Review – Death Stranding (PC)
Less than a year ago, Hideo Kojima’s mysterious game Death Stranding was released exclusively on Playstation 4. Leo initially reviewed the game shortly after launch, giving it a respectable seven out of ten. He praised the game’s amazing graphics, some of its sound design, and ideas it presents, saying that, in the end, “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”. Now on PC this is my first time playing the game and I finally get to see what the fuss was all about.
Death Stranding is set in a post-apocalyptic future after an event called the “Death Stranding” has wiped out most life on Earth and caused real world and the after life to clash. With Beached Things (BT) roaming the world and bringing others to the “beaches”, a sort of gateway to the afterlife, a strange phenomenon known as “Timefall” occurs. This is essentially a rain that rapidly ages everything it touches, leading to the destruction of society as we know it. To make matters even worse, anyone that dies will cause a voidout, a giant explosion that leaves a crater behind. Whatever is left of humanity lives in underground cities, isolated from the outside world. Of course, resources and supplies need to be transported between these cities and this is where the porters come in.
You play as Sam Porter Bridges, a porter whose job it is to deliver packages to those who need them. It’s a dangerous job with the risks of being exposed to Timefall, as well as the need to traverse some dangerous terrain. After a corpse disposal job gone wrong, Sam is tasked with making a journey West across America, reconnecting cities along the way and joining them to a Chiral Network to make mankind whole again.
As for the characters, for the most part we have an interesting cast, with some of the stupidest names in gaming. Our hero Sam is reserved, keeps to himself most of the time, and suffers from aphenphosmphobia (a fear of being touched). He doesn’t quite believe in the goal of reconnecting the world, and believes America is a lost cause, yet continues on this journey for personal reasons. The game is packed has a bunch of side characters with interesting backstories, like Heartman, who dies every twenty-one minutes and gets resurrected after three minutes. This allows him to explore the “Beaches” to look for his family and gain insight to the Death Stranding. Despite some other really odd character names like Deadman or Die-Hard Man, I really like some of the personal stories that they have.
The real stars though are the game’s villains. Higgs, the egotistical terrorist whose strong understanding of the Death Stranding and higher DOOMs levels allow him to form a stronger connection to the other side (Sam is a level 2 and that only allows him to sense BTs). He can summon giant BTs and cause Timefall on demand, intentionally going around and causing voidouts and wiping entire cities off the map. Then we have Cliff, who is the emotional anchor of the game, expertly played by the fantastic Mads Mikkelsen. I won’t go much into Cliff’s character because there’s a ton of surprises with a great pay-off.
With this amazing set-up full of mystery and cast of interesting characters it’s a shame the story can feel just a bit underwhelming. For long stretches of the game, nothing happens, then all of a sudden you get dumped with tons of revelations. Dialogue sequences and cutscenes are filled to the brim with exposition, rarely letting you discover anything about the world by yourself. Obviously I won’t go into specifics here because even though it does fall short, the story was at least enjoyable. Especially the final act.
One of the biggest questions I see around Death Stranding even today is: what do you even do? Well, as the story suggests, your job is to reconnect America by traversing the harsh terrain, bringing hubs back online and joining them to the UCA Chiral Network. These hubs will also need supplies to keep running so it is also your job to deliver them and this is the primary core gameplay loop: delivering packages as fast as you can with minimal damage.
As you can expect, there is A LOT of walking from point A to B to C and all the way back to A again. Yet Kojima Productions have actually managed to make this somewhat interesting. Deep rivers and steep mountains all provide an obstacle for Sam to overcome, and it’s up to you how to do this. Rough terrain is harder to walk on and you will need to manage the weight on Sam and how that weight is distributed so he doesn’t tip as easy. Ladders and climbing ropes can help you out a lot, but that also means carrying them with you weighing you down even more. Preparing your routes properly before setting out can make your journey a lot easier. You can try to take the longer way round, but a time-limit or other more pressing dangers might be around the corner.
The environment isn’t the only thing that is out to stop Sam. MULEs scour the Earth looking for porters to steal their precious cargo. Early on Sam has no option but to run away from them or take lengthy detours to avoid them all together. Though as you progress, a Bola Gun will become available allowing you to temporarily knock down a MULE. If the MULEs do manage to capture you, they will take all your packages and kick you out of their territory. From here you can sneak back in and get those back. It’s surprisingly exciting stuff that is much more fun than it sounds.
When Timefall starts, your cargo will start to decay the longer you stay out in it. Finding cover or sleeping in a private room will allow you to wait it out, but if it starts when you are out in the field your cargo will become much more fragile. With the Timefall also comes the BTs and if they catch you, you will become separated from your packages and thrust into a sort of mini-boss. BT boss fights consist mostly of running around and throwing blood grenades at them, not very exciting stuff and pretty much all BT monsters follow this same pattern. You can run away, but taking them on (which is pretty easy) will net you a lot of Chiral resources.
Then we’ve got some really weird annoyances that just feel like they’re here to waste your time. Every base you connect and every delivery you make all start and end with the same cutscene you will repeatedly skip. Worse yet, these small sections are broken up into segments, so in a simple delivery mission you may have to skip cutscenes half a dozen times. Then you have the statistics screen that goes through a lot of numbers. There’s an auto-skip feature that keeps disabling itself on every screen. Finally, you have multiple identical looking menus that you need to go through. Why not have everything in one nice easy menu? Death Stranding is just packed with minor inconveniences that add up overtime and detract from the experience.
I played Death Stranding on the newly introduced Very Hard difficulty and it’s… not very hard at all. In fact, it is still pretty easy. All it does is require you to balance yourself more often and avoid rough terrain whenever possible, making navigation slightly more challenging. Where the Very Hard difficulty actually shines is with the MULEs, making them more threatening and encouraging creative approaches to dealing with them. I would recommend playing on this difficulty setting.
Another thing I want to touch upon is the online connectivity this game has. Kojima has previously called Death Stranding a “Strand” game. What this means is there is a persistent online presence in the world. As you explore you will find ladders set down by other players and later on bridges and roads. Other players will be able to find your structures as well. This is a well done addition to the game that fits perfectly with it’s themes of connectivity.
You won’t be able to see structures unless you’ve already unlocked them and added the region to the Chiral Network. This makes the countless backtracking you have to do a total breeze, thanks to a full road-setup where you can safety bring your bike and loads of cargo without removing the element of discovery the first delivery you make to a region.
Death Stranding on PC marks the first game to release on PC with the Dunia engine and the results are impressive, able to scale across a range of devices. Even an older PC should be able to put out 1080p at at least 30fps at the game’s default settings. Though there is a limited number of options available, at least the major ones are that allow you to tweak the games settings. Motion blur, depth of field, anti-aliasing, and v-sync are all present in this port. I’m looking forward to seeing what the upcoming port of Horizon Zero Dawn brings to PC.
Visually, Death Stranding is a technical masterpiece, with huge outdoor environments that are just breath-taking to look at and explore. Animations are wonderful as well, though the interactions with the environment can look overly done at times. These are also some of the best character models I’ve ever seen. I’m excited to see what else the Dunia engine can put out.
Whilst not to my personal taste in music I can’t deny the music choice here is perfect. Low Roar provides an excellent backdrop to the desolate world amongst some other artists that feature prominently. Then Ludvig Forssell delivers another excellent OST after his impressive debut in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Much of the voice cast does an excellent job with their lines, picking up where the script will falter. Troy Baker in particular sounds like he is having a ton of fun as Higgs, self-aware and breaking the fourth wall.
As a whole, Death Stranding is an extremely captivating yet polarising experience. It’s an ambitious title that dares to do something different in a sea of safe bets and genre clones, and for the most part, it actually does succeed. However, those minor annoyances and long stretches where nothing happens can bring the experience down a notch for some players.
Death Stranding makes its PC debut and it looks absolutely stunning.
The core gameplay here is often a mixed bag. It’s a neat concept that feels very detailed in some areas, and very undercooked in others. It’s also riddled with small annoyances.
Mads Mikkelsen and Troy Baker steal the show as the game’s villains, whilst elsewhere we have excellent sound design.
Death Stranding is an enjoyable and unique experience. One that comes with quite a few caveats and a series of inconveniences.
Final Verdict: 8.0
Death Stranding is available now on PC and Playstation 4.
Reviewed on PC.
A copy of Death Stranding was provided by the publisher.