It’s been some time since Hideo Kojima developed a game not related to the Metal Gear Solid franchise. which is surreal when you think about it. Enter the legendary creator (and Kojima Productions’) Death Stranding; a completely new IP not shackled by the previous mythos of an existing series. Not only that, but the gameplay doesn’t need to be tied to any specific genre, either. The question is, does Kojima’s latest become encumbered by his own vision or does it deliver? Read on and find out in our Death Stranding review.
Note that this Death Stranding review can only talk specific details of chapters 1-3 as per embargo rules, but without going into spoilers, we’ll try and explain some mild stuff happening in the game later on.
Death Stranding tells a tale of a broken country (America), ruptured by the catastrophic phenomenon known as the Death Stranding. You embark on a journey to reconnect America, taking on the role of the legendary delivery man, Sam Porter Bridges (played by Norman Reedus). Death Stranding features a total of 15 chapters (or episodes), although half of those you’ll be spending a good chunk playing at a rather slow pace. While I initially enjoyed the long and lonely walks between missions, it quickly became a dull and repetitive choir to try to get to the next story progression checkpoint. This slow pace takes up a good chunk of the game, though having said that, it eventually pays off from both a narrative and gameplay standpoint as things quickly begin to ramp up in the second and final half of the game. Unfortunately due to embargo restrictions, we aren’t allowed to discuss specifics beyond chapter 3 of the game, though rest assured that every tedious moment that we experienced in what we believe was more of the intro to the game eventually does pay off, giving us perhaps one of the best stories from director Hideo Kojima to date.
Many were pretty skeptical about the use of celebrity actors. We’ve seen other studios attempt to push high profile actors as the main center point of their games, only to fail miserably in the overall quality of the end product. Not with Death Stranding, as all the actors bring their A-game; from their stunning motion captures to their believable voice work. The emotions portrayed in their faces and voices are so well done; it’s hard not to stay tear up during the big emotional moments. Their performance will keep you guessing at every turn, and never lose the slightest moment of interest. If this were an actual film, I’d wager that many of the actors here could potentially be up for an Oscar nomination.
One key marketing strategy that Kojima Productions has been doing since the game was first revealed back in 2016, is ensuring that things remain ambiguous. Up until the launch trailer, much of the game remained in shadows with minor hints at what the story may be about. While the game does go in-depth in exploring the lore built along the journey, it does leave some ideas unexplained that’ll surely confuse some players. Truth be told, perhaps this is for the best. While some may not like the idea, and see it as a cop-out, some of the best television shows and movies often leave their stories open to interpretation. Some examples include (spoilers warning for movies): John Carpenter’s The Thing ends with viewers questioning which of the two remaining survivors is the monster, and Neon Genesis Evangelion has one of the most controversial stories that has spawned countless fan theories, delving deep into society and loneliness. Both of these cannot be any further from being different from one another, yet they are so well respected in today’s culture due to the subjects that they tackle. It’s important to clarify that these two examples were selected because looking back, both titles struggled with viewers and critics alike only to eventually gain recognition decades later. Death Stranding will most likely follow a similar path, though we feel it will satisfy the many who pay close attention. It is, at the end of the day, a proper Hideo Kojima story filled with lengthy cut-scenes meant to bestow fan theories for many years to come.
The only complaint I do have is more so around the pacing I mentioned earlier. It may sound like nitpicking, but it does drag on and on for such a long time, that I started to lose interest. It’s there for a good reason when we look at it from a narrative perspective, but that doesn’t change the fact that it can be tedious and annoying at times. I’m just glad that it eventually shifts into high gear, making that struggle of the journey well worthwhile. Outside of the story, there are several explorable areas and side missions given by preppers. You’ll find a good amount of cameos, one including TV host Conan O’Brian, who was shown off recently by Kojima. These side missions are all optional, though they reward you greatly with some upgraded equipment. If you are someone who wants to get the story out of the way, you can always return to completing these missions after the primary campaign as they leave the world entirely explorable for you. Sadly we can’t 100 percent confirm if there is a new game plus. If it doesn’t exist, I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets patched in later on.
Moving on, let’s talk about the visuals and general performance. Death Stranding is running on a modified version of the DECIMA engine, which was supplied by the very talented team at Guerrilla Games. Playing on the PlayStation 4 Pro, Death Stranding is perhaps one of the most breathtaking titles I have ever played in the last few decades. Visuals come off super crisp and clean, with little to no jaggies whatsoever. The visuals are pretty damn near photorealistic, with beautiful ranges of color spreading across several different environments. The game has everything from snow-covered mountains, plant-filled terrains, to eerie dead zones reminding us of the old world before the Death Stranding occurrence. Not only that, but the character models are just filled with details too. In one particular scene featuring Cliff (played by Mads Mikkelsen), I could make out all the small hair follicles covering around his mouth, and in another with Sam detailing all the small pores on his hands and face. These details shine mostly in the game’s cutscenes, though not much is lost when it transitions into gameplay.
As for the general performance, you can expect the game hold a steady 30 frames-per-second and at 4K (most likely dynamic or checkerboarding) resolution on the PlayStation 4 pro. We can’t comment on how the base console will perform, but we are certain the optimization is there for it.
Sadly the game doesn’t feature a day and night cycle like Horizon Zero Dawn did (another DECIMA game), though it does have dynamic weather that ties into the gameplay. Yet despite this, Death Stranding is still one of the best-looking titles out there, and with a PC version on the horizon, it’ll only be pushed to further heights. Don’t be surprised if you spend a good chunk of the game time just freely exploring the world while taking in the sights. Of course, all this is accompanied by the excellently selected soundtrack.
Music and sound design are such as big deal when it comes to telling a story, and Death Strandings brings it all together so well. Every piece of music compels the story and pulls you in, adding to those emotional scenes of happiness, sadness, and loneliness. My favorite moments in the traveling segments always would be when a song by Low Roar would kick in playing nearing the end of a long journey. It all just perfectly matched the tone that the game was going for, and this may be my favorite soundtrack featured in a game. I want to point out for those who plan on streaming the game that it does feature a big list of third-party music, which can not be turned off in the menu. Just a small thing to consider if you plan on streaming this game on YouTube as you’ll most likely be flagged for content ID, Twitch will be fine, as always.
Time to Address the Elephant in the Room
Alright, this is probably the part that everyone is waiting to hear. Let’s talk about the gameplay. I mentioned earlier in the review that pacing can be slow, to the point that it can get boring. This was mostly due to the first half of the game, focusing on the idea that Sam is a delivery man. As much as many people joked about it, you can go in expecting a good chunk of the game to play like a walking simulator. Take this as you will, I didn’t mind it at first, but the excessiveness of it can be draining on a person. And again, it’s done for a narrative purpose to convey loneliness in the player, though you’ll soon grow to care for the BB that Sam is carrying as you check on him for some rather adorable moments. BB plays a significant role in the gameplay as he is equipped with a status bar indicating his comfort levels. The more he cries, the more the bar drains, and once it reaches zero, you won’t be able to detect the main threat of BTs (Beached Things) anymore.
Not being able to detect BTs spells big problems, as the BTs are the major world threat outside of the Mules, of course. Our first encounter with the BTs was extremely stress-inducing as we had to navigate quietly not to be caught by them. They’re brutal and relentless once they spot you, with the only hope of being trying to escape, or if you have a gun, try and shoot your way out, though the latter only brings more attention. BTs are only present during time fall events, which you encounter very frequently. You can avoid them, but this would mean taking to the long road as you’ll need to travel around it. The riskier path is drive right on through it, which we attempted many times, thinking we could cheese the area. Still, the time fall blocks the sunlight, which drains any solar-powered devices, and it also wears down the durability of equipment and vehicles. Not only that, but cars are loud and attract BTs, which are quick to yank you off your motorbike.
The Mules allow you to play more stealthily as you can sneak up behind them and knock them out at their camps. Camps are often filled with stolen loot (from other players connected online), though it can be a significant risk if you get caught as they all gang up on you. I would advise not getting found, as the close-quarter hand to hand combat isn’t all too good, but the use of luggage as a weapon does help. I will say fans of the Metal Gear franchise to keep their expectations in check, as the combat isn’t as diverse as the following titles in that series.
Eventually, you will unlock better upgrades that improve the slow pacing, such as the floating carrier that allows you to move large loads with ease. And there’s quite a bit of action in the game’s second half as you begin to unlock lethal weaponry. I was pleasantly happy with the way guns handled, very reminiscent of Metal Gear Solid V. You’ll still have the option to take the stealthier route when fighting against enemies, but there is enough to cater to those seeking more action-packed moments, especially during boss fights. By mid-game, I was deciding how I wanted to approach scenarios rather than be dictated on them, and for this, a lot of the anger I felt early on washed away as it felt like a perfect reward.
So while the game does cater to those who want a calm, explore the world as you like adventure, there are the more exciting parts that many had wanted to be shown during the reveals.
We’ve mentioned in the past that the game will feature asynchronous multiplayer, and it stays true to that as you never actually encounter another player. Instead, the purpose of the online is the enhance the gameplay as players can leave each other items such as vehicles and crafting goods. It gets even more in-depth with structures that can provide shelter from time fall storms, and bridges and ladders to ensure more accessible travel. Doing some backtracking later in the game, I was surprised to see a high-way system had been built in an area that was mostly rough terrains. Everything about the online component enhances the gameplay and goes hand in hand with the narrative of connecting people around the world. It’ll be interesting to see how far this evolves when the game launches next week, seeing that the online player pool was low due to the minimum amount of review copies. Perhaps maybe the game may even feature additional story scenes once everyone is connected and progresses far enough. Either way, online connectivity was a welcome feature. It is optional, but seeing that it doesn’t require a PlayStation Plus subscription, I highly recommend taking advantage of the function.
Death Stranding is a title that will be remembered for a very long time. Offering a unique approach to gamers and showcasing what Hideo Kojima can do when he appears to have full control over a video game.
- Gigantic Open World
- Stunning Visuals
- Unique Story
- Amazing Soundtrack
- Oscar-worthy performances
- Replayability with side-missions
- Pacing can be slow for many, especially around the repetitive nature of deliveries.
- Hand-to hand combat leaves a lot to be desired.