Death Stranding Review
Death Stranding is a polarizing game. The reception has ranged from vitriol to absolute masterpiece. For the 40 hours I poured into beating the game, I will say: the game is like no other like you will ever play. I enjoyed my experience but can completely understand why other people would hate it. The best way to describe it is that it's a game with non-AAA gameplay but with the polish and budget of a AAA game.
Sam Porter Bridges, one of the world's few porters, is tasked with “making America whole again” by connecting the country's scattershot cities and outposts with a link called the “Chiral network”. Think of manually laying down phone lines but with a set of keys that look like dog tags. The absolute bulk of Death Stranding's gameplay amounts to making deliveries for various people across a miniature version of future America. You go to terminal, take on orders and literally traverse the landscape and make good on those orders. Cargo can range from trivial items, like PlayStations, to foodstuffs, to human cargo. If you fail to deliver a story order – the game distinguishes between “Standard” and “Orders for Sam”, the latter being story-related – the game ends. This is the only way players can reach a game over, because there is a mechanic I'll explain later that prevents Sam from ever actually dying. There are some strategic elements to taking orders. Do you take on multiple at once and risk damaging cargo because you've taken on so many? Do you leave room for tools to help you traverse, like ladders or ropes, or even weapons? Sam can only carry so much. Then there's a concept called Timefall – rain that accelerates time and causes people and objects to deteriorate much faster – that has ravaged much of America (and helps explain why most of the country looks like Iceland). Most of the world's population now live in underground bunkers and players don't see much of these “cities”, if at all. Timefall is a bit of subtle enemy in that it occurs quite frequently and ruins cargo if the player is exposed to it for too long. Luckily, the game opens up figuratively when players are given access to vehicles after the first few chapters. The theme of connecting is also ever-present with the ability to share resources with other porters (players). You may find tools like ladders, ropes, bridges and vehicles that have been left behind by other people. If you play online, these become more prevalent and are extremely welcome help as you travel the world. The game really encourages giving and taking resources, and the more you do a bit of both, the more Likes you're rewarded (yes, the same likes that have both validated and ruined social media).
The main conflicts revolve around a side character who players will witness flashbacks of on occasion (without much explanation until the later chapters), “BTs” or Beached Things, which are entities who stray the line between this world and the beach (Death Stranding's version of the afterlife), and the human MULEs. Of the three, BTs are the most commonly encountered, usually during a story-based delivery while traversing an area players have never been before. They can only be seen with the help of BB, Sam's “Bridge Baby”, an unborn fetus that can detect BTs. BTs themselves can be avoided by carefully walking around them, or eliminated entirely after the first few chapters. All I'll say is that they can potentially capture Sam, which results in a much stronger enemy being summoned. If Sam does “die”, he can find his body in the afterlife and automatically revive. MULEs are former porters who became addicted to the delivery lifestyle and have outposts throughout the world. At best they're just an annoyance to the player and are fairly easily dispatched. Lastly, there is a “big bad” in a more cliched sense that players will encounter throughout the story. Unfortunately, that character's arc and motivations are quite weak with regards to the rest of the story.
The voice action and motion capture are superb. These are some of the most detailed and realistic face animations I've ever seen in a video game. The fact that the actors are able to exposit with a straight face while mouthing some of the game's more convoluted concepts (like BTs, “beaches”, etc.) helps add to the immersion of this universe. Even BB, for being an unborn fetus, has quite a bit of character and is responsible for some of the game's levity. The graphics are one of the game's strongest selling points. Ravaged America looks beautiful and haunting at the same time, courtesy of the Decima engine. Almost every location in the game looks like the work of an established landscape cinematographer, except it's interactive. That the amazing soundtrack that injects itself into the game at certain points helps drive the feeling of isolation that Sam is meant to project.
I've tried to explain the gist of Death Stranding. But it's one of the few games where the most detailed explanation will never compare to playing. The initial chapters are a slog to get through; perhaps this is where the game will lose most players, if not the convoluted story elements. But those that persist through those initial chapters will find that the game opens up, and the variety of options they uncover help make the gameplay more engaging, and dare I say – fun. As cliche as it sounds, perhaps the reward is not necessarily what the player gets for making deliveries, but for the journey they take to make good on those deliveries.