Death Stranding – Review

The two central ideas that are explored in Death Stranding center around rebirth and the ties that bind us. It is simultaneously about the power of social media and the sacrifices people sometimes make by themselves. The “social media” in this instance is the Chiral network, something you need to rebuild as you progress through this game. The United States has fallen thanks to an event known as the Death Stranding. The U.S. is cut off from the outside world and its citizens are cut off and stranded throughout the country. One of your primary responsibilities is to create strands by bringing the Chiral network online across the country. These strands will be the thing that brings everyone together, both ideologically as well as literally. As each strand comes online more of the country becomes connected. As more of the country is connected you will be able to make deliveries and help more people. Of course, things are far more complex than that but I’m not going to be discussing any spoilers in this review other than providing a high-level overview of what is taking place.

Death Stranding is a complex title about redemption and new beginnings. After the Death Stranding event, nobody knows what is going on and so suspicions and conspiracy theories begin to propagate. Some think it is terrorists that are responsible for the calamity that has befallen them. Others think it might have been the government, while still others think it might have been a specific company. As you progress through the story you have to deal with these preconceived notions as you try to bring everything back online. Not everyone is on board with joining the UCA (United Cities of America) so it will take some convincing on your part to get them to join up. The way that you go about convincing them is by helping them out with whatever problem they might be having. You accomplish that by fulfilling orders and delivering packages to their destination with a minimal amount of damage.

This leads me to the gameplay in Death Stranding. A lot of the trailers showcased a man carrying a number of different boxes across the country to different destinations. As a result, some people have joked that Death Stranding is a “walking simulator”. I admit that I didn’t really know what I was getting into when I started playing for this review. A key component of the game and the story is indeed taking a package from point A to point B. There is much more to it than that though. Along the way you will deal with a number of enemies. Some of these enemies are Mules, people that used to be porters like yourself but then became corrupt and started to steal packages from everyone. You can deal with these guys in any number of ways. Early on you might just want to outrun them. If not, you can square up and knock them out with a few well placed kicks and punches. Be careful you don’t get overwhelmed here though because Mules travel in packs. You might only see one of them but if they sound the alarm you will be quickly joined by a whole gang of them. As you progress in the game you will gain access to weapons. One them I used early was a bola gun. This shot out an electric strand that would tie an enemy up. If you successfully hit them with it then they fall to the ground and are temporarily immobile. It is at this point that you will want to run up and kick them so that they don’t get back up and attack. Later on you will get your hands on actual guns, both the lethal and non-lethal kind. Even though you will have access to lethal weapons, it is highly recommended that you use non-lethal. You don’t want to kill these guys, only wound. There is a story reason why that I won’t spoil but always take Mules out with non-lethal means.

Then you have the other enemies. The supernatural enemies that roam the landscape, trapped between two worlds. Trapped between life and death itself. Again, I’m not going to go into the story of how or why they are trapped because it really doesn’t matter early on. All you really need to know is they can (and will) destroy you without hesitation if given the opportunity. These enemies are called BT and are invisible to the naked eye. Even though they are invisible, the development team did a great job letting you know when you have wandered into BT territory. Other players can also alert you to this ahead of time (more on this later). BTs have been shown off in some of the trailers leading up to the game’s release so you have probably already seen some of them. Your oradeck (the mechanical thing on your shoulder) and your BB (the baby you are carrying around) are keys to surviving in BT areas. The moment you step foot into BT territory your oradeck goes wild so there is no mistaken whether or not you are in danger. As you make your way through the area your oradeck will point towards the closest BT to you. The closer you get to one the more your oradeck will flash and with higher intensity. If it starts going wild and the lights on it turn orange, there is a BT in your immediate vicinity and you are in danger. This is when you need to crouch down and stop moving for a moment. Both your oradeck and your BB will work together to tell you where the BTs are located.

As I mentioned above, they are invisible to the naked eye, however, in the instance described above you can see where the BTs are as long as you are quiet and not moving. In the beginning, all you can really do is try to avoid them. You can do this by walking crouched and moving quickly but quietly. If they are really close you can hold down the R1 to hold in your breath so they can’t hear you breathe as you pass them. This whole thing leads to some intense moments, especially if you are carrying some cargo that can’t sustain a lot of damage. If a BT detects your presence they will make their way over to you. If you get caught the ground beneath you turns black and you’ll have a bunch of enemies trying to drag you down. It is at this point you will have to repeatedly push the square button to try and escape their grasp and get to safety. Keep in mind that if you drop any important packages during this skirmish you will have to retrieve them. The BTs won’t hang around forever though so once you leave the immediate vicinity things will get back to normal and you can carefully go back to get your item(s). As you progress through the story you will acquire items that will allow you to fight back against these BTs so you aren’t completely helpless. I’m not going to go into details of what they are as it is tied to the story but rest assured you will eventually be able to eliminate some of the BTs. Please keep in mind that vehicles will not protect you from BTs. If you run into one and you are in a vehicle you will be dragged out of the vehicle. If you can, try to avoid using a vehicle in one of those areas altogether unless you have a straight shot and you are willing to take the risk.

Earlier I mentioned how other players could help warn you in advance when you were about to enter BT territory. This is because of the multiplayer functionality in Death Stranding. This isn’t your typical multiplayer though. The world of Death Stranding has different instances like you might find in some online RPGs. I’m not sure what the actual number is so lets just say there are 10 people in each instance, in each world. What this means is that I’m playing my own game, going through the story at my own pace and generally doing my own thing. While delivering a package my destination might be on the other side of a river. When I arrive I notice that I can’t cross the river because it is too deep. When I get closer though I see there is a ladder there that I can use as a bridge. I know I didn’t put the ladder there. What happened though is that someone that was there before me placed down the ladder so they could cross. Because we are in the same instance, I was able to use Person A’s ladder that they put down. Later on, I might be scaling a mountain and then when I get to a top of a cliff I can put an anchor down on the ground, tie a rope on it, and then toss the rope off the cliff so I can simply climb up the next time. If you happen to be in the same “game” that I am, you will be able to use that rope too. To perhaps better illustrate what I mean I’ll give a real example. Both myself and the popular Youtube channel PowerPyx happened to be in the same “world”. When I was walking out of one of the cities I saw a postbox that PowerPyx had built. I was able to use the postbox as if I had built it. I could keep items in the “Private Locker” that only I could use or I could put items in the public share locker for anyone to use. So it is possible that I could place a gun in the shared locker space and than PowerPyx comes along and takes that weapon and uses it to fight off enemies. Similarly, PowerPyx could build a bridge to cross a really big river and it would be available for me to use as well. It is another way to demonstrate one of the central themes of Death Stranding centering around the connections that we make and that we have to work together to rebuild the country.

I mentioned social media earlier in this review and the Chiral network. The Chiral network is what will, theoretically, help to connect the country and bring everyone together. Similar to how social media in our world helps connect everyone whether they live in the United States or Japan. Death Stranding also features a “Like” system and it works pretty much just like it does on Facebook. Using the above example, if I came across a structure such as a bridge that was already built I could push down on the touchpad on the Dualshock 4 which will give the creator a thumbs up and a “like”. These “likes” are important in the game. You can receive a “like” from another player or from an NPC. The “likes” from an NPC come mostly from you delivering a package to its destination with a minimal amount of damage. If you meet all of the requirements of the delivery they will give you a thumbs up and a bunch of “likes”. What this does is increase your bond with that particular character and destination. The stronger your bond gets the more information you will receive, as well as gaining access to higher-level items. When dealing with other players you have something called a bridge link. In the pause screen you can check out your bridge links to see how close you are to some of the players. For example, as I am writing this review, I am going through my Bridge Links list and I see how many “likes” Person A received from NPCs, how many “likes” he has sent me, how many pieces of cargo he has delivered and a number of other things. Using the above example of PowerPyx, I can see that at the time of this writing, he has sent me 4 “likes”. It is a well thought out system in my opinion that encourages teamwork with others, even though you never actually see any of the players in your world.

Building off of that idea, your connections are built both during life and during death. When you get “killed” in the game you are sent to the Seam. It is there where you will swim around for a few moments to find your body to bring yourself back to life. While in the Seam you can see some of the bodies of other players in your instance. If you bump into them while in the Seam it will cause you to have a stronger link to them when you come back to life. It is a fascinating idea in my opinion. What this also means though is that there really isn’t much of a penalty for getting “killed” in this game. When it happens you will simply be able to bring yourself back using the method I described above. It is something I actually liked due to the fact there are some big boss fights in this game and if I had to start over multiple times it wouldn’t be a good thing.

As you make your way through Death Stranding there is a decent amount of info to take in. When I first started playing for this review I thought it was a little rough. I was grappling with how to balance my packages, the orders, learning the new mechanics, and more. One of the problems that I have with these types of games is that I tend to want to do the optional content as well. I want to try and make sure everything is done before moving on to the next area. You can’t really do that with Death Stranding. There came a point where I had to stop doing that so that I could get through the main story and see what the whole game had to offer. When you begin playing Death Stranding it would be best for you to get through the prologue and then go through Episode 1 and 2. Just do the main story stuff. Then at some point in Episode 3, you will gain access to some vehicles and other stuff which does help open the game up a bit. Hopefully, by that time you will have started to grasp what the game is asking of you and you will just have an easier time overall. Throughout the course of the game, you will unlock different items that will make traversal much easier. Having beaten the game I’m able to zip around to places fairly quickly. It should also be stated that once you beat the main story you do get placed back in the world and you can still do all of the optional content. If you are a trophy hunter the Death Stranding trophies don’t seem particularly difficult, however, getting the platinum will require a decent time investment.

During my time with Death Stranding, there were definitely some things I struggled with. There were a few times where I thought what was expected of me was a bit obtuse. I don’t want my hand held but there were literally a few instances in the game where I was told I know what to do…when I had no clue. So I had to experiment and do some trial and error until I hit upon what I was supposed to do. With that said pay attention to what you are doing and what characters are saying as you might need to know that information in the future. The vehicles in the game drove fairly well except for on big hills or trying to go up a mountain slope. Now obviously gravity is going to kick in at some point but if I let up on the gas even a little going up some of those slopes it seemed like I would lose control of my vehicle and things would become a bit wonky. I would then have to fight the vehicle to try and get it back where I wanted it which would become a frustrating struggle. It got to the point for me at times where I simply opted to deliver my packages on foot as there was just less hassle doing that. When you first get a vehicle and hit the gas you might think that it goes a bit slow, regardless of the vehicle. You have to push in L3 to give it a boost which will, hopefully, get you over that big hill. Some of the vehicles can jump as well. Keep that in mind as there are some smaller rocks you might be able to soar over.

When you are at a terminal and you are getting your orders and everything set up be sure to think ahead. While I was cycling through which orders I wanted to take I would probably send at least 2-3 minutes cycling through my gear as well. If it was old or badly damaged I would recycle it for metals and other items that you need to build the aforementioned structures like a bridge. I also tried to think about the future as well by carrying a couple of anchors with me so I could use them on a cliff I might come across or bring a kit so I can build a generator in case the batteries on my suit were running low. You will want to try and plan out what you hope to achieve from the time you are leaving your area until you get to your destination. Try to plan out your route as well. If you have orders that are going to four different destinations, plan out the shortest and most efficient route you can.

As far as how big of a game Death Stranding is, it will depend on how you approach things. Up above I described my penchant for doing both optional and main story missions and how I had to force myself at one point to focus solely on the main story. So with that said, once I had beaten the story, I had spent approximately 73 hours with Death Stranding. If that seems like a lot you might be relieved to hear that a colleague of mine who was also reviewing Death Stranding finished it in approximately 35 hours. If you go through the game doing only the main stuff and completely ignoring everything else I’m sure you can get through it quicker than that. I will say though I thought there were some instances that were put in there to potentially artificially extend the time you will play the game. There are definitely some things that could have been done to streamline the experience as, at times, it felt like it was kind of overstaying its welcome. With that said though, I was hooked on the story and that is what kept me going and doing whatever I could to help people out and rebuild the country.

Once you get to a certain point in Episode 3 fast travel will become available to you. There is a catch though and you will need to weigh your different options. You can fast travel to any city or distribution center that has a private room, however, you can not fast travel with cargo. So if you are on the east coast and you need to make a delivery in the middle, you won’t really be able to utilize fast travel at that moment. You will want to pay attention to your surroundings though. If it looks like it is mostly flat terrain you might want to pick up a big truck that will allow you to carry a lot of different packages so you don’t have to return to a terminal so often. Then again, it might be easier just to deliver to some mountainous areas on foot. The whole thing is a balance and a challenge you will need to manage.

Death Stranding is unlike any game I have played before. In this instance that is a good thing. It mixes a number of different genres. It is a bit of an action, adventure, stealth, third-person shooter type of deal. That third-person shooter part is mainly when you have to deal with the aforementioned Mules. The stealth part is when you have to deal with BTs and generally be careful and aware of your surroundings. The action and adventure is the expedition itself as you travel coast to coast in hopes of bringing everyone and everything together. Death Stranding is a game I initially had very little interest in. When I saw the initial trailers it looked like it might have been some type of creepy horror type of game, which it isn’t. There are definitely some creepy things that take place but it is nowhere near as bad some people might believe. This is a time where I am really happy that I gave this game a chance. For me, it is something unique and not only did I enjoy my time with it but I wouldn’t mind having a sequel in a few years. Whether or not that ever happens remains to be seen but if you are on the fence at all about Death Stranding I highly recommend you give it a chance. It might start out a little slow for some people but get to Episode 3 where you can start using some vehicles and things begin to open up. If nothing else you will have played a game that is nothing like any other game being released this holiday season.

Score: 8.0/10
Originally posted on Gaming Target

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