Norman Reedus, Mads Mikkelsen, Lea Seydoux, Margaret Qualley, Troy Baker
… any game that lets you have a shower with Guillermo del Toro is at the very least memorable – but ultimately Death Stranding is too often a slog rather than a victory lap.
As the credits finally rolled on my playthrough of Death Stranding, I was reminded of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks season three from 2017. Not so much because of the shared themes and symbolism inherent to both, although a case could be made, but more the realisation that what I was experiencing was the unfiltered work of an artist who was creating something without compromise. Adore it, loathe or just plain don’t understand it, Twin Peaks season 3 was exactly what Lynch wanted to make. Even with its maddening ending and chronic overuse of Kyle MacLachlan’s “Dougie” alter-ego, which was cute at first but got very old. So too it is with Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding, an overlong, indulgent work with some amazing moments but far too much of the video game equivalent of Dougie.
Death Stranding puts the player in the rapidly deteriorating boots of Sam Porter Bridges (Norman Reedus), who is a gruff squinty man with a complicated past who delivers packages to people in a post-apocalyptic America. But this isn’t your usual apocalypse, there are no zombies roaming around here, just empty vistas of space, delivery-obsessed psychos called MULEs and invisible ghosts called BTs (Beached Things) who drag you into an inky underworld. As he travels vast distances, mostly on foot, Sam will meet characters, form alliances and slowly unravel the mystery of why the world is in such a sorry state (and who, in fact, he really is).
There’s been a lot of talk from creator Hideo Kojima that Death Stranding is a brand new genre of game, unlike anything we’ve seen before. This statement is, honestly, nonsense. While Hideo’s usual surreal, lengthy cutscenes and striking imagery are present and feel unique to the mad auteur, the vast majority of the gameplay in Death Stranding is from the ‘fetch quest’ oeuvre. You’ll lob up to a location, speak to a hologram, take a package, deliver it bloody ages away, connect the person to the Chiral Network, get another package and lob off to deliver that. You’ll do this over and over again during the course of the game, traveling from flatlands to rocky hills, to snowy mountains to dead-looking beaches. The scenery will change but the gameplay will mostly remain the same. Package, deliver, connect, new package. Rinse and repeat.
There’s a middle section of Death Stranding where you find your groove and begin to enjoy the delivery process; usually when you’ve unlocked motorbikes or mech suits that move faster and enough weapons to stave off any attacks. Plus, the game’s online element, where other players can leave helpful materials, vehicles and even structures, is a wonderful addition and the game’s saving grace. However, much like the world in which it exists, Death Stranding suffers from dripping entropy. Hours of back and forth, followed by cut scenes, and then more back and forth is intriguing for a while, but by the time you reach the third act you’ll be begging the damn thing to end.
Kojima has always been a weird cat, but in the Metal Gear series he tempered his eccentricities with fascinating, ever-evolving gameplay. In Death Stranding you’re basically a postie who has to look after a baby strapped to his chest. Schlepping parcels for people is a curious choice for a gameplay loop, and there is joy to be found when you’ve crested the top of a mountain and one of the many songs from the game’s gorgeous soundtrack kicks in, but by the tenth time that happens it loses its sense of rueful pathos and begins to feel like a bit of a piss take.
Look, here’s the thing. Stuff like Death Stranding or Twin Peaks lean heavily into the art side of the entertainment equation and your enjoyment will be very subjective. Some people will probably really grok with Death Stranding’s meditative pace and repetitive structure, just as some people thought Dougie doing exactly the same thing for so many episodes was delightful. But for your humble reviewer, the game can’t quite sustain. Yes, the graphics are gorgeous, the world fascinating and the voice acting superb even when choking on some of the goofiest dialogue put on screen. However, overfilling bags and wombling all over creation feels a bit too much like carrying a hefty load of groceries back from the shops, and due to the protracted nature of the storytelling the game only succeeds in fits and starts. Leave it to Hideo Kojima to craft an experience that somehow manages to be simultaneously fascinating and dull – and any game that lets you have a shower with Guillermo del Toro is at the very least memorable – but ultimately Death Stranding is too often a slog rather than a victory lap.