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Sam Porter Bridges, the protagonist of Death Stranding, played by Norman Reedus. Image: Kojima Productions/Sony Interactive Entertainment

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Death Stranding: Director’s Cut has finally made me a believer

Turns out, I was wrong

Mike Mahardy leads game criticism and curation at Polygon as senior editor, reviews. He has been covering entertainment professionally for more than 10 years.

This isn’t just a review of Death Stranding: Director’s Cut. This is a review of Death Stranding.

Allow me to explain.

On Nov. 8, 2019, after three years of nebulous trailers and confusing gameplay demos, Kojima Productions released Death Stranding, its first project as an independent studio. I played it for 15 hours and didn’t enjoy a single one of them. I played the role of an exhausted man transporting boxes to a bunch of jerks scattered across a decimated U.S.; it was a plodding, preachy, indulgent mess. I promptly deleted it from my PlayStation 4.

On Sept. 24, 2021, Kojima Productions will release Death Stranding: Director’s Cut. I have been playing it for weeks. This time, I saw the closing credits.

Death Stranding: Director’s Cut is a strange game about an insouciant messenger delivering cargo to dozens of outposts across a fractured, post-apocalyptic America. It explores the importance of community and social ties. It adds extra missions and helpful tools to the game’s arsenal, but I can’t say whether they improve the overall experience because, well, I never had much of an experience to begin with. What I can say is that Death Stranding is still preachy, plodding, and indulgent. It is also propulsive, soothing, and immense. I have played roughly 60 hours, and I’ve been entranced the whole time. I guess you could say I love it.

I’ve heard people call Death Stranding meditative, and I don’t disagree. But more than that, I’ve found it to be hypnotic.

For a game revolving around what are basically fetch quests, I rarely get bored. As Russ Frushtick pointed out in our 2019 review, Death Stranding’s delivery orders are actually pretty damn fun once the game gets out of its own way. I map my travel routes ahead of time. I account for harsh weather forecasts and unfavorable wind patterns. When my cargo is too heavy and I’m wading through the current of a strong river, I also have to shift my balance.

Sometimes I’ll just say screw it, and boost my motorcycle — carrying a precarious stack of briefcases and steel jugs — up a slab of rock and over a chasm because a customer needs his crafting materials before they decay. And sometimes this will end with me in the bottom of said chasm, surrounded by busted boxes and a haze of regret.

Sam Porter bridges aims a cargo cannon, one of the new additions in Death Stranding: Director’s Cut. Image: Kojima Productions/Sony Interactive Entertainment

Every so often, Death Stranding introduces new tools (a truck, a robot companion, and a massive cannon that launches cargo, to name a few). These tools each add their own wrinkle to the simple point-A-to-point-B formula.

One of my favorite orders tasked me with delivering supplies to a wind farm on the other side of a remote forest. The catch? The forest was infested with the wandering souls of dead Americans who wanted nothing more than to pull me into bottomless tar pits composed of the country’s many sins. (Or something like that.) I had to sneak between trees and across mossy rocks slippery with rain. All the while, my only tool for detecting those souls — BTs, as they’re known — was the scanner on my shoulder and the human infant floating in a capsule on my chest. The forest was equal parts weird, thrilling, and oppressive.

Of course, I wasn’t alone in that forest. Not really. In Death Stranding, there are other players on the server. We’re paving roads and building shelters and leaving useful tools for anyone that needs them. On my return trip from the forest, an enemy pack of AI waylaid me and chased me across a field with almost no cover. I came to a ravine, out of stamina and out of ammo for my stun gun. I was cornered.

But someone had placed a ladder across the ravine, and I escaped the ambush. That player will never know how much that ladder helped, but that’s beside the point. They made the game that much easier for me. I left a ladder of my own up a steep slope just a few hundred yards ahead — what else could I do?

I relied on these anonymous and asynchronous acts of support as I made my way across Death Stranding’s surreal interpretation of America. Geographically speaking, the map is the U.S. in miniature, the same way Red Dead Redemption 2 is, except it stretches from sea to sea, complete with Eastern cliffs, amber waves, and the Rocky Mountains giving way to the ambling beaches of the West Coast. Visually speaking, it’s more European. It’s as if Iceland, New Zealand, and Bolivia collided at the exact moment the Large Hadron Collider jettisoned interdimensional goop across the world.

Sam uses a new weapon in the newly added Firing Range in Death Stranding: Director’s Cut Image: Kojima Productions/Sony Interactive Entertainment

Whatever the case, the landscape is perpetually cycling between familiar, alien, breathtaking, and hostile. There is genuine relief in coming down from a snowy peak, equipment deteriorating and stamina low, and seeing the sharp angles of a city glimmering on the horizon.

The looming question still remains: Why the reversal? Why didn’t I bounce off this time? If the Director’s Cut is only additive, then why am I only now enjoying what so many friends already enjoyed two years ago? The answer, I think, is not so much that Death Stranding changed, but that I changed.

One of the game’s (innumerable) plot devices is timefall, a precipitation that rapidly accelerates the aging process of anything it touches. Metal oxidizes. Skin loosens. Flowers bloom, then die. Death Stranding is acutely aware of how time can fluctuate. It is linear but not consistent. One day rushes by in a blur; the next is taut and endless, and it’s all you can do to get outside, go for a walk, and remind yourself that the world is still spinning.

I was more stubborn in 2019. I was less open. I didn’t put much stock in the public realm because I didn’t know how much I needed it. This is not the first critique of Death Stranding to talk about the COVID-19 pandemic, and it won’t be the last — players who returned to the game in the months following its release quickly related to its lonely inhabitants and isolated populations. I imagine many people playing the Director’s Cut will feel the same. In 2019, Death Stranding was prescient. In 2021, it’s downright eerie.

A section of the new factory missions added in Death Stranding: Director’s Cut Image: Kojima Productions/Sony Interactive Entertainment

To be clear: Death Stranding’s story is nonsense. Or, I should say: Its script is nonsense. It’s like The Pilgrim’s Progress if every character were high. The cutscenes are dumb and fun, yes, but they are also maudlin. In the traditional sense, Death Stranding is a narrative mess.

But in its ability to tell a story through your actions, Death Stranding is — I might as well admit it — brilliant. It’s languid until it’s terrifying. It conjures up fear before it cleanses with relief. It’s mundane until shit suddenly hits the fan, and it’s all you can do to escape the pouring timefall and make it to the nearest base, with a crowd of holograms erupting into applause — just as my neighbors and I did every night last summer, all but hanging out of our windows as the ER nurse who lives below me returned from a long shift.

Hideo Kojima and the developers at Kojima Productions have long made games about America — its foreign policy and military agenda, yes, but also the American psyche writ large. And nowhere do they mine the depth of our ideals more thoroughly than here, in Death Stranding. The ultimate reward of the proverbial American Dream has always been isolation: the suburban house with a white picket fence, the McMansion in the forested suburb, Willy Loman’s “place out in the country.” Death Stranding’s world is less science fiction than it is a somewhat logical extension of the American sublime. Tying Death Stranding’s themes of isolation, communal fracturing, and collective trauma solely to the coronavirus pandemic would be to reduce their grand scope.

Death Stranding is replete with questions of whether any of this is worth it — the solidarity and togetherness of it all. If catastrophes will keep piling up, and humans will continue to isolate, and communities will continue to fracture, then what’s the point of ever coming together? For all of its preaching, the game doesn’t end with tidy answers. To tie a bow on these questions in a final cutscene would undercut all of the work its gameplay has already done more elegantly than its thousands of words.

Some art will, given time, morph alongside us. Some art will wait calmly, even stubbornly, for us to return with a new perspective. Death Stranding, by my estimation, has done a bit of both. It has sat patiently, confident in its mechanisms and gargantuan in its ideas, but it has also shifted — just a little bit — while we all did our best to grow.

So: Is Death Stranding: Director’s Cut worth playing? Absolutely. Especially now. Was Death Stranding also worth playing in 2019? I’d say so. I just wasn’t ready for it yet.

Death Stranding: Director’s Cut will be released on Sept. 24 on PlayStation 5. The game was reviewed using a pre-release download code provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links.