Rewalking the Path
Death Stranding is quite literally one of my favorite games of all time. My favorite games are the ones that I always return to sooner or later. However, until recently, I never went back to Death Stranding, despite the fact that I had, at one point purchased the Directors Cut.
The reason is pretty simple. The game lacks any type of challenge, even on the hardest difficulty, and not because it’s an easy game. But because many aspects of it quite literally feel out of place and break the very core of what Death Stranding is. On my first playthrough, they were just an annoyance, but they made a second playthrough very unappealing.
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These aspects are not bugs or exploits. They are fundamental features of Death Stranding that feel like an intentional sacrifice of the game’s integrity to improve its mass appeal. This is unfortunately common in modern AAA gaming these days. But it feels exceptionally out of place in Death Stranding because the game is incredibly far from being a mainstream game. You can’t get more niche than a literal walking transport sim about ghosts and vat-housed babies connected to the afterlife.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Hideo Kojima himself wasn’t particularly happy about the way some of these mechanisms saw their final implementation. The reason I feel this way is pretty simple. I finally played through Death Stranding again by ignoring or outright refusing to use those broken aspects. The kicker is, that the game not only remained functional from start to finish. It played even better than it did the first time.
The Two Button Game Breaker
The first of my “house rules” so to speak, was to never hold L2+R2 to steady myself. This is by far the most glaringly strange issue I found with the game. Death Stranding teaches it to you, as one of the game fundamentals, but it totally breaks the game.
By holding both buttons at the same time, Sam steadies himself. While doing so he will not trip or stumble regardless of the terrain. He moves through rivers without issue, and should you slip down a hill, he catches himself. In exchange, you move a bit slower, that’s it. It’s not exactly a high price to pay in return for never losing your balance.
You don’t even have to hold it the whole time. Simply press and hold both buttons the moment you stumble, and Sam will stabilize himself. It feels like a cheat code or an accessibility option that you can’t turn off. That becomes obvious the moment you try to play without it.
If Sam stumbles and you don’t use it. You can still save yourself from the fall by slowing your pace and trying to guide Sam away from rocks or other rough terrain. If you slide down a hill, you can use the triggers individually to guide his descent. When it comes to rivers, you can cross them faster but must manage your stamina to prevent him from being swept away. When climbing a hill, you can simply control your pace to manage your stamina. Instead of becoming immune to the effects by holding both triggers.
It felt like this is how Death Stranding was actually designed to be played. You still have the control to try and avoid actually falling down. But there’s room for error, so you actually can fall down. It incentivizes you to be more careful about the paths you take, rather than simply holding the buttons without a care in the world about where you’re planting your feet. You actually have to manage your loads, care about your stamina, and what gear you’re carrying or using.
There’s only one real exception. Sometimes when Sam stands still or gets up from the ground, he will fall backward. It’s meant to be a small thing that can catch you off guard. In my 80-hour second playthrough, that was the only time I ever used both triggers to stabilize myself. The game was far more enjoyable for it.
To say that the online features are central to Death Stranding’s messaging would be an understatement. However, aspects of its so-called strand system simply go too far at times. Once a region is connected to the chiral network, structures from other players begin to show up, and in large numbers.
It would be okay if it was a rare occurrence. But the reality is that optimal paths between delivery points will already have bridges and other structures laid out for you. Delivery at this point becomes less of an exercise in planning, preparation, and caution, and more of simply holding the left stick until you arrive.
There are a couple of options here. You can keep online enabled but disable the sharing of structures, signs, and vehicles. I like this option a lot. You still get to interact with other players through cargo and boss fights, but without them breaking the game. There is one problem though. Other players will eventually build the entire network of roads for you, without you lifting a finger. (I have more to say on roads later).
The other option is to play offline entirely. I started offline, but I eventually went with the first option, so I could enjoy a bit of connectivity with my fellow porters. The fact that I didn’t have every obstacle in my world solved or overcome by another player made my entire playthrough far more engaging. The strand system doesn’t feel like a cheat code in the same way that holding both triggers does. It simply feels as though it goes too hard into its connectivity.
If timefall degraded structures quicker, it might be a non-issue. But as it stands, my early structures didn’t truly start falling apart until the tail end of my 80-hour playthrough, which is slow enough to be entirely inconsequential.
The Road to Everywhere
Since I started my playthrough offline, I had to build roads on my own and I reasoned that using the roads might be a good reward for doing so. But I eventually chose to ignore roads altogether, whether they were already built or not. The first time you play Death Stranding, it serves a great purpose of collective cooperation between players and is a major reward of convenience once you complete them. But attempting to play Death Stranding again reveals their reality.
Since the completed road system spans almost the entire map. A great many deliveries become a game of getting in a vehicle and holding the gas pedal down until you arrive. It’s the least engaging part of the Death Stranding. Not only do you pass over all of the complicated terrain, but BT’s Mules and Terrorists pose no threat to you as you zoom down the highway.
I haven’t completed every single delivery, yet at least. But I never found one that required me to use roads in order to get the Legends of Legend of Legend rating. I simply had to get creative at times to make the cut. The roads simply bypass far too much of the gameplay.
Heck, vehicles themselves can do that at times, even without roads. But they are somewhat of an exception. Driving vehicles over rough and dangerous terrain takes a lot of practice, and skill to do it effectively, which means you’re still engaged with the gameplay, not passively holding down the acceleration button until you arrive.
It should go without saying, but I played Death Stranding Directors Cut on the very hard difficulty. It helps mitigate an issue I have with the BTs. The fact that they are simply too easy to sneak past. The difficulty doesn’t seem to make the BTs any more aware. However, it does make Timefall deteriorate your cargo and gear exceptionally fast.
You simply don’t have the kind of time to slowly sneak through a BT-infested area. You have to play it a little fast and loose, which means packing Anti-BT weapons and more conflict with the BTs as well as trying to find alternate routes around timefall-ridden areas.
I highly recommend playing on very hard, and temporarily turning down the difficulty when you’re faced with sections where you battle Cliff and his soldiers. Those sections are really tough and somewhat disconnected from the rest of the game.
For my playthrough, I also opted to never use the canteen. Having an item that refills your stamina and recharges with Timefall, snow, or rivers, all of which are common, seemed excessive.
Simply for my own enjoyment, I also never used the bola gun, as it tended to trivialize Mule encounters.
Tying Your Own Knots
There’s a term in board gaming called house ruling, where some folks will add or modify rules to better enjoy a game. PC gamers make use of mods to enhance their experience, and different types of challenge runs have been popularized throughout the gaming sphere forever. This is really no different. Sometimes setting a restriction or following a set of your own made-up rules can make a game more enjoyable.
There are plenty of games I couldn’t get into without such restrictions. In Death Stranding’s case, it seems that using these house rules actually brings you closer to the game’s spirit, rather than away from it. If you enjoy the delivery gameplay of Death Stranding, I definitely believe the restrictions I outlined are the correct way to play it, at least on a second playthrough.
You may also enjoy my review of Death Stranding.