The classic fetch quest is a staple of gaming, typically found in RPGs that want to pad out their length by sending players scurrying back and forth carrying useless tat. In the case of Death Stranding however, the entire game is a seemingly never-ending series of fetch quests. It’s like Kojima only just discovered them, and after completing a few in other games branded them the greatest thing in the history of videogames ever and built an entirely new game around them. As Sam Porter Bridges you are a courier, tasked with lugging cargo of all types across a bleak post-apocalyptic world where the majority of people are hunkered down in bunkers. Chiral printing lets them create a lot of what they need, but there’s also a plenty of stuff that still needs to be transported the good old fashioned way: on Sam’s back. In this 40+ hour game the majority of your time will be spent going back and forth, delivering parcels. Exactly how something so utterly boring wound up being so utterly absorbing is a mystery.
This being a game from the warped mind of Kojima your first couple of hours are a barrage of insanity. There’s a lot to take onboard – the world experienced something called the Death Stranding, which has screwed up dying. Now there are mysterious BTs (Beached Things) which are ghosts of the dead scattered around the landscape, waiting to make your life a misery. Dead bodies, unless incinerated, will eventually cause a Voidout, a massive explosion that will leave a huge crater. There’s Timefall rain that ages everything it touches. Sam himself is a Repatriate, meaning he can somehow come back from death without causing a Voidout. For some reason people have taken to naming themselves weirdly, so you wind up dealing with folk named Die-Hardman, Deadman, Heartman and Mama. Oh, and you have a baby in a pod strapped to your chest which can sense nearby BTs.
As Sam you’ve been given a task: reconnect America by trudging from place to place, making deliveries and hooking them up to the Chiral Network in order to form new connections and allow the sharing of information and more. Many of the smaller prepper shelters need convincing to sign up, which means doing deliveries for them, too. In other words, you’re going to be racking up the miles and spending a lot of time lost in your own thoughts.
The overarching themes in play are of connection, but there’s more to that. Your efforts are given “Likes” by the other characters and even other players, and for the most part you never meet the majority of NPCs, instead you only talk to them through holograms. It’s a fun commentary on the state of the world, on how we’re more connected than ever in some ways despite the distance, and yet often isolated. We hand out Likes to people we’ve never even met, and then forget about them again.
As much as I personally love the gameplay in Kojima’s games I’ve always struggled to enjoy his writing, and that’s perhaps even more so the case in Death Stranding. The dialogue is often awkward and stilted, making it hard to connect with any of the characters. Things often get repeated, too, in some cases with three or four characters telling you the same thing one after the other. I’ve seen people describe Kojima’s dialogue as Shakesperian. I can kind of see that, but truthfully I think he’s much more guilty of using a lot of words to say very little. This makes the story drag. What Kojima is in need of is a talented editor who can trim and shape his writing.
There’s also a pacing problem wherein the middle 20+ hours doesn’t have a lot of big story advancements. Most of the narrative meat is wedged into the opening and closing hours of Death Stranding, and that can make the middle feel like a long slog of near non-stop delivering.
Overall, I can’t say I’m a fan of the story. Having said that though, there are certainly some great moments and smaller plot threads that I found to be terrific. In particular, a character called Mama has an interesting narrative strand. Likewise, I enjoyed learning more about Fragile, and watching the relationship between Sam and his BB progress. And I certainly can’t knock the performances and directing, both of which are nothing short of excellent. It was the cinematic flair and great acting that helped keep me invested in a story which I would have otherwise probably skipped through. And by the end, everything wraps up quite well with the majority of questions being answered, and a few strands left dangling, presumably for a sequel.
One weird thing that bothered me is how Sam would sometimes go strangely quiet. He’d become silent, not uttering a word even when the situation called for it. I think it’s deliberate, but I found it jarring and it came across like they wrote the story, got Norman Reedus to record his lines, then redid a whole bunch of the story but couldn’t get Reedus back in to do it.
The term “walking-sim” has been used a lot to talk about story-driven games where walking around is all you do, but Death Stranding has made that phrase redundant. It’s easily the most complex walking simulator out there, though, because unlike those other games Death Stranding is concerned with the actual walking part. While carrying your precious cargo of…uh, stuff, you can start to lose your balance and have to adjust by holding one of the triggers. You can trip and fall completely, damaging your cargo or even sending it tumbling down the hill. Hell, you can even trip on seemingly flat ground, just like in real life, you great clumsy baboon. Then there’s stamina to consider, especially when trying to wade through rivers or clamber up the side of a cliff. Don’t worry, you can always take a swig of Monster Energy to replenish any lost stamina. I’m not even joking. This all means that the terrain itself is the game’s biggest character. In most games we don’t pay much attention to the surface on which we’re running across, but in Death Stranding just strolling across a few rocks can result in you face-planting the ground.
The world which you travel is sizable and painstakingly detailed down to every rock and blade of grass. This is a gorgeous game and on your many journeys across the map it’s always tempting to stop and soak up the scenery or take advantage of the excellent photo mode. Technically Death Stranding has an open world that you can walk and drive across, but unlike the typical open-world there’s nothing to be found by simply wandering off and exploring outside of the lost cargo that’s strewn around like the world’s worst confetti. Instead, the game encourages you to always take on a contract before heading out, citing that a trip with nothing on your back is nothing but a waste. The open-world is there to let you create your own delivery routes, although the topography naturally pushes you toward certain paths unless you deliberately set out to challenge yourself.
Despite the depth on offer, though, I found it worryingly easy to ignore a lot of it. I rarely ever tripped or felt the need to do any sort of cargo management outside of the auto-arrange feature. Not once did I wear out my boots on a delivery, even though I constantly carried an extra pair. I only lost my packages three times: twice on cliffs and once in a river. I guess what I’m saying is that Death Stranding was a lot easier than I was expecting. From the various systems at play I was expecting hiking across the hills to be a challenge, but truthfully most of the game simply involves holding W or the analog stick up. It’s only later that traversing the landscape becomes harder as the game introduces steep mountains covered in snow where massive snowstorms can cause a complete whiteout. Sam’s labored breathing and movement and the fact that you can’t see a damn thing give you a real sense that making it across the peaks is a war of attrition.
So why the hell is it so compelling? Spending 30-minutes hoofing a package of underwear across hilltops should not be this damn compulsive. I’m not even sure I have a true answer as to why it works. Perhaps it’s because the game is a meditative experience, the cycle of simple A to B deliveries lulling you into a comfortable sort of serenity. I found it almost worryingly easy to get absorbed into the beautiful world and spend hours just doing standard orders that weren’t even advancing the storyline. I spent ages struggling up a hill only to reach the peak and feel a sense of satisfaction. Somehow Death Stranding makes the mundane pleasurable, despite it never being what I could call “fun” in the normal sense.
But just like in real life sometimes your peaceful countryside hike is completely ruined by the sudden appearance of roving delivery men gone crazy, whose lust for cargo has twisted their very souls. I’m not even kidding, these enemies (called Mules) have had the idea of being a courier corrupted and now they chase down and mug passing delivery folk like yourself. They just knock you, mind you, because as we’ve covered leaving corpses lying around in this world is a terrible idea. With that said you do get access to lethal tools later on, and so killing the Mules is an option provided you’re willing to cart the corpses to an incinerator or tar pit. If you just leave them lying around you’ll come back to find a sizable crater, which is a pretty cool touch.
Actually fighting these rogue couriers is surprisingly dull though. For the first while, you can actually tackle them with nothing more than a single strand of rope, using it to counter their attacks before choking them out. They’ll helpfully attack in single file while you do it. They only pose a threat in larger numbers, and even then you typically have the tools to deal with them, even if it means just punching the shit out of them. Although I do like the idea that you can snatch cargo they drop and then use it to batter another Mule. over the head. It’s not until later when you face off against foes with guns that things become a tad more interesting, but even then it’s laughably easy to deal with them.
The biggest threat in the world of Death Stranding isn’t the Mules, rather it’s the Beached Things that remain tethered to Earth, unable to move on. The presentation of the BTs is nothing short of masterful. These dead/undead beings are invisible to the naked eye, forcing you to rely on your BB and scanner which lights up and clicks madly whenever you get close to a BT. The only way to catch a glimpse of the BT is to stand still and perform a scan, briefly outlining their shadowy shapes and the umbilical cords tethering them to the world. And if you get chased by one massive footprints appear on the ground, which is an outstanding creepy visual that is genuinely scary.
The first few times encountering BTs in the world is gloriously tense and creepy as you slowly creep through the area, relying on your BB to let you know where they are. But those feelings quickly get tossed out of the nearest window when you realize how tedious and easy the BTs actually are. They’ll only become a problem if you get extremely close to them, and even then you can sneak away by holding your breath. This means you can actually jog through the B.T zones without much problem. You can also toss special blood grenades to destroy the BTs to make getting through even more of a doddle. Even if you do get caught the only thing that happens is you get dragged a distance away and then tossed into a slow, boring and very easy boss fight that you win by either slowly making your way out of the black liquid or by just killing the boss. In fact, sometimes it’s easier to get deliberately caught so that you can deal with the boss which clears out the zone.
Both Mules and BTs wind up being little more than chores to deal with, an annoying obstacle that’s about as challenging to deal with as having to clamber up a few rocky outcroppings but exponentially more tedious. At least later on you get new tools that make dealing with both groups easier and faster, but there’s no getting around the fact that every time I had to deal with a group of BTs I let out an audible groan of annoyance.
On occasion, the trekking and ghostbusting give way to boss fights, an exciting prospect given how Kojima and his team have crafted some of the best boss battles in video games. I’m saddened to report that Death Stranding’s bit set-piece fights are mechanically terrible. They’re certainly visually amazing at times, especially a couple of time-traveling sequences, but the gameplay is dull and relies heavily on the combat systems which are already quite weak. The fights repeat, too, which ruins the initial thrill of the spectacle.
One of the things that kept me strangely hooked on the gameplay was the well-judged drip-feeding of new gear. In a very Metal Gear V: The Phantom Pain way there’s a nice stream of equipment added to your arsenal. An exoskeleton that lets you you move faster, a floating carrier that lets you haul more, a non-lethal assault rifle, better hiking boots and more. By increasing your connection with places (by doing, you guessed it, deliveries) you can unlock better versions of all this stuff. Plus there are structures you can put down on the map, like bridges and post boxes. Every new tool feels useful and interesting, and deciding what to take can be a real puzzle. There aren’t many games that can make me this happy about ladders, but somehow Death Stranding manages it.
This being a Kojima game there’s plenty of small little gameplay elements to discover, from the practical to the stupid. Take how your backpack is modelled so that if you put the most valuable cargo at the bottom it gets more protection from Timefall rain and from any falls you might take. Or how because Sam’s bodilly fluids repel BTs (you automatically get grenades made from his poop, pee and shower water whenever you stop by the private room) you can actually use the peeing mechanic directly on a BT. And yes, there is a dedicated command to pee. Oh, and if you toss a poop grenade at Mules they’ll slip on it. In fact, you can also hurl cargo at distant Mules if you don’t fancy lugging that case of metal around anymore.
Without a doubt the greatest piece of Death Stranding is its communal multiplayer that brings players together without ever having them interact directly. Ladders, bridges, safe houses, ropes and more that other players have placed within their world can show up in yours and vice versa. You might come to a river only to find some helpful players have built a bridge over it, or a tricky cliff might have a rope dangling from it. The biggest construction efforts are the roads which require heaps of resources to build. But the work you and other players put into them is rewarded with a lovely flat surface that you can power along on a bike or in a truck. It fosters an incredible sense of community and connection to other people, and you can show your appreciation by leaving players “Likes” for their hardwork. At one point I spent hours and hours just working toward building up the road network, and once I was done every time I logged in I was greeted with hundreds of Likes from players who had used them. It brought me an immense feeling of satisfaction knowing that I had made someone else’s deliveries a little bit easier, that my work and effort had an impact.
If there’s one thing I didn’t like about the communal construction it’s that a lot of the time it felt like all the work had been done for me. When you first venture into a new area you won’t see any other player’s work until after you hook up the Chiral network, but as soon as you do bridges, ladders, shelters and more will pop up. I’d gaze at the map of stuff and wonder if there was any point in me adding anything to it.
There are other ways to interact with your fellow couriers, too. You can leave equipment in shared lockers for other players to use as they want, and you can even entrust cargo to someone else if you don’t fancy completing a contract or lugging lost cargo across the map. There’s something nice about picking up someone’s cargo and finishing their job, knowing that you both gets Likes for the effort.
You even get to see paths that others have walked, with their names occasionally popping up. If enough people use the same route a proper path begins to form, and the rocks slowly dissapear. It’s a gentle reminder that you’re never truly alone in the world of Death Standing, despite the fact that you won’t meet anyone else out in the world.
While trudging through deep snow in the mountains I became weirdly philosophical about this, wondering if the system was a representation of life. As we set off to forge a new path it can be hard, slow going, but once we reach our destination and make new connections we find support and help which makes it all so much easier to travel the path.
Exactly how the multiplayer tech works is tricky to discern. Your world is somewhat merged with that of other players, but there are certain limitations in place. For example, it doesn’t look like my entire completed highway will ever appear in someone else’s game, rather maybe one or two chunks might. Eventually, I began to realize that just because it might not make sense for me to pop down a new bridge a few hundred feet from one another player had built, my new bridge might be the only one in the area that appears for someone else. Perhaps the system needs to be a little clearer so that folk like myself don’t initially find themselves not building anything since everyone else has beat them to it.
Perhaps playing the recently released Ghost of Tsushima was a mistake. It’s gloriously minimalistic U.I. is a thing of beauty and a stark contrast to the utter train-wreck that is Death Stranding’s U.I. It works in the sense that it lets you do everything you need to, but at nearly every moment it feels like it’s working against you, making even the simplest things a much bigger task than they need be. Even the basic act of making a delivery involves numerous button presses and long button holds, as well as skipping several generic cutscenes and trying to get through several stat screens. And then taking a new contract and outfitting yourself in gear is equally arduous. Who made this interface, and why do you hate us so damn much? Even 40-hours in the menus still felt clumsy.
Death Stranding was already a beautiful game on PS4 so it’s hardly a surprise that the jump to PC has only made it better. Running on the Decima Engine (which powers Horizon: Zero Dawn, coming to PC soon) the performance was brilliant on my machine which has a GTX 1080 TI, a Ryzen 1600 and 16GB of RAM. Based on the player feedback it seems performance has been great for almost everyone, although there will always be exceptions. I ran it at 1440p with everything set to max and the framerate locked at 60FPS and never had an issue. The landscape is amazingly detailed thanks to the developers scanning real-world terrain in Iceland, although this does mean that Death Stranding’s “America” looks suspiciously like Iceland. But there’s also a lot of impressive detail in character models and cutscenes. The only real flaw is that Sam’s animations feel clumsy when he’s navigating a lot of the terrain, making him jerk and buck unnaturally.
The suite of options is a little small, though. There are the normal basic things to tweak, but if you were hoping for a wealth of sliders and buttons and things to tinker with you might be disappointed.
As for bugs and glitches, I did have a couple of hard crashes that resulted in a fair chunk of lost progress each time. Outside of that, I didn’t run into anything too serious. About the only thing worth mentioning is that Sam won’t always react to the world correctly, like how he might climb off a ladder and wind up falling backward for no discernible reason other than he’s an idiot.
Death Stranding is at times brilliant, tedious, rewarding, frustrating, smart and dull. I’ve heard it described as both a masterpiece and utterly boring, and frankly, both feel completely accurate and justified. I feel bad for those that went into the game at launch without knowing exactly what they were in store for, because Death Stranding is the kind of game you’re going to love or want to bury in a sandpit. Since I’m reviewing the PC release I’ve had months and months of time to hear about Death Stranding actually is, and thus managed to go into it without accidentally expecting the next Metal Gear Solid only to find the equivalent Euro Truck Simulator where the truck has broken down so now you have to carry everything across the country.
There’s a lot of things I think Death Stranding gets wrong. Many of them I’ve not even mentioned here because they’re small things, but things that add up. And yet I found myself thinking about playing Death Stranding even when I was doing other things. Despite everything, I was perfectly happy to fire the game up and spend a few hours building roads, dragging boxes up hills, delivering a pile of stuff in a truck and riding ziplines around. Along the way I thought about life and death, my own health and the state of the world, the people I love and my plans and so much more. Above all else, I thought about how crazy Kojima is and how I’m really glad he’s crazy and has the clout to make games like Death Stranding, games that would never otherwise get to see the light of release because publishers would be terrified of it. Because Death Stranding is like nothing else you’ve ever played. It’s unique, and that’s not an easy thing to be these days.