Death Stranding, a Near Masterpiece
Death Stranding is a very peculiar specimen of a game. Directed by Hideo Kojima, Death Stranding is the developer’s first independent title, and it is a near masterpiece.
After playing the game to the end and accumulating 20 stars, I can say with confidence that Death Stranding is a unique experience that succeeds to near perfection. But as a game it can be lacking. For the sake of spoilers, I will attempt to be vague as I believe part of the enjoyment of Death Stranding is in learning the details and mechanics of the world.
Death Stranding pushes you into the role of a post-apocalyptic UPS man, traversing a predominately grey and green landscape while avoiding shadow people with the help of an infant in a glowing pod… and it is beautiful. The game’s story takes you across a post-apocalyptic US on a mission to reconnect the few human settlements that remain. This world is nothing like you would expect, the terrain is that of an alien landscape. Most traces of human existence have been wiped from the Earth due to the mysterious Death Stranding event. The few that remain have been forced underground as few lifeforms can survive the surface. The soundtrack of the game feeds into the tone of the world perfectly, playing at story moments, breaking up the mostly diagetic sound of the game. Featuring tracks from Low Roar and Silent Poets, the music relaxes you as you are eased into the mood for the next set piece.
The narrative surrounding this world is itself, thematically rich and complex. It juggles many themes and concepts that may or may not go over your head depending on your engagement. The character drama is easily one of the highs of the game. Even if you don’t care for worldbuilding, characters such as the veteran, Clifford Unger and the mysterious Die Hardman will endear you into carrying on to reach the conclusion. Even 3 months after finishing the game I still have the names and arcs of each major character etched into my consciousness. With no exaggeration, the narrative will move your soul and the ending will break you… If you survive the gameplay.
Now onto the controversial section of the review, playing this game can get really boring, particularly for marathon runs. I wanted to get the platinum for this title, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
To reiterate the positives, the narrative and atmosphere of the world are incredible. The graphics are beautiful and at times breathtaking. Traversing this world for the first time was a unique experience that other games have been unable to replicate. Early on, the game can feel incredibly fulfilling. It manages to completely immerse you into your new environment. You truly feel the isolation the Death Stranding has caused. Rarely will you physically meet other humans across America. Your only companion is a baby in a pod, a BB, short for bridge baby, Lou. You’ll quickly cherish the time you spend with Lou, interacting with him every so often as to reduce his stress levels. Your other “companions” interact with you either through holograms in the relative few structures dotted about the landscape, or through staticky representations while receiving info over comms.
In terms of immersion, this game stands above most other titles I’ve experienced. Unfortunately, it seems as though gameplay has taken a considerable back seat in this respect. Gameplay mostly consists of wandering around the wasteland delivering packages, taking in your surroundings and occasionally engaging in combat against the two variants of standard enemies, BTs, beached things, ghost like entities who attempt to drag you into a tar like substance to lure you towards the more aggressive BTs, and MULEs, denizens of America whose sole mission in life is to steal and horde cargo for the mental gratification of possessing. Thematically, these enemies are fantastic; mechanically, BTs are the only standouts. Until you get used to BT sightings, they are exhilarating to encounter. Tension gets dialed to 11 as your only viable recourse for the first half of the game is to evade these enemies, relying on your BB to detect them. Even when you have weaponry, you’re still very liable to get caught off-guard while in BT territory. MULEs unfortunately are nowhere near as interesting. In the early game, they are good source of tension as you are unarmed and unlike BTs, they are more proactive in their pursuit of you. However, once you acquire weapons, their intimidation factor goes down considerably. As to not leave you without challenge outside of hostile encounters, you will need to plan your route carefully as to not lose your footing and damage your cargo. If it gets too damaged, you’ll have to go back to the settlement you received it from and try again. For most of the game, this careful navigation can keep you on your toes as you try to make the most efficient route to your target, getting rewarded based on how efficient you are in your deliveries.
You will take all the precautions necessary in order to get S ranks until you in tandem with other players though are able to construct and maintain highways and zipline routes, leading us into the unique multiplayer system.
On your journey, as you connect more settlements to the “chiral network”, this world’s version of the internet. You will be able to build constructs in regions connected to the network. Here is where the Death Stranding community comes into play. You can access other player’s constructs and leave likes for them along with emotes and preset phrases such as the popular: “keep on keeping on.” Additionally, there is feature that I dare not spoil as, though it is small, it adds to the atmosphere as a welcome surprise.
Now here is where I need to play bad cop. The gameplay overstays its welcome towards the latter half of the narrative. If you’re like me, trying to max out all of the settlement’s upgrades and building all of the highways, you can get pretty burnt out. I streamlined my zip-lines and road network to the point I was unengaged and forced myself to get just one more star. All of the obstacles I once thought twice in my approaches, were now irrelevant to my deliveries. I was only missing 2 highways to construct and maxing out the mountainous settlements before I took a 5-day break from the game I almost dropped the title, satisfied but tired. Thankfully, I didn’t, because unbeknownst to me, I was 1 story mission away from the euphoria that is Edge Knot City.
After hours put into the title, I witnessed the ending and I got teary eyed, and I began to reflect. The story ended on the highest of notes. The character drama pulled at my heart strings and, with some exaggeration, played a symphony that rivaled even Mozart. The concepts Death Stranding explored made me reflect for weeks after the ending credits. To put succinctly, it played me like a damn fiddle.
In all, Death Stranding’s world and narrative is top notch. I can hardly ask for more in these departments. Unfortunately, I cannot give Death Stranding the near perfect score the narrative deserves. The gameplay, though serves the narrative and themes to an impressive degree, does not do enough to warrant completing the game. It lacks variety to keep the gameplay interesting towards the latter half of the story. Despite that, I cannot recommend the game enough. If you are looking for a game with a strong narrative that can pull you into its world and characters, pick it up and see it through to the end. You won’t regret it. Just hold off on deciding to complete the game until you have finished with the main story lest you risk burning out before you strike gold.