Death Stranding Review — Boots on the Ground

Death Stranding, a narrative-heavy action-adventure walking sim from famed visionary Hideo Kojima, is exceptional because despite taking place in a grim post-apocalyptic earth that’s haunted by visions of the dead, the game never feels too dour for its own good. Characters are equal parts severe and goofy, offering genuine moments of appreciation for the work done by the player while never forgetting to call him on his bullshit. This line is easier walked thanks to a solid voice acting cast and writing that generally manages to stay out its own way, although the occasional awkward lines ( RE: “I'm fragile, but not that fragile.”) still permeate otherwise dramatic moments. The protagonist Sam is by no means original in his “gruff isolationist with heart of gold” personality, but I still adore the workman-like energy that he brings to the experience. Sam is just a porter — he’s not an incredible warrior or ancient resurrected force of justice — and people need him because more than anything he is reliable. Few games justify busywork as well as Death Stranding, where an old man’s request for a medicine delivery is presented with the same gravitas as the end of the world. And when the pills are successfully delivered, the old man is overcome with gratitude, thanking the player for taking the time to help someone who really needed it. It feels nice to be recognized for my efforts, as inane or fruitless as they may seem.

The overarching narrative is messy, confusing, strangely paced, and yet most of all, entertaining. I was immediately enthralled in the fascinating original universe dreamt up by Kojima, a fresh science fiction setting that establishes unconventional stakes and strange personalities behind them. The story is rich with that signature Kojima insanity that was so compelling in the Metal Gear Series, although it occasionally steps over itself with unnecessary supplemental history about the universe and some awkward attempts to neatly tie inherently ridiculous plot plots. Nowhere is this more true than with Amelie, Sam’s sister who acts as the McGuffin and primary motivator for his transcontinental trek. Despite decent voice acting and animation, her dialogue feels stilted and robotic more often than not, which makes it especially difficult to muster any amount of emotion for this character that Sam supposedly loves, ultimately creating a divide between the feelings of the player and the protagonist. This is a shame because in almost every other aspect, the player’s proclivities map perfectly to Sam. I immediately felt the connection with the fish tank baby permanently strapped to his chest stronger than any relationship with Amelie, and the moments that BB is taken away left me feeling naked, reflected by Sam’s occasional muttered line that he “really misses the little fella.” Likewise, I felt our general tolerance for the world and its inhabitants grow at a similar rate as we hauled packages through every strain of natural terrain imaginable. As melodramatic and fickle as they appeared at times, I still developed a deep fondness for the main cast that accompany Sam on his quest to reunite America. The ludicrously named Heartman, Deadman, Die-hardman, Fragile, and Mama are engaging characters with fully fleshed-out backstories and motivations for assisting Sam. An interesting side effect of the game’s narrative structure, however, is that none of these characters exist outside of cutscenes, and once again it widens that divide between game and story. A more cohesively designed experience would have sought to either include them in a mechanical sense or alter the story to accurately reflect Sam’s isolation.

I generally don’t enjoy open-world games. There’s something about the dichotomy between meaningful, “essential” content melding with busy work and simple checklist tasks that grinds the game’s pace to a screeching halt. But Death Stranding is cleverly structured in such a way that it completely sidesteps this issue by being comprised of only busywork. Sam is a simple deliveryman, after all, and it makes sense within the context of the narrative that he would take the time to deliver extra cargo on his journey. And the player is never required to make lengthy detours, as the side deliveries include the same locations and routes of the main game. Its world feels remarkably similar to Breath of the Wild in the regard that every inch is interesting to traverse, the entire continent feeling like a single intricately designed space. Thus, the game becomes a series of memorable moments more than anything else. I treasure the time I walked Sam’s ass dozens of kilos around a mountain range only to be ordered straight back where I came. Instead of repeating the same lengthy journey, I merely grabbed a new pair of boots and a couple of ladders from the distro center before heading straight up the mountainside, persevering through the harsh weather and frequent BT attacks to emerge victoriously on the other side of the peak. In fact, I even scored extra valuable packages that otherwise would have gone completely undelivered. This may seem like an uneventful retelling of a standard video game fare, but I cannot understate how meaningful it felt to plot an original route through the world and be rewarded for those proactive intentions.

Critics love to claim that the main gameplay feature of Death Stranding is just walking, and they are completely correct. A standard mission in this game involves taking Sam from one location to another, generally while carrying some form of cargo on his back. And it fucking rules. I play so many games featuring combat as the primary mechanic that I delighted in the chance to flex different gaming muscles for a AAA release. The team at Kojima productions has created possibly the most beautiful virtual environment to ever exist, right up there with Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule. Deep rivers run through valleys between endless rolling green hills beneath sheer cliffs and rocky outlooks before running headfirst into snowy mountains whose peaks pierce the earl-grey sky. Every second of my 50-plus hour journey was bathed in a natural grandeur that most games can only dream of. And it’s not just pretty — Kojima’s stylized interpretation of America is consistently engaging to travel along due to smart mechanics that emphasize thoughtful travel over simply making a beeline to the next objective. The ground beneath your feet remains realistically uneven and treacherous, demanding use of the odradek scanner to plot a safe route. Cargo is precious and Sam can’t afford to tumble down hillsides like other protagonists, and packing traversal tools like rope and ladders absorb valuable space on Sam’s back. Timefall, a dangerous form of rain that ages anything it touches, adds some light time pressure to missions, as Sam must rush through the showers to avoid permanently damaging the packages on his back.

But no matter how severe or lonely the mission, I always took comfort in the ingenious online integration that promised meaningful, if invisible companionship through the wasteland. Each player’s structures exist on a server, copying a well-placed watchtower through multiple game instances. This ensures that a large and otherwise empty world feels lively and full of interactive elements. I distinctly remember rushing through an endgame delivery as quickly as possible, and with mere seconds remaining before my fragile package was destroyed by the Timefall, I crested a hill and was greeted with the lovely sight of a durability-restoring shelter. I rested under its comforting roof until the rain subsided, all the while grateful for a stranger who I will never meet for their contribution to my delivery. Players can even transport each other’s lost packages or share unneeded tools across online postboxes, and the “likes” system encourages constant interaction. It also strongly fits with the central message of connection and the importance of forming a community in the face of extinction. The narrative justification is barely mentioned aside from a quick reference to alternate realities, but that’s okay. The thematic explanation is more important than the logical.

Despite in most ways being a major departure from Kojima’s previous works, I strongly felt the legacy of Kojima’s last game through the lightning pace that tools and mechanics are doled out to the player. Death Stranding is like a version of The Phantom Pain that, instead of focusing on tactical espionage, was about everything. I was routinely shocked and pleased to receive new delivery toys to tinker around with every few missions. A floating carrier provides excellent support for oversized loads and doubles as a sled when empty, but requires a constant influx of precious chiral crystals to operate, and renders many other traversal tools such as ladders and ropes unusable. Motorcycles and trucks offer reliable transportation that protect cargo from Timefall, but struggle when crossing streams and rocky terrain and can only last as long as their batteries. Similarly, the speed, power, and all-terrain exoskeletons each promise substantial benefits to the player but drain batteries quickly. Weapons, both lethal and nonlethal, are immensely useful during Mule or BT encounters but require significant inventory space to operate. It’s a testament to the game’s excellent balance and design that I rarely favored one tool over the others, instead regularly swapping my methods depending on the limitations of the current mission. This variety in player options extends to the combat, valiantly attempting to save a messy system.

Gangs of insane ex-deliverymen known as Mules patrol camps that coincidentally lie sprawled in the middle of popular delivery routes across the map. They immediately locate and attempt to hunt down anybody who sets foot in their territory, resulting in hectic chases as the player bolts across the dangerous ground while trying to protect their sacred cargo. Combat is fun in theory because like transportation, there are countless options at the player’s disposal. Bola guns that fire tripping wires along with nonlethal rifles and shotguns present solid ranged options, while the ability to swing heavy cargo as weaponry and parry attacks with a length of cord ensure that melee remains viable as well. But combat is a clumsy affair in practice, with imprecise animations and infuriating intentional slowdown that occurs every single time an enemy is defeated. It’s especially disheartening to witness the sloppy fights when compared to Kojima’s last project, the stealth action masterpiece Phantom Pain. The price of losing a fight is shockingly severe; instead of simply dying and being forced to reload a save, the player is knocked unconscious and their cargo is locked in postboxes deep in Mule territory. While once again sounding cool on paper, this perpetuates a lame cycle where the player is forced to waste even more time by delving back into Mule camps to reclaim their shit. There are still glimmers of clever design during these moments, such as how the player can only hide in bushes if the cargo on their back is low enough to remain inconspicuous, or how when using a sticky gun to steal packages from a Mule, the player must catch said package in mid-air to avoid unnecessary damage. But these disparate ideas just never form into anything particularly coherent or fun, and the Mule camps become more of a nuisance to be avoided than a challenge to be overcome.

The other major threat that Sam must reckon with are the Beached Things, spectral beings from the afterlife that haunt areas dense with Timefall. BT’s are immediately more interesting than the Mules from a fiction perspective, with elegantly creepy visual designs and more intense consequences should Sam fail to escape an encounter. When everything works as it should, these sequences are quite tense and satisfying to navigate. Using the odradek scanner to note the direction of the nearest BT is a neat idea that gives the player exactly the information they need while maintaining some mystery. And I will always remember the first time I summoned a dolphin BT; the canyon floor filling with thick black tar as Sam gets yanked a dozen yards from his precious reverse trike by an aquatic monstrosity. It’s a shame, then, that BT’s essentially reveal their entire hand by the third or fourth encounter, leaving the next hundred devoid of any hint of tension or challenge. In fact, BT’s only become easier to deal with as the game progresses due to a veritable flood of powerful equipment. I still prefer them over the actively frustrating Mules, but both enemy types leave something to be desired. In another universe, there is a perfect version of Death Stranding that has the confidence to drop action altogether. Traversing the environment is a strong concept, one that’s perfectly capable of standing on its own, and yet clearly someone at Kojima Productions lacked faith in their own creation. This becomes more and more evident as the game stretches on, with lengthy boss fights and shootout sequences becoming an increasingly common appearance during the last stretch of the campaign. Stumbling in the middle of a fire-fight because Sam walked over a rock and he’s carrying more than two items on his back just feels plain bad. Death Stranding was not designed to play like Metal Gear, but it keeps getting shoved in that ill-fitting mold regardless.

In another game I wouldn’t forgive such grievous issues so readily. But this is Death Stranding, and the sheer ingenuity of structure and gameplay allows me to forget a clearly tacked-on combat system in favor of the countless meaningful little moments I was afforded along the way. The story is grave, nonsensical whimsy of the highest order, the visuals beautiful beyond belief, and the traversal nothing short of game-changing. Death Stranding is not a perfect journey, but an unorthodox gem that deserves to be savored in spite of its flaws.

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I write pieces on videogame design.

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Hayes Geldmacher

Hayes Geldmacher

I write pieces on videogame design.

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