Following his messy and public divorce from Konami, fans wondered what was next for Hideo Kojima. After he founded Kojima productions and announced Death Stranding, speculation then turned to genre, gameplay and narrative. ‘What kind of game is Death Stranding?’ is a question I, and many others, asked in the lead up to release. Kojima was no help, labelling it a Strand Game on Twitter, whatever that means.
Even trailers and marketing materials offered little in the way of explaining what Death Stranding was. Finally, after playing over 50-hours of Death Stranding, I know what kind of game Kojima has made.
A terrible one.
Death Stranding Review
Death Stranding is so bad I don’t really know where to begin.
I’ll start with the positives since there are so few. Visually, Death Stranding is breathtaking. The landscapes and environments look real and alive as do the characters. Death Stranding features some of the most incredible and photorealistic rendering and animation I’ve ever seen.
Moving through the game world uncovers myriad big and small details that sell this dystopian future as real. The way the rain makes rocky surfaces slick or the soft glow of lights from man-made structures. The lighting and textures are amazing, giving rise to wonderful moments of beauty as you reach the crest of a hill and look down on the Icelandic inspired environment below.
Death Stranding truly is a visual wonder. The game world is itself one of the game’s main characters which is why so much love and hard work has been put into its creation. The same is true of Death Stranding’s actual characters too. With models based on real-life actors (and mates of Kojima), characters in Death Stranding also look incredible.
Like the environment, an insane amount of detail has been included in order to make the character models look as real as possible. The protagonist, Norman Reedus’ Sam Porter, is particularly impressive and his private room/bishōjo game gives you plenty of opportunities to get up close and personal.
Going hand-in-hand with the brilliant visuals and character models is the amazing cast. The voice work and performance capture are second to none and Kojima has certainly wrangled an impressive group. Reedus brings his ‘quiet tough guy’ schtick to the table, channelling Daryl Dixon and riffing on Solid Snake while Troy Baker chews the scenery to pieces as villain Higgs.
Léa Seydoux and Mads Mikkelsen are more reserved but deliver impressively earnest performances which, on the whole, give players a glimpse into this strange world. Everyone in the cast is firing on all cylinders and it’s clear they’ve done their absolute best with the material given.
Finally, Death Stranding is polished beyond belief. I didn’t encounter a single bug, glitch or crash. I noted barely one or two instances of the framerate slowing down. Save for a few occasions where I clipped into the environment or got stuck on geometry overall, it performed flawlessly.
So, we’ve established that it looks and sounds great and performs perfectly but what do you do in Death Stranding..?
Very little worth mentioning.
Part walking simulator, part open-world exploration, part third-person shooter, Death Stranding is the MOST boring, mind-numbingly torturous game I’ve ever played. Not to mention that its narrative is a jumbled mess of pseudo-scientific spirituality that folds in on itself so many times as to be unintelligible.
As Sam Porter, players are tasked by the President to reconnect the United Cities of America, following the Death Stranding, through the power of…package delivery?
Sam is the Philip J. Fry of his world. Kevin Costner in The Postman. A lowly delivery boy who takes packages from one place to another, risking contact with BTs and Timefall or at worst, another Voidout.
Unsure as to what those terms mean? Don’t worry, I barely do either. Death Stranding is less concerned with explaining its world than it is with throwing dozens of names, acronyms and ideas at you. In true Kojima fashion, the story isn’t shown but told and told in the most hackneyed and terrible way possible.
Sam is tasked with bringing the chiral network online, linking all of America’s cities and bringing people back together after the events of the Death Stranding. This means making his way from the east coast of America to the west, delivering packages along the way.
Conversations between characters are barely more than long-winded explanations of the game and its world which renders the dialogue simply atrocious. When I said the actors do the best with the material, I meant it. The performances are great. The material is not.
Allegiances shift on a whim and plot-twists are thrown up so frequently as to become laughable. They’re all also signposted so far in advance that the “reveals” fall flat and fail spectacularly. Characters don’t act like real people do and are simply there as a plot device or to have someone to tell Sam where to go next.
For the most part, the dialogue is so painful and cringeworthy as to be laughable. Death Stranding takes itself so seriously, far more seriously than it deserves and in doing so it undermines itself at every turn. Every time Sam comes face to face with an antagonist, Death Stranding devolves into the worst kind of anime fan-fiction. Honestly, it’s tough to describe just how woeful the dialogue is and how awful it is to sit through the hours of cutscenes.
However, the most egregious failing of the narrative isn’t that it’s confusing, dumb or silly. It’s that it’s boring as batshit. Whenever I finished a gameplay bit and was forced to sit through some cutscenes I rolled my eyes and prepared myself for the pseudo-intellectual waffle that was to follow.
Kojima really doesn’t know how to tell a story. It’s evident across every game of his I’ve played and especially so in Death Stranding. Once I was finished playing I had to sit through, what felt like a lifetime of cutscenes as individual elements and aspects of the plot were painfully explained. So little information is actually given to the player through playing that Kojima is forced to dump a tonne at the end.
The way Death Stranding is delivered meant that I had zero investment in the plot so the final revelations both meant nothing and bored me to tears. That, and the fact that so much plot was coming after the fact. Long after I stopped caring and long after it had stopped being interesting or relevant.
A nonsense, terrible and boring narrative would be ok if the gameplay was great or even good. Just look at the Metal Gear Solid series. I wouldn’t call their stories boring, but they are nonsense and often, terrible. Those games also have some incredible gameplay to help carry the load (no pun intended).
Death Stranding doesn’t have great or even good gameplay to fall back on. It too is very, very boring. As a Porter, connecting the United Cities of America, Sam has to make deliveries. This amounts to fetch quest after fetch quest after fetch quest. Death Stranding is literally nothing but fetch quests. And to compound matters, it features inventory management that is aggressively geared towards weight limits.
Who doesn’t love item management, over encumbrance and fetch quests?
Every item Sam takes with him adds to his maximum weight and depending on his gear, he has a maximum carrying capacity. The more you carry, the faster Sam’s stamina runs down and the more likely he is to lose his footing. This is particularly noticeable when crossing water or going up a slope. If he falls he’ll drop some cargo, damaging it. The better condition packages are when they’re delivered, the more likes Sam will receive.
It’s not just Sam’s carrying capacity that is affected by cargo. The more you carry, the higher the stack on Sam’s back goes. This causes him to lose balance so you’ll need to use L2 and R2 to steady him and regain balance. Movement in Death Stranding deals with momentum and balance so if you stack your cargo too high, you’re going to have lots of trouble getting around in good time.
Eventually, you gain access to a reverse trike and a truck but in doing so, you’re really only able to move more quickly over flat surfaces. Neither vehicle is any good for going up or down slopes.
For a long, long time I was simply driving my truck back and forth between a few points on the map over and over again. The distance between the points wasn’t huge but as there was literally nothing to do in between, the experience was not an enjoyable one. Later, missions were all based up high on snowy mountains. Here, I lost any goodwill I had for Death Stranding as the rough terrain, cold weather, deep snow and storms meant my stamina was drained and getting around was an absolute struggle.
The, admittedly, limited gunplay is pretty good but it’s also superfluous. MULEs, people obsessed with cargo and deliveries, attack from time to time but I chose to run away rather than waste time fighting.
The BTs offer a taste of the stealth gameplay Kojima is best known for but this too is more frustrating than enjoyable. Acting as a roadblock to your progress, once I figured out it was easier to sprint past them than slowly creep, I barely had to deal with them.
That’s the crux of Death Stranding. Much of it is better off avoided or ignored. Every time I thought I was starting to enjoy myself, it would do some new terrible thing to make me stop enjoying myself.
There’s a moment that sees you literally wait as a timer counts down three realtime minutes. For what purpose? I have no idea but like everything else in Death Stranding it made me roll my eyes with boredom.
Death Stranding is clearly a labour of love for Kojima and his team but I hate it. Games don’t need to be fun, exciting, happy or cool but they should at least be entertaining.
Death Stranding is not entertaining. As such, it fails as a video game, it fails as a narrative and it fails overall.
Death Stranding was reviewed on PS4 using a digital code provided by Sony.
Game Title: Death Stranding