Never before Death Stranding have I seen so many people question how important "fun" is to a video game. There's nothing wrong with this conversation either. Honestly, it's one that video games could probably have used for quite a while. Here is a game that's mostly about delivering cargo from point A to point B. There isn't much in the way of traditional gameplay outside of traversal. To put it another way, it's like Truck Simulator got a story. Some people find this experience utterly engrossing, others find it boring but important, while others still think it's a total waste of time. I recently dove in to see for myself and make my own judgments.
I'm not really willing to say much about the story yet. I can tell you that you play as Sam Bridges, who is both expertly acted and motion captured by Blade 2 and The Walking Dead actor Norman Reedus. He's tasked by his mother, the current President of the United States, with traveling from across America from coast to coast, visiting cities and connecting them to a sort of super internet. Along the way, he must avoid ghost-like monsters called BT, and deliver packages for those in need.
He's a Big Guy. For You.
There is a lot more to it than that, but I find it difficult to comment on before I finish the campaign. Right now I find it kind of iffy. A lot of the cutscenes seem to be filled with nonsense terms that don't really make much sense. The first hour or two was mostly just exposition cutscenes dropping complex terms while I slowly nod along pretending to understand. Kojima's not really great at getting these points across and is the master of the absolutely terrible "tell, don't show" school of storytelling. Sure, the cutscene of a BT catching Sam and the two random people is still awesome, just like it was in the trailer. I just wish I had half a clue of what was happening. Maybe when I get further in, more will explain itself.
When it comes to gameplay, you're a delivery boy. Your goal is almost always to collect cargo and get it from one place to another. You can just run to each place, sure, but unless you take some precaution, you're not likely to make it. You see, Sam needs to carry the cargo with him, and there are several points on his body where you can place packages. You're going to want to make sure Sam has proper balance at all times. If he doesn't, he tips over and falls, damaging his cargo. You can hold the triggers to have Sam steady himself, but that prevents him from climbing and slows him down. You also have a scanner that pings the environment in front of you, showing you what's safe to walk on, what may provide a challenge, and what you'll need to find other ways around.
At first, I didn't really get it. I found myself walking from location to location muttering "this is it?" over and over. I wanted to believe there was something more to Death Stranding, that I just hadn't figured out what the hidden feature was yet. This was partially alleviated by two things. The first is the enemies you'll encounter along the way. Mules are other humans that try to steal your cargo, and they need to be avoided. You can punch if you feel like trying to knock them out, but combat isn't really the game's strong point and you'd do better running. The other main enemy type is BTs, ghostly figures that you need to sneak by. When you're close to BTs the BB, an actual baby strapped to your chest will start to cry and point them out to you. They're creepy, and the moments they were around were genuinely thrilling. Get caught and they'll summon a real monster that you'll need to get away from.
Norman Reedus and His Funky Featus
The other major feature is building structures to assist you in getting around. These can take the form of ladders, ropes, bridges, roads, and more. More importantly, when you build objects they have a chance of showing up in other player's games. I'm not building a bridge over a river so Sam can cross, I'm building a bridge over a river so ALL Sams can cross. It's a neat way to tie together Death Stranding's whole "helping each other and becoming a community again" theme. There's also just something fantastic about each trip through an area being a tiny bit easier because you and other players decked it out with ladders, ropes, and bridges. Eventually, I also got access to a motorcycle which, while it came with its own challenges, also made things move a little faster.
My favorite gameplay moment of these fifteen hours is probably the boss fight that capped it off. Conceptually, it's a pretty standard third-person shooter encounter. There's a big enemy, you throw grenades in its general direction while dodging its attacks. Some elements really help make it stand out, like the environment taking place in a weird ink/oil-filled deathscape. Buildings and shipping containers bob up and down in the mess, something that should be impossible when you can still walk in it. The boss, which I can best describe as a multi-tentacled whale, would dive in and out of the goop, attempting to smash and consume Sam. It's basic, but it's a fun boss fight with a great aesthetic.
However, upon beating that boss, something about Death Stranding clicked for me. It wasn't really about these big boss fights or sneaking around enemies. Death Stranding is full of weird little moments that I'm coming to love. Many are in Sam's private room, where he does weird things like making faces at a mirror or downing Monster Energy Drinks. Others are the crazy stuff I've tried to do while delivering packages. Avoiding BTs by trying to drive a motorcycle up a cliff? Totally. Accidentally tripping off of a bridge and having to chase my cargo as it floated away in a river because I didn't balance myself properly? Did it. Tying a rope to get down a cliff only to accidentally let go and fall? Yep. There's some hilarious stuff that makes me look back at Death Stranding in a positive way.
Game aside, I also have to give a strong shout out to the soundtrack. While it doesn't play much during the actual gameplay, the Timefall album that you can listen to in the private room is just fantastic. Featuring songs from artists like Bring Me the Horizon, Khalid, CHVRCHES, Low Roar, and more, several of these songs have made their way to my phone and are providing me with an obscenely high amount of entertainment. I just wish there was a way to play them while I was actively delivering packages because I could have used those beats.
Death Stranding Impressions | Final Thoughts
Bluntly, the verdict is still out in how I feel about Death Stranding. It took a while for me to finally "get it," but now that I have I'm starting to really enjoy myself. Is it GOTY material? Eh. Is it a game I think you should play? Oh man, I'm not sure I can make that call at all. It's certainly interesting, but I'm not sure it's a game many people will enjoy. I want to keep playing though, and that's more than I can say for a lot of games.
TechRaptor is currently playing Death Stranding on PlayStation 4 using a copy purchased by the reviewer. The game is also coming to PC in Summer 2020.