If you mentioned the phrase “Death Stranding” to anyone over the last few years, you would probably receive a few mixed reactions. For some, a palpable excitement of a new, original IP from legendary game director Hideo Kojima. For others, a general sense of confusion based on various 7-8 minute long trailers that raised more questions than they answered.

When people ask me about Death Stranding and what I think it’s about, I usually just sent them a gif from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

Image result for charlie day meme gif

The last three years have been a fever dream of wild theories based on screenshots, interviews and slowly descending into madness trying to understand what the hell Death Stranding is. After three long years, we finally have an answer, I think.

Death Stranding is a new genre, but it’s also not. It’s a story about a man reluctantly trying to reconnect America after an extinction-level event called a “Death Stranding” has occurred. It’s also about a man delivering packages through fields of green, ghosts, and poor footwork in order to get likes from strangers who usually have nothing interesting to say.

Norman Reedus is, Sam Porter Bridges

Death Stranding is one of the most polarizing games I have ever played. It teeters between wildly original to something I never want to play again. It is a bizarre tango between the meditative joy of exploring a quiet apocalypse to wanting to plug my ears every time a character spoke.

I both hate and love Death Stranding, and that’s what makes this game worth experiencing.

What Connects Us?

One of the greatest mysteries of Death Stranding has been its narrative. After Hideo Kojima’s very public falling out with Konami, Sony gave the famed director a blank cheque to essentially do what he wanted. Full creative freedom to bring his vision to life. The result of this freedom has led to a captivating universe saddled by poor storytelling, choppy writing and some of the most heavy-handed exposition you will experience.

While I will do my best to avoid any direct spoilers, some of the things discussed here will give away some of the story bits so it’s best to skip this section if you want to go in fresh.

Spoiler Alert!

The opening hour of the game is a crash course to the world, showing the dire situation that humanity is in after a calamity, known as the “death stranding” broke humanity. Sam Porter Bridges, played by Norman Reedus, is a delivery man for an organization called Bridges, whose sole mission is to reunite America by creating connections across the nation. You make the trip across America with BB, which is a bridge baby that has a connection to the other side, allowing you to see the dead. The central premise of the game is about the power of connection, and how humans were not born to be alone. Kojima spends his time exploring these themes and how a lack or abundance of it shapes a person. While the pursuit of the meaning of connection is noble, it was hard connecting to many of the characters due to poor character development and rigid dialogue.

Most conversations with Fragile are borderline dull.

Death Stranding features various Hollywood talent like Norman Reedus, Mads Mikkelsen, and Margaret Qualley. While their performances are great in some key moments in the story, most of the time they feel very wooden. One of the earlier introduced characters Fragile is the worst offender of this: her dialogue is quite poorly written and she never seems compelling enough to care about. Margaret Qualley and Mads Mikkelsen, however, give standout performances that are both memorable and engaging even with wonky dialogue.

Another issue I have with the story-telling is how heavy-handed the exposition is. When you understand the inner workings of the world of Death Stranding, you realize it’s not very complicated. There are still some concepts that require some more exploration, but it’s concepts are never out of reach. Instead of allowing you to experience it and discover the mystery of the world, the game spoonfeeds you everything through heavy exposition. An example of that is the third chapter, which is also the longest chapter in the game. What essentially boils down to a tutorial chapter, Hideo Kojima exhaustingly explains every single idea through lengthy cutscenes that turns the game into a powerpoint presentation instead of organically allowing us to understand it.

This felt like a webinar more than an experience.

In order to reconnect America, Sam’s character has to make deliveries to various locations to forge a relationship. Unfortunately, these relationships are diluted to canned holographic interactions where the receiver of the package calls you a legend, turns around and checks the package and bids you farewell. That’s it, that’s the depth of the relationships that we’re forming with the city-states that we’re so desperately trying to forge a connection with.

It seems that Death Stranding’s three-year mystery is far more interesting than what is actually revealed. While the story is a unique experience, it’s the overall universe that Hideo Kojima has crafted that eclipses the otherwise mundane characters and interactions.

Beautiful Emptiness

Death Stranding is a visual feat of design, style, and visual prowess. The world of Death Stranding is beautifully crafted, challenging and acts as one gigantic environment puzzle. It consistently pushes the player to be observant and respectful of the environment, never underestimating it. While the game is geographically interesting, it is devoid of a compelling reason to explore further. Most locations are sterile, lifeless structures for you to go back-and-forth delivering packages. A small part of me thinks it is an intentional reason to design the world this way as a piece of commentary on automation, a theme that is explored in the game. Either way, it does make exploring the world feel meaningless.

Mule camps are dull and lifeless, and only necessary if you need easy supplies.

Traversing this massive puzzle of a world is exciting and often fills me with a sense of adventure. This feeling does go away when you’re constantly backtracking between the same locations over and over again. It helps that Death Stranding is a drop-dead gorgeous game, with expansive vistas that are truly breathtaking. The most enjoyment I have in this game is climbing mountains and taking in the scenery. It’s a shame then that the game does not support a dedicated photo mode at this time.

It really is a gorgeous game.

The visual prowess extends to the great presentation within the game world itself. While the building exteriors and interiors look the same, I love the overall aesthetic of the world. Character models are also equally impressive. While the characters themselves are wooden, they look and perform fluidly with some incredible motion capture work. There are some scenes that are a bit bizarre and borderline uncanny valley. One scene, in particular, showcased a character stuck in the rubble after an explosion where the face looked unnaturally animated. Side characters like preppers and holograms also look noticeably lower in fidelity compared to the primary cast.

A Post-Apocalyptic Odyssey

And now, the burning question: Is Death Stranding a walking simulator? The answer to that is “sorta”.

To only call it a walking simulator is a disservice to what the game does. Death Stranding is part Euro Truck Simulator, part Qwop and a dash of existential dread. The primary gameplay loop of Death Stranding is delivering packages. At first glance, this sounds mundane. But when you get into the nitty, gritty of actually carrying out a delivery it can be oddly relaxing. In order to get from point A to B, you have to first assess your route and essentially trip plan the route. You then have to determine what kind of equipment you will need to make the journey successful while balancing the weight of both your equipment and your delivery. Having too much weight will tip you over while having too little equipment might leave you stranded on your journey.

It’s a very bad idea to go over your weight limit.

Get used to this view if you don’t plan well.

The act of taking a journey can and probably will shift from satisfying to frustrating organically, which further strengthens the adventure aspect. It can’t all be a smooth ride after all. The game tries to mitigate that with its overbearing third chapter that tries to teach you how to be successful in the world. This is where the infamous sentiment that the game takes about 10-15 hours to get going was born. Death Stranding demands a lot of patience to get going. It’s not because the game as a whole is a slow-paced game; there are far slower games that were compelling throughout their run through. It’s because Death Stranding is a poorly paced game that artificially pads the experience making the first 10-15 hours a slog rather than a slow burn.

When you’re not delivering a pizza or sperm (yes, that’s a mission), you’re getting involved in scrapes with Death Stranding’s uninspired enemies. Enemy encounters are boring, tedious and never a challenge unless you artificially increase the difficulty. The package addicted enemies, the Mules, have horrible A.I. and can be easily dispatched by parrying their attacks with a lengthy slo-mo sequence which you can follow up with a takedown using Sam’s primary weapon the strand. The animation that plays when tying up enemies can be described as comical at best. There is not much of a risk when you come across a Mule stronghold which is roughly the same as an outpost from Far Cry (but a lot less engaging).

I waited on the ladder, one at a time to take out the enemies. Idiots.

Even though the Mule’s are a bit of a bust, at least we have the supernatural enemies of the game, the BT’s. When you enter a BT zone, which are shrouded ghosts with umbilicals you have to be extremely careful around. Engaging BT’s initially is thrilling, until you are given so many options that make their entire existence meaningless. When you encounter a BT you can hold your breath and crouch away completely negating the tension of the interaction.

Every time you encounter a BT zone your Odradek scanner goes into a lengthy “switching on” sequence that completely takes away the tension of facing them. When you’re caught by a BT, the game then shifts to a boss fight against a large dog-like creature. The first BT I ever fought was a tense experience until the game gave you your first anti-bt weapon which boils down most encounters to how fast can you spam the grenade key.

One thing I loved about the BT encounter was when I was eaten by one. In the world of Death Stranding when the world of the living’s matter collides with the world of the dead’s antimatter it causes something called a Void out which is essentially a giant crater formed after an explosion. When I was first eaten by one and emerged back in the world of the living, I was impressed by the actual crater that was formed in the game’s world because of that one encounter. Your encounters with BT’s, as dull as they may be, have actual consequences to the world.

Void out craters are impressive.

An assorted musing for you: there is a severe inconsistency in the game’s explanation of how world items work. Your cargo takes damage from something called “time fall” which essentially speeds up time, deteriorating the item. However, your character’s clothing does not. Why couldn’t they just line their cargo with the same material as their clothing?

The Strands that bind us

Death Stranding features an interesting social mechanic reminiscent of how Dark Souls uses asynchronous gameplay. The “strand” type gameplay as coined by Kojima allows players to directly impact your game by donating resources to building projects, leaving behind a bike that you can use in your own playthrough and leaving various signs to guide you on your journey. Think of the landscape of Death Stranding as a giant Kickstarter campaign, and every stretch goal is in the form of a bridge, highway, online safe-house that players can contribute materials towards to build and upgrade.

Both this highway and this truck was here for me.

I’ve lost count how many times another player bridge, bike or rain shelter has saved me from absolute ruin. Players can even contribute to a fixed highway system through each open-world which makes getting around the map a lot easier. Working with other players without actually interacting with them can sometimes feel a bit isolating, especially in a game about connection. It does, however, motivate you to smash that like button like a giddy YouTuber when you come across a player’s structure or vehicle. Through my journey, with the number of likes I accumulated and structures I came across I never felt the need to do side-missions since so much was already available.

The tower of power.

Another concern that is raised by this is, how will they factor in the experience for players who get the game further down the line? Will the structures of the world be so abundant that it takes away the experience of actually adventuring and carving your own path? Is this a form of digital fear of missing out (FOMO)? While these are long-term concerns, it does impact my interest in playing this game in the future. Why would I want to traverse the world if everyone has already laid down the path ahead for me?

Conclusion

Death Stranding, for better or for worse, will be a game that people will discuss for many years to come. It is a testament to striving to be truly original in a market saturated with copies. It is also a cautionary tale of how a game’s expectations can collapse on itself. Whatever you may think of this review, of my views or of the game itself is completely up to you. That’s the beauty of art, it is very subjective. Many will read this review and claim that I do not “understand” the game, while others may agree with my points. Who knows, at some point, my tune about this game might shift in different directions.

A bizarre, mixed experience.

Death Stranding is neither a triumphant experience or a self-indulgent mess. Much like the idea of the world of Death Stranding, I believe it’s somewhere in the middle. It is a game that will be the subject of many theories, criticisms, praises and continued confusion. All I know is that this is what Hideo Kojima can create without any restrictions. It will be interesting to see what he does next.

Death Stranding Review
The Good
  • Strand social system is captivating
  • Traversing the world is thrilling
  • An interesting, original universe
The Bad
  • Dialogue is poorly written
  • Wildly uneven pacing in story
  • World is vast, but empty
7Overall Score
Reader Rating: (1 Vote)
9.0

About The Author

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Robin Ghosh (a.k.a. SpectreRobin) is a Sr. Staff Writer at GAW. He is a published writer, photographer, videographer and budding filmmaker and is currently the content director of TABOOZAPP. Having recently finished his masters in media production at Ryerson University, he is gearing up to take his career to the next level (ha, gaming pun). Robin is in love with role-playing games, sim-shooters like Deus Ex and Prey and has a soft spot for survival games like DayZ. He will play anything with a good story and a compelling world to explore. That being said no matter what year it is, he will probably at some point have a craving to play Skyrim again for the 3rd time..4th? Who knows, he really....really likes Skyrim.