefall, but that was more of a personal preference than a flaw with the game. Very small problems, but problems nevertheless.
Be stranded with love
I’m sad, honestly, to see Death Stranding greeting the public for the first time. I don’t want to read the “hot takes,” the “Kojima must be on drugs” diatribes, or the clickbait about some of the late-stage content that feels inevitable. Death Stranding is the type of story that I want everyone to experience with an open mind, seeing it with eyes unclouded by cynicism or the condescension creators who take chances are often met with, and I don’t know that everyone will be ready for it.
As selfish as it sounds, I wish I could keep it locked away from the general public a little while longer so I could continue to privately savor it. But that would go against Kojima’s wishes in the end, wouldn it? It’s ironic that a game all about bringing people together and forging connections makes me want to retreat even deeper in my shell, but here we are.
To me, Death Stranding feels like being free. Free of the constraints developers place on themselves – they can’t do this, they can’t do that – and the boxes we place ourselves in. As such, I hold it in such high regard after completing the lengthy, moving journey that I find myself wanting to speak less and less about it so as not to ruin the magic. It’s simple to explain why you dislike something, but nigh-impossible to capture why something moves you in such a way that your eyes well up now after hearing any of Low Roar’s discography.
This is one of the rare times I wish Hideo Kojima had created a lengthy film or a series instead of a video game. At least then people might not approach it with trepidation or with derision. You know how it goes: "Oh, it's a video game. There's no way it can be that good."
This masterful journey reminded me exactly what gaming is capable of during a period in my life where I’ve become frustrated and jaded by my role within the industry and the way many things have evolved for the worse over the years. Unfortunately, something like this will only come around once every few years. Here’s hoping another death stranding event doesn’t occur between now and when I can take in Hideo Kojima’s next opus.
For now, I’ll keep on keeping on.
This review is based on a download code provided by the publisher. Death Stranding will release on PlayStation 4 on November 8, 2019.
- A sweeping and exciting narrative that unfolds at a tantalizing pace.
- A unique and intriguing premise that's different from anything we've seen before.
- Gorgeous visuals.
- Excellent music and voice acting.
- Challenging but accessible.
- Touching in ways you may not have known games could be.
- Occasional "invisible walls" in certain areas.
- Some may not find caring for BB fun or endearing.
Brittany Vincent posted a new article, Death Stranding review: The great deliverer
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Video from Danny: https://youtu.be/V2zTMzlK1Bs
Video from GB: https://youtu.be/ltYRUvBiZ0k
Sounds like a unique, but boring (gameplay-wise) game.
I'll probably end up doing that. My desktop is on the fritz and I've been too lazy and poor to fix it, but the two months in Thailand took care of the former and I should be starting work again soon so that would take care of the latter. It sucks having a giant 4K TV and no glorious PC Gaming Master Race content on it :-(
I cannot see myself ever enjoying a game built around the encumbrance mechanic that bogs down other games. The idea of balancing the stuff you're carrying doesn't sound like fun to me. Why do I want to carry anything for anyone? Why am I playing a game that is giving me almost literal chores? It's like Kojima is daring people to give him honest criticism, or like this is an Emperor has no clothes moment, but instead people are implying there is some depth there.
life is too short to play a purposefully tedious game for 40-50 hours.
also: making grenades out of your own shit and piss and throwing it at enemies? it feels like Kojima is mad at the audience who has supported him for decades. I retroactively feel dumb for being mad at Konami about firing Kojima and cancelling Silent Hills, but maybe it was for the best if this is the quality of ideas he is coming up with now.
I apologize if you took my response as a criticism of your review. Your review (and a bunch of others) have made me think this game is not for me. Is it wrong for me to say that?
I am glad you liked the game, but you have to realize it's not gonna be for everyone yeah? Putting purposefully tedious gameplay? His games have always had quirky elements, but imagine the meeting he had with Sony where he described the player using their own feces and urine as a weapon against the enemies in the game? Imagine Andrew House or Shawn Layden listening to Kojima describe his intent to make a game where you make shit-grenades and throw your own piss at ghosts and then giving him millions of dollars. What in the world?!
I don't think you were criticizing the review. It's fine if you don't like it. But you haven't played it, so before judging it, you might decide to actually try it and see if it's for you first.
And it's not as if you literally throw feces and urine at BTs. That isn't what's happening at all. I can't explain much further without spoiling the game for you and breaking embargo, but trust me when I say that you've got the grenade part all wrong, at least how you're envisioning it. It's all very clean, medical, and story-purposed. It's not literal feces packed into a grenade.
Not every single thing is meant for every single person. Not saying this defensively or anything, just don't play the game if you have no desire to do the stuff in the game. I don't look at every Madden release and be like "WHY should I throw this football though?" I just don't buy/play Madden games.