Death Stranding is nothing if not contentious. That’s kind of Hideo Kojima’s way of operating. He’s undoubtedly capable of designing high-quality games that people hold in great reverence. However, he also ends up with stories and design choices that sometimes leave even the most committed fans scratching their heads. This time, Kojima has crafted a game that does all of this at the same time.
Wait a minute Mr. Porter Man
Death Stranding is a game, without any reservations, about delivering packages the old fashioned way. As we edge on an era where automation is beginning to take on such delivery, Death Stranding offers a future where your goal is to hoof it across exceptionally rough terrain to bring people whatever mundane items they desire. You play the role of Sam Porter Bridges, the world’s best mailman.
Of course, it’s not quite as simple as that. Hideo Kojima would never allow something that basic. You’re also going to have to contend with some interesting antagonists. The most recognizable would have to be the MULEs. These are people who have been driven mad, perhaps by their terrifying job or for story reasons if you’d choose to believe that.
They were once just normal Porters like yourself, but now have an insatiable desire for packages and will kick your ass to take them. They’ll chase you down in vehicles and use electrified polearms to stun you and knock packages off your back. But their limited abilities and presence make them negligible compared to the BTs.
BTs, or “Beached Things,” are invisible ghost-like creatures that float in specific areas of the map and, if alerted, will pull you into an encounter with monstrous versions of themselves. At first, the only way around these creatures is stealth and getting caught in a nightmare of slogging through tar to escape.
Not long into the game though, you’re given ways to defeat them and the entire process becomes much less daunting. Even as your offensive abilities grow, however, they still provide a hurdle for your delivery efforts. Especially considering their existence in Timefall, which is a type of precipitation in the game that causes rapid deterioration of your packages.
A Hideo Kojima Story
The gameplay of Death Stranding takes up probably 95% of the run time. The remaining time is dedicated to the story and cutscenes, and even those exist primarily in the final hours of the game. Kojima has done this with most of his games though.
Even when the story seems prominent throughout (like in Metal Gear Solid 2) the back end of the game is where you get bombarded with twists and turns of exposition. Death Stranding’s mild yet expansive gameplay makes those story portions stand out even more.
It’s hard to dive into the story without ruining it for people who want to play this game. It’s not particularly complex until the very end, but it does have value in being discovered. The basic premise is that you, Sam Porter Bridges, have been out on your own freelance delivering packages for some time.
Early on in the game, you are tasked with delivering a corpse to an incinerator, but you run into some BTs and everything falls apart. In the ensuing chaos, you die, but Sam has been “repatriated” which puts you in this strange underwater world and lets you revive yourself – a mechanic used throughout the game.
Following this, you’re tasked by the President to cross the United States, or what’s left of it, and connect cities to a strange ghostly Internet called the Chiral network. This has you walking from hub to hub and city to city using a fancy device to connect each one.
This network allows these isolated people to communicate and share data as well as use elaborate 3D printing. As you continue this journey, you unlock more about the mystery of BTs, the stories of many mysterious characters, and what the “Death Stranding” actually is.
Your Invisible Best Friends
One of the most compelling aspects of Death Stranding is how the game functions online. These days the idea of “live services” works as an excuse to have you online all the time for no particular reason. Death Stranding’s “always online” component (which isn’t required) allows for structures and items other players have placed in the world to show up in yours. For instance, if someone puts down a ladder or builds a bridge, it might show up in your game for you to use. Likewise, anything you build could potentially be used in the sessions of others.
The caveat here is that these items don’t show up in a region until you connect them to the Chiral network. So the first trip through a zone will always be the toughest and relies on your own carried utilities. However, the feeling of getting to a particularly rough stretch of countryside to find all sorts of structures to help you along the way is spectacular. It makes slapping that like button (the touchpad on the PS4) feel more justified than its otherwise limited usefulness.
The reality is, “likes” are a prominent aspect of the entire game. You get likes for your success in every action. Every delivery is an exercise in getting waves of likes for each status (speed, quantity, item damage, etc) and adding them to your pool. However, you can get just as many or quite a bit more for building an especially useful structure in an advantageous area.
One of my most liked items was a generator used for recharging vehicles and exoskeletons halfway between two major areas. Seeing those likes come in adds a level of affirmation that I never assumed I’d feel just for being helpful in a game.
Dropping the Package
As strangely positive as this experience was, it wasn’t without some notable issues. The most prominent is that Death Stranding seems a good bit longer than it needs to be. It’s not that the gameplay ever stops being fulfilling, it just seems like there are points where it arbitrarily has you slogging around in the slowest areas for too long.
When you’re in the open stretches of the early and middle game it seems fine, but toward the end in snowy mountainous zones, the game slows as much as your inhibited physical progress. The last quarter to third of the game felt longer than all of the rest because of this.
There are also various problems with physics and locomotion. The game straddles the line between realistic and complete insanity all the time. One minute you’re stepping over and around rocks masterfully and the next you’re face-planting over an invisible pebble. Vehicles, in particular, require a suspension of disbelief as they bounce around strange terrain. The nature of the actual terrain also had me asking questions.
The environment is undeniably beautiful, but it’s supposed to be America and it looks far more like Iceland. There’s not any notable explanation for this either. There’s only one small area with trees while all the rest is short grasses and rough unweathered rocky terrain.
If you do a google image search for Iceland, you can almost pick out various in-game scenes of rocky streams, thin green vegetation, dark volcanic soil, and various hot springs. It just seemed odd that this was the universal design without much explanation as to how it came to be this way.
Delivery Confirmation of Good Times
Death Stranding does a lot of things right that I didn’t even think were the right things to do. Walking packages from A to B wasn’t on my list of games I thought I’d enjoy. Being a fan of Hideo Kojima, I wasn’t sure if he had me convinced this would be as much fun as the Metal Gear Solid games, but I’m happy to say it surprised me.
Not just in a story with great characters and a premise that was unique to me, but the whole package. Surprisingly, walking around this detailed (and clearly fictional) version of America ended up being one of the highlights.
Of course, the most important part of the game is the online components. These were well implemented throughout the game and one of the most invigorating parts. I’d find myself deciding to postpone everything to build up a road or a section of zip lines just because I thought it would be useful for people. That’s something I don’t think I’ve ever had a game compel me to do. This kind of online-solo experience has been done to some degree in games like Dark Souls, but Death Stranding takes it to a new level that has set the bar for this mechanic.
While Death Stranding felt like it needed some pacing help at times and even had some beats in the story that seemed convoluted and a little bloated (maybe even repetitious at times), it was worth it all in the end. I don’t know if it’s Kojima’s intention, but this doesn’t seem like a game that would warrant a franchise like Metal Gear.
As much as I liked the unique focus on travel over combat with a little horror thrown in, I think I’d like to see a return to the ‘tactical espionage action’ I’ve come to love. However, this adventure in being the world’s greatest mailman was fun and unforgettable. It’s definitely worth playing, though not everyone will want to commit the time and effort to it to get the same experience that I did.
Death Stranding offers a unique perspective on gameplay where the journey is the central theme. It can be slow and convoluted at times, but the story made it worthwhile. It won't appeal to everyone and even fewer people will find the long runtime worth the effort, but there's something inherently fulfilling about getting those packages delivered safely and quickly.
- Interesting and innovative perspective on delivery gameplay
- Beautiful and expansive (though sparse) environments
- Decent feel of progression throughout the long game
- Great overall story when you finally get into it
- Online elements add rewarding feeling to helping others indirectly
- Terrible redundancy in menus
- Feels longer than it needs to be
- Weird physics can be frustrating at times