For almost three and a half years, Death Stranding has kept us guessing about its true nature – and when the credits roll after a gruelling, occasionally magical, 60 hours of delivering parcels-turned-metaphors, you won’t know whether to laugh or cry with relief. Divisive creator Hideo Kojima’s open-world epic resolves its mysteries, but your satisfaction is numbed by painful memories of relentless trekking, jarring menu management and some – frankly wild – tonal shifts. Over time, your relationship with Death Stranding may start to shift, but it’s a slow-burn album track, not a pop hit.
Your feelings about Hideo Kojima’s longest, most indulgent, project will hinge on how you buy into the game’s theme about the importance of belief when all seems futile. About 80% of your time is spent trudging across mountains delivering parcels. Imagine Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos atoning for his sins in an especially cruel episode of Black Mirror. At times, the act of playing Death Stranding is a test of faith in itself, not only in Hideo Kojima’s ability to surprise, but that your efforts will ultimately be rewarded.
For reasons unknown, America has been fractured by the Death Stranding event, causing the dead to roam the world of the living as shadowy spectres known as the beached things, or BTs. People have retreated into isolated communities and your job is to deliver supplies and reconnect the chiral network – a mega-internet – to unite the country. You need to cross the shattered landscape and find the president’s daughter Amelie who has been abducted by terrorists called the Homo Demens. There’s obviously more going on, as hero Sam Bridges (Norman Reedus) unearths his past, and learns about the mysterious Cliff (Mads Mikkelsen) and your ghost detecting pod-baby, BB.
Death Stranding defies convention, focusing on “connection” over combat and (almost) removing the notion of restarting a mission when things go wrong. Case in point: I failed to plan a delivery route and got swamped by BTs, who wrecked my cargo. Having never so much as dented a parcel in the game’s opening hours, the sight of 10 cases being ruined provokes blind panic bordering on remorse. My instinct is to quit and restart the task, but while lost items can be picked up later from a delivery centre, if a cargo is destroyed beyond repair, it’s lost forever. It’s in this moment that Death Stranding is born, as you resolve to push on with a nagging sense of failure, unable to reset and start fresh.
Eight hours in, I hadn’t shot a single person. The challenge comes from the surprisingly engaging cargo management, where you trade weight against balance, speed against stamina, and weigh up risky shortcuts over treacherous terrain. Once you adjust, holding L2 and R2 to grab your backpack navigates most scenarios and sloppiness is the threat, for example sprinting into deep water without scanning its depth. The ghost-evading BT sections require stealth, but won’t tax Metal Gear Solid (MGS) veterans. Mules are the main human enemy, and easily dealt with by using basic kicks and punches (all on one button) and a simple evade system. You’ll unlock new kit as you progress, such as “bola” cable tie guns, further reducing the threat.
Hideo Kojima’s liberation from the MGS series can feel like X-Men’s Cyclops removing his visor and having a good old look around – it’s a little much. Think 2001, The Road, The Leftovers, Silent Hill and Planet Earth reinterpreted as three days of UPS contract work. Death Stranding pulverises the player with its overwhelming scale, seemingly unending objectives and fastidious resource management. Yet, despite everything, the game somehow pulls you through, creating a cycle of punishment and reward in a technically brilliant blockbuster experience quite unlike anything that has come before.
The opening hours of the game are cut-scene heavy, creating intrigue that just about drives you forward to the point when you’re 35 hours in and losing the will to zigzag up another vertical slope. Initially, Death Stranding’s barren world makes you feel the weight of every footstep, until the dizzy liberation of unlocking your first bike and whizzing along miles of broken ground in a heartbeat. Later on, you’ll find vans which stop your parcels degrading in the rain and upgrades that make a mockery of the game’s early simplicity.
The much-touted “strand” system is a form of collaborative online play, where you can share items with other players, leave pre-set warning signs, and contribute resources to construction projects. You never see your fellow porters, but their items and cargo litter your world. Building your first bridge sparks mild euphoria at never having to tiptoe across a wild river again. Later in the game, players can pool materials to form motorways, and reward players’ philanthropy with likes.
Over time, the thrill of acquiring hi-tech items yields to a pang of regret. Other players’ emoji signs litter distribution centre entrances in the quest for cheap likes, and rugged landscapes start to resemble red-light districts. You start to crave undiscovered delivery routes for a reminder of the game’s unspoilt beauty. Thematically, it’s pretty overt: mankind’s attempt to tame nature – through selfishness, or selflessness – is storing up an environmental problem.
Death Stranding’s focus on meticulous cargo preparation and deliveries that trigger repetitive, intrusive, micro cut-scenes, feel designed to provoke fluster in a world of instant gratification. Parents will shiver at the familiarity – and necessity – of equipment preparation, as if packing a bag for a day out. The game’s views on social media are at best nuanced, at worst conflicting. Death Stranding laments social media’s lack of human connection yet rewards players with a dopamine-volcano of stats after each mission, unlocking new equipment, creating a cycle of dependency.
The motion-captured performances are exceptional, even if arch villain Higgs (Troy Baker) makes Jared Leto’s Joker look subtle. The game’s exhilarating finale – long enough to be a game itself – remixes some of MGS’s greatest moments, but this deadens the impact for hardcore Kojima fans. The final act shakes things up, but the gruelling 15-20-hour mid-section is a seemingly endless toil of literal hills and valleys, rather than emotional highs and lows.
Despite everything, you keep going. Arduous ascents succumb to the undeniable impact of a stunning vista framed by an inverted rainbow. Your brain starts to blur the journey and focus on fleeting moments of reflection, pride and relief. Death Stranding’s mesmerising scale and repetition starts to weigh on your subconscious. Kojima’s games have always thrived in the empty space that other games seek to eradicate – such as the legendary ladder climb in MGS3, or MGSV’s infamous Act 2 – and, for almost 20 hours, it feels like Death Stranding is taking that to clumsy extremes to hammer home a point about society’s excesses and its unsustainability.
In a recent interview, Mad Max director George Miller suggested Death Stranding was too radical for its time. “The risk is that people don’t accept it,” he said. Sceptics will feel vindicated by the game’s bloated indulgence and repetition, while the plot doesn’t quite live up to the wildest speculation by Kojima’s hardcore acolytes.
Still, this uncompromising, unashamedly political work of artistic intent is 2019’s most interesting blockbuster game by a distance, and certainly the only one where you will find a frankly brilliant, tonally jarring, Public Enemy gag.
Your relationship with Death Stranding will likely shift in waves. After the strain of uncovering the game’s mysteries has subsided, you’ll discover new ways to traverse the world. You find yourself yearning to return, the elegiac soundtrack decorating your idle thoughts. I have resolved to deliver every parcel, despite cursing their existence for 60 hours.
Above all, Death Stranding is a sermon on the importance of belief. The power of putting one foot in front of another when hope looks lost, in the belief that things will get better. By working together, a series of small intentional steps can make a difference, and in this often fractured, angry and confusing world; that’s as hopeful as it gets.