Updated: Nov 12, 2019
Editor’s Note: As of this time, we have not completed Death Stranding in its entirety. This piece serves as an initial first impressions of the title with a full review scheduled to release after we complete the game.
Leading up to its coveted November 8th launch, Death Stranding endured an absorbing whirlwind of events. From its divisive batch of trade reviews to its confusing lore to its controversial PC release and somehow even more controversial gameplay, Hideo Kojima has crafted what is undoubtedly the most discussed game of the entire year. Whatever that actually translates into sales remains to be seen as gamers continue to be baffled by Kojima’s latest title even post-launch. However, what the series of bold decisions on Kojima’s part has translated into is a fabulous interactive experience that lightly treads on the side of self-invoked pretentiousness but makes smart work of its many mechanics and disparate elements. Its sheer audacity as a commercial, triple-A video-game is commendable, if not award-worthy, but Kojima Productions goes far beyond just the intrigue its premise entails.
Taking cues from spirited and independent productions like Thatgamecompany’s Journey and Sky: Children of the Light (quite possibly the best game of the entire year thus far), Death Stranding is a title solely reliant on its legions of players and their amicable nature. Through its asynchronous multiplayer mode offerings, Death Stranding allows players, even those without a PlayStation Plus subscription, to utilize the structures, vehicles, and materials from other players, encapsulating the experience as something of a warm and compassionate entity. Its very nature as a solely positive journey makes for a game that’s every bit as tedious as it is inventive, as monotone as it is thrilling, and as cold as it is bright. Death Stranding is an audacious tour de force from what I’ve experienced, and I’m more than enticed to continue.
Following the cataclysmic event known as the “Death Stranding,” players follow Sam Porter Bridges, a freelance porter of packages and cargo under the organization Bridges. Sam must endure a sprawling, tedious world of deforming structures and lands where the infrastructure of a society has crippled. Experiencing the rough, battered landscapes of Death Stranding equates to something of a meditative thrill. Only in titles like Red Dead Redemption 2 and Shadow of the Colossus has roaming an open world been so enjoyable, and it’s attributable to Death Stranding’s intentional choice to leave you quite literally “stranded” and alone in its world. Rarely does Sam ever interact with others and when he does, it is regulated to mere hologram interactions. This frequent lack of interaction however underscores the rare scenes of human interaction, making them objectively the most important reward of the many main and side missions players can carry out.
From the very get-go, Death Stranding has had the broad strokes of high-concept science fiction, something akin to the very best masterpieces of the genre. Its world frequently shines thanks to the coupling of the extremely talented artists of Kojima Productions and Guerilla’s proprietary Decima engine. Its lore is introduced through a series of opening sequences that make excellent use of Kojima’s amazing sense for horror. The spectacle of the BTs or the “Beached Things” in a handful of encounters and even boss fights makes for the very peak of the art direction, lending to some truly inspired moments in an already impressive narrative. Indeed, the narrative and lore is what will ultimately propel players to the finish line over Death Stranding’s dense campaign. It may not capture the distinct subtlety of its open world thanks to some off-handedly poor writing, but it’s still engaging, best seen in the scenes involving Lindsay Wagner as Amelie and Norman Reedus as the titular character Sam.
However, like every other work of art, and yes Death Stranding truly is a work of art, Kojima’s latest title has a myriad of issues, mostly falling under the technical department. However, the blemishes only add to Death Stranding’s internal identity as the most human video-game ever created. Yes, it’s frustrating the stutters and frequent frame drops when exiting and entering the countless UI menus when playing on a standard launch PlayStation 4 model. Yes, Sam’s facial animations don’t quite look right in certain cut-scenes. These flaws may detract from what is otherwise a near perfect experience, but they add credence to the humane flavor of it all. Unlike titles like Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, Batman: Arkham Knight, and even 2018’s God of War, Death Stranding lacks the manufactured feel of those experiences, instead replaced by a soulful spirit.
In conclusion, Kojima’s first post-Konami game endeavor makes brilliant strides at furthering the medium as a meaningful vehicle for storytelling and world-building. Its gameplay may be stressed at times, devolving into a somewhat tedious journey, but its engaging narrative propels players forward nonetheless. Death Stranding is an intricate webbing of fascinating sci-fi and revolutionary concepts, bound by intriguing characters and a gorgeous art direction that lends for some magnificent spectacle.