It's been a week since reviews dropped for Death Stranding, and the general public will shortly have a chance to sample Hideo Kojima's curious new game for themselves. Here at USgamer we're still trying to come to grips with what the heck we just played. Is it good? Is it bad? Will it be remembered long-term? Who even knows.
I half wonder if it'll end up being like Joker, which was discussed breathlessly among reviewers before being summarily dismissed by much of the general public (but not before selling boatloads of movie tickets). Death Stranding has much to recommend it, and I'm still thinking about it right now. But I also think that many of its foibles will become derisive memes in the gaming community. I can say that the discourse around Death Stranding is already pretty insufferable and it's not even out yet.
Anyway, I got to say my piece in my review, but Eric Van Allen and Hirun Cryer also played Death Stranding, and they have their own thoughts. In that light, we took the time to answer a few follow-up questions on the occasion of Death Stranding's launch.
So did Kojima really just create his own genre?
Kat Bailey, Editor in Chief: I think the clearest example of Hideo Kojima creating a brand new genre is in the online hooks. In letting people build infrastructure for other games, he's created a shared social space that I find really interesting. As I said in my review, I could totally see a kind of odd metagame developing where people just focus on stealing materials and building bridges and highways. Think of it as the old Metal Gear Solid 5 nuclear warhead game writ large.
As for the rest of Death Stranding, I think it's mostly taking what's already there and critiquing it. Open world traversal in most games is quite easy and fun; in Death Stranding, it's very hard. Evading BTs is reminiscent of a horror game, while MULE battles tend to resemble a lighter version of Metal Gear Solid. The delivery tasks feel like they're riffing on classic JRPG fetch quests.
Taken together, I don't know that I can call Death Stranding a "brand new genre" so much as a "collection of disparate ideas that come together to form a single, mostly coherent game." Oh, and it's not a walking simulator. Stop calling it that.
Hirun Cryer, Staff Writer: No. He's certainly taken different gameplay elements—walking sim, third person shooter, management sim—and blended them all into one game, but the result isn't as smooth as you'd hope. Death Stranding is an amalgamation of various genres rolled into one, yes, but that doesn't make it a new genre entirely.
Eric Van Allen, News Editor: I'd say it's a soft yes. Certainly not to the point that anyone is updating the Genre tags on their site, and I'd be surprised if there's suddenly a Strand Game Revolution tomorrow, but it is something that's hard to nail down with current conventions too, even if "walking simulator with stealth action" gets you most of the way there.
The main reason behind calling Death Stranding its own genre is in the hooks it throws into its blend of game styles and genres. It is a travel game, a stealth game, at times a shooter, and also a really long movie. But the way the metagame intertwines with all aspects of the game, creating feedback loops and reasons to keep engaging with all the disparate pieces and gameplay ideas presented, makes it feel unlike anything else.
Throughout my playtime, I felt like Death Stranding's closest contemporary in terms of what it was trying to do was The Legend of Zelda: The Breath of the Wild. Both have these massive expanses of land that seem hollow at first, but traversing them becomes its own story. Over time, you build that land up. Simple creeks or rivers become landmarks, soon humming with the low buzz of electronics and infrastructure. But you also meet people, complete quests, take out enemies in the tall grass, and do some light driving. It shines in the way it melds that all together, better than most have.
So no, it won't be some new Strand genre or anything. But kind of like the recent auto chess craze or even MOBAs and battle royales before it, it's innovations aren't based on control scheme or camera perspective, but in the way you interact with a new Frankenstein of genres that elicits gameplay experiences others haven't been able to. Maybe it isn't a new genre, but it is a new experience that seems to shrug off most of the rigid taxonomies we currently have.
How long did it take you to get through Death Stranding?
Kat: I clocked about 40 hours. I was mostly playing along the critical path, but I did stop over and take on a few sidequests along the way, and when I got tired of running deliveries, I liked to troll the local MULE camps. From what I can tell, a large chunk of the playtime is spent watching cutscenes and… well… walking. The repetition makes it feel like a long 40 hours, to the point that I was sure I had put in closer to 60. But there will be plenty of people who put hundreds of hours into building roads and bridges. Bless these people, whoever they are, because they're the real heroes.
Hirun: We'd heard a while back that Death Stranding was about 60 hours long, and I'd estimate my playtime ended up around 50 hours. There's no "100% completing" the game since the side delivery orders automatically replenish, but to get the Platinum Trophy, it'll likely take you north of 70 or 80 hours.
Eric: My final playtime clocked about 33 hours, though I sprinted through the story to get to the end and only did a handful of the sidequests at first. I've gone back and put another 10 hours or so in post-game content, and plan on doing more in the future. There's a lot you can do if you just decide to, or you can probably blitz through this game at a typical AAA-pace. There isn't really a reward to doing it faster or slower, though I will say, utilizing some of the later-game traversal mechanics is pretty key in avoiding some frustrating traversal.
The MVP of Death Stranding is...
Kat: Whoever takes the time to build safehouses, Timefall shelters, batteries, and ziplines throughout the areas covered by the UCA's network. In a typical Kojima touch, this element is a bit of meta-storytelling intended to drive home the importance of building up the chiral network. When you're outside of the network, you feel naked and alone, with precious little access to facilities or materials. When you're connected, you can call on motorcycles stored in online garages, and access items through public lockers. The difference is never more stark when you're stumbling through a particularly tough area and you come across a blessed safehouse—a place to restock your items and take a nap before pushing onward. It's these moments that makes Death Stranding feel special in its own weird way.
Thank you to everyone who built bridges and zip-lines! pic.twitter.com/TRrHMzLfjL— Kahlief “FeetLoaf For All” Adams (@Kahjahkins) November 1, 2019
I'll also throw in Troy Baker for the heck of it. As one of the main villains in Death Stranding, he chews scenery in a way that's just delightful. I was always excited whenever his character was on screen, which honestly wasn't nearly enough.
Hirun: Mads Mikkelsen, without a doubt. We're obviously not spoiling plot details for Death Stranding around here, but Mads' performance goes a long way to selling the plot of the game, especially where you have to suspend your disbelief of the more supernatural elements, like the BBs in particular.
Eric: Everyone who built a Timefall shelter. Bless you, all of you. Seriously, you develop emotional attachments to the safety that other people's buildings can provide. They become landmarks that you plot routes by, or brief moments of reprieve during an arduous trek. The star-studded cast is close too, but my runner-up is actually the soundtrack. Between the many, many ambient songs from the band Low Roar and the bevy of licensed music—really good licensed music too, the Khalid/Major Lazer track is a banger—and the story use of one melody in particular, Kojima's penchant for music tie-ins really works here. (Though I do wish he had found a way to use some Bowie again, I feel like "Heroes" would've been killer for a last-second surprise.)
Who would you recommend Death Stranding to, if at all?
Kat Fans of Metal Gear Solid, or just people who are looking for something outside of the usual blockbuster fare. Death Stranding looks like your typical crowdpleaser, but it requires a lot of patience, and maybe also a willingness to just kind of shrug and roll with its weirder elements. Are you throwing bombs containing Sam Porter Bridges' urine? Are you carrying a baby in a jar? Yes, you are doing both of these things.
When it comes down to it, Death Stranding hits a lot of the same beats as Metal Gear Solid. Non-violent action? Yep. Oddly-named characters with some kind of unique quirk? Definitely. Stealth action? Most certainly. Established fans will almost certainly be right at home, though they may feel themselves quietly missing more traditional Metal Gear action, which stands in stark contrast to the often plodding Death Stranding.
I'd be lying if I said I thought Death Stranding hit the highs of, say, Metal Gear Solid 3. I admire its creativity, but its core conceit of hauling random items overstays its welcome by about 10 hours. When it's good, it's very good, and Death Stranding's best bits are what continue to stand out the most in my memory. But as for actually recommending it, maybe Death Stranding requires more of an investment than a lot of people are willing to give.
Hirun I would only—and I cannot stress this enough—only recommend Death Stranding to those with time and patience aplenty. The game really comes full circle by the end (I might even go so far as to say it wraps up everything pretty succinctly), but it'll take over 50 hours for the average player to see the conclusion of Death Stranding, with plot beats few and far between the walking and traversal gameplay..
Eric: This is a game for people who are fine with things dragging on for a bit. Death Stranding never feels expedient or concise. It is sprawling, not in terms of scope but just in terms of how fast and how far it throws every edge of its gameplay to various ends of the spectrum.
You have to be okay with working through large swathes without story to get to the really good bits. The narrative structure of Death Stranding feels oddly reminiscent of Final Fantasy 15: a big opening, then a long stretch of very honed, narrowly scoped character arcs as you journey around an open world, and then you lock into the endgame and hurtle towards the credits. In fact, you need to be really okay with long, long cutscenes and story sections. Again, this is not a concise game.
That said, it does something very few other games have managed to do. It gives you a real feeling of a connected world, and a connection to other players. Its atmosphere alone is extremely memorable, especially the late-game segments. I enjoyed the characters a lot, so if you're looking for a star-studded game with a cast of Hollywood actors that hold their own as video game mo-caps, this is right up your alley. And for all the talk that always circulates around Kojima games as being wild, nonsensical, or nigh-inscrutable, the story of Death Stranding has a pretty satisfying amount of clarity by the time you reach the end.
The litmus test is: does the idea of assembling a backpack, planning a route, metering your resources, and journeying into the great unknown sound like a pleasant time to you? Do you enjoy the idea of just walking, reading over the terrain to see what path would be best or which stretch of the river to ford, all the while delivering packages to their destination? Death Stranding has a lot of narrative in it, but it's all framed within the world of porters. You might find joy in that, like I did; or you might not be down for all of its open-world trappings, and that's where you'd be better off not playing.
What did you think of That One Cutscene without getting too much into spoiler territory
Hirun: I didn't like this scene. It uses Fragile as a tool for advancing the character of Higgs, turning him into a proper antagonist without really doing anything that makes us see Fragile in a different light. We already have an idea of what happened to Fragile before this scene even takes place, seeing the gory details doesn't really further anything about her character outside of her lust for revenge.
Kat: It would have been fine if Death Stranding could have resisted the urge to throw in some titillation. It makes it feel like a scene from a grindhouse film, which is fine on its own, but maybe not the tone that Kojima is trying to convey with this scene. Thankfully, this bit is pretty much a one-off, and Death Stranding does justice to Fragile in a way that Metal Gear Solid 5 never did with Quiet. But in the moment, it definitely had me gritting my teeth.
Eric: This is the scene that will be most publicly derided, and for good reason. It's so close to being fine, and then just goes one step over the line. The camera starts to pan all around and zoom and it's just too creepy. It still doesn't match up to that Quiet level, because I don't think anything else ever could, but it's the one wrinkle in an otherwise extremely compelling character's story.