Death Stranding Review: An unmissable melancholy masterpiece

Let me paint a picture of one of Death Stranding’s most evocative moments.

The mental weight of my mission sinking my tattered boots into the mud, I pulled hard on the triggers to steady my back-breaking load of precious cargo as shotgun shells rippled into Sam’s back.

The terrorists who had previously paved my road to ruin were gaining on me, and all I could do was hobble in agony towards the distant ridge, the same one I’d helplessly scrambled up too many times before.

As the phantom orange scanner pulsed over my cargo and sealed my fate, I could feel my heart beating hard above the stressed cries of my BB emanating from the DualShock in my palms, clearly haunted by the gunfire and hard landings that had led to this final desperate push.

That, my friends, Is Death Stranding. Kojima’s latest is a socially conscious, refreshingly nuanced open-world game about delivering cargo.

It thrives in the great in-between and deeply understands the beauty in overcoming adversity, pulling that emotional thread out of its spool and weaving it around a meticulously crafted world that somehow balances oppression and horror with a wistful melancholy.

For the past two and a half weeks, I can’t recall many days where I’ve not sat and sunk hours into it, even long after finishing its 35-hour campaign.

The gameplay loop is so pithy, so rife with unexpected chaos and electrifying discoveries that I struggled to pull myself away from it.

By zeroing in on the act of traversal (each of Sam’s limbs is tied to a DualShock trigger you can pull to make him steady) Kojima has applied his knack for overwhelming detail and turned the most banal part of modern open-world games into a refreshing revelation.

If you walk into a low-roofed building, cargo will break off and crunch against the floor, attributing damage.

If you’re sneaking in the long grass trying to silence MULEs with your hematic strand, they’ll spot you if your cargo is poorly stacked and peeking out above the brush.

It’s the thoughtful touches that make Death Stranding such a cut above the standard for modern open-world games, and we’re yet to even discuss its most ambitious and successful addition to the genre.

This is what Kojima has previously called the Social Strand System.

A means by which players can affect the world of other porters by placing down structures, sharing resources and working towards building wider systems that will make life easier for their peers.

There’s no negative interaction in Death Stranding, and even within the scope of the limited pool of press playing the game right now, it has enabled some fascinating empathetic behaviour.

If players notice that a mountain is hard to climb, they can leave a ladder or a climbing anchor.

If there’s an area covered in BTs, you can drop signs to coax others around it or go out of the way to build a nearby safe house where they can drop into the private room to recharge and rebuild before combat.

Auto-pavers with resource criteria are littered around the map, and when players come together to contribute enough metals and crystals, part of a gigantic road will be paved that can be linked between the main delivery hubs.

This is incentivized by the likes system, where players can give you points for your cleverly placed structures by tapping the touchpad, which affects your delivery stats, meaning it’s well worth selfless reciprocation if you want to leave behind a legacy.

Often I’d leave a Timefall Shelter in the middle of nowhere (a structure I’d desperately built to get out of the cargo-destroying rain) only to wake up the next morning and find I’d received thousands of likes from other players who’ve ended up in the exact same sticky spot as me, using my makeshift bastion as an important respite in their journey.

My favourite thing to do now I’m beyond the narrative is to go back to the start and create zipline routes through the areas that gave me trouble when I was still getting used to the controls.

I’ve become a pathfinder, figuring out new routes to help other players and building bridges to counteract the trauma I’ve felt when falling down the environment’s many chasms.

There’s that theme of connection once more – Kojima thrusting players together even though they can’t actually see each other.

As a system, it’s very hands-off and up to the users to make something of it, relying on the kindness of strangers.

There is no murder or betrayal, just hope for a better world, and the sentiment is a gust of fresh air.

Similarly, lethal combat is frowned upon and stacked against the player given that dead bodies necrotize and explode into craters, which means wading into terrorist territory is always exciting.

The map is designed as such that you can’t avoid danger whilst delivering, with electric spears hurtling towards your trike as you weave through busy camps and hack postboxes.

Once they’ve immobilized your vehicle, hordes of enemies will rush your position, leading to frantic battles to stay conscious as they prod your body and yank at your cargo, your only option to punch your way out and sacrifice your own cargo to batter the aggressors.

These sections are helped by some excellent sound design and a dynamic score that slowly builds in intensity when you approach danger.

The boss battles feel very different to those that you may be used to from Kojima’s back catalogue given Sam’s toolset.

To address this issue the Kojima Productions team has thought their way around those design challenges and made the non-lethal result exciting in a different fashion.

Kind of like when you fight one of the more atypical bosses in From Software’s Souls series.

You’ll also use your BB pod to manage your breath and wade through tar as Beached Things attempt to pull you down into The Seam and create an eternal crater in the map.

The way their giant handprints rush towards you is enough to make anyone's skin crawl.

Watching the procession of gooey spirits grip your limbs and pull you down into their unholy communal ectoplasm is seriously frightening, made worse by the yelps of your chest-bound infant.

There’s a lot of silly self-referential humour in Death Stranding, mainly from the famous preppers that litter the map and act as your delivery stations, ports where you pick up and deliver cargo.

The point of the game is to connect this broken America by seeking out and coaxing these once-social recluses into your cause.

One of my favourites was a real-life ex-Famitsu editor shifting “Tactical Action Games” to create a new video game magazine in the post-apocalypse.

He even has a crude painting of a 90s Sonic-esque mascot outside of his cave.

Death Stranding has a welcome lightheartedness to it then, and as I chugged Monster Energy from my canteen and learned harmonica to comfort my BB, I recalled how The Phantom Pain also managed to balance an affecting campaign and a variety of difficult themes with some genuine humour and silliness, creating a more rounded study of the human experience.

Let me get one thing straight though: Death Stranding is no stranger to thematic difficulty and pulls no punches with its politics.

As well as doling out moments of anguish and unbridled humanity in the campaign, its politics are specially developed in the Interviews section.

This acts as a vent for the game’s many characters to come and talk about societal woes analogous to our own.

From president’s building walls to keep immigrants out, declining birth rates, dysmorphia, mental health and the limits of Death Stranding’s own in-universe power structures.

It’s all handled with care and succeeds in imparting the message that this seemingly unimaginable world isn’t so far from our own.

In terms of what the game is trying to say, you may think that the more nonsensical sights and concepts might muddle its core message, but it still somehow manages to succeed in delivering it with such great impact.

Balancing hopelessness with hope in a way that I truly wasn’t expecting, a cathartic and welcome feeling in our divided and troubled times, where there are no easy answers to our problems.

Weirdly, I found it affected me in the same vein as Tetris Effect’s Journey Mode, a story with a lot of similar ground about how the human spirit will always persist, complemented by audio-visual synaesthesia.

The emotional language of this game is so difficult to translate into words, but its ambition is undeniable.

It's earnest longing to bring us together without mincing its words or politics about our collective social situation is what makes it stand out so far from its peers.

To speak on the main cast and the narrative, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better ensemble to deliver this tale.

Norman Reedus’ stoic, emotionally-stunted play of Sam complements Troy Bakers’ heel turn as the mischievous nihilist Higgs, whose tale of reckless philosophic antagonism is inherently woven into the story of Lea Seydoux’s Fragile, herself responsible for some of Death Stranding’s most powerful scenes.

Jesse Corti does a wonderful job embodying Guillermo Del Toro’s quirky skinsuit in Deadman, and Mads Mikkelsen’s emotional range is in absolutely fine form in the digital realm.

Graphics wise the Decima Engine sings.

It is by far the best looking game I’ve played this generation.

I don’t wish to divulge much about the story here given that you should absolutely enter this game blind, but the narrative is full of clever twists and turns and imparts an unbeatable malaise that will effortlessly push your curious mind further and further into the heart of Death Stranding’s darkness.

The game’s final act is an emotional whirlwind.

Kojima’s poetic affinity for set piece-based linear storytelling shining through and permeating this impeccable open world, with playful echoes of his previous work on the mainline Metal Gear Solid games on display.

The only part which didn’t quite writhe out the emotional response in me that I think the game wanted to was Sam’s relationship with Amelie.

A heartstring that I felt was never quite tugged properly, even though the character was wholly necessary for weaving this epic narrative together.

The cinematic style in which the team has approached each cutscene echoes Kojima’s famous influences.

The arresting close-up work of David Lynch to burn surreal nightmares into your mind’s eye is combined with an understanding of space, framing and archaeological storytelling, where the player is left inquisitive and wondering after every discrete episode, tasked with piecing together a story from a number of unusual moving parts.

Of course, just like in Twin Peaks or Mulholland Drive, the answers aren’t always easy or as concrete as you may hope, but (and this may hurt the wiki-trawling modern masses) it isn’t the job of a creative to explain the meaning of their art in verbose fashion.

In fact, it often ruins the beauty of it, and operating in the aforementioned ‘great in-between’ whilst still keeping you hanging on the edge of your seat is one of Kojima’s greatest gifts, executed to great effect in his latest project.

Death Stranding is a collage of Kojima’s curiosity down to the particulars of the fashion and equipment you can pick up, and the team knows when and where to let the scene breathe and have the player feel the correct amount of ambience, a skill learned from the media Kojima loves, from hallmarks of 80s sci-fi to Neon Genesis Evangelion.

All of this is repurposed and packaged in a way that feels extremely special in-game.

Particularly, the use of licensed music to complement some of its most powerful moments, when the camera zooms out and you’re left wandering against the elements feels entirely unique, creating heart-thumping moments of bliss that I won’t be forgetting for a long time.

Death Stranding Review – 5/5

Reviewed on PS4 Pro

Death Stranding is the most unique big-budget game I’ve ever played, a socially-minded injection of inventive ideas into a genre that has long survived by being lazy and brutish. This ambitious formula-flipper is brimming with empathy and carefully courts cinematic influences, an ensemble cast and a world of eye-watering scale, delivering a sticky gameplay loop to tie it all together and create a console generation-defining experience.

All of this is complemented by an epic narrative and a meticulously melancholy world that carefully reflects the endangered society we live in, somehow using the surreal and imaginative elements debuted in trailers to deliver impactful truths and commentary about our divided world. Once more Kojima has proven himself as a brave game maker with boundary-probing ideas that will advance and influence the space for years to come.

The Good

  • A rich understanding of cinematic principles and a stellar cast results in a nuanced, affecting narrative
  • The gorgeous, oppressive world balances heavy gloom and hope to leave a lasting impression
  • A remarkable body of music soundtracks a series of tear-jerking moments, with emotion layered carefully into the sticky gameplay loop
  • Best in class graphics thanks to the stunning detail afforded by the Decima engine

The Bad

  • I’ve played it all and I’m desperate for more

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