Death Stranding is a gorgeous piece of art. It’s a wonder to look at, a joy to experience and… well, also kind of a pain in the ass. Few games will be as difficult to review in 2019 as Death Stranding is. Rarely will a player find so much to fall in love with in a game, while also feeling totally frustrated with some of the most basic mechanics which drive it.
Initially Hideo Kojima’s no holds barred, apocalyptic, courier sim is a charming curiosity. After that it evolves into an all-encompassing odyssey. Then it becomes a tedious test of skill, and finally, it becomes an emotional tale of connection and grief. In the midst of that journey are going to be moments of absolute awe and abject irritation.
Let’s start with the positives, though, shall we? Death Stranding looks so good it could be a PS5 tech demo. From the expected Kojima attention to detail, to the amazingly intricate motion capture, to some of the most jaw-dropping art direction in any medium — Death Stranding is truly a sight to behold. Rarely will you find yourself snapping that PS4 share button so much as you will be here.
Neither is there anything so novel in the AAA space as Death Stranding in 2019. Kojima Productions have made a game that may bear a slight resemblance to a couple of other titles (Breath of the Wild and Metal Gear Solid V come to mind) but is still, wholly and completely, its own unique thing. Think of it as Ghostbusters crossed with Delivery Simulator and you’ll be part way there.
The score and soundtrack are also incredible. While melancholic creations from Ludvig Forssell punctuate some of the games bigger moments, licensed fare from the likes of Low Roar and Silent Poets haunt the background of Death Stranding, folding themselves immersively into your gameplay experience.
Further, if you happen to be a Kojima fan, Death Stranding is like a mainlined hot shot of pure batshit insanity directly into your veins. Ghost babies, piss bombs, and courier-terrorists are just the tip of the iceberg. Basically, if you’ve been buying what Hideo has been selling since 1998, this is maybe the purest dilution of what Kojima-san’s singular mind can produce with little to no restriction applied to his creative control.
Unfortunately, this is where we start to swerve into the more frustrating aspects of Death Stranding as well. It seems like, perhaps, there wasn’t anyone in a position here to rein Hideo in a bit on some of these more divergent gameplay elements. Take, for example, the balance mechanic. As Sam carries packages and equipment across America in hopes of rebuilding the country, he will struggle with terrain, obstacles and his own increasingly weighty load of goods.
The player is tasked with using L2 and R2 to shift Sam’s weight as he runs, or dig his heels in as he climbs a hill. He can slip on rainwater, lose his footing in snow, or just go tumbling down a series of rocks if you’re not careful. While these aspects can present a stiff learning curve, they’re generally not too bad once you’ve become accustomed to them. They become second nature almost, after a while.
No, where the real trouble comes in is when you’re presented with a threat. Though the MULES (delivery junkies who get off on the high of well… delivering packages, and yes that’s as ridiculous as it sounds) you’ll encounter in the game initially only come at you with futuristic EMPs and stun batons, the terrorists from later on in the game will fire real bullets and explosives your way. Now, since any dead body presents a threat to the world of Death Stranding (they are the source of interdimensional ghosts and antimatter explosions), Sam can’t kill anyone unless he wants to return later to collect the bodies.
This leads to truly maddening situations where the player is tasked with either running from trouble, often tumbling down a hill as a result, splaying his many packages all over the place, or attempting to fight off a dozen or so assault rifle wielding terrorists with non lethal means. The more times this happens, the more players are going to be squeezing their controllers in agony while holding in a guttural growl of rage.
Similarly BTs, the game’s most ubiquitous threat, appear at random intervals directly in the path of the player. Players must then tiptoe around, sending out sonar blasts, to either avoid or take out the ghosts. This, again, isn’t so bad initially, but once the player begins using vehicles, they will have to get out to deal with these situations time and time again. The added frustration of not being able to carry larger orders, outside of the vehicle they’re currently in, is another hiccup players will run into here.
Never mind that BTs are accompanied by timefall, a special kind of rain that gradually breaks down everything it touches — including the very packages your carrying. Now, timefall can be seen as a necessary evil, as Death Stranding‘s online allows all the players to share a world. Since each player can create objects in this world, timefall’s ability to break them down and eliminate them gradually keeps the world from turning into a theme park of player creations. Still, just try to hold in the sigh of frustration every time the camera zooms in and plays the animation that lets you know that BTs or timefall are entering the fray.
In some ways, these problems make Death Stranding feel like two different games jammed together. The first, a courier sim, is a fun trek with a satisfying gameplay loop that consistently rewards the player with NPC gratification and equipment upgrades. The second is a survival-horror/action game where the player battles terrorists and ghosts in hopes of reaching a safe haven. Both of these games could be fantastic on their own, but when forced into a single entity, many of their central mechanics are in direct contradiction with one another.
Now, this seemingly never-ending series of complaints may seem unnecessarily negative for a game like Death Stranding. Let it be said that there is plenty to enjoy in the game, especially if you’re a fan of Kojima’s previous work, particularly the Metal Gear Solid series. We don’t assign scores here at Goomba Stomp anymore, but if we did, mine would still skew higher than lower. Whether this is a game worth recommending though depends largely on what you enjoy about games.
Death Stranding is very story heavy, with long stretches of uninterrupted cut scenes punctuating the game. You can sink from 50-120 hours into the game, depending on how much side elements you decide to explore, and despite the troubles I’ve noted above, there is a ton of fun to be had here… it just happens to be broken up by occasional bouts of frustration, like being unable to limp a vehicle up a seemingly barren hill or dropping Sam six feet down, only for him to react as if he’s fallen three times that distance.
Still, the game is a gloriously immersive experience that locks you into its world with the sort of confidence one expects from experimental or arthouse cinema. It’s a one of a kind game, and if you’re tired of the AAA stagnation that has become commonplace with the rise of development costs, Death Stranding may be just the palate cleanser you’re looking for.
Speaking of the cinema, Death Stranding‘s near exclusive use of recognizable faces, painstakingly motion-captured and rendered into its world, is maybe the closest a game has ever come to mimicking real life without entering the dreaded uncanny valley. Because these are such talented performers, and they are so wonderfully immersed into this world, you will find yourself able to empathize with them in ways you might not expect.
Indeed there is a lot to love about Death Stranding, it’s just a shame that the game is so often held back by its own ambition. What we’ve got, after all of the years of speculation over one cryptic trailer after another, is a sort of mixed bag that will either skew more to the positive or the negative depending largely on what you enjoy about gaming as a medium. As a first effort for Kojima’s new studio, it’s certainly one of a kind, but the divisive responses Death Stranding has ignited across the community will only flare up further as more and more gamers enter into its world.