Death Stranding review: Vision without compromise

Some 10 hours into Death Stranding, I crashed my motorcycle. I had a hefty load of cargo strapped to the back of it that someone had asked me to transport from one isolated post-apocalyptic settlement to another. In a misguided attempt at efficiency, I took a “shortcut” across the rocky foothills of a mountain, misjudged the height of a cliff drop, and promptly blew up my bike upon hitting the ground below. The cargo was fine, mostly—the sturdy transport containers took the brunt of the damage—but without any vehicle, and no ready means of obtaining another, I was left with no choice but to cart 100 kilograms of junk some two kilometres across rough terrain by foot, moving at the glacial pace that an overburdened Norman Reedus moves at.

This isn’t a criticism. Frankly, this one of my fondest memories of the time I spent with Death Stranding. Other standouts follow a similar pattern—a sunk motorbike here; a mountaintop stranding there; an arrival at a destination only to realise I left what I was meant to be delivering in a locker on the other side of the map, where I’d put it to make a brief detour a bit easier. 

Such moments are inconvenient, tedious, frustrating, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. They’re emblematic of what Death Stranding does best: capture the sense of isolation and mundanity that comes with being a courier in a post-apocalyptic America where everyone’s become a recluse. 

This reclusiveness is understandable. In the wake of a mysterious, cataclysmic event that destroyed most of the United States, ghost-like “BTs” roam the outside world. Being caught and eaten by a BT doesn’t just mean getting killed; life and death come together and cancel each other out, like some sort of metaphysical chemical reaction, and the resulting “voidout” destroys everything within a few kilometres. On top of that, rain now has the potentially deadly effect of causing time for anything it touches to progress rapidly. Stay out in the “timefall”, as such rain is known, for too long and you’ll physically age years in the space of minutes. That’s enough to make most regular people never want to set foot outside the safety of their underground bunkers ever again.

But nobody can be entirely self-sufficient. Folks still need stuff from the outside world and from other survivor communities, and that’s where porters come in. With the assistance of strange, technology that helps people to detect BTs, porters brave the wilderness to collect and deliver whatever needs collecting and delivering so that the people in the bunkers can continue to survive. Sam Porter Bridges, Death Stranding‘s protagonist (portrayed by Norman Reedus) is one such courier. 

It wouldn’t be a stretch to describe Death Stranding as a “hiking simulator”, based purely on the play loop at the core of the game. You travel across what remains of the United States, delivering all manner of cargo from place to place. With that come a lot of little interconnected systems that really drill down into the minutiae of being an on-foot, cross-country delivery guy. You have to manage not just the weight of your cargo, but also how it’s distributed across your person; a load that’s top-heavy or lopsided will make it hard to keep your balance. You also have to manage your stamina, deal with difficult terrain, and try to ensure that the cargo and the containers it’s kept in don’t get too heavily damaged—especially when you’re trekking through timefall. 

Different tools that you find and craft can help you navigate the world. A ladder can help you scale a cliff-face or serve as a makeshift bridge; a rope tied to a climbing anchor gives you a way to rappel down an otherwise deadly drop. But these also add to your already heavy load, so you have to really think about what you can carry and what you’ll actually need. 

You can also build different structures to make repeat journeys easier–things like actual bridges, lockers to store items, and shelters that protect from timefall. But, again, the materials needed for such creations are more things to carry, so you have to find the right balance. 

In all this minutiae lies the mundanity of life as a porter. The majority of time in Death Stranding is spent trekking from A to B, and trying to find the most efficient way to do so without winding up stranded or forced into a bout of extra backtracking brought on by your own carelessness or hubris. It’s a lot of time to ponder the loneliness of this world, where your only interactions are with holograms at the delivery terminals and you’ll spend a lot of time without even those for company. 

Death Stranding does shift into a more typical action game from time to time, for better and worse. Sneaking through BT territory or trying to get past MULEs—rogue porters who’ve become addicted to making deliveries and will try to steal your cargo—feels like classic Metal Gear Solid. There are moments when the action ramps up and the game becomes a full-on shooter, whether that’s through scripted set-pieces or from the firefights that can erupt when sneaking goes south. 

But these moments are relatively few and far between, in the grand scheme of things. For the most part, Death Stranding is about loading yourself up with cargo and then hiking it across mountains, one foot at a time, and using that journey to really let the loneliness of the world sink in.

In that, Death Stranding does a more compelling job than any other game I’ve seen of really conveying the fractured nature of a post-apocalyptic world. Some will find it boring, some will find it tedious, but Death Stranding doesn’t care—that’s a necessary part of selling its vision of the sheer isolation of a world where human connection is all but lost. That willingness to not compromise theme for the sake of entertainment or mass appeal is something I wholeheartedly respect. 

(If even that doesn’t drive the point home, the regular use of sombre, melancholic music while the camera pans back to show you the full expanse of empty wasteland before you surely will.)

This brings us to the idea at the heart of Death Stranding: connection. It’s a game about taking a society that’s fragmented, where people live in isolation due to both circumstance and their choices in how they deal with those circumstances, and rebuilding it. The deliveries are a symbol of that reconnection, as is Sam’s greater overarching purpose: to connect the whole of what used to be the United States to an expanding science-fiction internet called the “chiral network”, and in doing so rebuild these disparate survivor communities into a single, unified nation (now called the “United Cities of America”, or UCA). 

Those themes of isolation and forging connections are at their most potent in the game’s social system. Every time you place something like a climbing anchor or a ladder, or build something like a bridge or a storage locker, there’s a chance it’ll show up in other players’ games, too; likewise, you’ll often find other players creations in your world. 

With lots of players’ creations all coming together, an otherwise odious piece of terrain becomes much easier to navigate, and you’ll even see players indirectly working together to design more efficient travel routes, either with the use of signs to request specific things in specific places, or just from players seeing what’s already there and filling in the blanks. (It’s worth noting that Death Stranding isn’t a shared, persistent world, though. You’ll only “import” a limited selection of things from a limited selection of players, to avoid clutter.)

You’ll also frequently find cargo and items dropped by other players. When you lose your own cargo—and it’s a question of when, not if—it’s lost to you forever unless it’s part of delivery related to main story progression. Instead, it’ll show up in another player’s game, and that player can then pick it up and finish the delivery. Other players’ lost cargo will show up in your game in the same way, and you can even opt to leave items at somewhere other than their final destination, collect a partial reward, and then let someone else finish the job. What you get, then, is a strange sense of community, where everyone is working together towards an overarching common goal (deliver the things), even if they aren’t strictly playing together.

At the same time, you’ll never see another player. You’ll see the artifacts they left behind and the marks they made on the world, you’ll use the facilities they built and finish the jobs they started, but you’ll never actually meet another player. In that, Death Stranding works to foster its sense of isolation, even in its most social aspects. Everyone’s alone, at the end of the day, making those fleeting moments of connection through the shared use of a bridge all the more meaningful.

But Death Stranding doesn’t just leave its message at “connecting with people is good”. That’s something that sounds nice on paper, but is ultimately meaningless unless it’s grounded in something. Who’s connecting with whom, and why? What’s caused the disconnect in the first place?

Death Stranding absolutely does ground itself in something, though it’s hard to really talk about what that is and how it does it without going heavily into spoiler territory. Suffice to say that everything in the game, from its post-apocalypse setting to Sam’s overarching goal of rebuilding the UCA tie into a reflection on modern-day America that is thoughtful and unflinching. The people who inevitably try to suggest this game is not political will be even more wrong than when they say the same of Metal Gear Solid

It all amounts to a captivating story, helped in no small part by stunning performances across the board, from Norman Reedus’ more empathetic spin on the gruff, quiet hero to Léa Seydoux’s compelling depiction of one person’s journey from tragedy to redemption. But the real star here is Troy Baker, giving us fourth-wall-breaking villain who is both charismatic and utterly terrifying. This might be one of the best performances I’ve seen from Baker, and considering his body of work, that’s saying a lot.

The basic premise is interesting enough, but it’s where Death Stranding ends up that makes it a genuinely fascinating, intelligent, provocative game. But it also comes with all the idiosyncrasies you’d expect from a game written, directed, and produced by Hideo Kojima. He’s a creator with a mind full of brilliant ideas and a way of expressing them through a union of game design and narrative that few others can match. But he also relies on clumsy metaphors and unwieldy exposition that obscure his message more than they illuminate it, and Death Stranding can’t escape that trend. 

Huge portions of the script are dedicated to convoluted explanations of scientific endeavours—some real, some fictitious—that only end up creating noise and obscuring the point underneath it all. The game is full of mysteries and plot twists, but instead of carefully unravelling the threads, they tend to involve getting nothing until the big reveal just dumps everything on you at once.

Awkward pacing doesn’t help matters. As much praise as I have for the mood that the deliberate mundanity of the core systems creates, a lot of that impact gets lost when you find yourself spending hours at a time doing nothing that moves the story forward in any meaningful way. When you finally get to the key moment, a whole lot of stuff will suddenly happen in rapid-fire, but then it’s forgotten about just as quickly as you head back out for another five hours of mostly aimless running around.

Death Stranding is also weirdly self-congratulatory, in the same way that Hideo Kojima himself often comes across as his own biggest hype man. If Kojima’s creative quirks aren’t enough to tell you that this is a project with him at the helm, the game itself repeatedly reminds you, through title cards and a number of different credits sequences, that this is “a Hideo Kojima game”.

A number of collectibles take the form of memory chips detailing bits of real-world pop culture that Kojima is clearly fond of. That’s fine, but when an entry for SILENT POETS’ album dawn spends more time talking about the enthusiastic public response to a Death Stranding trailer that used a track from that album than it does talking about the album itself, it goes from a fun little shoutout to one of Kojima’s fandoms to a cringeworthy case of him patting himself on the back. 

On balance, though, I’d still wholeheartedly recommend Death Stranding. When get past some of the nonsense that comes with being “a Hideo Kojima game”, what you’ll find is something with a lot to say and a genuinely fascinating way of saying it (and spoilers prevent me from even touching on the most fascinating parts). It’s a game that’s not willing to sacrifice theme for the sake of making a more “fun” or “entertaining” product, even if that means some gamers will write it off as being “boring”, and that’s a rare treat in this medium.

Essential


The publisher provided a copy of this game to Shindig for reviewing purposes.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.