The mystery around Death Stranding has piqued everyone’s curiosity as to the game’s true nature. Part of this is down to the creator himself, Hideo Kojima, who has consistently obfuscated his titles with complex stories, themes, and the personal fancies of an auteur. It’s also due to the incredulous feeling that there must be more to the game than what we’ve seen so far. Surely players must do more than transport cargo – a video game trope in and of itself. But Death Stranding (whose main character is named Sam Porter Bridges, no less) is unable to muster significance.
In order to rebuild America after a mysterious event that has blown a crater in the middle of the country and destroyed society as we know it, Sam treks across the land delivering supplies and connecting pockets of survivors. Doing so requires loading Sam up with packages of various sizes, weights, and possibly mission-ending stipulations – such as breaking fragile equipment and even delivering a pizza correctly.
I was initially frustrated by the teeter-totter nature of keeping my balance while traversing rocky, moss-covered landscapes. As I leveled up and became proficient in my movements (the terrain is thankfully consistent in terms of what does and doesn’t trip you up), I realized the fight to stay upright isn’t the fundamental problem with the core gameplay concept. The real issue is that Death Stranding’s gameplay really is as simple as it appears to be, and the elements around it – the story, combat, and lackluster mission objectives – aren’t satisfying enough to anchor the title and get players invested.
Death Stranding has optional side missions and ways to build up the infrastructure of the world, such as making roads and other helpful structures, but the core delivery loop doesn’t branch out in more interesting directions. Your objectives are straightforward and unsurprising; they don’t expand Sam’s interaction with the world, nor do they require novel resourcefulness. It’s all about the journey, as they say, but when the journey feels dull, that’s not a good thing.
Combat is also part of Sam’s travels, but it’s not demanding or engaging. Multi-dimensional spirits called BTs rise from the ground and apparate from the air, but they feel more like nuisances than challenges – similar to random encounters in an RPG that cause you to swear more than lick your chops. Marauders called MULEs get physically tougher and have guns and trucks to hunt you down, but defeating them is easy, whether using guns, melee blows, or stealth. Don’t expect the ingenuity or problem-solving required in the Metal Gear series; enemies’ A.I. routines and reactions don’t enliven your interactions with them or encourage experimentation.
Sure, it’s fun to knock marauders down with a piece of luggage in your hand, but you can’t drive them from an area, their encampments are basic, and their loot (unless tied to a specific mission) isn’t particularly enticing since the items can be found elsewhere in the world. Combat is non-essential to the point that plain hoofing it is as effective as any weapon when dealing with both BTs and MULEs. Even the boss battles, if they can even be called that, are simple encounters of shooting and evading over multiple rounds. They lack the inventiveness and thrill of Kojima’s previous efforts, to say nothing of other games. This is a shame, because you can fabricate some pretty useful equipment, like grenade launchers and camouflage rocks you can hide under, despite an absence of compelling situations in which to apply them.
Overall, Death Stranding’s intertwining systems are well thought out. Rain and snow (called Timefall) damage everything they touch, so I like the sense of urgent survival when the weather report shows precipitation on the way. Building zip-lines and safe houses in useful areas is satisfying, especially since they augment the overall network of nodes that keep you supplied and aid your travels.
Death Stranding’s online connectivity is one of the game’s strengths, not only because other real-life players add useful items like ladders and warning signs to your world, but because it achieves what it tries to do: It creates bonds. I liked knowing I was helping others when I erected a bridge or anchored a rope at a key location, and enjoyed giving others praise for their efforts via the like system. Regardless, this sentiment wanes amidst the larger morass of routine.
That the game ultimately comes up short is unfortunate, because there were times when I was spurred on to complete my delivery mission. Coming over a ridge, reflecting on how far I’d come and knowing that I just had to make it across one final expanse before delivering my cargo felt like sweet relief at times. The game is also visually stunning, which helps when spending all that time traveling from one place to another.
Try as it might, Death Stranding’s story doesn’t shore up its faults. It’s the normal Kojima mix of twists-and-turns, tropes, and overbearing themes, but at least I like that it explores real-world topics like the theory of multiple dimensions and key events in the history of the planet’s biodiversity. Like Sam himself, I often wasn’t sure why I kept going in Death Stranding. Maybe there was a little bit of pride in another task checked off the list, another job done. Unfortunately, this added up to little reward in the end.
The game bears the unmistakable mark of its creator, but doesn't leave enough for players to enjoy.