Hideo Kojima's Death Stranding is one of the most polarizing games in recent memory. Kojima's first post-Konami project, Death Stranding has enjoyed a considerable amount of hype since it was first revealed at E3 three years ago, with many fans understandably excited to get their hands on the next game from the mastermind behind Metal Gear Solid. But when the initial Death Stranding reviews came out, it was clear that the game wouldn't enjoy the near-universal acclaim as Kojima's previous games. Reviewers seem split on whether Death Stranding is some sort of video gaming masterpiece or if it's a complete disaster. As it turns out, the answer lies somewhere in-between, though it's much closer to "disaster" than it is to "masterpiece."
Death Stranding is a painfully slow and boring game for the vast majority of its playtime, though the first 10 hours are the worst. The game is literally about walking around and keeping Norman Reedus's character Sam Bridges from falling over. Players have to deliver packages across a vast, empty wasteland in their attempt to reconnect America, balancing cargo on their back and climbing over annoying obstacles. Playing Death Stranding is like playing those parts in Skyrim where players attempt to force their character up mountainsides so they don't have to walk around them, except it's like that for almost the entire game.
Death Stranding takes the worst parts of open world games and amplifies them. Some of the least entertaining parts of open world games include opening up the map and getting to the next mission, but Death Stranding's entire mission structure is about completing objectives to open up the map and walking forever to get to the next mission. Players have to carry packages over significant distances during these missions, with some of the more extreme walks in the game taking upwards of 30 minutes, if not longer. There are times when players will walk forever, climb mountains, and more just to reach a place, only for the next mission to have them turn around and walk all the way back to where they came from. We recommend turning on a podcast or something when playing Death Stranding because it's almost unbearable at times otherwise.
As Death Stranding players deliver packages in its giant open world, they will discover that it's not quite as empty as it seems on the surface. The world is littered with ghost-like creatures called BTs (Beached Things) that can summon a black tar substance to attack Sam. The first few encounters with BTs are pretty intense, as they're invisible unless Sam is standing completely still, and he has to hold his breath just to sneak past them. However, these BT encounters quickly go from intense to being minor nuisances when it becomes apparent that sneaking past them is actually very easy. Later in the game players even get a tool that lets them kill BTs, which makes them even less threatening. They will easily catch players if they try to speed through the BT-infested areas, though, so really their main function is to force players to slow down and make the long walks even longer. Getting caught by BTs will make Sam drop his cargo and can easily result in a game over, which can be terribly frustrating when it happens during a particularly long walk. For these reasons, we found ourselves greeting each BT encounter with an eye roll before too long.
There is a storyline reason why Sam can detect the BTs, whereas many other characters in the game cannot. Basically, Sam has DOOMS, which essentially translates into special powers. Sam's DOOMS let him sense BTs, but the BB (Bridge Baby) he has connected to him lets him actually see the creatures. A BB is a baby in a jar that Sam connects to his suit, and it doesn't really do much besides help Sam detect BTs. The BB does get upset when Sam is hurt or when it's in a high stress situation, so players can calm it by rocking it with the DualShock 4 motion controls.
When the BB in Death Stranding gets upset, it starts crying through the DualShock 4 microphone, which can be annoying. It's reminiscent of Mario crying in the Yoshi's Island games, and while using motion controls to calm it is kind of neat the first few times, it gets old quick, not unlike the encounters with the BTs.
Weird concepts like BBs and BTs are consistent throughout Death Stranding, and the actual plot is just as bizarre. Sam is a "porter" working for a company called "Bridges," with his job being to deliver packages to various locations in the world. He is soon tasked with connecting America through a super-Internet called the Chiral Network, and is given various tasks by a weird cast of characters with names like Deadman, Heartman, Die-Hardman, and Mama. Death Stranding's characters like to shout expository dialogue and technobabble at each other a lot, which really doesn't make sense as Sam should know about this stuff already considering he's been living in the same world as them. Of course this dialogue is for the audience's benefit, but it doesn't feel natural and is immersion-breaking. It also does little to help the plot make sense. Players will be knee deep in talk of afterlife "beaches" and umbilical cords when it becomes clear that the Death Stranding story is Kingdom Hearts levels of convoluted, and not worth the trouble trying to get invested in.
Kojima has gone to great lengths to create his own fictional universe for Death Stranding with a dizzying amount of lore delivered in an excessive amount of dialogue that will leave players' heads spinning. But despite going through all this trouble to immerse players in Death Stranding's universe, there are some hugely immersion-breaking moments through the game's blatant and distracting product placement. Sam drinks Monster Energy to refill his stamina when out in the game world, and if players happen to use the toilet in Sam's private room, they will be treated to an advertisement for Ride with Norman Reedus on AMC. Apparently AMC and Monster Energy were the only two brands to survive the apocalypse.
While players are out delivering packages and guzzling Monster Energy, they will notice structures and items that were left behind by other people playing the game. This is Death Stranding's Social Strand System at work, and it's easily the game's best feature. We would go as far as to say that the Social Strand System is brilliant, and experiencing it for oneself almost makes putting up with the game's many shortcomings worth it.
Death Stranding's Social Strand System allows players to work cooperatively with one another by collaborating on building projects and leaving behind helpful items like ladders and climbing ropes. Players can express their gratitude by dishing out "likes" to structures that they found particularly helpful, which in turn helps the players that built them level up. This encourages cooperation, and gets across Death Stranding's main theme in a big way: we're all in this together, and only by working together can we really make the world a better place.
Connecting the different outposts and isolated cities through the Chiral Network is another way that Death Stranding stresses its theme of cooperation. Each new person that is brought into the fold has a helpful item or upgrade for Sam, with generous rewards doled out on a regular basis. These items make Death Stranding progressively more fun to play, like an exoskeleton that makes it a bit easier to carry a lot of cargo without having to constantly balance Sam, or access to vehicles that can make those long walks much shorter. It's clear that Kojima made those first 10 hours of Death Stranding so boring and tedious on purpose to hammer in the game's theme of how cooperation is beneficial, and while some may scoff at that, it's a pretty clever way for the game to make a point using gameplay instead of just in cut-scenes.
Death Stranding is at its best when it is conveying its themes and messages through gameplay, though they're delivered far less subtly in the cut-scenes and dialogue. Death Stranding has heavy political overtones, with characters often saying things like "Make America Whole Again," and files in the game making direct reference to things like Brexit and Donald Trump.
Death Stranding's political statements are an attempt to make the game feel like "art" instead of just another video game, but it really feels more like art when players are engaging with its Social Strand System and through the way it blends incredible views with a perfectly-integrated soundtrack. Death Stranding's excellent soundtrack always seems to kick in at just the right times, enhancing its breathtaking views in a masterful way.
One thing that can't be taken away from Death Stranding is that the game looks fantastic. The level of detail in Death Stranding is astounding, with it being borderline photo-realistic at points. The draw distance is incredible as well, and there's a level of visual polish here that just isn't found in most games. From a graphics standpoint, Death Stranding is a top-tier experience, and one of the best-looking games available on the PS4.
We found Death Stranding's mountain views particularly impressive, especially when moving Sam through thick snowdrifts in the middle of a heavy blizzard. Despite how good they look, though, the mountain areas in the game are especially tedious to travel through when making long deliveries. Imagine spending 20 minutes trying to deliver packages across extremely rough terrain, only to accidentally slip, have the packages fall and break, and then have to start the entire delivery over from scratch. There's nothing fun about that, though at least the gorgeous views make these moments a little less frustrating than they would be otherwise.
Yes, by the time players reach Death Stranding's mountainous areas later in the game, they will still be delivering packages. They will be delivering packages for the entire game, as almost literally every main and side mission revolves around package delivery. The game is essentially one giant fetch quest, and it's often very monotonous and boring. However, as Death Stranding players work together to build structures and the like, the deliveries become quicker, the landscapes become easier to traverse, and sometimes the game can be relaxing in a Journey or Flower sort of way. The work may be tedious, but there is something oddly addicting about delivering packages to NPCs. Plus, there are some entertaining NPCs to deliver packages to that are based on celebrities like Conan O'Brien to make things a little more interesting.
Almost the entire Death Stranding experience is spent delivering packages to NPCs and avoiding BTs, but there is some combat thrown into the mix as well. Players have to contend with BTs using weapons that use Sam's blood as ammunition, and are encouraged to take out human threats in non-lethal ways. Killing people in Death Stranding can have dire consequences, as this can result in an Voidout that will make a section of the map uninhabitable, though we noticed that in our playthrough, we killed someone and the game seemed to forget that a Voidout was supposed to occur. There was also a few times where the prompt to cut a BT's umbilical cord to kill it simply didn't show up.
There are some technical issues we ran into, but otherwise combat works well in Death Stranding. Combat is pretty basic overall, with not a lot of shooting since players are discouraged from killing anyone, but it still adds some variety to the gameplay, and there are some boss fights where players are allowed to let loose a bit more with Sam's arsenal.
Unfortunately, the boss fights in Death Stranding are quite repetitive, with players taking on bullet sponge BTs and having to fight Mads Mikkelsen's mysterious character multiple times. Each fight with Mads Mikkelsen's character plays out roughly the same, with players moving through a battlefield and having to shoot Mikkelsen until he retreats to another area, rinse and repeat.
Mads Mikkelsen's Death Stranding character becomes less mysterious as players push through the story. Players will learn a lot about him and the other characters through lengthy cut-scenes filled with excessive, repetitive dialogue. There are some points where Death Stranding's plot manages to be pretty interesting, though it will never really be a driving force to keep players hooked on the game in the same way as Kojima's past games. It's just too nonsensical, and most of its big "plot twists" are predictable.
After players spend dozens of hours with Death Stranding's plot, they will become bored and struggle to care about anything that's happening. We found that apathy spread to other areas of the game as well the longer we played. For instance, the game makes a big deal about the Timefall Rain in Death Stranding, which degrades cargo and objects over time. At first, we made sure to avoid the rain as much as possible by utilizing shelters and repairing cargo with special spray, but eventually we started to ignore it. The game warned us about degrading cargo, but we still managed to earn S-ranks for missions regardless, so there didn't seem to be any real consequences for ignoring the Timefall.
Death Stranding is just not a fun game, and that's something that even its biggest fans have openly admitted to. Some seem to think that Death Stranding not being fun is actually one of its stronger characteristics, but as former Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime once famously asked, "If it's not fun, why bother?" Death Stranding still has enough shining moments that it's not a complete failure, but we imagine there will be many players who reach the end credits and feel like they've just wasted a huge chunk of their time. There's no reward for pushing through the tedium, and one's free time would be better spent with most any other game. That being said, Death Stranding's social systems really are brilliant, and hopefully we can see the concept expanded on in future games.
Death Stranding is out now for PS4, with a PC release to follow in the summer of 2020. Game Rant was provided with a PS4 code for this review.