Published on November 18th, 2019 | by Ignis
REVIEW: Death Stranding
REVIEWED BY: IGNIS
Death Stranding is a title that sees the legendary Hideo Kojima and his newly formed Kojima productions develop their first game without any strings attached, without any corporate suit and ties telling them what a game ‘should be’, for better or for worse. Invisible ghosts tied to earth with umbilical cords that conjure black tar and squid monsters, that can only be seen by connecting yourself to a stillborn baby in a jar while you run around as a glorified Fed-Ex delivery-man? Yep, that’s a Kojima game.
Concept/Story: The game takes place in a post-apocalyptic America 3 years after an event known as the ‘Death Stranding’ – A catastrophic event wiping out a chunk of civilisation and bringing entities known as BT’s to roam the Earth. When humans come into contact with BT’s, massive explosions known as ‘Voidouts’ happen that eradicate areas. Humanity has evolved to the point where they can 3D print pretty much everything you could ever need using the ‘Chiral Network’ which is effectively a more advanced Internet, but these towns, settlements and outposts need to be linked together. This is where our Protagonist Sam Bridges (a Porter, or deliveryman of goods that can’t be created from Chrial 3D printers) comes into play coerced to unite America under this Chiral Network and save humanity he sets out with himself, his BB (Bridge Baby for short, stillborn babies placed in metal jars and supplied to Porters to help them see BT’s) and whatever he can carry.
This being a Kojima game means you’re going to get a lot of story, a lot of pseudo-science and a lot of very quirky characters and this is unsurprisingly the best part of Death Stranding. The story can be convoluted at times, and it can be difficult to keep up with the sheer number of abbreviations and jargon thrown around, along with all the names (Hardman, Deadman… What is this, a Megaman game?) and it can be overly melodramatic at times, but the relationships that Sam builds with the people around him is heartfelt, the characters while perhaps a little too quirky all have fascinating backstories that make them who they are. It’s a story that tries to showcase the good of mankind, what we can do as a collective when we put our minds together and works very hard to show that when it counts Humans will rally and work together toward a common goal. Be prepared for long cutscenes, the first 3 – 4 hours of the game are almost exclusively cutscenes and while there are far longer stints of gameplay in-between these story moments, you can expect to spend 7+ hours purely on cutscenes. Watching Sam engage with the other characters of Death Stranding is simply wonderful and Death Stranding does a great job of slowly unraveling it’s world doing an excellent job of not overwhelming the player (too much) with it’s world building, you’re always in a position where you want to know what happens next and that is a sign of a great story. The game is worth playing just for this alone, if only to see what crazy thing Kojima will pull out of his hat next (And believe me, the story does get pretty wild; even by Hideo Kojima’s standards the last 2 hours or so is told entirely through cutscenes and you REALLY need to have paid attention to understand where it goes). The only thing that bothered me in terms of the story is how it ends, I feel it leaves a lot of questions about the game unanswered and it spends such a long time introducing the world and it’s little intricacies only to answer half of the questions and raise even more but again that could just be me nitpicking. Overall, the story is fantastic and well worth your time and the concept is… Very Kojima.
Graphics: This game looks stunning. The photo-realistic design of the characters throughout the game looks amazing and fits into the world that Death Stranding is trying to build, faces are beautifully animated, you can immediately tell pain from happiness, sorrow and laughter. I thought initially that the photo-realism of it all would have creeped me out as games like Detroit: Become Human tried their hand at making their characters look real and at times passed this uncanny valley of looking creepy when they smiled or laughed or even talked and that is not remotely the case here. Other developers in the industry should take note, this is the standard to which everyone should be held by and shows a bright future for what we can do with character animation.
The environments are gorgeous ranging from wildlands to forests, mountains and snow, everything has been painstakingly made to push the PS4 to it’s limits, you can hear the console chugging trying to keep up with the fidelity and Death Stranding always looks incredible. It’s really hard not to stand in Timefall (Rain that makes things age really fast, because Kojima) and watch as flowers quickly bloom and wilt, only to be replaced with new flowers. It’s difficult not to stand on the top of a mountain and not want to sit down and admire the view and it is very easily one of the best looking games on the PS4. The game runs at 30 FPS and admirably holds itself together throughout your journey through Death Stranding, you’ll be hard-pressed to find the game performing at less even when things start getting hectic, 60 FPS would have been nice; but I’ll take rock-solid 30 FPS when it looks this good. The PS4 (and I’d imagine most low-mid end PC’s) wouldn’t be able to handle 60 FPS with this level of fidelity and this is how you know we’re getting to the end of a console generation.
Gameplay: The Elephant in the room, this is the thing that divides so many people when playing the game. Death Stranding is at the end of the day, a delivery simulator with A LOT of mechanics thrown through to make the gameplay more ‘interesting’? ‘difficult’? ‘realistic’? The Gameplay at it’s core is quite simple, take items from point A and deliver them to point B with a number of requirements thrown into the mix (e.g. Deliver within X amount of time, deliver goods with less than X amount of damage, deliver X amount of cargo) to try and keep things fresh. A large part of the game comes down to preparing for your journey across the world of Death Stranding, you need to carefully select what orders you want to take from clients, whether you may need ladders, climbing anchors and rope, additional pairs of boots, repair spray for your cargo and much more. There’s a lot of inventory management here and the game does have a neat auto-arrange function that will place everything you’ve arranged to carry around in the best possible order to make your journey as easy as possible. It’s quite overwhelming at first, and there are a pretty large number of items in the game that are irrelevant but giving the player a wide variety of options for how they’d like to proceed to their destination is something I have a lot of respect for and Kojima Productions have certainly given us choices.
The journey from point A to point B is where the meat of the game comes into play, Sam has to deliver cargo between two points and will need to traverse all kinds of ground while moving through America, L2 and R2 will allow Sam to balance his left/right side and the player will need to manage this based on what type of terrain Sam is on whether that be a steep slope up a hill, walking through a river or uneven ground.
Thankfully the game tells you when Sam’s weight is shifting one way or the other so you know the button prompt to center yourself and should you be climbing up a particularly treacherous area or if you’re carrying a lot of heavy cargo both L2 and R2 can be held at the same time which will cause him to focus on stability, slowing him down and costing Stamina but making traversal much easier. The novelty wears off quite quickly however becoming more of an annoyance than anything else. Vehicles do make this easier as well but aren’t accessible immediately and you will go through quite lengthy stints where they aren’t going to do what you need them to due to the environment or obstacles.
Speaking of Stamina, this game has a Stamina bar that goes down as Sam moves around the country, being weighed down by heavy gear or walking through environments he’s not prepared for. Luckily this can be recovered with Monster energy drinks (No, I’m not kidding. They drink Monster instead of water) but eventually Sam will need to rest in one of the games Private Quarters to recover his strength. Not only that, the game also features durability on pretty much everything Sam carries around; cargo, tools and gear, his shoes, even his BB has it’s own health bar that can requires you to waive your controller back and forth and rock a crying BB back to sleep after a tumble. It can be quite frustrating at times managing it all, especially when there’s Timefall, along with needing to walk up mountainous terrain which also increases your Stamina drain while also needing to balance all of your gear because falling over damages your cargo (Cargo has not one, but TWO durability bars, becase Kojima). This is my biggest gripe with the game, if I have 1 pet peeve — it’s durability in Video Games, especially in a game that requires resource management like this. Needing to rest after every delivery because you’re walking through a snowy mountainous area and it drains your stamina at a rapid pace is irrtating, I can’t simply just sit down and catch my breath? I HAVE to sleep at a private quarter because I get tired? I can’t repair some of my equipment because they don’t have a durability meter only a damage meter? Irritating to say the least.
There is a multiplayer aspect to the game, connecting various areas to the chiral network will allow you to see various structures built by other players, ladders placed around to help navigate the world more easily and this is a really fantastic idea. The asynchronous style means that you’re never directly playing with other people, but seeing shelters, bridges and other useful things placed around the Death Stranding environment makes you feel like you’re not alone in this world and can make traversal MUCH easier.
While that is a majority of the gameplay, there are portions of combat in the game. Bear in mind that Death Stranding is NOT an action game, if you’re looking for huge setpieces and a lot of run and gun, this is not the game for you. Combat is methodical and slow, whether facing the various human enemies in the game or the ethereal BTs, you will need to use your limited resources to distract or fight your way through. Sometimes combat is unavoidable and unfortunately because of how the game operates with you needing to deliver cargo tends to be not worth the effort – anything you dedicate to combat is something you can’t dedicate to getting yourself across a ravine, river or something you can use to climb down a cliff face. Even when you do start getting access to the games various weapons, ammunition is restricted and requires you to bring multiple units ‘just in case’. I’d almost rather the game didn’t have any combat at all if I’m perfectly honest, it feels almost out of place and the control scheme certainly doesn’t lend itself to combat — movement is deliberate and slow, menus can get messy and clunky and you risk your cargo getting damaged from almost any interaction. That being said, there are a number of bosses in the game and THIS is the exception. The bosses for the most part are thoughtful and interesting with enough difficulty to keep you going without feeling unfair, the times when the game forces combat on you through these boss battles are the times when combat is at it’s best. Everything else mostly feels like a chore.
It’s not for everyone, but if you can deal with slow and at times overly realistic gameplay there’s some fun to be had here for sure.
Sound: Death Stranding sounds great, there’s no other way of putting it. The heavy footfall of Sam as he trudges around, the sound of your cargo moving around with every step, the wisp of wind blowing through trees when you can hear almost nothing else and the sound of your Odradek blinking as it attempts to warn you as BTs draw closer.
There is a lot of effort that has been placed into making Death Stranding sound like it does, which is a huge deal considering how important it is, audio cues like the lurch of your backpack as you strain to keep yourself upright are a huge factor of how you know when Sam is struggling to carry his cargo on uneven terrain. One of the best examples of sound comes from your Odradek sensor mounted on Sam’s shoulder, it activates whenever you enter an area with BT presence and will start off blinking slowly in the direction of the invisible entities with the blinking increasing in speed as you get closer to them, this is one of your only ways of knowing if you’re getting too close to a BT or not and requires your utmost attention with your Odradek spinning wildly and your BB crying if you get too close to one.
There is a soundtrack to this game, though it is scarce with much of your time listening to the eerie silence of Death Stranding with little else to catch your ear other than the rhythmic steps Sam takes and the sound of your load bouncing around in your backpack. The soundtrack is fine, with licensed tracks from artists such as Chvrches, Bring Me The Horizon and what could probably be Low Roar’s entire catalogue of music though the soundtrack is far outshined by the soft, otherworldly, electronic original soundtrack that accompanies the game. Unfortunately, there’s no way to listen to a lot of this music on the go at the writing of this review which is a shame, because the original soundtrack really doesn’t get enough time to shine and is actually quite good.
Awesomeness: By far the best part of Death Stranding is the impeccable voicework that accompanies your 40+ hour journey, this is what makes the sound of Death Stranding truly incredible and is the lifeblood of the story. The entire cast of characters deliver great performances throughout the game, whether that be Sam’s mumbling to himself when he’s out delivering packages or Fragile’s cold and delicate demeanor, the Voice Actors are really what bring the characters to life and allow the to shine.
That being said, there is one stand-out among everyone and I think to no ones surprise comes from the ever capable Troy Baker playing the antagonist Higgs. He has shown an incredible range so far playing characters such as Joel in The Last of Us, Booker DeWitt in Bioshock Infinite and Revolver Ocelot in Metal Gear Solid 5 and this role only serves as another flawless performance in his stellar resume. Higgs is dramatic, has a love of theatrics, is erratic and at times dives into borderline madness. You despise him as a character, but you never want him off screen, you always want to see more of him and that is the sign of a truly incredible performance and a very memorable villain. Kudos should also be given to Tommie Earl Jenkins who gives a convincing performance as the primary contact for Sam, Die-Hardman. His commanding voice steering Sam in the right direction and his no-nonsense attitude is a nice change of pace from the rest of the cast and was a character who really comes into his own in the second half of the game. Apart from Higgs, this ended up being by far my favourite performance in the game which is funny because I was really underwhelmed with him at first.
Everyone in this game really delivers an engaging vocal performance, they really are the ones who make the characters feel believable in what would otherwise be a completely unbelievable world.
Final Words: ‘Hideo Kojima’ is an industry icon after the conclusion of the Metal Gear Solid franchise and seeing ‘a Hideo Kojima game’ pop up at the start of a trailer is enough to get people frothing at the mouth. Does Death Stranding match up to the insurmountable amount of hype the trailers spawned? Short answer: No. Long answer: No, but after finishing the Metal Gear Solid series and teasing us with this game for such a long time, could it ever have?
This is a game that excels in many aspects, the story is perplexing and deep the visuals are gorgeous, the sound is rich and the voice work is inpeccable. It’s just unfortunate that Death Stranding is bogged down by so much of the ‘game’ aspect, if there was a little less emphasis on all the micromanaging of inventory, stamina bars and weight I think I could have really enjoyed the delivery aspect of the game and there are times when I was so close to enjoying it. But credit where credit is due, this is one of the most unique video games to ever be released, and perhaps that alone is worth trying it — just to say ‘I played Death Stranding’.
Out of 5 Bugs!