It's finally here; the game that Hideo Kojima fans have been eagerly awaiting but does it deliver? It at least does in a literal sense.
Why no score?
At the risk of disappointing our visitors, I have decided that assigning a score to Death Stranding is irresponsible for a multitude of reasons. Right off the bat, I want to be clear and say that this is the first and probably only time that I won't put a score on one of my game reviews. In fact, I take pride in the way that I review and score games. With that in mind, Death Stranding is the only game I've ever played that I can't justifiably say is amazing or disappointing because it's both. I could score it 10 and say that it's a jaw-dropping experience and I'd be correct and I could also give it 3 and say that it's one of the most frustrating and tedious games that I have ever played. Either way, I'd be doing you, the reader, a disservice because Death Stranding is much more than a game yet it's literally a game at the same time. It's this inherent contradiction that makes Death Stranding a wholly unique and stand-out experience.
Also, if you're wondering why I don't merely score it in between my 2 dichotomous minds, I strongly feel that would undermine what I'm trying to say. In other words, if I give it a 7 then I'd be underplaying how powerful of an experience Death Stranding is while also overselling how enjoyable it is. As a result, just read what I have to say and make up your own mind. Of course, I'd like to think that folks who read my reviews do this anyway but in this particular case, I find that it's far more crucial to do so.
I've been a huge Hideo Kojima fan ever since the original Metal Gear Solid debuted back in the late '90s. Every single one of those games blew me away and the Metal Gear franchise stands tall as one of my favourite series ever created. From their mind-blowing stories to their incredible gameplay, I still can't get enough of them. So, when Death Stranding was announced at E3 2016, you can imagine my excitement. Since then, I intentionally avoided all videos and articles about it because I wanted to experience it from a completely fresh perspective without any sort of bias. Then, I finally played it and after completing it dozens upon dozens of hours later, I'm both delighted and disappointed. Now that I got this introductory stuff out of the way, allow me to discuss the actual game.
An arduous journey
Death Stranding puts you in the trustworthy boots of Sam Porter Bridges whose job is to deliver cargo across the dangerous landscape of apocalyptic America. Because of this, the gameplay primarily involves traversing long distances in order to get your cargo from point A to point B. However, you can't merely hold forward on the left stick because you have to maintain Sam's balance, work through unforgiving terrain, and plan the best routes possible. There are many systems in place such as managing where you carry your cargo, ensuring that you have the best gear, and the ability to create your own helpful structures. Also, the world of Death Stranding is littered with ghosts known as BTs that you can't see so you have to use a baby in a jar known as a BB in order to get a sense of where they are. Plus, there are hordes of MULEs who desperately want to steal your cargo and deliver it themselves so stealth is a significant factor.
On one hand, this gameplay dynamic suits Death Stranding's world and story perfectly but on the other, it can be a downright frustrating and tedious experience. I don't think I've ever sworn as much while playing a game before but Death Stranding really got the best of me. Between watching Sam trip and fall over a small obstacle to walking through easy breezy territory for much longer than I had the patience to, I was quite furious during most of my time with Death Stranding. Even after unlocking cool gear, structures, and vehicles, I was in disbelief how irritating Death Stranding is to play. With all of that being said, I imagine that many gamers will actually embrace this counteractive approach to gameplay and perhaps relish in each grueling trek. I, however, did not at all.
An unforgettable narrative
Even though Death Stranding's gameplay is bound to remain the most divisive aspect about the overall package, I can safely say that the consensus for its storytelling will be much less divisive. Although you're essentially thrust into the ridiculously unconventional apocalyptic world with little explanation, everything will eventually start to come together as if all of the hard-to-swallow oddities are commonplace and wholly understandable. Meanwhile, the cast of characters that is slowly introduced throughout consists of some truly outstanding personalities as well as acting. Each person's back-story is tragic yet the way that they shine through the darkness in their efforts to reunite the nation is nothing short of inspirational. By the end of it all, it's all wrapped up in an easily digestible albeit layered package that'll stay with you for long after the end credits roll for the second and final time.
One aspect of Death Stranding's narrative that blew me away is its applicability to the modern day world. Ever since the internet became mainstream, our world has been turned upside-down in many ways and Death Stranding tackles a lot of issues that face contemporary societies. Of course, some folks may dismiss this part of the narrative by claiming that it has some sort of agenda but as a bona fide centrist, I fail to see any sort of agenda being pushed here in either direction. Whether it's people being used as puppets to cause destruction, the uncertainty of if connecting people will actually result in good, the fact that many people wear figurative masks to hide from their own shortcomings, or that clinging onto the past may cause harm as opposed to make the world a better place; it's definitely difficult to argue with what Death Stranding has to say in both its subtle allegories and ham-fisted analogies.
A breathtaking world
Death Stranding's world is astounding to explore for multiple reasons. I'm not usually one for graphics but I found the visuals in each environment to be incredible whether you're carefully marching up a snowy mountainside or riding a motorcycle on a suspended highway. What's even more impressive, in my opinion, is the audio. The low frequency blasts that trigger from encountering BTs to the alarming sound of MULEs being notified of your location are absolutely spot-on. Whoever designed the audio for Death Stranding definitely deserves an award. Oh, and the soundtrack which heavily features the band Low Roar is pretty cool, too.
On a less superficial level, the world in Death Stranding truly comes alive when you interact with the online aspects. Liking others' signs and structures and helping strangers out simply feels good. Although these sorts of interactions aren't as tangible as I would have liked, the fact that there are so many subtle and intricate online features makes the world much more engaging and fulfilling.
A perplexing world
Obviously, Death Stranding is a sci-fi fantasy game which means that it's entirely fictional. However, I found a disconnect between its efforts in realism and how its world is presented. My biggest complaint in this regard is with the fact that there are supposedly tens of thousands of citizens within each of the nation's cities but you never actually see any of these people. If you even got a glimpse at how so many people get on with their lives while hiding underground, it would have elevated the game world to become a much more immersive place. Instead, you merely see the population of each city as you approach it in numeric form. Finally, the game world is literally supposed to be the entire USA but it's not even 1% of its size. I don't expect the developers to recreate the entire country but at least explain why you only travel a small amount of its size. Why does it only take place in America anyway? Oh, whatever...
Art vs. fun
Before wrapping this review up, I'd like to discuss art vs. fun as I've seen the issue brought up countless times with regards to Death Stranding. First of all, are video games art? I'm not one to say but do you know who doesn't think they are? Hideo Kojima himself. That's right; in a 2006 interview, he explained in-depth why video games are not art so take that for whatever it's worth.
Personally, I mostly play video games to have fun. If I want to experience something artistic, I'll watch an indie film which is something that I enjoy doing immensely. Although I appreciate more artistic gaming endeavours, if they're not fun then I usually don't enjoy them. In Death Stranding's case; I absolutely love the world and narrative but I didn't have much fun playing it at all. Does that make it a bad game? Of course not which leads me back to my point about not assigning a score for this review. Simply put, it's such an intrinsically divisive game that I can imagine many gamers will both love and despise it simultaneously and after reading everything that I had to say about it, perhaps I helped solidify your opinion of this one-of-a-kind experience. If I did in either direction then I'm happy.
Whether you see Death Stranding as an enjoyable artistic masterpiece full of commentary about contemporary society or a frustrating mess complete with self-indulgent schlock, you're 100% correct.