Death Stranding Review: The Great Delivery

Death Stranding is the most Kojima game Hideo Kojima has ever made. Think of it this way: if a Kojima game had a baby with another Kojima game, out would slide Death Stranding. No one has ever made this kinda game before, and no one could. That’s what makes it special. Only Kojima could deliver this game, and deliver he did. The Metal Gear creator is a maverick in an industry bloated with unoriginality, and never has this been more obvious than while playing Death Stranding, which is not just wonderfully well-realized and admirably anomalous, but one of PlayStation 4’s best games, and very possibly Kojima’s magnum opus.

The nucleus of Death Stranding is its slow burning story that brews classic sci-fi with old weird fiction on top of foundational ideas and perspectives redolent of writers and visionaries like Kobo Abe and Franz Kafka. Similar to Metal Gear Solid, the story of Death Stranding is a complicated multi-layered narrative that will make you feel lost, but never loses you, and pays back your patience with mind-shattering revelations and remarkable interweaving of personal, intimate moments with an exploration of life’s biggest questions. And the vehicle to all of this is Kojima’s signature style of storytelling, which evokes his past work, but also evolves it.

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(Photo: Sony Interactive Entertainment)

In the game, you play Sam Porter Bridges -- brought to life by Norman Reedus -- a reticent loner who ironically finds himself with the task of reconnecting the United Cities of America, which is on the brink of extinction following the Death Stranding, an explosion that has transformed the world in an inexplicably drastic manner and connected the realms of life and death. As a result, malignant spectral creatures called BTs flood the earth, society crumble and crumples, and a terrorist organization usurps paramountcy and adds to the turmoil.

Death Stranding’s narrative is fueled by intrigue and mystery just as much as Sam is fueled by Monster Energy drinks. And I could write about why it’s an impressive achievement endlessly, but that would just take the edge off. If there was ever a game to go into blind: it’s Death Stranding. That said, what I can do is explain what makes it work.

As a rule, video game writing generally doesn’t weigh up to its entertainment counterparts. This rule doesn’t apply to Death Stranding though, which is exceptional in this regard. It’s not perfect, in fact it’s sometimes protracted and far too involuted for its own good. It can be mind-boggling in both a good way and a bad way. Most of the time Kojima dances this delicate dance masterfully, but there are times where he underestimates how much confusion can weigh down a scene. If the explanation is more complicated than what you’re trying to explain, it’s a terrible explanation.

Exacerbating this are instances where information is transmitted poorly. For example, there’s a major event that involves an important secondary character that is seemingly never explained. There’s no actual plot hole, but I had to play this part of the game twice just to understand what happened, and not because it went over my head, but under my nose.

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(Photo: Sony Interactive Entertainment)

One place where the writing undeniably shines though is the game’s characters, and this is also where Death Stranding is evocative of Metal Gear the most. For example, take Heartman whose heart stops working every 21 minutes. Dead, he’s transported to the other side for three minutes before being resurrected by an automated external defibrillator on his chest. All the major characters have names like this, and while on the surface level it looks and sounds fatuous, when you combine it with how well they are realized through word and performance, it adds another level of memorability.

Speaking of performances, Death Stranding is stacked with first-rate actors and actresses. From top to bottom, the performances are excellent and put their contemporaries to shame. Mads Mikkelsen as Cliff, Lea Seydoux as Fragile, Tommie Earl Jenkins as Die-Hardman, and Jesse Corti as Deadman particularly put in some of the best performances you’ll see this year.

Troy Baker as Higgs -- the game’s antagonist -- also puts in a very stellar performance, however, it’s unfortunately muted by the character itself. If there’s one blemish on the game’s cast of characters it’s the sadistic villain of the bunch who enjoys licking people as much he enjoys toying with their lives. By traditional video game bad guy standards, Higgs is more than serviceable, but here he’s overshadowed. And this is partially because he doesn’t get enough screen time and scenes dedicated to fleshing him out and exhibiting his depravity. One of the game’s greatest scenes does involve Higgs though. It’s the scene that reveals why Fragile conceals her body. Not only does it display how heinous Higgs is, but it really incites your hatred for the character. It’s an excellent scene for the villain, but unfortunately it’s one of only a few.

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(Photo: Sony Interactive Entertainment)

Marrying the characters and performances is the cinematic quality of the game. Kojima is in love with cinema, and this passion shines through with virtually every aspect of the game. To couple this is a cornucopia of inventive and well executed cutscenes, many of which are considerably longer than what the average game comes packing. Despite this, I was never less than completely enthralled.

Ultimately, Death Stranding’s B Story is better than its A Story, the latter of which plunges into the nonsensical and abstract a little bit too much, but they intersect and compliment each other in ways most games don’t even make an attempt at. However, if you don’t like Kojima’s brand of storytelling, then this simply won’t be your cup of Timefall Porter. But I enjoyed every sip. Despite some slight pacing issues in both the rising and falling action, Kojima made me think, made me wonder, made me laugh out loud, made me cry, and more than anything else made me contemplate what the hell I’m playing.

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(Photo: Sony Interactive Entertainment)

When you’re not intently watching cutscenes or listening to dialogue, Death Stranding boils down to a pretty simple action-exploration game. And it’s not really fun, but I’m not looking for every game to be fun. Don’t get me wrong, I love scissor kicking zombie heads off, blowing stuff up like it's Michael Bay’s swan song, and solving puzzles designed to make me feel horrible about my cognitive capabilities, but games don’t need these things to be good. Most of Death Stranding is traveling from point a to point b. You’re basically a glorified mailman, but rather than neighborhood dogs making your life a living hell, it's shadowy creatures trying to devour you and militarized junkies hooked on racking up cargo.

Your goal is to travel across the literal map of the United States, reconnecting cities and a fragmented society along the way. On top of this, your everybody’s super errand boy. So you aren’t just walking and driving across great distances of lands with your own two feet, a backpack full of energy drinks, and some cool sunglasses. You have all that, plus a mountain of cargo and equipment strapped to your back, shoulders, and legs. Sometimes this is supplies your destination is in dire need of, other times it's dead bodies or pizza.

That said, this isn’t your afternoon stroll with your adorable pomeranian. You’re going to have to cross rivers; climb mountains; plan your route to avoid rain that rapidly ages everything it comes in contact with; deal with mindless, hostile porters trying to steal your cargo; and much more. On the surface level, it’s a simple system, but there are layers of complexity wrapped around it. It’s not fun in the traditional sense -- and it’s obvious design took a backseat to concept -- but it’s rewarding and synergizes with the narrative perfectly. The gameplay and story of most games feel disjointed, like a million puzzle pieces from different puzzles glued together. Death Stranding feels the opposite.

A big reason Death Stranding’s gameplay works is because it strikes the perfect balance between relaxing and stressful. There’s a simple placidity of walking through its world. It’s incredibly atmospheric, and demands to be stopped and taken in. I can’t tell you how many times I stopped what I was doing, panned the camera a little bit, and there was a beautiful Mt. Fuji-esq landscape. But it’s not all good times and Instagram moments, because there’s also a letter grading system for each of your deliveries that takes into account the condition of your cargo and other factors. And this is tied to a literal Facebook-style “Likes” system. Not only do these “Likes” provide the necessary validation and means to determine your self-worth, but the more you get, the more your overall porter grade grows, which in turns dishes out largely inconsequential perks and advantages. In short, when there’s “Likes” and S-ranks on the line, it feels like you’re strapping your loved ones on your back, not just cargo you can drop in a stream or use to smash the heads of enemies trying to strip you clean of all your precious fame.

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(Photo: Sony Interactive Entertainment)

Hidden underneath this UPS simulator is a light stealth-action game. Throughout the game there are times where Sam Bridges transforms into a knock-off Solid Snake. And it’s here where his BB -- the pod baby strapped to his midsection -- comes into play. Ordinary Sam can sense BTs, but not see them. BB strapped Sam can do both. The first time you find yourself crouched over, holding your breath, and tensing up as you zigzag through BTs is the best type of anxiety headrush. Unfortunately, these highs are never replicated. Not only is there a lack of depth to the stealth, but it fails to evolve, and so the palpable tension of these sequences quickly evaporates.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: none of this sounds revolutionary. Everyone who saw and spoke about Death Stranding before release professed that it was the biggest thing to happen to the gaming world since Waluigi. Well, it’s not, but Kojima is onto something.

The theme of Death Stranding is “Strands” or connections, which you won’t just make with characters in the game, but other players. In Death Stranding you can leave messages throughout the world. For example, if an area is overrun with BTs, you can mark it with a BT icon that will warn other players. Or maybe you want to tell players this is a no pee zone: there’s a message for that. And of course when you load up the game, you will be greeted with a limited amount of these messages scattered throughout the world as well.

Meanwhile, if you lay down a ladder to cross a river or build a generator to charge your bike, it will manifest in some other player’s world. This is just the tip of the iceberg, but you get the point. It’s not revolutionary or a game-changer -- and you can even turn it off if you want -- but it’s novel and has the potential to be something special if Kojima can figure out how to deepen these connections made by making the interactions matter more.

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(Photo: Sony Interactive Entertainment)

There’s so many more things I want to say about Death Stranding; it’s labyrinthine story; it’s inspired and original art direction; its exceptional implementation of its equally excellent soundtrack; and how it all runs well -- while looking incredible -- on a basic ol’ PS4. There’s also the negatives: the long animations you’ll watch over and over again; how there’s too many damn rocks in the game designed specifically and expertly to be the bane of your existence; and how the game treats its side content as nothing more than filler to pad its 50-hour core experience. I could talk forever and then some about Death Stranding, but ultimately all you need to know is that despite some shortcomings, it's one of the best games of 2019.

Most big-budget games just don’t take risks these days. With Death Stranding, Kojima has taken one million risks, and virtually all of them pay off. Like the box art says, it’s "a Hideo Kojima game," and there’s nothing else quite like it.

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Rating: 5 out of 5

Death Stranding is scheduled to release for PlayStation 4 on November 8th. A retail code was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.

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