Death Stranding (2019) | Review

Well, after 55 hours, my journey through Death Stranding’s emotional, bewildering and often exciting science fiction epic has come to a close.

And I am largely satisfied by my experience with it.

Hideo Kojima’s first work since his separation from Konami (Seriously, Konami, get your act together) is about many things – a fractured society coming back together, the relationship between life and death and one man’s journey to find purpose in a world that he feels alienated from. It’s also horrific, delving into the realm of the supernatural and conjuring up some nightmarish images along the way.

It’s certainly a different type of game – your version of Norman Reedus delivers packages and cargo from point A to B, often to music in key passages as if in some cinematic montage without the edits, and that’s pretty much your gameplay. There’s combat, to be sure, against human enemies and otherworldly creatures but the core gameplay is wandering the wild and delivering cargo.

This was frustrating for me in the beginning, even alienating. I spent 17 minutes in one mission hauling cargo down a hill and I started to wonder if that was all there is to the game. But while that may be the case for some players, for me it was contemplative and addicting. I was drawn in to making the journey, through the hills, the rain, enemy territory – you name it, I waded through it.

I also fell on my ass 48 times over the course of my 55-hour odyssey, but that’s besides the point. It was slow but oddly satisfying.

It helps that the game has a cinematic feel to it, helped immensely by its cast and motion capture performance. I mean, there are some heavy dramatic scenes that play out like the best television out there and it all worked to suck me in.

Norman Reedus is perfectly cast as the gruff loner Sam, the man of few words that grunts and grumbles but transforms over the course of the story. He’s backed up by a wonderful supporting cast, from Troy Baker’s scene-stealing villain to the likeness of Guillermo Del Toro as the aptly titled DeadMan.

Yeah, the names are a bit weird. They work as metaphors, albeit very heavy-handedly, but the names all function in a way that fits in the world and story. I did think, perhaps, the story needed a bit of input from a fresh perspective, if only to sharpen a few of the deliveries of key plot points and such, but it doesn’t change the fact that the theme behind what’s being explored comes across clearly.

So, Death Stranding captures the mood, whether its somber or reflective, triumphant or horrific and it’s all thanks to a moody musical score that doesn’t overwhelm the senses but rather adds just enough layers and touches to be effective throughout, whether that’s from the gameplay or the cinematic.

There’s a neat little co-op-like aspect to the gameplay as well. Some structures you build will bleed into other players’ worlds and vice versa. Later on, this will open up a little more through vehicles or structures that help you move more efficiently. It’s a system that feels rewarding without feeling like it’s made things too easy. You still have to work from A to B but there’s a comfort in knowing you can work a little faster.

The game does pad out it’s later levels, some in gob-smacking and frustrating ways, to the point where I was feeling the slog as I began shuffling towards the grand finale. This is the only instance in which I feel the game starts to meander and drag on a bit. It helps there’s a bit of a narrative drive to it that keeps you moving but that can’t quell some minor frustrations.

Whether Death Stranding works for you depends on a few things. Do you like slow-burning, contemplative fiction? Can you handle the so-called Kojima Weirdness? Maybe it’s just the gameplay that will put you off? It’s hard to say, because I found that, for the most part, it rewarded my patience because I was intrigued by its story and themes. I wanted to know more. That was my drive. That, and helping others playing the game.

I think, if you’re open to it, you’ll find some things that you can identify with – regret, loneliness, isolation, family. For every fourth-wall breaking moment, there’s a raw sense of humanity underneath that feels genuine and not as pretentious as I thought it would be.

J’s Verdict – ☆☆☆☆

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