The most implausible thing about Death Stranding is that it exists at all. Hideo Kojima, its writer and director, has been saying that he wants to stop making Metal Gear Solid games for as long as he’s been making Metal Gear Solid games. Now, with a newly independent Kojima Productions receiving what appears to have been carte blanche from Sony to make whatever it wanted to as long as it was a PS4 game, Kojima’s first non-Metal Gear directorial project in decades is here.
And, while I love Metal Gear, the one thing Death Stranding has made me feel above all else is that I wish Kojima had left the series behind sooner.
Death Stranding positively drips with Kojima’s aesthetic, from its evocative not-quite-English terminology to its willingness to break the fourth wall and confound your expectations. Although the setting is completely different, playing Death Stranding often feels like an alternative-universe Metal Gear spinoff where characters still stop what they’re doing for lengthy Codec phone calls. And yes, there are a lot of cutscenes in Death Stranding, directed with Kojima’s distinctive, less-than-subtle flair.
Much of the familiarity comes not just from Kojima, but from the people who he works with. Yoji Shinkawa’s unmistakable character design, which effortlessly blended the organic and the mechanical throughout the Metal Gear series, is the most obvious throughline here, with instantly iconic creations like the flapping flower-like Odradek sensor and the surreal BB tank. Shinkawa even found a way to include some bipedal mech designs in Death Stranding’s post-apocalyptic world.
There’s also DNA shared with the ill-fated Silent Hills project that caused Kojima to leave Konami in the first place. It starts with its star, Norman Reedus, while the intended co-director Guillermo del Toro had a facial performance captured for a major dubbed role. It’s also easy to see echoes of the cult favorite PT demo in Death Stranding’s ethereal, unsettling take on horror, even if certain fan theories may have gone a little too far.
An occasional occurrence in later Metal Gear games, Kojima’s inclination to name-drop is Death Stranding’s biggest indulgence. The core performances from Reedus and others like Margaret Qualley and Mads Mikkelsen are roundly excellent, making the most of an awkward script, and the game is all the better for them. But did we really need to see Geoff Keighley and Conan O’Brien in hologram form? The inclusion of so many of Kojima’s celebrity acquaintances doesn’t do much to dispel the notion that Death Stranding is a vanity project.
The game has its similarities to Metal Gear Solid, particularly the fifth and most recent entry. Structurally, it mostly consists of you carrying out tasks from a long list in a large open world. When there are enemies, it’s usually better to be stealthy. You can hide in tall grass and are encouraged to adopt a non-lethal approach. There are boss fights.
Otherwise, Death Stranding sees Kojima Productions free of the shackles that the Metal Gear series had imposed for so long. The game’s design, narrative, and pacing are all equally important elements that work in lockstep to create an experience like no other. Death Stranding is a game that makes you trudge around isolated mountains for dozens of hours just to communicate the point that trudging around isolated mountains for dozens of hours would suck. Often, when you are doing the trudging, it really does suck. But the crucial factor is that, frequently, the simple act of walking in Death Stranding is incredible.
Walking is everything. The detailed landscapes and realistic physics combine to create a dynamic where you’re constantly thinking about whether — and how — you can make it across that river or around that ledge. You must account for every object you hoist onto your long-suffering back, balancing the desire to defend yourself against your need to reach your goal. With a full load, you have to micromanage your grip on your backpack straps if you don’t want to slip and send your precious cargo tumbling hundreds of meters off a cliff.
It gets easier. You will gain access to equipment, vehicles, and the ability to build upon the terrain around you. There is even a fast-travel system, though you won’t often want to use it. It’s not just that it doesn’t let you take items with you. Death Stranding is a game about a man walking coast to coast, and it’s nothing without the sensation that you took each step for yourself. But there’s also a satisfying sense that you are mastering your surroundings as the story starts to accelerate at the midway point, and the journey is choreographed to the extent that reaching the crest of a hill can sometimes be intensely emotional.
Compare this to Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, one of the least structurally coherent games ever made, or Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, an incredible open-world stealth game that was plainly unfinished from a narrative perspective. The Metal Gear game that Death Stranding is most reminiscent of is Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, the sprawling Cold War jungle adventure from 2004. It was the last Metal Gear Solid game devoted to inhabiting an environment, populating it with outlandish characters, and using wild mechanical ideas to propel a can’t-look-away plot. Death Stranding has all of this and more.
Death Stranding isn’t perfect. But I like it so much that I don’t want it to have a sequel. It’s not that it wraps up everything about its story, that there’s no room for expansion, or even that the ending makes any sense at all. (Let’s just say I am looking forward to reading Reddit and wikis once this game is out in the wild.) But it shows what Kojima Productions can do with a blank slate, a bunch of funding, and a mandate to create something truly unique. It is very much not a game for everyone, of course, and I expect many players won’t make it past the opening hours. Nothing about Death Stranding is accidental, though. It exudes confidence in what it is.
“Hopefully they’ll come to some sort of agreement and that happens, or we do something very similar that’s different. I don’t know,” Norman Reedus said after Silent Hills was canceled. “I have faith that we’re going to do something though because it just seems like it was one of those things that needs to happen.”
Death Stranding was revealed just six months after Reedus’ comments and released a little more than three years later. That is a stunning turnaround for a project of this scale, ambition, and originality. What could the new Kojima Productions have achieved over the past 15 years if Kojima had managed to quit after Metal Gear Solid 3?
There is an alternate dimension in which that happened and we got several new games as weird, divisive, and brilliant as Death Stranding. But rather than rue what might have been, consider that Death Stranding’s release and likely commercial success point to an exciting new future for Kojima Productions, one where the studio can continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible in blockbuster game development — as long as Kojima doesn’t find himself trapped in another franchise, that is.
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