Death Stranding is an interesting game. It’s a big name triple A title that scoffs at mainstream appeal. The game-play will absolutely not connect with everyone. That doesn’t make it bad by any means, but it is incredibly rare to see that done in one of the biggest releases of a generation. For the sake of this review, I need to spoil some game-play aspects, but I keep story spoilers to a minimum.
You play as Sam Porter Bridges, a porter in a post-apocalyptic world. You primarily haul cargo between destinations. These can range from small parcels of medicine, large batches of machinery and everything in between.
How you accomplish this is the primary focus of the game. In most titles, travel and traversal are something you do in between missions. You hold a thumb-stick down and think about what’s for dinner until you get there. In Death Stranding, the environment and traversal are full of game-play mechanics to keep you engaged. It’s not only about moving cargo, but you also need to protect it from damage and in some cases deliver it so fast that you put Amazon prime to shame.
Death Stranding has plenty of action, gunfights, and epic boss battles. You can seek out more or less of it at your own discretion. You choose and plan your routes. It is up to you whether or not to pass through danger or to take another path, one over cliffs and mountains perhaps or over deep rivers and rocky terrain. The choice of which obstacles to tackle, and how will be ever-present in your mind.
The entire time you are accompanied by the strand system, a seamless online integration where you never meet another player, but always feel their presence. You may find and deliver their dropped cargo, use bridges that they have built and give them likes for it. They may do the same for you.
Death Stranding has plenty of action, but its scripted moments are spaced out. It isn’t a game you play if you require constant stimulation. It is one you play to relax and get immersed inside of. The adrenaline-filled moments that break it up are that much more memorable because they don’t happen every minute. It’s isn’t perfect though and I tackle my issues with it toward the bottom of the review.
However, it is important to remember that much like this review, in Death Stranding, the journey is just as important as the destination.
The story is insane, emotional and will stick with you long past the end of the game. The voice acting, or in the case of many characters just acting, is stellar. The entire cast does a great job from beginning to end. As off-the-wall as some of the plot lines are, it remains cohesive. Nearly everything is explained either in the massive amount of cut scenes or the text you can unlock via letters and interviews. The explanations may be equally as batty, but it’s there.
The game does have a habit of dumping an incredible amount of exposition on you though. Many of the stories underlying messages slam you across the face with the subtlety of a wrecking ball. For his own part, the protagonist Sam is likable but far too quiet and moody for my tastes.
There is a ton of unlockable lore, but if you follow along closely you will understand most of it by the end. Death Stranding has a ton of cutscenes and they are always welcome when they show up after a long delivery. It isn’t just the story itself that makes it great, but how it is delivered to you and how many small snippets you receive throughout the game. There are a lot of secrets and easter eggs you can discover.
The world of Death Stranding is one of mystery that begs to be explored. I always found myself interested to learn about the nature of the craziness, from the ghostly BT’s, to the bridge babies. The ending sequence of events is very lengthy. Each moment you think it’s ending, the game continues on. It was one of the most enthralling set of events I’ve experienced in a game, from both a cinematic and game-play perspective.
No Porter In A Storm
The core of the game is about making deliveries. You choose what orders to take, what gear to bring along and paths to traverse. You can open up your map at any time and draw routes along it. The more weight you carry, the greater the effect on your stamina and balance.
It also matters how the weight is distributed on your body. Carrying a heavy load and turning can tilt you to one side. You have to use the triggers to keep your weight balanced or you could have an accident hurting yourself and scattering your cargo everywhere, possibly down a mountain or in a river.
The terrain itself can be smooth or rough and cause Sam to slip or trip. Sam has a more difficult time dealing with his load the lower his stamina depletes. An endurance gauge appears over the stamina bar in tough situations such as crossing a river or climbing, if it runs out Sam loses his ability to bear the load, often with disastrous results.
You will traverse a varied set of environments each with their own challenges, from rocky terrain, rivers, mud, and snow. You can bring along gear to help you, such as ladders to use as makeshift bridges or to reach cliffs, ropes climbing down from heights and more. If you can carry enough metal, you can build full structural bridges across large gaps.
As you play the game you are constantly drip-fed new tools and weapons. You can gain and upgrade more by doing other deliveries and increasing your connection levels. Every new addition is exciting in the ways it might alter how you play. The first time you gain the ability to fabricate a skeletal suit, vehicle or new weapon feels great. Deciding what gadgets to bring along is part of the strategy. A power suit to a carry more? A PCC to construct buildings? Weapons to fight off danger?
The environment and traversal mechanics play a large part in the game. It won’t appeal to everyone. I like to compare it to farming crops in Stardew Valley, it is either for you, or it isn’t. It struck a chord with me. I really enjoyed simply getting around the beautiful environments. The mechanics make it so I never get bored doing so. I have to plan my routes and figure out how to get to my destination while keeping the cargo intact with best or fastest way to do that.
Some deliveries pile you with heavy cargo while others bury you in a bundle of lighter boxes. Fragile cargo requires extra care while some can’t be submerged in water. Pizzas, yes pizzas, must be kept flat. Some deliveries have a time limit while others have more variables. Combining these factors with my gear and route choices kept the game loop engaging.
It’s not just getting from A to B, I have to figure out how. I have to keep my weight balanced and stop myself if I trip. It is up to me to figure out what dangers or terrain I’m willing to risk and how to deal with them. The mechanics of these aspects are incredibly refined. It is a take on traveling I would have never thought of, but since playing it, I can’t help but feel I will miss these mechanics when traversing other open-world games.
The terrain isn’t your only foe however, you must also contend with BT’s MULES, t
You can choose to plan your routes through or around danger, but it is inevitable you will encounter them at some point. Timefall is a type of rain or snow that will severely damage cargo and structures within it. You do gain some ability to predict Timefall patterns though. More importantly, some Timefalls are accompanied by BT’s, the ghostly creatures of the game.
If your bridge baby is okay (it can become sick) your suit will extend an arm and start clapping in the direction of the nearest one. When one is particularly close it will start spinning and you can hold your breath to avoid detection. If you stay still, you can see them, or aspects of them floating in the air. But they are invisible while you move. If one finds you, it will give chase.
The way a BT attacks is a three-fold process. While undetected you may sneak through an infested area, if discovered they will give chase and attempt to drag you down. You can still escape, but if they bring you down they take you away and start the third process. I won’t spoil it, but you are still able to flee or fight.
BT encounters can be intense and thrilling. Early on you can’t do much but sneak and run, but you do gain access to anti-BT weapons later and can fight back.
The MULES and terrorists are human foes. If you enter their territory MULES will attempt to steal your cargo or knock you out. They attack with non-lethal weaponry while terrorists just try to kill you outright. You can sneak around and even knock them out via stealth, assuming they didn’t ping your cargo or location.
Again you gain access to non-lethal and lethal weaponry you can employ. In a pinch, you can parry and launch melee attacks. You can also just straight-up throw a package at them as well. That never gets old. Interestingly the human foes will attempt to flank Sam and use their numbers to their advantage. They can also trip and stumble just like you.
The game handles the use of lethal weaponry in a very interesting way as well. But it does present you with the option. The gun-play, combat and stealth mechanics are all solid. There are also a couple of mechanics regarding
These dangers add to the number of things you need to consider when making a delivery. You can choose to bring extra gear to deal with them, sneak through them or try and avoid them altogether.
Strands and Likes
Death Stranding features a seamless cooperative multiplayer system. As you play you will encounter ladders, ropes, and structures left by other players, though you will never meet one directly. The stuff you leave may appear in other players’ worlds and you can leave each other likes for it.
Likes are present through the entire game, you are rewarded with likes for most actions and are your primary payment for completing deliveries. Your total doesn’t matter much. It is a personal counter of your accomplishments. However, when you receive them as part of a delivery they are counted toward your connection rating to that specific place. Raising your connection unlocks new upgrades and customization options. It also affects your porter rating in several categories, such as volume and bridge link.
Raising these essentially levels Sam up. Increasing your bridge links allows you to give more likes and issue more supply requests to other players. Increasing the volume rating will let Sam carry more weight for example. When a player finds something of yours, it will show your ranks and ratings as well as how many legend, or legend of legends, deliveries you have made. That reward is granted by taking on premium versions of standard deliveries that are more difficult.
It is a lonely world in Death Stranding, but the presence of your fellow porters is always with you. You can share gear through shared lockers. Find and use buildings and vehicles left by others and even deliver lost cargo on behalf of another player. You can leave signs for each other, showing dangers, ideas or just encouragement.
You can construct many buildings in the game, bridges, generators, shelters and more. Other players can help with constructing, upgrading and repairing them if they come across them in their world. Everything in the world decays over time.
Road routes are in fixed positions but can be built by delivering enough materials such as metal. Materials are used to fabricate gear and upgrade buildings. Pieces of the road require a large number of resources, often daunting alone. However, players work seamlessly together to build them, making them usable for the community.
There are no dislikes in Death Stranding. It is a cooperative effort between porters. It is a very positive experience I’d like to see more of. Getting the alert that someone used my bridge or a road I helped build feels good, more so when they leave me likes for it. There is even a late game event that plays on the social strand aspect spectacularly. The concept pushes you to think not only about what is helpful to you, but what could you place that would help others in your shoes?
Death Stranding is nearly perfect in the execution of its vision. Not everyone will enjoy the delivery system. But many will, those that do are given a refined and gorgeous game with very addictive gameplay. I’ll tell you now, I nearly gave it a 10/10 if it weren’t for this one issue.
The lack of challenge. I played on hard mode and simply found that much of the game was to easy. This matters because the difficulty isn’t simply a preference in Death Stranding, it affects much of the underlying mechanics.
First of all, you can ignore the entire balance aspect by holding down both triggers to center yourself. There is no penalty for do doing this, except maybe a finger cramp. You will never trip or need to balance yourself while you hold it down. It is a really odd mechanic, it feels like an accessibility feature and probably should have been in the options menu.
If you hold the triggers while running everywhere you vastly reduce your engagement with the environment and traversal. Deliveries are the meat of the game and I could see it becoming a mindless slog this way. Luckily this is easily ignored. Don’t hold the triggers, tap them to catch yourself but don’t hold them unless absolutely necessary.
Materials are plentiful. You gain a lot by simply completing deliveries. Despite the fact, I helped build most of the roads on my map. I always had enough to fabricate any gear I ever needed. I never need to pick up and turn in metal from the world, nor did I ever need to take anything that another player provided in the shared locker.
The most painful piece of this problem, however, is the BT’s. My first few encounters with them were thrilling. I literally fell down a mountain screaming obscenities my first time. However, once I figured out the mechanics, they became trivial. The fact of the matter is, they are nearly blind to you. If you are crouched you practically have to touch them to be spotted. Even without gear, you can get through the infested zones easily.
Should you get attacked, it is simple to get away and even if it progresses to phase 3, escape isn’t that difficult. Escaping or winning in phase 3 ends the time fall in the area for a while. Once you have weapons, it can be faster to simply get caught and fight, then it is to sneak through. Yet sneaking through is trivial anyway.
The BT’s are integral to the world and theme of the game. The moment they lose that feeling of fear and unease, the overlying theme of the game dies a little with it. Not to mention that the game-play banks on your ability to manage cargo and gear. If you can simply ignore an entire category of gear because you won’t need it to get by the BT’s, the cargo game takes a hit as well.
Furthermore, aspects such as the roads feel like an amazing community project, but can again harm the cargo game. The roads don’t lead everywhere, but if two destinations are connected to a road. Delivery between them is as easy as driving there.
Danger such as BT’s don’t accost you on the road. So even if you are on foot, getting to one bypasses both terrain and danger. It’s very important for the player to remain engaged during the delivery, or the concept falls apart. The roads kill engagement the same way that holding both triggers does.
I can’t understate how big of an issue the lack of challenge is, it impacts a lot of the game. Yet that is the only real issue I have with Death Stranding. It is dang near perfectly executed in its design. It’s gorgeous, well written, and cinematic. The music is stellar, the world is immersive and the gameplay is phenomenal.
No, not everyone will enjoy the gameplay, phenomenal or not. If you think a game is only good if everyone likes it, you may want to take a long hard look at the most played games and see if you still feel the same way.
The deliveries themselves, raising ratings and accumulating likes is very addictive. I fully understand the psychology behind it. It targets several aspects of the human psyche to trigger dopamine boosts. The concept is used in many games, but you need to understand that Death Stranding has no microtransactions, no ulterior motive to arouse your dopamine receptors.
It’s an entertainment product that makes you feel good for playing it with no shady side effect. So I say hit me! It harkens back to what games used to be, where you played for the fun of it and your own high scores. At the same time, it still feeds you with new upgrades, cosmetics and lore for completing the delivery.
Aside from the well-designed traversal, Death Stranding features a story that will stick with you, great game-play set pieces and epic boss fights. There is plenty of action in this game, it is just set to a pace many aren’t used to. More importantly, all of the spinning gears that make up the game are done so in a cohesive, fun and well-designed manner, barring the easy difficulty.
The difficulty issue alone wasn’t enough to deter me, I’ve completed the game and I am still playing it. It is that fun. I want every single one of those legends of legends ratings. I will be the best porter there ever was. Screw you Phillip J Fry. Look at me, I’m the delivery boy now!
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- Gorgeous visuals and the actors really spring to life on screen
- Varied environments with different obstacles, all beautiful
- Incredibly interesting world, story, and lore to get lost in
- Great and engaging traversal game-play turns dull travel into fun deliveries
- Well-paced action is thrilling and the mechanics are solid
- The social strand system is a great, seamless and positive experience, the kind of positivity we need more of
- Lots of gear, gadgets, weapons and features
- One of the most exciting ending sequences this reviewer has ever played
- Dopamine hits all around
- Exposition is far to heavy at times
- The lack of challenge impacts many mechanics negatively.