Death Stranding Review
The paths we walk become roads
It’s been a long time since a game impressed me the way Death Stranding has. Even though I played Metal Gear V and was utterly in awe of Hideo Kojima’s understanding of what makes a great game, my interest in Death Stranding was very minor throughout all of its trailers and reveals. I just couldn’t care much about a console exclusive, weird walking simulator. Fast forward a couple of years, and after spending a week with Kojima Production’s first title on PC, I am thoroughly convinced this is one of the best games I’ve ever played in my life.
The bridges between worlds
You play as Sam Porter Bridges, a man tasked with delivering cargo between isolated settlements following an event called the Death Stranding, which connected the world with the land of the dead. The release of the so-called chiral particles polluted the atmosphere and prohibited the use of flying vehicles and drones, forcing the world to rely on couriers – the so called porters – to carry things from one place to the next.
Moving by either foot or wheeled vehicles, these porters must brave rivers, slopes, and mountains out in the wild to distribute important materials and packages between cities and outposts, but they must also be content with a bigger threat than geography: the so-called BT’s, floating shadowy ghosts covered in tar and tied to the ground via an ethereal umbilical cord. These ghosts – whose creation and name is explained in the game – normally show up in areas of heavy Timefall (a thick rain precipitation that immediately ages everything it touches) and are attracted to sounds and breathing, making the act of crossing BT territory a really dangerous endeavour. Worse still, if they manage to grab and consume a single living being they trigger a void out, a massive antimatter explosion that can wipe out whole cities off the face of the map and leave only a huge crater in its place.
These timefall rains and BTs are everywhere, forcing communities to live isolated lives far from each other with nothing but electronic communication, porters, and the chiral network to connect them to each other. The chiral network allows the transmission of vast amounts of data instantly, including holograms, and the act of connecting every single region from East to West of the Continental United States serves as the game’s main premise – but as with everything Kojima, it is actually about much more than that.
What at first sight seems like a straightforward game quickly proves to be much more. The gameplay itself starts with you controlling Sam in third-person view, navigating the terrain while carrying boxes and using the controller triggers/mouse buttons to balance yourself and regain your equilibrium. The movement is actually incredibly smooth, feeling very similar to controlling Snake in Metal Gear V, but with the added bonus of momentum – in one of (if not the) most realistic movement systems ever implemented in a game, your center of gravity changes according to what you’ve got equipped and where. Walking on slopes tires you out and makes you sway according to movement, crossing a river requires you to slowly brace yourself to not be pulled by the current, and running full tilt down a slope gives you enough forward momentum to not sway sideways as long as you’re going straight ahead. The game even allows you to trip upon rough terrain, requiring you to quickly brace yourself lest you go tumbling down, sprawling on the floor and damaging your cargo.
As a result, the actual act of navigating is extremely involved. You are not just holding a button to move forward, you are actively scanning the terrain both visually and with your shoulder mounted odradek scanner for the most optimal route, turning every single second of gameplay into an example of player agency. As you manage boots’ wear and tear and both short and long term stamina bars which can be recharged by resting, drinking, and sleeping, you find that every decision you make - both small and big - ends up having a consequence.
Gameplay and Story
Making things better are the sheer amount of system-based gameplay in effect here. Sam’s health is marked by a 1,000 milliliter bar of blood, which is lost whenever you take damage. That blood can later be used as a weapon via hematic grenades, meaning that their use drains your health. Similarly, carrying things is more than just putting them on your back – you can assign cargo to different slots on your backpack and suit, and even carry them by hand, and it all makes a difference – cargo on your back can easily be handled, but it falls down if you take a particularly nasty fall and gets damaged. Attaching them on your suit means they won’t fall off, but you can’t easily take them out, and carrying them by hand means they won’t take any damage as Sam braces the cargo with his body when tumbling, but as a result you can’t steady your backpack when you lose balance. Everything in the game is a choice, and it is all the better for it.
The thing that makes Death Stranding so special, however, is that all those systems come out to play at all times, and the game never gets dull. You rarely go more than an hour without something new happening, from story beats and mechanics inclusion to new items and upgrades. At the start of the game, you are only carrying crates from A to B. 30 minutes and several amazing cutscenes after, you are building mail boxes in the wild. 10 hours after that, you will be building bridges and driving bikes and using weapons – I didn’t even know the game had combat until 3 hours into the campaign. As a result, what seems like a walking simulator very quickly becomes something magical and extremely broad in scope.
That scope is so big that Kojima managed to add multiplayer without multiplayer. You see, any time you’re navigating the terrain and carrying the required items, you have the option to place ladders across rivers or up cliff faces, or spike down a rappel rope to descend a particularly nasty incline or even a vertical wall. Thing is, all the things you put down have a chance of showing up in another player’s games, meaning you will place items that end up helping other players and you will often walk around areas where other players will have already put down some structures to help you out. Appreciation can be shown by giving those structures likes, and you can even see how many people interacted with your stuff and vice versa and form a “strand” with them, which means you get to see the structures of players you choose more often than not. It’s a brilliant system that during review seemed perfectly balanced, as there were never a bunch of structures around but the ones that were there were immensely valuable.
All that becomes even more important as the game keeps opening up in scope even 20 hours into the game, as you constantly graduate from building mail boxes (which allow you to share items and drop cargo anywhere and entrust them to other players for delivery if you choose) to bridges, watchtowers, and even bunkers, creating a massively ambitious game that has more player freedom and choice in an hour than all of Ubisoft’s games of the past decade combined.
Despite everything I have written, there is still so much more to Death Stranding it boggles the mind. The lore is vast, complex, and exceedingly interesting, with every cutscene absolutely fascinating. The game does a good job of planting 5 questions to every 1 answer it provides, and Kojima’s a master of flow – he knows exactly how to pace enough answers to keep you invested while raising enough questions to keep you hooked. I haven’t even started covering the story events, and I won’t, because they are honestly one of the best aspects of the game.
The cutscenes itself are a huge part of that appeal, with great performances by Norman Reedus, Mads Mikkelsen, Léa Seydoux, and Lindsay Wagner, alongside all other voice actors. The cinematic camera work and pacing of the cutscenes are more skillfully executed than 90% of movies that show on theaters every year, and from the very opening scene do a remarkable job of keeping you immersed in the game.
Interestingly, the setting itself feels like a perfect fit for the story it tells. The world is an unspecified alternate timeline of Earth where the US is actually called the United Cities of America, where the distances are considerably reduced – one can get from the East Coast beaches to the fly-over states in about 20 to 30 minutes of walking – and where the US landscape looks like Iceland. As a result, the game takes place in fantastic vistas and varied terrain that perfectly capture that gray and mildly oppressive aspect of a world gone to shit without the classic “nuclear apocalypse/wasteland” that most depictions go for – yes, this is technically post-apocalyptic, but it isn’t Fallout or Borderlands or Mad Max or even the Walking Dead, but it’s own unique beautiful beast.
Technically, the game is mind-bogglingly well optimised but the review copy was a bit unstable. Although the game ran at 4K resolution with nary a dip in performance, I experienced three crashes in the first hour of gameplay alone – one of them literally 3 minutes into the opening cutscene – which weirdly went away on its own after I launched the game for the sixth or eight time. A bigger issue I had was in relation to controller inputs; I use official Xbox controllers to play on the PC, and the trigger buttons refused to work correctly throughout all of my review. In one instance about midway through the game, the right trigger worked perfectly in menus yet Sam refused to move his right arm up when I pressed it, causing me to lose balance and constantly fall to the right until I restarted the game. In other instances – which unfortunately lasted ALL of my time with Death Stranding – holding the left trigger and trying to aim grenades and weapons would constantly toggle between active and inactive, making me unable to actually aim anything or shoot as Sam constantly lowered his arm and disabled the interface. I tested other Xbox controllers I own, and given all of them refused to work with Death Stranding yet are green across the board on Windows calibration and in other games, I have to conclude it’s a weird quirk of Death Stranding that I hope gets solved ASAP.
Even then, Death Stranding deserves to be played. Not watched – PLAYED. We’re in a world where people watching games is a common thing, which is a big problem for games like Kojima’s. His games are art masterpieces meant to be experienced, and watching someone else play it will never capture the soul of what Death Stranding really is. I could spend hours upon hours trying to voice my feelings about this game, but they truly boil down to one simple thing: this is a masterpiece of game design, and you must play it.
Where to Buy Death Stranding
Death Stranding originally released for the PlayStation 4 back on 8th November, 2019, and now on the 14th July (tomorrow) it will be available on PC. Humble Store currently has it up for £54.99, with the same price also available on Steam. Pre-loading is now available, and you can check out the exact PC release times here. If you purchase anything through these links, GameWatcher may get a small percentage of commission, so thank you for supporting us.
DEATH STRANDING VERDICT
Death Stranding is a masterpiece of game design which surpasses your every expectation.
TOP GAME MOMENT
The first time you’re tasked with delivering something far away and just as you think the game is about to become a slog, the camera pulls back and a song starts to play – and you realise Kojima understands what you want before you even know it.
Good vs Bad
- Brilliant gameplay
- Giant scope
- Great soundtrack
- Amazing graphics
- Really great plot
- Animations, motion capture, and voice acting are unbelievably top notch
- Guillermo Del Toro, Lindsay Wagner, and Norman Reedus, as well as Mads Mikkelsen and Léa Seydoux (and Troy Baker, and everyone else)
- Photo mode is great
- Lack of a music player in the wild outside missions is disappointing
- "Die-hardman", seriously?