Thanks for Everything.
Never in my life have I been so stumped when I’ve begun writing a review. With 120 hours clocked in, I beat Death Stranding a while ago now and have been thinking about writing this review ever since. During all that time thinking I was never able to come up with actual ideas on what to say. In fact, most of that energy was spent on being sad that the game was over. Death Stranding is one of the most unique and impalpable games I have ever played. It is an open-world game, but there is almost zero exploration or sense of discovery. It is an adventure game, but the bulk of the gameplay consists of making deliveries from one area to another. Lastly, it is an action game, but combat is, oddly, a well-crafted afterthought. Where to begin?
The story follows a man named Sam. He is a porter in a post-apocalyptic USA, now called the UCA (United Cities of America), where tiny pockets of civilizations dot the vastly changed landscape. He isn’t very social or personable, but he is probably the best deliveryman the country has in this strange new era. Everyone counts on Sam to make his deliveries: be they food rations, precious metals, or antiques from the past, Sam is the tiny light carrying all this weight from place to place in this dark new world. But no heavy cargo can outweigh Sam’s main assignment: to reconnect the country via the Chiral Network, bringing everyone together again by means of online technology. Reluctantly, Sam joins Bridges, the organization responsible for connecting all these people and places together.
Although Sam doesn’t like people, people certainly like him. While everyone is depending on Sam to reconnect the UCA, many individuals will put their own lives on the line to help him out in any way they can. Death Stranding is full of unusual characters, mostly played by real-life actors that you may very well recognize. Fragile, Deadman, Die Hardman, Heartman, and Mama. These characters have wacky names that will make sense to you the more you play the game, but they all play critical roles in shaping the Chiral Network and getting Sam to where he needs to go. There are others too, such as Bridget and Amelie, who are the impetus and destination for Sam’s journey, respectively. While all the characters are fascinating to learn about in their own ways, at the end of the day my favorite character is BB, who requires a little more explanation to begin to understand.
But before I can get into BB, let me lay out the setting of Death Stranding. The UCA fell victim to a catastrophe called the “Death Stranding.” We aren’t sure if the rest of the world suffered a similar event, but the Death Stranding certainly caused an irreversible amount of destruction to our country. Most of the population was wiped out, at least in the physical, living sense. See, since the Stranding, mysterious entities called “Beached Things” (BT’s for short) are appearing all over the country. They are extremely dangerous and thus nobody but porters (like Sam) is willing or able to traverse the dangerous landscapes. I won’t get too detailed on BT’s due to spoilers, but they are freaky, menacing, and capable of causing permanent, large-scale destruction. To make matters worse, the Death Stranding has caused the climate to constantly be under the threat of “Timefall,” which is rain or snow that makes anything it lands on age at a rapid rate. Simply put, things aren’t so great these days for the country.
Some people are special though, because they are “repatriates” and are able to come back to life after getting killed. Others have a condition called “DOOMS,” which grants them unusual abilities that are almost superhuman in quality. That said, Sam is doubly special, because he is a repatriate with DOOMS. Dangers abound, but they aren’t as dangerous to Sam as they are for everyone else.
There is a hell of a lot more terminology and lore I can throw at you, but that would get confusing and boring. Just play the game yourself! And anyway, now I want to talk about BB. As you may know from the trailers that came out before Death Stranding’s release, Sam has a womb-like pod attached to his suit with a baby inside. This is BB, short for “Bridge Baby,” but “BB” sure sounds a lot like the word “baby” anyway, so it all works out nicely. Sam is the star of the show, but BB is the anchor that keeps him together. BB is connected to both the world of the living and the world of the dead. Thus, Sam uses BB, in conjunction with a special tool called the Odradek, to scan the vicinity for the dangerous BT’s. In order to survive, and in turn reconnect the country, Sam and BB must scratch each other’s backs. While BB helps Sam locate the BT’s, Sam must travel carefully so as to not stress BB out. A stressed BB makes it harder to avoid BT’s, so taking care of BB is a top priority. It doesn’t take long for the bond between Sam and BB to become one of the most memorable and special aspects of the game. During one chapter, BB is no longer with Sam, and it was a very strange time for me. I hated not having BB attached to Sam—quite frankly, I missed BB. Not just because I couldn’t detect the BT’s lingering around me, but because Sam and BB are a team and it just didn’t feel right to have Sam doing all this work by himself.
There is so much more to the setting, lore and plot of Death Stranding, and a lot of it won’t even make sense until the final chapters of the game. The entire motif of the term “strand” and all its iterations (stranded, stranding) is explored in fascinating ways. Natural history, science, technology, and spirituality all tie in together to make the lore of Death Stranding extremely powerful and moving. In appropriate Kojima fashion, cutscenes are lengthy, dramatic, and, admittedly, sometimes rather bloated. Still, they only scratch the surface of the strange universe of Death Stranding; for those willing to spend the time on them, emails and interviews are also treasure troves of important information and personal stories amongst all the people and places involved in the Death Stranding.
But that’s enough on the presentation. The reason Death Stranding is so divisive among gamers is because of its gameplay, which is a baffling contradiction of being both straightforward and incredibly complex. Again I have to ask myself: where do I begin?
I’ll start here: I loved the gameplay – not at first, mind you, but after devoting enough time and patience to it. Death Stranding is NOT fun at first. I’ll admit that. Not only is there a lot happening onscreen at all times, but the opening chapters are full of tutorials, cutscenes, descriptions, and all-around confusion. To make matters worse, many of these tutorials and cutscenes are longwinded and interrupt the gameplay in ways that are infuriating. At first it seems like the interruptions will never end, but I have played plenty of games that aren’t welcoming to newcomers, and was determined to stay patient and persist.
I am so glad I did. Yes, there is a LOT to take in with Death Stranding. It is an intense game. But for those with the grit, determination, and most importantly, the open-mindedness, Death Stranding has the potential to become one of the most memorable and unique experiences you could ever have as a gamer.
I will do my best to leave the nitty-gritty out of this review and stick to the basics. As I mentioned, Sam is a porter assigned with the impossible task of reconnecting the entire UCA. This means he must travel from the east coast to the west coast, all the while making deliveries to the few sheltered survivors spread across the country. The simpleton’s complaint about Death Stranding is that it is entirely comprised of fetch quests. I guess you could say that, but there is so much more to the gameplay than that.
To take and make deliveries, Sam must retrieve assignments and cargo from the various shelters, “knots,” waystations, and distribution centers scattered across the land. Some of these locations house just a single survivor (deemed a “prepper”), while others are the shells of pre-Death Stranding cities, with populations in the thousands. All of these people need to survive though, and to survive they need Sam. The standard order procedure typically looks like this: Sam takes on an assignment, is given the cargo, arranges it on his back and/or his vehicle, and then sets off for the cargo’s destination. It sounds simple, but it almost never is.
Sam is only human, so he can only carry so much cargo. Some of these assignments require the delivery of hundreds of kilos at a time. Some of them require the delivery of a simple photograph. Sometimes, Sam will have to deliver a corpse. There are literally hundreds of deliveries to make, and the player must decide then and there which ones to take on because Death Stranding is not the type of game where you can just waltz back and forth easily.
The open-world of the UCA is unlike any other open-world I’ve experienced. Despite Death Stranding’s gorgeous graphics and the indescribable beauty of the landscape, not once did I want to do any exploration (and the game definitely doesn’t encourage it). You see, the visual beauty of this open-world can be deceptive: Sam is a porter, and must travel across dangerous grounds to get to his destinations. Mountains, cliffs, rocky terrain, rushing rapids, waist-high snow, and other hazards make up the entirety of the UCA. To make matters worse, the incessant BT threats and Timefall are a guarantee during your travels. And as if that weren’t enough, there are the MULEs, who are former porters (like Sam) who have lost their minds since the Death Stranding and became addicted to carrying cargo. These MULEs will do whatever it takes to chase Sam down and steal his cargo for themselves.
All in all, Sam having the most important job in the world means he has the most dangerous job as well. Cargo can get stacked so high on Sam’s back that all you see can see are his legs and arms. The more cargo he has, the harder it is to get around. It is critical to keep him balanced, lest he falls and loses all the cargo—and when (not if, WHEN) that happens to you, you better pray you’re not too close to a ledge. Keeping Sam’s stamina high is extremely important, and it is just one of the many things you need to pay close attention to while making your deliveries.
Over time, Sam will gain access to a wide array of tools, vehicles and structures that will help make his deliveries much, much easier. At first, it’s strictly walking. But by progressing the story, Sam will be able to make deliveries in a variety of ways. Ladders, bridges, and more will slowly but surely connect all of Sam’s destinations to each other. He will eventually be able to construct roads that connect all the main cities and distribution centers, plus the vehicles needed to drive on these roads. With even more time, a certain structure will become available that will make many deliveries a cinch.
Just like roaming the dangerous terrain becomes easier, so does facing off against the BT’s and MULEs. At first, it is usually best to sneak past them (or run for your life). They are too dangerous and Sam won’t stand a chance. But as you get further in the game, Sam will gain access to new weapons and equipment that will help him face off against these threats. There are tons of weapons that slowly but surely become available to Sam, some of which are way more useful than others. From a gameplay perspective, combat isn’t nearly as important as making deliveries, but there is still a lot of customization, challenge, excitement, and satisfaction to find in it. Should Sam be killed from either enemies or a great fall, the fact that he is a repatriate means that he is able to return to the land of the living by finding the right strand in his “in-between” place.
Of the utmost importance in Death Stranding is earning Likes. While I was never sure if placing so much importance on Likes was meant to glorify or vilify the influence social media has had on society, the fact of the matter is that gaining Likes in Death Stranding is critical to making Sam a better porter. There are no experience points in Death Stranding. There is also no currency. All you have is Likes, and the more you have the better things will be. These Likes are earned by making deliveries or simply being friendly to the NPC’s. To add a whole new layer to earning Likes, Death Stranding has one of the most unusual online experiences I’ve ever seen in a videogame. If you play Death Stranding online (which you absolutely SHOULD do to gain the full experience), you will occasionally see other players’ structures from around the world. I cannot express how helpful this was to me: other players’ structures, weapons, equipment, materials, and more being scattered all over the landscape made my enjoyment of the game so much better. Sam has a lonely job, but knowing that there are other “Sams” out there helping each other makes everything a little less lonely. When you see and use other players’ structures, you should always do the right thing and give that person some Likes.
All of these aspects of gameplay, in my opinion, are incredibly inventive and well thought out. Despite the slow start, almost everything about Death Stranding’s gameplay felt fresh and new. While it is never an easy game by any means, I always found myself in a strange state of enjoyment during my 120 hours. I was constantly on my toes, even when the path seemed clear and calm, because I knew that one moment of bliss could quickly turn into a crisis situation in one form or another. Death Stranding’s gameplay is like nothing you have experienced before, and while I understand that not everybody may grow to like it like I did, there is no denying that it is an incredible feat of originality.
As far as things I dislike about Death Stranding, I won’t beat around the bush. While Ludvig Forssell’s original score is powerful and ominous, I had a hard time appreciating the strange choices of licensed tracks, most notably those of Low Roar. The songs sound nice on their own, but they never felt like they “fit” the themes of the game itself, and it was always awkward to hear a Low Roar song start playing as I was reaching a new destination for the first time, only to be abruptly cut short when I finally reached it.
There is also a lot of important information that the game doesn’t give you, despite the annoying tutorials in the beginning of the game and the long list of accessible information in the “Data” menu. Many things I figured out myself or online with no help from the game itself. The map screen is also extremely messy and can be very difficult to navigate since there are so many symbols that clutter it up. There is no way to filter icons to clean it up (a la the “Far Cry” series), so it was often a pain to figure out which bridge or postbox I was trying to reach.
One final complaint is with the limited control options. Balancing Sam is so important, and the only way to do that is by holding down R2 and L2. During many treks Sam will need to stay balanced the entire time, which means that you could be holding down these two buttons for upwards of 30 to 45 minutes at a time. Suffice it to say, after many gameplay sessions, my hands were not only very sweaty, but also pretty sore. This is NOT an easy game for those with carpal tunnel!
While these complaints shouldn’t be taken lightly, I cannot express enough how much I love Death Stranding. I never expected to buy it in the first place, so it has turned out to be one of the best surprises I’ve experienced during my life as a gamer. After putting in 120 hours, getting 5-stars for all the preppers, and witnessing that CRAZY ending, I was truly sad to put Death Stranding away. I thought about it all the next day, having no desire to start playing a new game because I just wasn’t ready to move on yet. It has had a strange effect on me, one that I can’t describe in words. Death Stranding is so different from anything else, and it gives me real hope that game developers are still capable of designing truly original and fresh ideas that are also incredibly challenging and fun. This one will stick with me for a long time.