Developed by: Kojima Productions
Published by: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Reviewed On: PS4PRO
Death Stranding is the first game to come out from Kojima Productions directed by the man himself Hideo Kojima. I think by now everyone already knows about the very well reported falling out between Kojima and Konami which resulted in him leaving and opening his own development studio. I played through the Metal Gear series (1-5) and enjoyed 1-4 except for 5. Although I know that Metal Gear Solid 5 did receive critical acclaim, I did not feel the same at all and felt that it was his weakest yet. I respect and appreciate the work he puts into his games, but I do feel like the worshipping by his close friends and fans alike can be a tad too much.
When Death Stranding was announced I was naturally curious as I really do have a thing for weird-ass stories in games or movies, but I would not say that it was a game I was really looking forward to. The closer it got the more ambivalent I felt about it due to the amount of hype it was getting. We were lucky enough to secure a review code and I thought why not, now is as good as a time as any to see if Hideo Kojima was worth the hype. Fast forward to today after being able to finish the game to its entirety, experiencing as much as the game had to offer, and taking some time to process how do I feel about it? I think the closest thing I feel at this moment is melancholy. I can only hope that while reading this review, I do a good job of explaining why. I also thought it would be a good idea to include music embedded in the titles to set the mood.
The “Rope” along with the “Stick” are two of mankind’s oldest tools. The Stick to keep the bad away, the Rope used to bring the good towards us. They were our first friends, of our own invention. Wherever there were people, there were the Rope and the Stick.
From Kobo Abe’s “Nawa”
Death Stranding brings you on a journey with Sam Porter Bridges, who ironically also works as a porter or delivery man, played by Norman Reedus. The game opens with Sam on his own delivering packages only to get an urgent delivery; bring a corpse to an incinerator. Along the way things go wrong and a Voidout happens, annihilating the nearby city with Sam being the sole survivor. He is then retrieved by the Bridges organization who have been trying to track him down for a long time. Turns out that Sam has a history with Bridges and is the primary reason why they need him back. An expedition was launched (Bridges 1) with a singular purpose of uniting the scattered cities and settlements around America under one banner, the United Cities of America (UCA). This expedition was led by Amelie, President Bridget’s daughter but as soon as they reached the end of their journey on the west coast at Edge Knot City, an attack led by Higgs wiped out the entire Bridges 1 team except for Amelie and caused the linked cities to separate once more. The mission; make his way to Edge Knot City, connect all the cities in between and save Amelie.
The reason why Sam was selected for this task is because of his innate DOOMS ability. After the Death Stranding event happened, a few members of humankind have been “gifted” with different abilities classifying them as DOOMS. Sam’s ability is being able to feel when BT’s are around as he gets goosebumps. His ability is further boosted when he acquires a Bridge Baby (BB) which as you might have seen from the multiple trailers, a baby in a pod. The BB’s are the one and only way of detecting the presence of BT’s to avoid certain death and they can point in the direction you should not be going to if you want to avoid BT’s with the Odradek scanner.
Death Stranding presents players with a very lore rich game that might be complicated and convoluted with all the terminologies that will be thrown around. I thought it might be best to start off explaining some of these terminologies and how they fit into this complex story woven by Hideo Kojima. Let’s start with what used to just be rain is now called TimeFall, a phenomenon whereby anything that comes into contact with the rainwater will be affected by an acceleration of time ageing living things greatly and speeding up rust, corrosion and the destruction of non-living things scattered about the world. To make matters worse where there is a TimeFall, there will be spectral entities known as BT’s floating over the area in a wandering state and will pull any living thing to the other side as if filled with grief, loneliness and bitterness for not being alive. When a person dies their body necrotizes over time resulting in a collision of matter from the real dimension with anti-matter from the BT’s dimension causing what can be likened to a Nuclear explosion called Voidouts. One of the more important terminologies that will be thrown around is also the Beach. A beach is like another dimension that holds immense power and one way of harnessing that power is to facilitate technological advancements. It also holds a very important significance in the story but I will leave that part for the players to experience. The cause of this sudden shift in reality and the start of these terrifying phenomenon’s is the Death Stranding event which affected multiple cities around the world leaving only death, destruction and the remaining population to live underground. Without technology and humanity being cut off from one another, the only way for people to get supplies and deliver items is to use Porters. Also, very importantly, the reason why Bridges wants to link all the cities in America is because of the Chiral Network that will reconnect everyone together kind of like the Internet where information is shared freely. Another added benefit of the Chiral Network is that it also allows fast construction somewhat like 3D printing via fabrication.
Got your head spinning yet? Well if you aren’t intrigued yet please don’t be discouraged. At its core, Death Stranding is a very simple story that has been wrapped with layers of interesting characters, complex world-building, and solid gameplay mechanics. It may seem incredibly overwhelming at first, but it really isn’t. This is not a game that demands your complete undivided attention, but it does require you to buy into the whole package. The reason why is because the game starts off slow but sets things up just right. It gives you a taste then pulls back as if teasing you with how the game is going to get much more complex. Then it slowly unravels layer by layer without ever forgetting what it’s trying to accomplish.
Every memorable game is always accompanied by memorable characters and thankfully the ensemble of characters in Death Stranding has wonderful depth. I appreciate that the game does not prolong the time it takes for players to get to know the characters. Sufficient time and space is given at just the right moments to peel off the layers and let the characters be vulnerable. Take for instance, when you first meet the mysterious Fragile, a porter like Sam, there is already an unmistakable thought that there is more to her story. Along the way more characters are introduced like Deadman who is always helping Sam with BB, Die-Hardman who is the general of the UCA driving Sam forward, Mama a technological whiz who introduces new tech and gear, Heartman the one obsessed with Beaches and history, and Amelie the last great hope of the UCA. All these characters serve a specific purpose in propelling the story forward but also takes the time to show how well written they are. I really enjoyed how each of them had depth to them without ever being overdramatic or overstaying their welcome. Although I found one character pushed to the background later in the game after her arc was told which personally felt like a let-down especially since her circumstance was quite interesting. Even Higgs, the terrorist leader of the Homo Demens was a formidable and terrifying foe every time he was on the screen. The performance of Mads Mikkelsen playing the Combat Veteran without spoiling anything was truly amazing and revelatory.
There are also minor supporting characters that fill the world in the places you visit. These characters although not really in the forefront do provide additional introspect on the bleakness of the world they live in and surviving in it. There is social commentary that cleverly tries to attach what is happening in the real world now to the post-apocalyptic world in Death Stranding.
There really is a lot I have yet to touch in regards to the story but honestly, there is so much I want players to experience first-hand as it really would be a disservice for me to spoil it for you. All I can say is it might feel convoluted but if you take the time to read the emails, interviews and even the collectible section it provides a clear and staggeringly impressive insight into the world that Death Stranding brings to the player. It really is worth the ride.
One thing that is undeniable is how absolutely fucking gorgeous this game is. Utilizing the Decima Engine created by Guerilla Games was a masterstroke. The character models and facial animations are incredibly detailed and in my opinion, might even surpass the brilliant work in Control in some ways. When you first step out into the open world it’s literally impossible to not be awed by the beauty. It feels like the majestic landscapes of Norway or Iceland is perfectly recreated in this game. Playing on the PS4PRO the image quality is immaculate. The game also implements HDR and does not disappoint the same way how all Sony exclusive games this generation just seem to be nailing it. I think what I am most impressed with graphically is how aside from the very rare texture pop-in issue (which happened maybe once?) the game ran beautifully. No slowdown or dropped frames or any other issues whatsoever.
The amount of detail and care is nothing short of impressive. Every time a Timefall is about to happen you will see an upside-down rainbow accompanied by strands that slowly descend from the skies. The equipment and packages you carry slowly rust and corrode over time and you can even see it sort of flaking off as a visual identifier that you need to repair the containers. Sam walks up and down slopes carefully resting his hand on a steep incline to steady his balance as he walks along it. There are just so many little details that frankly would be too little or unnecessary with other games of similar scope but are included here which just brilliantly adds to the immersion and tension. There are even a few fourth wall breaking moments that just had me grinning like a fool.
I don’t know if you have noticed by now, but my titles all have song links in them that I have purposely included as “mood music”. The reason for that is as much as a few games this year have had killer soundtracks, this game takes that crown due to how good the score is as well as the use of licensed music in the game. Remember that moment in Red Dead Redemption when riding to Mexico and Jose Gonzales Far Away comes on? The first time I walked and “Bones” by Low Roar came on it was perfection. It was at this precise moment where the game had me till the end. That was just the first of many multiple moments where the choice of the song and the timing of it was impeccable. Of course, I’m not saying everyone is going to love it, but I wanted more. The sound design in the game is great as well. I especially love the sound of the Trike. Reminded me of Batman’s tumbler and that should be enough to tell you how awesome sounding it is. A few big titles this year have had disappointing sound design due to how it sounded unbalanced on my soundbar forcing me to switch to my headphones but I can confirm that both sound clear, balanced and spectacular here.
Now for the most important part of this review. How does it play? Months and weeks leading up to the game’s release everyone has been speculating on whether the game is a walking simulator or is Kojima screwing with everyone and the game is going to be much more like Metal Gear Solid. Just to get it out of the way, you are a deliveryman and it is your job to deliver things for people and it feels closer to a survival game. The objective of any mission is to get from point A to point B to reconnect the country if it wasn’t obvious enough already. How you get there and what tools you use are entirely up to you. Along the way, the players are also given the freedom of meeting Preppers. Preppers are those who decide that they don’t want to live in large cities and rather live on their own in their own personal bunkers. Most of these preppers are optional for the player to visit with the exception for a few mandatory story ones. The Preppers also email the players from time to time with insightful commentary, give hints or to update the players on how their world has changed since your last visit.
The equipment Sam starts with is just the basic kit consisting of a ladder, climbing hook, container repair spray, boots. So why not just carry as much as you can you may ask? Well it’s because Sam himself has a finite amount of weight that he can carry and although the ladder, climbing hooks and container repair spray can be carried as much you are able to, careful planning has to be considered especially as wherever you go there will be a delivery job waiting for you. This is important as players must also keep watch over your Stamina Bar that depletes faster the more you carry and is impacted by things like climbing steep inclines or crossing raging rivers. If your Stamina Bar depletes you risk falling over, damaging your cargo or worse letting it drift downstream out into the sea out of your reach. You must also carefully balance your cargo when you stack them up high especially when you are reaching the max limit of items with the L2 and R2 triggers so you don’t tip over. These triggers are also used when climbing steep inclines or crossing rivers. Hot tip? If the balancing gets annoying just crouch. It is hilarious how that solves it.
Every delivery job you take on will be scored depending on how fast you take to deliver, how much you can carry, how much damage the cargo took and the route you took delivering said items. After the score has been tallied up you are then given a grade with the lowest being a C and the highest being S (Legend). I think there may be even one higher than that. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that the score you are getting is actually Likes (yes like Facebook Likes) that accumulate and then firstly pumped into what I can only describe as a ranking system that unlocks perks the higher you climb. Now secondly, and this brings me back to the Preppers as well is that those Likes that you get also fill up a Five Star gauge with each star unlocking an added benefit for your character. For example, unlocking the first star will cause them to join Bridges just for the Chiral Network, the second star will make them join the UCA, the third will usually yield a blueprint so that you can fabricate a brand new item that will aid you on your journey or even upgraded versions of existing items that you have like the Boots. Even your boots will wear off over time and the highest item level is level 3 and for example boots at that level will last longer and will be able to handle any kind of terrain better.
Early on players will also gain access to resources that will be used for building structures. Initially, you will gain access to Resin, Metal & Ceramic with more resources available later on. The PCC unit is a mobile builder unit that is capable of building structures such as the watchtowers only in areas that have already joined the Chiral Network so you are able to scout ahead for potential threats or valuable lost cargo that you might be able to return to the rightful owner. Later on, you will be able to build different kinds of structure like bridges (yes actual bridges) or generators to power your Trike as it runs on electricity. However please take note that some structures like the bridge require resources to build. All structures are upgradable to provide additional benefits like attaching BGM music to them or so that they last longer in the event of a TimeFall. Any equipment that is used or worn out you can Recycle them for resources as well.
Now that we have got how deliveries work out of the way let’s talk about threats. In the game, the player will encounter two different threats (aside from the occasional frustrating invisible terrain. You will know what I mean, it’s comical). The first is MULES, porters like you who have turned rogue and steal deliveries to hoard for themselves. They utilize hand to hand combat and even electrical rods to disable you and when you enter combat with them your Health Bar turns into a Consciousness Meter. If you don’t plan your fights well and keep taking the hits when the meter depletes you will lose consciousness and pass out. This results in all your cargo being stolen by the MULES and you will be dumped a short distance away from where you fell with your personal items scattered somewhere nearby. You can even use your own cargo as weapons to hit the MULES with. Not to worry though even on normal the MULES are relatively easy to take down if you plan well. Early in the game, I wandered into a MULE camp because I got tired of walking so I can steal their lorry. It was hilarious.
The second threat that players will face will be much more of a challenge, the BT’s. When BT’s appear, you must use the Odradek Scanner to scan the surrounding area to have a brief glimpse of the BT’s and their locations. You must sneak past them, or they will come at you with a vengeance. It’s an incredibly stressful and tense encounter every time because it is like navigating a minefield. If you get too close you must hold R1 to hold your breath which turns your stamina bar into a Breath Meter. Hold on too long and you might let out a big gasp that attracts attention. If by the off chance you are unable to escape when they detect you then you will be swarmed and dragged down. Once that happens the surrounding area will transform, filling up with tar and then the real fun happens. A larger BT will appear and will wreck your shit if you are not careful. The first time I saw one of these bad boys I was shitting my pants because I had nothing to fight it with. Thankfully I was able to escape but that really made me more careful around BT’s as I did not want to summon that giant dolphin/squid thing again. But don’t worry as later in the game you will be given a chance for payback using Hematic weaponry. Difficulty wise though it’s not much of a challenge fighting the BT’s? I played on Normal and it’s easy to escape them and even the damage you take is not really that severe. I would say the deliveries are harder and hilarious at the same time. It never gets old delivering a volatile substance only to get a GAME OVER screen coz you bumped around too much.
In between deliveries, Sam will be able to access a Safe Room to rest and regroup. It is interesting that the room itself is not merely just a hub as it does provide a few gameplay benefits as well. Firstly, Sam can take a shower and relieve himself in the lavatory which is then transformed into grenades to deter BT’s. I rarely used them because whenever I used them nothing happened or I was just doing it wrong. You will also find out that Sam’s blood is able to damage the BT’s so the first weapon you get is a Hematic Grenade. You can use it against the regular BT’s or the beasts to “kill” them but be advised that the bigger ones take more grenades to kill. Also, in an interesting gameplay twist because it is Sam’s blood that damages the enemies you will have to monitor your Health Bar as if your Health drops too much you won’t be able to use them anymore and be screwed. Thankfully the game also has a clever workaround for this in the form of Blood Bags. Every time you rest, you will automatically get a blood bag which is then put into your Private Locker same as the other grenades. You may also get to check your equipment and customize your character. Of course, character customization is not as deep as the only thing you can do is just mix and match colours for your sunglasses, hat, and Trike. In the room, you are also able to mess around with a vanity mirror and take pictures of Sam being goofy. My favourite part of the saferoom though is how besides being able to access your emails and such you have a Music Player so you can play all the unlocked songs you have attained. You can also check on BB coz BB be cute.
What about the new Social Stranding system that Hideo Kojima created? Is it new? Is it like Dark Souls? Can I get Invaded? Okay so right off the bat it’s nothing like Dark Souls but it is awesome. It basically solves a problem you didn’t know you had and keeps in line to the theme of the game which is connecting people. What if you already used your ladder and needed another one? What if you have too much to carry and you don’t think you are able to make your destination in time? Luckily for you, you have NPC’s and other players to depend on! Items and structures that other players have made or built can bleed into your instance for you to use like ladder, hooks, and generators. If you find a post-box you can also leave your cargo in it for other players to pick up and deliver. What’s cool about that is you can see who has held the cargo before. I thought it really was a brilliant idea of connecting players with each other to help each other throughout your journey. You can also reward them by being kind and leaving a Like and hopefully someone else does the same for you. You will always feel the presence of other players as long as your character is in a Chiral network connected area (you must be online too). From messages in the form of signages, constructs or cargoes they left behind, players will be helping each other both directly and indirectly, making this game a unique single-multi player experience.
As you can see there really is a lot going on gameplay-wise and at first, it may seem like there is just TOO much going on. I really was getting frustrated trying to figure out what does what in the beginning but then once it all clicked, I honestly felt like an idiot. It’s because the tools I needed were always there, I was just too stubborn to take my time to use them. Everything in the game has a clever purpose.
What I Loved
- Story – It felt just the right amount of complicated and intrigue that kept me interested throughout and in my honest opinion paid off greatly.
- Characters – I know Kojima can create memorable characters and I guess he did it again in a brand-new IP. I heart Heartman. *thumbs up*
- Music – It’s like the soundtrack was made just for me. It spoke to my soul.
- Gameplay – In the beginning, I admit I was frustrated at the UI, the inventory system and the controls but once it clicked, I really enjoyed it.
- Graphics – I think the Decima Engine is probably the best open-world engine currently. It really is that good especially with such minimal loading times and almost no issues whatsoever.
- Fourth Wall Breaking Moments – *points and double thumbs up*
- Social Stranding – I really love how it’s implemented; it really feels like it brings players together working towards a common goal.
What I Wished Was Better
- Pacing and Unnecessary Padding – For the most part the game was paced alright as the choice is entirely in the player’s hands whether to keep doing deliveries or advancing the story. There was one story mission though which I felt was egregious as it seems to have been specifically created to waste the players time and nothing else. There were so many other ways they could have designed that mission.
- Where is Everybody? – It might be a minor nit-pick but why don’t we ever see the thousands hiding underground? It gets weird when you see at the top of the screen 61,523 (not accurate numbers btw) population yet the game barely makes a mention of the larger populace. Also later in the game, you get informed on how the improvements you bring are helping others, but you never do see it in action.
- Why So Quiet Sam? – Again it might be a minor nit-pick but I get that Sam is supposed to be the strong silent type but with some Preppers, it’s especially noticeable that Sam is the Terminator with no feelings when he doesn’t respond verbally or even with just a shrug. He just stares blankly.
- Side Stories – There are several Preppers littered throughout the game, but I feel that even though it’s nice to get emails from them it can get tiring reading so much after a while (like this review am I right?) I just wish the side stories were richer.
It was hard writing this review. Probably my hardest one yet as its one of if not the biggest game of the year. Sometimes I look back and think do people even read this crap? Am I even qualified to do this shit? Truth is I don’t know. The one truth I have always known though is how games have always been the only constant source of unconditional joy in my life through thick and thin that is until the universe aligned and I was able to meet the most amazing person in the world and marry her.
This game is going to be incredibly divisive. There will be some people who will hate this game with a passion and that is okay. If you get bored that’s okay too. It’s okay to not like things because you can’t like everything. The game also starts off slow and doesn’t really maintain an exciting pace that propels the player forward with set pieces instead relies on providing an interesting sandbox and telling a great intriguing story well enough that the players want to invest their time in. I don’t think that Death Stranding is a perfect game as there are clearly imperfections but I do think that this game might end up being an important one for years to come.
As much as I love games, I also love movies and throughout the game, while the credits were rolling and even days after I kept thinking to myself what an experience it was. It felt as skilful as a poignant art house film. I know there have been conversations about the progression of games and how it should be considered art, but I think that this game could be one that really transcends mediums. Hideo Kojima’s name has become a meme of his own making due to how many times it shows up in Metal Gear Solid 5 but I have nothing but respect for the man with how many hats he wore in the making of this game. You might be the most gifted person and surround yourself with the most talented people in the world and still produce a catastrophe because nothing is guaranteed. He made a game about a deliveryman and managed to make it an incredibly reflective experience. Hideo Kojima and his talented team deserve all the plaudits they can get. You don’t have to believe in the hype, but rather believe in the art.