It’s been a long time coming. The Death Stranding reviews are steadily coming in from the most respected gaming press outlets after the embargo lifted earlier today.
The consensus is a mixed bag, to say the least. Scores range widely from the near-perfect to the underwhelming. One running theme among publications is that Death Stranding is the most perplexing and interesting game this year.
The scores make it even more difficult to understand, let alone judge Death Stranding. The game’s mystic and confounding elements have seemingly carried over to the reviews.
For those of us not lucky enough to get our hands on the game early, it’s never been more unclear whether we should pick up a copy come launch day a week from now. Whether Sony made the right call lifting the embargo a week before release remains to be seen.
Death Stranding is a hard game to absorb. There are many intertwining threads to its plot, and silly names, corny moments, and heavy exposition belie an otherwise very simple message. That comes through much more clearly in the game’s more mundane moments, when you find a desperately-needed ladder left behind by another player or receive a letter from an NPC thanking you for your efforts. It’s positive without ignoring pain; in fact, it argues in both its story and its gameplay that adversity itself is what makes things worth doing and life worth living. It’s a game that requires patience, compassion, and love, and it’s also one we really need right now.
If you do manage to hold out, you will be rewarded with flashes of brilliance, it’s just that those flashes are buried as deep as the core story is buried in the endless dialogue. And as profound as it wants to be, this is still a game in which you can equip and unequip your penis so you can piss out Red Bull. The good stuff is waiting for you beyond that piss, beyond the shit grenades, beyond that Ride with Norman Reedus advert unceremoniously plastered into a game universe where I didn’t see a single television set. It’s just a test of attrition.
Your relationship with Death Stranding will likely shift in waves. After the strain of uncovering the game’s mysteries has subsided, you’ll discover new ways to traverse the world. You find yourself yearning to return, the elegiac soundtrack decorating your idle thoughts. I have resolved to deliver every parcel, despite cursing their existence for 60 hours.
Above all, Death Stranding is a sermon on the importance of belief. The power of putting one foot in front of another when hope looks lost, in the belief that things will get better. By working together, a series of small intentional steps can make a difference, and in this often fractured, angry and confusing world; that’s as hopeful as it gets.
Death Stranding might be Kojima’s boldest game to date. It may also be his most tedious. Either way, its originality outweighs its sometimes exhausting structure and poor pacing… but only just. Maybe not a game I would recommend to everyone, but certainly one of the most interesting games of 2019.
After all the conspiracy theories, conjecture and just plain hype, Death Stranding turns out to be about carrying boxes from A to B. And, often, back again. That’s it. That’s the game. This is going to be a spoiler free review in terms of story, but mechanically it’s hard to talk about anything without making it clear: you carry boxes around pretty much the entire time. Sometimes you fall over, occasionally ghosts appear and get in the way, but otherwise almost the entirety of your time involves staggering over uneven terrain carrying a backpack loaded to spine-rupturing levels with anything from underpants to medical supplies.
Certain landmark games in recent years, like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Red Dead Redemption 2, have managed to successfully tread the line between the rigidity of realism and the exhilaration of pure escapism. But much like its stumbling protagonist, Death Stranding just can’t consistently get the balance right despite possessing equally lofty ambitions and countless inventive ideas. There is a fascinating, fleshed-out world of supernatural science fiction to enjoy across its sprawling and spectacular map, so it’s a real shame that it’s all been saddled on a gameplay backbone that struggles to adequately support its weight over the full course of the journey. It’s fitting that Kojima Productions’ latest is so preoccupied with social media inspired praise, because in some ways I did ‘Like’ Death Stranding. I just didn’t ever love it.
As the credits roll on Death Stranding, heavy with unearned pathos, the impression you’re left with is of a self-congratulatory monument to the ego of a creator who is high on his own supply. Has Kojima always been this full of it? Maybe. But then you return to the game proper, select a humble delivery order, lace up your boots and plan another reckoning with those unforgettable, haunted moors. And you realise that this game has got under your skin in a way few do.
Try as it might, Death Stranding’s story doesn’t shore up its faults. It’s the normal Kojima mix of twists-and-turns, tropes, and overbearing themes, but at least I like that it explores real-world topics like the theory of multiple dimensions and key events in the history of the planet’s biodiversity. Like Sam himself, I often wasn’t sure why I kept going in Death Stranding. Maybe there was a little bit of pride in another task checked off the list, another job done. Unfortunately, this added up to little reward in the end.