Death Stranding is a game that has divided many players. It’s certainly not a run of the mill, cookie cutter experience, something we’ve come to expect from many of the bigger budget games these days. As a result Kojima Productions is treading in unknown territory with their ambitious project and that is a refreshing change.
It’s hard not to talk about the story when we are dealing with Death Stranding since it’s such an integral part of the experience, but it’s for that same reason I don’t want to talk about specifics of the story. Death Stranding is best experienced without prior knowledge of what it has in store for you, so I will refrain from including any spoilers. For this review I’m going to be focusing primarily on the gameplay aspects of Death Stranding and what kind of experience it has been, at least for, me as an entire package.
In a nutshell, there was an event known as the Death Stranding, which has opened seams to the place between the world of the living and the world of the dead, known as Beaches.
In the places where the two worlds mix, Chiral matter exists and causes something called Timefall. It’s essentially rain or snow that causes the rapid aging of anything it comes into contact with, and is populated with BTs (Beached Things; entities whose souls are trapped in the world of the living following the events of the Death Stranding).
If these BTs consume people or if a human dies, it causes a voidout, a huge explosion leaving a massive crater in its wake, enough to level an entire city (a reaction between the antimatter of the BTs and the normal world).
Life after the event is dangerous. Dead people need to be incinerated before necrosis (killing people is a pretty bad idea obviously) and encountering BTs is incredibly risky. As a result, people stay in underground cities, waystations and bunkers to avoid risk. In this new world everyone is separated, and it’s the job of porters to make sure people get what they need.
You play as Sam “Bridges” Porter, one of these porters, and are reluctantly commissioned by the president to join Bridges (a porter company) to travel West across the country in order to reconnect separated bases to the Chiral network. The Chiral network is basically like the internet 2.0, using strands to send information via the beaches to other locations in the real world. This network allows for instantaneous data transfer, syncing holograms, and sharing of stored data. The idea is to connect all the cities (knots) again and thus restore the United Cities of America. You’ll be making deliveries to and reconnecting all these bases to the network at some point, most of which have their own side stories.
What struck me when I started was the visuals as the game looks great. There are vistas around every corner, and they’ve really managed to create a place with a lot of atmosphere. There were so many moments I just needed to stop and take it all in. Thankfully, the game has a pretty robust photo mode that allows you to capture all those moments.
The first and dare I say “main” aspect of the game is delivering cargo and connecting location to the Chiral network as you travel West across the United States. Most of these places offer 2 types of missions; those that progress the story forward and some randomly generated missions that require you to deliver cargo to various stations in the area. (“standard” missions, and premium deliveries which are both unlocked a little later in the game). Delivering Cargo to a station will improve your reputation with them. There are a total of 5 ranks to unlock at each base, with each rank giving you access to new cosmetics, gear upgrades or lore related information like emails or interviews. By unlocking them, you’ll also receive extra materials, and increase the material storage limit at that particular base.
Each place also offers a private locker where you can store stuff you don’t need to carry with you, as well as a shared locker where you can leave items for other players to use, or use items that they have put there for you.
In addition to this, the larger bases (Knot cities) also offer a private room where you can rest up, shower, and go to the bathroom to get more ammo (more on this later), customize your clothing or some of your gear, and see what weapons you have unlocked so far.
Deliveries consist of 3 parts. Planning your route, gearing up/balancing your cargo and making the trip.
Planning your route is pretty important, as it’s going to determine what equipment you are going to need to help you traverse the landscape, and deal with any enemies along the way. Crossing a deep river? Climbing a rocky face? You’ll probably need ladder. Climbing down a steep mountain or rockface? Better grab some rope. Your boots will also wear out from use, so it’s a good idea to bring a spare set especially on very rough terrain. Once that’s done, you’ll need to balance your cargo, there is a button to auto optimize it if you don’t want to manually place each piece (you’ll need to re-optimize your cargo when picking up lost cargo on you trip or using up equipment). Unlike most games where putting things in your inventory doesn’t require any thought aside from picking it up, here you need to carefully consider where things are located because it will have an effect on your balance. You can also opt to take multiple deliveries if you feel up to the challenge.
Unfortunately however, the UI for this is somewhat cumbersome. It’s not particularity intuitive and takes a while to get used to, but does eventually get easier, or shall I say you learn to deal with it.
Much like inventory, walking in most games is not something you have to put much thought in either. Press W to go forward, and that’s about it. Walking in Death Stranding is an actual game mechanic. The weight of your cargo and the terrain you’re traversing will govern how well Sam can keep his balance and how quickly his stamina drains. Walking across more difficult terrain requires some planning. Sam can scan the landscape with his terrain scanner to get a lay of the land and decide the best way to navigate across the terrain on a moment to moment basis.
There is a degree of stamina management as well. Crossing rivers, tough terrain, sprinting, falls and sliding down hills will all drain Sam’s stamina faster, and in some cases cause exhaustion which reduces his maximum stamina until you rest. The lower the stamina, the more easy it is for Sam to lose his balance. Increasing the difficulty also makes Sam lose balance more easily.
The controls are quite simple enough. Holding the left or right mouse button will counter sway if Sams starts falling left or right, and holding both will hold the straps on his chest if you need extra balance while crossing rivers or going down steep slopes, space climbs objects and shift causing Sam to sprint.
Going through Timefall will damage containers and eventually the precious cargo in them, so – unless you have a repair spray with you – you don’t want to be in it longer than necessary (later in the game you’ll unlock a weather report feature so you can see where there is rain/wind and how it will change over the next in-game 30min window.) However, where there is Timefall there are also BTs, and navigating through them takes time. Finding a way around is possible, but sometimes it’s going to be unavoidable.
Of course you can build structures as well. Storage boxes, Timefall shelters, bridges and various other things. If it’s a route you plan on using more often, making convenience structures may prove helpful (make sure to bring enough materials for larger structures though). After you have connected a zone to the network, other players’ structures will also start appearing in your world (I’ll talk more on this later).
Throughout your journey you’ll also come across lost cargo and equipment (some of which have been dropped by other players) as well as materials. These can be returned to any base to receive likes (Death Stranding’s version of XP), and in the case of materials, it will stock up that resource at whatever base you decide to hand them in at.
There are vehicles in the game too like trucks and trikes, which I used a few times. Still, I preferred using my legs most of the time since it was just more “flexible.”
While these mechanics are not complicated or difficult, they add a sense of weight and strategy to the movement in a way no other game does, and as a result I found it to be both a rewarding and enjoyable. (Certainly way more than I initially thought possible from just travelling from point A to point B.)
Combat plays a smaller part than deliveries in Death Stranding. You’ll either be fighting MULES (Faction cargo thieves) or BTs, and you can avoid both of them should you choose to. The combat against the MULES was on the easy side. Even without proper equipment, I was able to deal with multiple enemies with just hand to hand combat (while also carrying a full load). When you start you’ll only have your hands and a rope to tie up the enemies you sneak up on. Eventually you’ll unlock other weapons to deal with enemies, both lethal and non lethal, but killing MULES will require you to dispose of their bodies within a certain time frame, or else you will cause a voidout. Thus, I only used non-lethal means to take them down.
Its also possible to pick up cargo in your hands and either hit them with it or throw it at them which is pretty effective. Do note that this will damage the cargo, so don’t use something you want to keep. The MULES have javelins which they throw at you, but those are easily avoided, and later they get ranged weapons which makes things a little more difficult (but by that time so do you).
MULES have camps scattered through out the map that contain a lot of materials, and it’s arguably the best way to farm materials for building large structures like roads. However, I never needed more materials than what each base gave me access to, so I never felt much incentive to go to these bases unless a mission required me to recover some cargo from them. Using stealth to deal with MULES was less effective than I would’ve liked as there aren’t many places to hide, except in long grass (which was not always available), and inevitably one of the various cargo scanners they have dotted around the area would ping me. Later in the game it is possible to counter the scanners, and use decoys, but I didn’t find it necessary for the most part.
Overall, though, the combat with the MULES had weight and felt good, but it was a little clunky at times. Similarly to the UI, it took some time getting used to, though in the end it became enjoyable.
Engaging BTs is another matter entirely. This is where BB (Bridge Baby) comes into the picture. The Bridge Baby that Sam carries around has a connection to the other side, and is used to detect the presence/proximity of the BTs. The little radar on his shoulder shows which direction they are and how close they are. However the BTs will only be visible if Sam is standing still. So, making your way through an area full of BTs is really about crouch walking a bit, stopping to see exactly where they are, adjusting your path and moving again. Sam does have access to EX grenades pretty early (made from bodily fluids. EX0- sweat, EX1 – urine and EX2 – faeces) that can be “made” whenever you are in a private room and use the shower or toilet. The amount would usually depend on how dirty you are, how much you have drunk or eaten.
If BTs are alerted to your presence they will zone in on our location and overwhelm you, and unless you are able to break free, they pull you in what is essentially a mixture of the beach and the real world at which point a mini boss will spawn. If you have the appropriate gear, you can take it down and clear the area of BTs and Timefall for a short while. You can also get a ton of Chirlium crystals (a crafting resource) by killing this mini boss. If you can’t fight it, though, you can simply run away and escape the area. The encounters with BTs are certainly more tense than dealing with MULES because things can escalate quickly.
Generally I’d say that BTs should be avoided, especially early in the game. It’s really not worth the risk or time investment to engage them even if you have the gear.
Finally there are some bosses as well. While I’m not going to go into any details about the actual boss battles, I’ll say that they were all pretty easy even on the harder difficulties.
Unlike most people though, Sam is a “repatriate“, meaning that he cannot die. This is the main reason why he cannot cause a massive voidout like most others when he dies. As a result, and when and if he dies, he is taken to the stream where he can just reconnect with his body and teleport back into the real world without much consequence. Sam also has DOOMS; a condition which grants people a closer connection to the other side (as you progress the story, the game explains why Sam has both of them).
The game also has an online component that is worth discussing as it’s not your typical multiplayer experience. As I said, other players’ structures will appear in your world after you have connected a zone to the Chiral network. Players can leave items in shared stash at the various bases, so you could get resources, equipment and weapons even earlier than you would normally have as well. And while it’s great to be able to help others by creating structures (every time they use your stuff you get XP) and it feels rewarding, it makes the world feel less lonely, especially when knowing that others are taking the same paths and going through the same difficulties. Thankfully, your first time through an area will be free of other players buildings.
Still, the main issue I have with this is that it makes the game even easier, and in some cases can actually ruin the experience. You will find massive bridges that are already built over difficult rivers, or pointless structures built in the middle of nowhere that make no sense. And then there is also the incredible amount of spam signs and markers scattered throughout your game world (from people that want to farm more likes).
While you can delete most of these or even disable them, you will have to start a new game with these features disabled from the start (if you don’t want any of these in your game at all from the get-go). I kept it on for the purpose of the review, but if I play the game again I’ll probably disable it.
I think players starting the game late who have these options enabled may end up having the experience spoiled, since they’ll probably be loads of bridges, fully build highways and other structures everywhere once they unlock the Chiral network for each zone, which removes any of the challenge and the need to plan your route and bring the right equipment.
Death Stranding is also a very competent PC port overall, with plenty of graphics options to tweak and find the sweet spot for your setup. However, the lack of a music volume slider seems like a pretty large oversight, especially since I believe one was added to the console version after launch. I never came across any glaring issues in my time with the game, or crashes. The worst problem I experienced was a stuttering issue (that was present at launch but was fixed within a few days by a patch).
It took me around 50 hours to get through the campaign. The game does allow you to continue afterwards to max out your star ratings and unlock all the collectibles and upgrades by doing more deliveries if you want. I guess if you are the 100% completionist you’d probably be looking at up to 100+ hours.
I can’t emphasize how much I enjoyed my time with Death Stranding. All of these elements I described above come together to create a unique game that leaves a lasting impression. Unfortunately, reading a review or watching videos of the gameplay will never be able to give a truly good idea of what the game is and what it offers as a whole. It’s something that needs to be experienced.
It does start off a little slow (some may not like that) but by chapter 3 I was fully invested, in both the story and the gameplay, as I unlocked better gear giving me more choices and options for each trip and dove deeper and deeper into the world.
Death Stranding is the most memorable game I’ve played in a very long time – and I’m glad I did – and it held my interest until the very end.
The few issues I had with the UI, and the fact that the game was too easy (even on harder difficulties), or that the controls could occasionally feel a little clunky were not enough to mar the experience in any meaningful way.
Death Stranding will certainly not be for everyone, but I think if you even have a passing interest in some of the concepts and ideas put forward here and you have some degree of curiosity in what you’ve seen of the gameplay mechanics, then the game is worth playing. It’s an unforgettable experience, something I doubt we’ll see again anytime soon.
- Stunning world
- Great atmosphere
- Excellent acting
- Engrossing story
- A unique experience
- Competent PC port
- Not very difficult
- Clunky UI & menus
- Predictable story in parts
- Some online aspects ruin the game
Computer Specs: Windows 10 64-bit computer using an Intel i7-6700k CPU@4.5gh, 32GB Ram, and an nVidia RTX 2070 Super graphics card.