Developer: Kojima Productions | Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment | Release Date: 11/8/2019 | Genre: Action/Strand Game Reviewed On: PS4 Pro
A review copy of Death Stranding was not provided by Sony and was purchased at retail.
As I type this, Death Stranding has been out for exactly a week. I was not given a review copy so I picked up my copy with the Limited Edition PS4 Pro console at launch (see video below). In the time since the review embargo was lifted until the game launched, I sat back and watched gamers work themselves up into an unnecessary frenzy over the reviews. While the vast majority of published reviews are largely positive (both on and off of Metacritic) it was the relatively low score given to the game by IGN that caused the rift.
Many media outlets call the game polarizing but as I stated most of the reviews are positive. What happened after the IGN review came out was that tons of people that have never touched the game decided to fill the internet with their “reviews” that when you read them all pretty much regurgitate what the reviewer from IGN had to say so basically they were not voicing their opinions, they were voicing his. Not playing the game until launch allowed me to jump into Death Stranding with my expectations and anticipation in check while also having the knowledge that some people were legitimately turned off by the game. So with that in mind, I have played through the game’s main story and completed a sizeable amount of side missions for a playtime of just over 85 hours. Here are my thoughts.
Death Stranding has been highly anticipated for a variety of reasons. Death Stranding is Hideo Kojima’s first game since his departure from Konami after 30 years with the company. Right before Kojima and Konami parted ways, he was in the early stages of development of a new Silent Hill game called Silent Hills that had film/tv star Norman Reedus and film director Guillermo del Toro attached to it. When it was revealed that Reedus and del Toro would be involved in Death Stranding, gamers wondered if elements of the canceled Silent Hills would find its way into this new title and it more than piqued the curiosity of the gaming industry.
Death Stranding as it turns out is a collaboration of different things that make up a very unique whole. The Silent Hill vibe is there, the Metal Gear vibe is still strong and Kojima’s trademark brand of compelling and yet insanely over the top storytelling come together to give us something that’s well…different. Different in a very good way.
For those of you that have been scratching your head about just what the hell this game is about, here is a brief overview. I will skip over a lot of details to avoid spoilers:
Death Stranding tells the story of a post-apocalyptic America. An America that has been all but wiped out by an Extinction Level Event known as the Death Stranding. This is not your standard “we had a war and blew everything up so grab a gun and a dog and go do stuff ” type of apocalypse. No, this is a “we are all fucked and I’m scared” apocalypse where things look bad but are far worse. How worse? Let’s start with Timefall which is what rain has become. When the rain gets heavy Timefall occurs and accelerates the aging process of anything it touches in a matter of minutes. During this you will see plants grow and die every few seconds. Timefall affects both living and inanimate objects so cars for example will begin to rust and no longer work if left out in it for too long. That is only half of it. The Death Stranding has made the wall between the worlds of the dead and the living so thin that the dead, known as BTs (Beached Things) are entering our world and dragging off anyone in reach to their doom. BTs will show up in the middle of heavy Timefall so the last remaining survivors of this supernatural Armageddon have taken refuge in underground shelters scattered across the UCA…The United Cities of America. Everything is a mess and people will not come out of their shelters because…because the damn world is haunted. The only way they communicate is through holographic projections of themselves and everyone is dependent on brave/dumbass delivery people to bring them the supplies they need to live. That’s where you come in.
You take on the role of Sam Porter Bridges who is portrayed by Norman Reedus (The Boondock Saints, The Walking Dead) who takes on the task of delivering cargo throughout the ruined and desolate landscape that was once America. In the early moments of the game, we see Sam as he is in the process of completing a freelance delivery job on a souped-up, futuristic (it is the future after all) bike when he spots some animals frantically trying to escape some unseen danger. Timefall is coming. The rains begin and crows hit by the raindrops immediately fall from the sky and instantly age and die. It is both astounding and horrifying to watch. In a panic, Sam wrecks his bike and is forced to take shelter in a nearby cave picking up some dropped cargo along the way. This serves as a mini-tutorial and gives an introduction to one of the game’s very interesting characters named Fragile played by Léa Seydoux (No Time to Die, Blue is the Warmest Color). Together we see just how tense moments with BTs can be as one enters the cave and they do everything in their power to avoid being detected. Fragile and Sam have a condition called DOOMS which allows them to see the otherwise invisible spirits that are stalking them. Fragile has a more advanced case of DOOMS allowing her to see BTs while Sam can only sense them.
It is not too long after this that we get a real look at just how high the stakes are in Death Stranding. When you finish the tutorial delivery, you are met with another courier who is tasked with corpse disposal. As the world isn’t in bad enough shape already, it turns out that corpses need to be incinerated promptly before they go into a state of necrosis which can trigger a phenomenon known as a Voidout. This is essentially a huge explosion that devastates everything for miles leaving only a smoking crater behind. In a very well done and creepy cutscene, we witness as Sam and the Corpse Disposal team are ambushed by BTs and a Voidout is triggered destroying everything.
Everything except Sam.
You are then given the details of your main mission which is to reunite America through a new form of internet known as the Chiral Network. This network allows for instantaneous communication, an advanced form of 3D printing and more. The network will allow the survivors to band together and have a fighting chance against the Death Stranding under a new, unified America. You are tasked with reaching out to those that were uninterested in joining the network by gaining their trust. This means that as a courier you will take delivery orders to the people you meet along the way as you start a journey that spans from the east coast of the country all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
Every game with Hideo Kojima behind the wheel has always pushed the boundaries of whatever hardware was being used at the time. Remember when you saw Solid Snake breathing in Metal Gear Solid 2? Death Stranding‘s visuals are a showcase of exactly what the PS4 Pro (which is what is used to play it) is capable of. Every area you explore on this journey is rendered with as much detail as possible from the moss-covered rocks and trees to rivers and huge waterfalls. Due to it being the end of the world, most of the environment is desolate but it is stunning to look at. The skeletons of ruined skyscrapers and cars that you do happen to come across are reminders of just how much damage the Timefall can do with grime and rust covering nearly every metal surface.
Not to be outdone by the environments are the characters themselves. The vast majority of people you meet are terrified of this new world and will only talk through holograms but they were crafted with the same care that went into the main cast of heroes and villains. These characters range from the team you have at your disposal to aid you on your journey, some interesting human enemies, to the BTs themselves that comes at you like particle infused shadows and bosses that ooze out of a tar-like substance that sticks to surfaces and will stick to Sam until it is showered off. The rain effects that signal the arrival of the BTs is appropriately moody and dark. You can barely see them in the first place and the rain effects lessen your visibility further which in turn adds more stress and tension to these encounters. More on that later.
The incredible character graphics in Death Stranding are further enhanced by top-tier performance capture which features some of the most lifelike and emotional acting I have ever seen in a video game. Performances from Tommie Earl Jenkins (Pandora, Dolemite is My Name), Lindsey Wagner (The Six Million Dollar Man, Grey’s Anatomy), Troy Baker (Pretty much everything ever made), Margaret Qualley (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) and Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal) are incredible and you can tell that every actor put their all into each and every scene. Guillermo del Toro and director Nicolas Winding Refn each have roles in the game but they only had their likenesses represented while other actors took over the voice work for them. Heartman, the character that Nicolas Winding Refn plays, along with Die-Hardman played by Tommie Earl Jenkins stood out to me the most with very captivating scenes that showcase the type of dramatic storytelling that Hideo Kojima is known for. Mads Mikkelsen, on the other hand, is just scary. Damn. I’ll leave that for you to see on your own.
Over the past week, I have seen a lot of people across social media genuinely asking what is Death Stranding. The most common response I see is “it’s a walking simulator” which is very far from the truth. Oh and don’t think I didn’t notice some of you have all the trophies in I Am Bread and Bus Simulator. SMH. In the end, some of the criticisms directed at Death Stranding are in part true. Death Stranding is as boring, repetitive and tedious as YOU choose to play it. The first two chapters of the game leave you with little to no option other than to grab your cargo and walk out in the open world to your next destination. The game world is massive but split into sections similar to The Phantom Pain where you had one map being Afghanistan and the other being Central Africa. Once Death Stranding truly begins the entire first area is open to you and your first thought is to explore every bit of it meeting new people and delivering their requested goods to them. This is perfectly fine but not the most ideal thing to do. I know because that’s what I did, In fact, I put so much time into doing this that once I hit the 40-hour mark of my playthrough I realized that not much in terms of the story had happened and that nothing new other than walking all over the place had really occurred. It was then I realized that I was still in chapter 2. There are 14 main story chapters. I also realized that I was a dumbass. Yes, there are that many side objectives that you can spend an entire Final Fantasy game on one chapter. I would recommend that you spend the first two chapters getting familiar with how the base mechanics work and then just hit the main story missions without going too far off the beaten path. There will be plenty of time to do that later. Once you hit chapter 3, the game begins to open up. More options and equipment become available to you and you realize this isn’t a walking sim at all because…wait for it…you can drive.
So no, Death Stranding is not a walking simulator but the assumption that it is a delivery sim is a little closer to the truth. You are on a quest to unite the country but the main way you do that is by delivering goods from one place to another. One thing gameplay trailers and reviews have not expressed is just how much you give a damn once you get into the game. Once you deliver your requested cargo to its destination, you a graded on a number of factors. Two of the big ones are time and condition. Repeated deliveries to any of the world’s survivors will award you with likes (more on that in a bit) and those likes build up and become stars. You can unlock a total of 5 stars with each ‘customer” and in turn, these stars are how you unlock new and higher-level equipment, cosmetics, music and more. I found myself so invested that I would do everything in my power to make sure I got the cargo delivered fast and in perfect shape.
The likes that you get in Death Stranding are part of a new system called the Social Strand System. On the surface, the SSS (you MGS fans catch that one?) functions in a similar way that the online system does in a Souls game but it has many more layers to it. So many in fact that Hideo Kojima feels it is classified as a new genre. If you are playing this game online, you are connected with other players in the world however you don’t actually see them. Death Stranding allows you to use the Network that you are expanding to fabricate all sorts of things. It’s just like the Matrix. You can fabricate weapons, gear that will help you traverse the environment, shelters that protect you from the Timefall and a lot more. When another player fabricates and places an item in the world that item can then be used by other players in their game world. It is a really cool thing to witness, especially when you leave a remote area to complete a delivery only to come back and see a functioning freeway, bridges, trucks and other items all over the place once you return. When you come across something that was created by another player you can like it by pressing the touchpad on the Dualshock 4. And yes you can press it repeatedly for a set amount of time so you cheap bastards that are only giving out 1 like per item step up. Everything in the game can be created by yourself and playing offline is possible but if you have just climbed a mountain and are out of stamina, that shelter created by babyboygamer6969 comes in really handy.
Larger structures such as bridges and roads require a lot of materials to build. You can go out and find these in the world but when you play online everyone can help contribute materials to get things done in record time. In my game we almost have the complete road/freeway system built and this allows everyone to skip enemy encounters by driving right by or ever them. The important thing is you can only like and not dislike anything fabricated by another. You can be bitter and hate by not liking anything but then you would be missing the point and this system was definitely created with your hateful ass in mind. I saw someone on Twitch trying to troll other players by dismantling their bridges and other structures. What he didn’t know was that this only removes the items from your own instance. Everyone else can still use and enjoy them unless the person that actually created them decides to remove them. Oh and everyone please go and repair your bridges, the Timefall has the world looking all rusty right now.
The continent may be in ruins but it isn’t a lonely place. Aside from the presence of other players, you have MULES and the aforementioned BTs out there trying to ruin your day at every turn. MULES are other couriers that are out of work and looking to deliver packages by any means necessary ( I know…I know). You can see their camps on the map and you can tap R1 near a camp to scan the area to see exactly where they are and unless you want to tangle with them or raid their camp for supplies you can actually just avoid them altogether if you want.
Your scanner allows you to see how the terrain is laid out before you so you can plan your next move. Land or water will be marked with a color pattern to indicate how safe it is to traverse. Blue=Safe, Yellow=Proceed With Cation and Red= Dangerous (unless you have the proper equipment). You will use your scanner frequently as you plan your routes, look for lost cargo and stay on the lookout for BTs. As you progress through the game you will unlock ways to deal with these supernatural foes but early on all you can do is hold your breath (yes there is a button for that) and sneak past them. If you are caught you can desperately struggle to break free from their grasp or get dragged away to a boss encounter that you can either fight (if you have made it far enough in the game to do so) or run and escape the combat area. When you are plagued by BTs they can only be seen while you are standing still. Scanning them will render them more visible for a few seconds. The fact that you can see them at all is because your scanner is connected to your BB (Bridge Baby). This cute in a very disturbing way, unborn baby is your connection to the “other side” so taking care of it is just as important as taking care of yourself. Moving carefully is important because suddenly falling flat on your face or going to deep in the water will cause BB to cry and attract the wrong kind of attention among other issues. You can use the motion controls to rock the BB to sleep which many find cute. I’m a father and most of my children are adults so I am over the crying…
Kojima has taken his idea of having a “No Kill” playthrough to the next level in Death Stranding. Killing another person can cause them to go necro and that is bad. So is being attacked by a boss BT as I mentioned earlier. If one of them hits you enough times and destroys your cargo you go to the game over/continue screen. If one of them happens to eat you then you trigger a Voidout. Voidouts, like I mentioned before, are massive explosions and if you set one off everything including items and structures created by other players will be destroyed and the area will become inaccessible. Fortunately, you can go on forever without ever triggering one. During my 85 hour playthrough, I only died twice by falling from a cliff and was able to resurrect without incident.
Death Stranding is the game I was hoping it would be. It reminds me of the days of the PlayStation 1&2 when developers went out of their way to come up with games that were different, creative and innovative. Remember games like Incredible Crisis and Katamari Damacy? No one is even thinking about making the next big thing anymore. Now it’s just the same first-person shooters, racing and sports games every year. I understand some people only bought a PlayStation 4 to play Fortnite and that’s fine. Everyone has a preference. Not everyone will be interested in a game that as the main gameplay feature has you delivering cargo. That is cool but it is easy it seems for some people to judge and ridicule something different without giving it a try and as a result, all we get in return is the same old games every time. With Death Stranding, Hideo Kojima has created a game that’s not for everyone but that’s your fault, not his.
Editor’s Note: The music and sound design are being discussed in a separate review so stay tuned for that.