Death Stranding review: Grueling journey doesn't do its universe justice
For better or worse, there is nothing in this world quite like a Hideo Kojima game.
Mark SerrelsEditorial Director
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If you asked me to sum up my thoughts on Death Stranding in less than a minute, I'd have no choice. I'd have to do it chronologically, literally taking you hour by hour through the game as I experienced it.
I'd probably say that during Death Stranding's opening hour, I was enthralled, fighting back tears. Gobsmacked at the world building, the aesthetics and -- surprisingly -- the efficient, restrained writing.
Then I'd explain that I spent my next 12 hours in Death Stranding making a sport of absolutely hating it. The pure indulgence, the audacity of what it asks of players: to essentially ferry boxes back and forth in a world empty of challenge, personality or even a half decent set of stakes.
But then I'd say that, around 15 hours in, something weird happened. My lizard brain -- in an attempt to somehow make sense of the time spent brainlessly trudging through this universe -- slowly began to convince me I was enjoying the experience.
By hours 20 to 30, I was in the full grip of a powerful Stockholm Syndrome. Not only was I enjoying the brain dead labor of Death Stranding's endless, grueling fetch quests, but my internal dialogue was lauding them with hyperbolic praise. I was in love.
Then, a final twist: In the final hours, the fever dream broke. Death Stranding sent me on the fetch quest to end all fetch quests, and it broke me. Topping it off with a head-spinning ending that was equal parts baffling and sublime.
Days later, when people ask me if I enjoyed Death Stranding, I don't even know where to begin. I'm not even sure enjoyment is the point.
Stakes are high
Death Stranding is the latest game by Hideo Kojima, a Lynchian auteur working with Hollywood-size budgets to create insane interactive experiences that veer erratically between ham-fisted soap opera indulgence and genius-infused, self-aware subversions of common video game tropes.
For better or worse, there is nothing in this world quite like a Hideo Kojima game.
In response, Hideo Kojima has done the most Hideo Kojima thing possible: He has created Death Stranding, a video game where you play as a delivery man, "connecting" America via the act of carrying boxes to and from empty warehouses miles apart from one another. In a world where the phrase 'fetch-quest' is a pejorative, Kojima has made a video game that's essentially one gigantic fetch quest.
No one could ever accuse him of cowardice.
Kojima calls Death Stranding a "new type of action game" focused almost exclusively around the broad theme of making "connections." You play as Sam Bridges, a man trying to reconstruct a post-apocalyptic America, while tethered to a portable fetus (called BB) who aids you in avoiding invisible spirits (called BTs). Quite regularly you will have to disconnect this fetus from your body and literally rock your PlayStation 4 controller to soothe the fetus to sleep after encounters with these invisible spirits.
It sounds insane and it is insane, but the act of explaining Death Stranding almost robs it of its power. This is a deliberately constructed video game universe, and it's spectacular in its scope and execution. The closest analogue is perhaps
: Fury Road. Both feature bonkers world building that somehow make sense in context. Both are the end result of untethered imaginations running wild without borders.
But unlike Mad Max: Fury Road, Death Stranding fails. And it fails because, moment to moment, it's an underdeveloped video game experience that never quite lives up to the universe it exists in.
Death Stranding's opening 12 hours are near unforgivable. I suspect they will break most players, particularly those used to the systemically dense experience of Kojima's Metal Gear Solid games.
Death Stranding is set in a desolate world almost completely absent of all life. It's a dead, empty landscape, and it's your job to traverse that landscape, to take packages from point A to point B. That's it. That's pretty much it.
Later (much later) Death Stranding will find ways to challenge players in this endeavor, to make those journeys a little more compelling. But in the beginning, it's as simple as pushing forward on your analogue stick and churning through.
Which is fine. I've played and loved so-called "walking sims" like Dear Esther or Gone Home. I've also played and loved games with luxurious pacing. This is different. This is 10 plus hours of banal, obtuse terrain traversal that drained me of all enthusiasm and life.
The main issue is this: Death Stranding is bad at walking. In a game primarily focused on walking, that's a problem. Sam Bridges' animations feel clunky and inconsistent and only sporadically communicate the weight of making endless footsteps in the wasteland. It's all a bit rough.
There are flashes of the tactile animations necessary to make a game like Death Stranding work. On steep surfaces Sam Bridges gets on all fours and literally crawls up inclines. When descending, Sam grasps onto his oversize backpack, leans back and fights against the terrifying momentum of hurtling down the side of a mountain at top speeds.
These moments feel incredible but are few and far between. You'll spend the vast majority of your time in Death Standing's opening sections running clumsily at full speed, alternating to a jog when your stamina runs low. Occasionally you might trip jankily, clipping over rocks or wading through rivers. But for the majority of those opening 10 hours Death Stranding feels like an oppressively dull jaunt through the mountains.
Death Stranding sorely misses the sheer density of Kojima's previous work. Metal Gear Solid was a series that made every single step feel meaningful, video games you could prod and marvel at the way they prodded back. That magic is absent in Death Stranding and, in what is essentially a simple game about doing simple things, that absence is noteworthy.
What could have been
In the snow, Death Stranding is pure magic.
Stranded on the side of an impossibly steep mountain face, buried waist deep, a 60kg body bag strapped to your back. Low on stamina, low on resources, desperately wading through the white-out.
Everything, the stakes, the incredible detail of the environment, the sound design, the difficulty of the task ahead of you -- all contribute to the intensity of this extremely pure adventure experience. You pick yourself up, dust yourself off. A haunting song fades in and you start moving again.
There are sustained sections of Death Stranding when it becomes the video game it could have been.
As part of the "connection" theme weaved throughout Death Stranding, players can construct permanent structures that appear in other players' worlds. A ladder placed in your game could potentially be used by another player in their version of Death Stranding. You can build roads, safehouses, even ziplines and players can take advantage of them in their journey through the game.
For the majority of the Death Stranding this mechanic feels disconnected from the core task of traipsing from point A to point B, but in the snowy mountains those structures become a core element of your actual survival. It makes Death Stranding click in completely unexpected ways. When struggling through the snow, stamina at an all-time low, equipment deteriorated, a player-built zipline feels like a lifeline. The relief you feel as you soar past 200 meters of rugged mountain terrain is so tangible you can taste it. God bless you xXxNAKEDSNAKE1989xXx. You saved my life.
Watch this: E3 2018: Lengthy Death Stranding preview revealed
A bridge too far
The world of Death Stranding is unlike any space you've seen up until this point.
You've been in dense jungle canopies, sparse desert environments, boiling lava worlds -- but you've never explored a world like Death Stranding.
It's difficult to communicate precisely why, but the art direction -- the type of rocks, the layout, the mountain terrain in general -- Death Stranding's world is an original, organic creation unlike anything I've experienced. There's an authenticity to it missing in 99% of other video games.
But it's ultimately an empty space devoid of life.
Part of the reason Death Stranding feels like such a grueling grind is the lack of payoff. Plenty of open world games feature long bouts of laborious adventuring through sparse terrains, but most reward players on the other end. With characters to interact with or cities to explore. In Death Stranding you walk from gigantic metal box to another, slightly different metal box. You deliver one faceless package, pick up the next faceless package and start all over again.
I suspect some will argue that's the point. That the drudge is part of some Lynchian masterplan to obfuscate meaning and engross players in the cruel grind of walking from one spot to the next. That Kojima is deliberately delaying gratification to make some sort of statement about gaming's tendency to over-cater to its audience. I say it's hard to argue a game with such obnoxious product placement could be called an "art game" (in Death Stranding you literally chug Monster Energy to regain stamina).
Others might read this review and say, "this is exactly what I was hoping for, more Kojima weirdness." Kojima has the kind of cult-like following that overlooks many of his sins. I should know; I'm part of the cult. I'm the kind of guy that defends Metal Gear Solid 4 in polite company and, as CNET's resident Hideo Kojima apologist, I can honestly say I also was looking forward to a languidly paced video game that challenged its audience in myriad ways, but Death Stranding, literally and figuratively, is a bridge too far.
For all of its excesses (an all-star cast featuring Norman Reedus, Mads Mikkelsen and, bizarrely, Conan O' Brien), Death Stranding feels like a video game made to a tight deadline, with sacrifices made along the way. The animations, the repetitive nature of the quests and "cities" all seem to suggest Death Stranding was a game that didn't quite have the resources (or more likely time) to make good on the potential of its high concepts.
Yet when Death Stranding sings it truly sings. There's never been anything like it. Alone, stuck in the wilderness, freezing to death with a 60kg dead weight strapped to your back, inches from oblivion. Stumbling blindly toward that lifeline, toward a connection to another player -- a person you'll never meet. In those moments Death Stranding successfully blends theme and content. It truly does become a game about connection, and it's a beautiful thing.
Because no matter how frustrating Death Stranding becomes, it never lets you shake the feeling that we're all stuck in this nightmare together.