It’s unlikely we’ll see another game this generation that polarises audiences so drastically. The gaming audience and its opinions tends to deal in absolutes for the most part. Fallout 76 is bad. Fortnite is popular. Monetisation is bad. EA is the devil… In the case of Death Stranding, there is no singular overarching voice. Except to say a Bridge Baby is a very weird thing. The naysayers and the believers are having an online shouting match as I write this. Each of the voices equally loud. Each of them equally justified in their arguments.
This makes reviewing the game with a definitive score an uncomfortable venture. When something like this is so strongly polarised, I’ll be damned for giving it a good score and I’ll be damned for a bad one too. Regardless of which end of the spectrum your opinion lies, Kojima Productions must at least be recognised where credit is due. This game world is unlike anything created before it. Pursuit of such artistry and originality has to be commended in this age of investor approved “dependable” IPs and insulting monetisation plans.
At the same time, the game is not a masterpiece as many would claim. It is not a perfect game. Foes like the MULEs and BTs both create mechanical issues. As much as I am rooting for Kojima-san to succeed, Death Stranding does suffer from some fundamental design flaws that have unfortunately revealed themselves under the weight of the game’s ambition.
Death Stranding is currently only available on PS4. It will be coming to PC late 2020.
For all the weirdness in Death Stranding’s pre-release trailers, its story does make perfect sense in the end. There was a real and understandable worry that Kojima unleashed, free from the shackles of Konami, would lead to problems. The man has never been afraid to explore political and ideological moral grey areas. A narrative stomping ground that hit us again and again in the case of the Metal Gear series.
While the exploits of Solid Snake drew discussions of warfare, Death Stranding looks more at the everyday individual. What seems to be the most prominent subject of death and rebirth is actually overshadowed by social media. Quite the topic change, I’m sure you’ll agree. Yet Kojima has succeeded in blending these subjects into the story of Death Stranding in a thought provoking way. Where he stands to lose points from the audience is that many gamers do not want thoughtful lessons in philosophy when they play video games. Nor do they want to look after a wailing Bridge Baby.
Death Stranding Partly Blames The Apocalypse On Social Media
It is made quite clear in the game how Kojima feels about social networks. We’re told the pre-apocalyptic world of America was on the brink of eating itself because of social media. Sam (Norman Reedus) himself expresses the irony of having to reconnect survivors only to initiate the same social self destruction all over again. It’s a message that is felt strongly throughout the game as each of us can no doubt confess to joining a ranty debate on social media.
Discussing the rest of the story would be frankly irresponsible, given its second to second sensitivity to spoilers. Kojima’s infamous lengthy cutscenes are beautiful to look at and wonderfully directed. Frankly, they are easy to watch, especially if you have an interest in cutting edge facial motion capture, which Death Stranding has in spades and offers up the best the industry has seen to date.
Sam Offers A Fairly Blank Slate Character
Sadly, Reedus hasn’t had much to work with. While I have no doubt in his acting ability, the character of Sam is underwhelming. He lacks believable motivations for doing the things he does. Eventually he will be surrounded by characters that clearly had more thought put into them and actors that cleanly steal the show by the end of the story. Eventually we’ll see some depth to Sam as he begins to form an emotional bond with his Bridge Baby.
Widely considered nothing more than a living tool, emotional attachment to a Bridge Baby is frowned upon. So when Sam names his Bridge Baby and refers to it as his “partner”, things finally start to get a little juicy. You’ll have to play for tens of hours to get to this though. The storytelling does take its sweet time to warm up and you’ll have to be very patient for the payoff at the end.
“Death Stranding is just a FedEx simulator”. “All you do is deliver parcels”. These two already tired out regurgitations have been enough of a review for some. They are phrases that have fast-travelled cynics firmly into one extreme end of our polarised gaming audience. Which is a shame because these statements are factually incorrect. Sorry if you made your made your mind up so vigorously already. I know it’s hard to change your mind after that. But it is just plain wrong.
Yes indeed, the majority of your sessions will be transporting parcels. The game will put you under a true test of mental stamina. By the time you’re finished with it, you’ll be exhausted. But like I said earlier, this is a game world like no other previously made. Terrain can differ wildly and it will determine the gear you choose to bring with you. Almost every game I can think of has geometry designed with flat un-cumbersome pathways on which to walk. All the lumpy stuff is collections of dodecahedrons with a blanket on top.
Death Stranding throws that rulebook out the window and asks you to look before you step. The terrain here is as you see it and it will trip you up. Many have looked on this as an annoyance. Another side effect of Kojima’s relentless pursuit of realism. “Paying attention to where you step is something to do in real life, not in video games”, some will say. Others will appreciate an altogether new form of challenge within a game world.
This terrain, among combinations of many other variables, make for carefully planned journeys. The thing is – Sam has to literally carry everything he collects. It’s not like other games where you have a magical portal in your back pocket to carry everything. The result of this is some seriously cerebral stuff. Especially when deliveries begin to get complicated.
Plan Your Route Around BTs And The Weather
Later on in the game, players can overlay their map with a weather forecast. Ghostly BTs only come out in the rain so this will factor into your planning massively. Will the terrain accept travel by trike? Will we have to go on foot? Are BTs avoidable and if not, what gear shall I take to fight them? Will I have room for that gear, aside from my essential delivery packages? Shall I carry even more to build a bridge over a ravine and make life easier? These are just a few questions more advanced players will be asking at the start of every route.
As a result, Death Stranding is more focused on the satisfaction of a tricky plan well executed, than it is on blowing you away. It is a slow, pensive game. For the most part, this leads to a relaxing experience. Some players will be fine with that proposition. Some, clearly, are not looking for that in their gaming experiences. Ultimately, Death Stranding asks that players ride it through to conclusion to enjoy the satisfaction of having completed “the experience”. If that bold demand of so much of your free time is too egregious to you, this will not be worth forking out for.
Kojima’s Social Strand System Is Death Stranding’s Finest Achievement
What really shines through is Kojima’s Social Strand system. You’ll never see another player roaming about. But you will see what they leave behind. As the game progresses, more and more things become possible to build. I was lucky enough to build the start of a highway. This meant, of course, that everyone was using it. I know this as the game informs me of how many likes I get in small print every time it happens. Suffice it to say, knowing that you are building something that is not only useful to you but also to countless others, is incredibly satisfying. It’s a kind of gaming satisfaction that I’ve not experienced before. I am at least thankful to Kojima for providing that.
After so long, however, Death Stranding begins to undercut its own ambitions. Yes, we have this never-before-seen geometry of the game world. We have this Social Strand system that allows players to interact helpfully without ever actually seeing each other. But as the game goes on, more things are unlocked. These are really there to speed us along and make things easier. This may be a good thing to keep people hanging on if perhaps they were about to check out for good. But for people who were enjoying a good challenge as well as the nuances of planning, these upgrades could be seen as a simplification of the quasi-survival elements more present at the start.
Look After Your Bridge Baby And It Will Look After You
Sam’s Bridge Baby is able to detect BTs for him, allowing for a sneakier approach. Most of the time it is a lot easier to just give them a wide berth. Later on, killing BTs becomes an option. Looking after Sam’s Bridge Baby is also important. Should Sam do anything to upset BB, he’ll have to calm it down. Otherwise its stress levels will become too high and the ability to detect BTs will be taken away. The Bridge Baby mechanic is interesting considering how these ghostly foes are invisible until they’re too close for comfort! The problem here is that removing BTs from the equation offers little to no reward. There’s little incentive to risk taking them on and Sam can just run away every time. Seriously.
The biggest downside of Death Stranding comes with a pinch of irony. On the one hand, the game’s bandits (MULEs) were surely dotted about to add a little electricity to the gameplay. At the same time, they are endlessly frustrating to deal with. With no human enemies about, I think even Kojima would have to admit to the drawl. So, in they went and so too did functional – but lacking – combat mechanics. Metal Gear’s combat was similar in that it boasted high complexity that always left you wondering just where exactly that complexity was.
Never Mind BTs. MULEs Are Where Your Problems Lie
MULE camps have a very far reaching perimeter that, if you step into them, it is almost impossible not to get detected. They don’t have to see you, they’ll just know you’re there. It’s always a race against time to snatch up as much juicy loot as possible before a small army of the buggers are performing Olympian javelin throws in your direction. When this situation gets messy, as it often will, it’s times like these that Sam feels like a liability. All of a sudden the fascinating terrain mechanics are out to get you. Shedding your hard earned loot just lightens the load, allowing you to run away from this mess faster. Perhaps more egregious is the bizarre decision to put these camps next to crucial parts of the map.
A side effect of the Death Stranding is that human death causes voidouts. A freak natural disaster that creates massive craters. Later in the game, you have the ability to kill MULEs in the dozens. I spent a long time thinking nothing would happen as a result. Sam would, hours later, be informed of a body going “necro” and that he would have to deal with it. MULEs will likely annoy you so much that it will be tempting to go on a vengeful killing spree. But it’ll just lead to even more busywork.
GRAPHICS & SOUND
Death Stranding has succeeded in raising the bar with open world environments. Kojima’s use of the Decima engine has allowed for great facial motion capture, yes. But he has also taken what made Horizon: Zero Dawn so beautiful and amplified it. My first few minutes with the game honestly had me questioning how everything was working without my PS4 being on fire. Somehow, the fan didn’t sound like it was going to take off into the upper stratosphere either.
One Of The Best Looking Games I Have Ever Seen on Console
Somehow, Death Stranding offers vistas so close to the real thing its a wonder Kojima managed to make it in just four years. He has achieved the same sense of scope and perspective you’d get from the top of a mountain in real life. A kind of sharpness applied to distance shots I’d not even seen in the likes of Red Dead 2. A bold claim for sure but five minutes in and I have no doubt you’d agree.
Despite the crazy high fidelity of the Americas, variety in colour is barely to be found. That’s not to say Death Stranding is ever visually boring. It just means it can be a little bleak and its soundtrack has been specially selected to reflect this. The wailing emotive music of Low Roar and Silent Poets is not something I’d listen to by choice but it fits perfectly. Early on, these haunting tracks kick in at wonderfully timed reveal moments. Later, they just seem to pop up randomly and when they abruptly pause upon opening the menu or entering another area, the dramatic effect feels a little squandered.
Death Stranding Has Varying Standards of Voice Acting
Finally, voice acting feels oddly below par given the cast on hand here. Troy Baker’s infinite experience behind a mic means he gets along with antagonist Higgs just fine. But a recording studio doesn’t seem to be an environment Lea Seydoux or Norman Reedus are all too accustomed to as they deliver lines rather clunkily. Mads Mikkelson on the other hand, appears to be bulletproof to recording environments and easily delivers the most captivating performance of all.
There is an odd inconsistency in Death Stranding’s voice acting. Early on, you may feel characters’ voices sound a little tinny or not quite as clear as you would expect. I wondered if the actors were all in a room together. Or if they were given lines with no context as to character emotions or narrative beats surrounding the scene.