When I told my editor that I was deep into Death Stranding and how much I was enjoying it, he asked me if I’d be willing to write an article/counterpoint to my colleague Adam’s open letter. I told him I’d definitely be willing to do that, but after re-reading the letter, it made things a lot more difficult because in many ways, he’s not wrong.
The menus are confusing. It takes a long time to get really going. And as much as Kojima has made his name synonymous with Stealth Action, the stealth and the combat are some of the weakest parts of Death Stranding.
The game is SLOW. I beat the story at around the 60-hour mark and I was still unlocking new things at hour 80. Some of those unlocks completely change the Death Stranding experience as well. When I was driving down highways I constructed in trucks with extra large batteries, or flying across the map on a network of zip-lines, it felt much better than the early game where I found myself running from ghosts with a crying baby strapped to my chest and running out of stamina every two minutes. That being said, if you’re having a miserable time in the early goings, I don’t think playing through to see those unlocks is going to make you have a better time. This game is not for everyone, and I don’t mean that in the Dark Souls-style gatekeeping “git gud” manner. It’s honestly kind of amazing that Sony has put so much money and marketing behind what is ultimately a fairly niche game.
So lets talk about some of the stuff that I did like about the game. In Adam’s letter, he already talked about how visually the game is stunning. The character models are amazing, the waterfalls and rivers are absolutely beautiful, the way trudging that trudging through snow leaves tracks and trails, visually- I don’t think anyone could deny this is one of the best-looking PlayStation games of 2019.
I also love that one of the core features is asynchronous co-op. Even though you never directly see or interact with other players, it feels a bit like Journey where you get a sense of travelling with other players through the landscape by using the same ladders or zip-lines that someone else left behind. I like the Dark Souls elements of leaving signs or warnings for others to see. I like that the game gives the highest scores to the players who have helped others the most, rather than having a leaderboard of most enemies killed or fastest times to complete missions.
Kojima’s games are known for long, dialog-filled cutscenes and conversations and Death Stranding doesn’t break that mold. I think the voice actors did a great job, especially given the volume and content of the material. Troy Baker is maybe a bit jarring at first with how over-the-top and hammy he gets in his performance as the villain Higgs, but I think it works because this game is absolutely absurd (and I mean that in a good way).
I think that perhaps is one of the most jarring elements of Death Stranding’s direction. The Metal Gear series certainly has fantastical elements, but they’re mostly set in a realistic world, whereas Death Stranding is a pure videogame-fantasy world that has some realistic elements (or at least are portrayed as realistic through the numerous in-game conversations, emails, and data files). People sometimes bemoan Kojima’s inclination for long cutscenes with “why doesn’t he just make a movie?” but I think Death Stranding is emphatically a statement of his understanding and love of videogames. Videogame logic works similar to dream logic in that it makes absolutely no sense in real life, but in the moment, you just go along with it and it works out. In a medium where we’ve been conditioned to know that punching turkeys out of barrels and whipping chicken dinners out of walls can restore your health, why not have a canteen that can convert river water into Monster Energy Drink? And that’s probably one of the most believable aspects of the game. Death Stranding is absolute bonkers and I love it for that.
The story starts weird and just gets weirder, pretty much everyone in the world has some Mega Man-esque name that describes who they are or what their job is, and there is next to no subtlety whatsoever in the storyline and symbolism present in the game. I understand that the main gameplay loop of literally endless fetchquests probably doesn’t appeal to most people, but personally, I got a lot of enjoyment and satisfaction out of them (but then again, I’m also a weirdo who loves American Truck Simulator and the forklift driving sections of Shenmue, so…).
Death Stranding is certainly not a perfect game by any means, but somehow Kojima and his team made a game that feels almost tailor-made for me. I know that there are people who feel the same way, but it makes it hard to recommend the game to everybody because it was such a personal experience for me. Death Stranding is an extremely niche game with some justifiably negative reviews out there, but if the thought of “Hideo Kojima’s Human Truck Simulator” sounds like something you might be into, maybe you’ll join me in thinking of Death Stranding as 2019’s Game of the Year.
Death Stranding is available now for PlayStation 4. This opinion is based on a copy of the game the writer purchased themselves.