Review – Death Stranding
Reviewing Death Stranding has proven to be one of the most complicated tasks I’ve ever had to deal with since the creation of this website. I don’t think I have ever seen a game being hyped by half of the populace while being derided before launch by the other half. Some claiming that there was no way it could suck, considering it was being made by none other than Hideo Kojima, and others feeling skeptical with its underwhelming pre-release marketing. This is a game that, no matter what I write in the review, will irritate half of the community, as the internet only deals in absolutes. Well, I got my bulletproof vest ready, it’s time to tackle this beast.
We’ve all been wondering what the hell would Death Stranding turn out to be ever since its reveal at E3 2016. We were all keen on seeing what Kojima would do after his tumultuous departure from Konami. A lot of people loved Metal Gear Solid V, so they were looking forward to his next project. I don’t fall into that category. I love the Metal Gear franchise like I love my puppy, but I despise The Phantom Pain like very few games this generation. Some of its issues are the result of Konami’s interference, but others are the result of an auteur clearly going mad with power and autonomy. With a brand new studio of his own, I was worried Kojima would be given too much freedom, diverting him from being focused on a concise product.
Was I right to worry about this? Well, the game ended up impressing me in some areas I wasn’t expecting, and bored and annoyed me to near-death in others. In my humble opinion, while this is a true testament of auteurship in the gaming industry, it is also proof that you shouldn’t let someone go rampant with no supervision, as this is a pretentious product. There’s no other way to say it.
Let’s look at the gameplay. Death Stranding is a game about logistics. When people joke that this is a “UPS Simulator”, there’s a bit of truth in the statement. You’re a deliveryman and from the get-go you tell other characters that all you do is deliver things from one place to another. The core gist of the game is to take orders from clients and figure out a way to deliver said cargo in top condition through hostile conditions. You may have to deal with weight distribution, uneven terrain, rebellious factions, an otherworldly kind of rain that quickly degrades the condition of the materials you’re carrying, and to top things off, ghosts.
Death Stranding does give you tools and perks in order to deal with these hindrances. In order to deal with weight distribution, you can attach cargo to different parts of your body. You can also develop exoeskeletons that may increase the amount of cargo you can carry. In order to deal with uneven terrain, you can drive a few different vehicles, as well as use ropes and ladders to get past obstacles.
Dealing with ghosts and angry humans is another story. The game does provide you with a few weapons for you to get past them, but the core rule here is that you should not kill anyone. If you do, you will trigger a phenomenon called “voidout”, resulting in a gigantic explosion. You don’t need to worry about that, though. You’re given a sizeable amount of non-lethal weapons to choose from, as well as tools made out of bodily fluids that can defeat the ghosts haunting the land. Combat isn’t well-developed in here and the third-person shooting mechanics are so poor that they make Uncharted feel like Gears of War. However, it’s a nice diversion from the long distances you’ll cover doing nothing but walking from point A to point B.
The main gameplay loop in Death Stranding is to go from an already discovered waystation or distribution center to a brand new one located further away, overcoming previously undiscovered terrain and not knowing when (or if) enemies will attack you. Once you reach the next destination, you may be able to connect it to the “chiral network” (this game’s interpretation of the internet). Once connected, the entire region surrounding the waystation will be open for you to build structures, as well as allowing you to see and use structures built by other players. Think of it as a mix between the “radio tower” schtick present in most Ubisoft games with the “solo multiplayer” feature popularized in games like Dark Souls. It makes the world feel a bit more alive, but once you connect a region to the chiral network, the amount of helpful structures created by others turn the entire region too easy to traverse.
Death Stranding isn’t a very difficult game. In fact, even when playing it on Hard mode, I never died throughout my playthrough, thus never actually experiencing a voidout except when the story dictated one should happen. That doesn’t mean that it was a cakewalk, but instead of providing me with challenges to overcome, Kojima and his friends kept constantly throwing inconveniences and hindrances for me to endure.
That’s one of the biggest issues with this game: it likes to annoy you. It doesn’t know when to test your skills, it only knows how to test your patience. The item and equipment degradation, weirdly enough, never bothered me that much. They are annoying, for sure, but the game rarely forces you to cover great distances that would otherwise destroy your equipment in one run, with the exception of one area in particular which I’ll talk about later. You can create structures like electricity towers and repair centers that can help you mitigate those inconveniences.
One of the biggest inconveniences for me was how bad it is to drive vehicles in this game. Remember the controls from Grand Theft Auto IV? Remember how nobody liked them? Well, GTA IV feels like Forza Horizon is comparison. There are basically two types of vehicles you can drive in here, bikes and trucks, and both are annoying to deal with. Bikes are fast and nimble, but they are fragile, can’t carry a lot of cargo, don’t protect from the rain, and are terrible with uneven terrain. If you even scratch against an inch-tall pebble, the damn thing will crash. Trucks can carry a lot of cargo, but are slow, have terrible traction, and once again, aren’t suited for uneven terrain. Nothing is suited for uneven terrain in here and there is a ton of it to deal with.
Two key things in Death Stranding are what irritated me the most, though. One of them is how the game’s story randomly dictates that nonsensical hindrances should hamper your gameplay for hours on end with no good reason. One chapter threw me onto a snowy mountain, in which the snow itself also corroded my equipment, and told me I couldn’t use my BB (the baby inside the jar) because… reasons. The BB is what allows you to detect and see the ghosts haunting the land, so the fact that I didn’t have the baby to help me meant that I would only be able to see the ghosts when they were already attacking me. That isn’t a challenge, that is a nuisance. That is putting a blindfold on the player and forcing them to walk through a Syrian battlefield.
The worst thing about it, though, is its repetitive gameplay loop. Chapters in Death Stranding can be summarized in “going from A to B, then to C, then to D, then to E, then going all the way back to A in order to go to F”. It is a very tiresome loop of going from one distribution center to another, getting new orders, and expecting for the story-focused deliveries to be concentrated with scripted pathways full of unavoidable ghosts and sections with rain. Even though this is a game set in the apocalypse, I never bought the setting as a living breathing world, as it’s so full of scripted obstacles that makes the entire place look like a VR simulation.
That might sound like I’m being overly harsh with Death Stranding, but there are some really good things in here as well. I’d like to point them out before talking about what Kojima obviously put the most effort into it.
Visually speaking, Death Stranding is outstanding. It is truly one of the most beautiful games I have ever seen, with fantastic character models, outstanding lighting effects, and vivid colors. It manages to overcome the fact that it is a very visually repetitive game, full of reused assets, especially when it comes to buildings scattered throughout the map. The game even manages to maintain a rock-solid 30fps on the base PS4. A lot of hard work has been put into optimizing this game to the best performance possible. I have to commend Guerrilla Games for their Decima Engine, the same one used in Horizon Zero Dawn. It is one of the most impressive engines in the industry, without a doubt.
Overcoming a well-designed obstacle is also very rewarding, especially when you manage to come up with a solution with the help of another player. Donating resources to auto-paving stations and looking at a big modern road being built right in front of you is really cool. You’ll also be showered with “likes” from other players by doing so. Likes are this game’s experience points, in a not-so subtle metaphor on how we use social media to feed our ego and insecurities. The more you rank up as a deliveryman, the more cargo you’ll be able to carry without the need of special skeletons, the better your balance will be, the more you’ll be able to build in your vicinity, and so on.
With that being said, it’s now time to discuss the story. This game is made by Hideo Kojima, a man who has never tried to hide the fact he is almost as much as a filmmaker as he is a game designer. Death Stranding tries to be the single most intelligent and thought-provoking art piece you have ever played. However, its hubris weighs on it much like Icarus holding an anvil.
The game is set in a post-apocalyptic future, in which a cataclysmic event known as “Death Stranding” resulted in the annihilation of almost everyone in the continental United States. This also lead to the clash between the worlds of the dead and the living, with ghosts roaming the land and an otherworldly rainfall called “Timefall” continuously falling down on the land. This rain rapidly ages anything it touches, be it plants, materials, or living beings. The last remnants of civilization are sheltered in isolated cities, with all the logistics between them being handled by the not-so-subtly-named company “Bridges” and their delivery boys, known as Porters. You are Sam Bridges, one of said Porters.
Sam’s objective is to honor a wish of reconnecting America and “making it whole again”, by performing the aforementioned chiral network connections throughout the entire continent. The world can only be saved by connecting people together. In theory, this is no different from saying that the “power of friendship will save us all”. The same cliché present in games like Kingdom Hearts is here, with a bigger budget, better graphics, an all-star cast, and an ungodly amount of themes and nods to current social issues that would make a political blog from either side blush.
I’m not going to dive deeper than that when it comes to the story. Trust me, there’s a lot that happens in here, but I can safely say that the plot isn’t exactly as “deep” and “thought-provoking” as Kojima thinks it is. I saw the plot twists coming from a mile away, as subtlety has never been the man’s forte. Kojima is as subtle as a drunken mammoth inside a glass house, and that is clearly shown in here.
Not wanting to dive into personal political beliefs, Death Stranding is extremely in-your-face with a lot of social issues we currently face not only in America, but the world as a whole. He uses them as obvious metaphors all throughout its run-time. Other issues, both important and menial, are showcased in here. Some of them are hidden behind messages received after completing a side mission, but they are so dumb it’s worth tackling them just to see Kojima’s views of the world synthetized in a post-apocalyptic setting. His rant about how streaming services are killing cinema (which is a complete lie, as we’re going to the theaters more often than ever) like an old man who just can’t get used to modern technology, is so stupid it’s almost adorable.
The pacing is another big issue. Death Stranding is poorly paced to a nonsensical degree. Some chapters can last for ten or so hours, while others can last for thirty minutes. One chapter might throw you in the middle of an action-heavy situation, while another chapter will force you to deliver cargo to isolated waypoints. Sometimes a single delivery might take more than forty minutes to complete because of how uneven the terrain is.
The characters in Death Stranding are a mixed bag. Sure, Kojima did bring a ton of his celebrity friends to partake in his high-budget private party, but not all of them did a good job. Case and point, Norman Reedus. You thought using Kiefer Sutherland in Metal Gear Solid V was underwhelming? Well, Norman doesn’t do a better job. I partially blame the script, making his character a near-mute for most of the time, but whenever he opens his mouth, he doesn’t sound enthusiastic at all. It feels like he’s there just to cash in. The same can be said about Lea Seydoux’s character, although she does a slightly better performance than him.
The other main characters in the game can be divided into two main categories: the exposition dumps and the villains. The team at Bridges is basically comprised of people who will call you at all times to dump a ton of information into your brain. Did you see something weird? Someone will call you and tell you everything you need to know about it. Did you meet a new character? Someone else will call you and gossip about said character’s entire life story. The time when Die-Hardman, who’s basically a human version of Siri, called me to tell about the origin of the MULE rebels was my favorite, mostly because of how stupid the story was. Guillermo Del Toro and Nicolas Winding Refn are in the game as well, but they don’t voice their characters. Their voice actors are fine, but once again, they’re only here to throw a colossal amount of exposition at you.
The villains are the best characters in the game, not solely because of their backstory, which isn’t very deep, but because the actors portraying them knocked it out of the park. Mads Mikkelsen did a fantastic job in here, but he barely shows up throughout the game. He is criminally underutilized in here, which is a shame. Troy Baker’s character, Higgs, won me over. He has a cool design, a nice backstory, and most importantly, Troy did a great job portraying him. It’s almost weird to actually see Troy Baker himself (albeit in digital form) doing a role, and not just his voice. He clearly had a lot of fun being the villain in this game, and it shows. You can almost feel him having a good time whenever he’s onscreen.
You’ve probably heard that Death Stranding also features a lot of cameos from other famous celebrities, and to be honest, I wish it didn’t. Some of them do a somewhat decent job, I won’t deny, but most of them felt completely out of place, completely ruining my sense of belief. Conan O’Brien is absolutely awful and unfunny in here, for instance. Other NPCs usually do an alright job, but there was one case that featured the single absolute worst voice acting I’ve heard in my life. Scratch that, worst acting performance as a whole. If you’ve played the game, you’ll know who I’m talking about.
Death Stranding is a game that doesn’t feature big issues that completely ruin it, but it’s absolutely packed with a ton of small inconveniences that weigh it down almost in the same way. It’s gorgeous, it’s generally well-acted, it’s something completely different from the rest of the AAA gaming landscape, but it’s also a clear case of what happens when you let a completely unsubtle auteur with an ego the size of a whale go wild. It’s a pretentious game with some really good ideas that are hampered by other annoying ideas. It also thinks it’s a lot smarter than it actually is, as well as your perception of it. I am looking forward to seeing what Kojima will do next, but he will need to put his feet on the ground for his next endeavor.
Even though it’s a somewhat visually repetitive game, with lots of reused assets, I can’t deny the fact that Death Stranding‘s graphics are absolutely fantastic.
The core gameplay loop of going from A to B, while not innovative in any way, isn’t as boring as expected. The only other feature that works is the multiplayer cooperation mechanic, as features like driving, durability management, and the terrible shooting gameplay are undercooked at best.
Instances of phenomenal voice acting are hindered by poorly voiced cameos and irritating exposition-heavy scenes. The soundtrack won’t please everybody.
Fun Factor: 5.5
Death Stranding thinks it’s a lot smarter than it actually is. There are glimpses of a brilliant game in here, but they are hampered by poorly paced chapters, underwhelming gameplay features, terrible cameos, and a story that is nowhere near as interesting as Kojima thought it would be.
Final Verdict: 7.0
Death Stranding is available now on PS4. PC version will be released on Q2 2020.
Reviewed on PS4.