Review: Kojima’s Death Stranding is Groundbreaking & Special, Yet Stumbles in its Delivery

Death Stranding is one of the most important, unique and thought-provoking games of this generation with its themes of personal connection, harmony of humanity and the relationships between body, soul and afterlife. It’s the actual playing of the game that’s the difficult part, stumbling along the way with shaky gameplay, arduous controls and a confusing reward structure. This boldness ultimately makes for a truly memorable experience, as much for its underlying message as for the struggle in getting there.

It’s hard to summarize what the heck legendary gaming icon Hideo Kojima made with PlayStation 4 exclusive Death Stranding, his first independent project since splitting from Konami in 2015 and creating Kojima Productions. The genius Japanese designer is best known for many core games in the Metal Gear franchise, equal parts military stealth action and over-the-top, nonsensical commentaries on future tech and politics.

Death Stranding is, effectively, Kojima unchained. At its base level, it’s a third-person game in which the main character Sam Porter Bridges (Norman Reedus) delivers packages in order to connect remote regions of a disjointed America under a shared network. In reality, it’s so much more. A story with enough plot lines to make one’s head spin. It’s set in a post-apocalypse where dead now infiltrate the living world after a catastrophic event dubbed a “void out”, an explosion that occurs when entities from the other side interact with a human.

The cause of this initial void out and its subsequent fall-out is detailed in the off-the-wall story, told in chapters that focus on each character. One as weird as the next, though it all begins with the story of the gruff, solo delivery man Sam Bridges.

Sam is the playable character, complete with a tragic past and the ability to sense supernatural beings, who receives a task from his parent company (conveniently also called Bridges) to bring supplies to distant areas in order to integrate them into what’s know as the “Chiral Network.” He starts on the East Cost with the end goal to reach the Pacific, where the former President’s daughter is being held captive by a terrorist cell as she describes during visits via her holographic likeness. (I told you it was weird.)

This plot device of creating a network is a means by which Death Stranding reveals its most innovative, cool feature: Asynchronous online multiplayer. Each individual on their own is delivering packages, building up infrastructure and spawning vehicles. All of which can pop up across other people’s games. Players can “like” all of these things, in the vein of social media. When Kojima claimed this new title occupied a new genre called Strand Games, this is what he meant.

Its world and setup is a smorgasbord of proper nouns and foreign words. Admittedly, as wild as they appear, somehow everything fits together under the lore of this future universe.

Chiralium (A made up element that has magic powers.) The Beach (i.e. Purgatory). Beached Things (BTs. Hostile ghosts from The Beach). MULEs (Former delivery folks obsessed with stealing packages.) Homo Demens (Terrorist outfit whose leader acts as the main antagonist.) Bridge Baby (BBs. Tiny pre-infants that exist between plains of existence and can sense BTs, so they are used as tools by various factions via placing them in a jar of goop then connecting an umbilical cord to one’s suit. Nope, I’m not lying.)

It’s surprisingly well-fleshed out. Partly because Kojima beats the player over the head with it from jump so that it’s unavoidable. More importantly because much of the back-story is available in flavor text throughout the game’s messaging system or data dictionary, plus characters reference these things as everyday terms. In this timeline, people eating “Cryptobiotes” to heal themselves is as ubiquitous as avoiding “Timefall,” rain that speeds up time to make everything age much more quickly when caught in it (like, of course!).

I’ll hand him credit: Kojima sure knows how to build a world like no other.

This plot device of creating a network is a means by which Death Stranding reveals its most innovative, cool feature: Asynchronous online multiplayer. Each individual on their own is delivering packages, building up infrastructure and spawning vehicles. All of which can pop up across other people’s games.

Flipping from plot to visuals, it’s a stunningly gorgeous game built on the Decima engine borrowed from Sony’s Guerrilla Games studio. Which clearly specializes in glorious landscapes and environmental detail. I can’t oversell the spectacle of looking into the distance as a storm approaches or climbing a snow-capped mountain to take in the wintry horizon. These special moments almost make up for how painstaking it is to get there.

Speaking of that, here’s where the issues arise. Narrative set-up and universe-building can be as incredible as they are, yet the game is so brutal to play. Boring, even. Which is still a key aspect of one’s enjoyment. The core gameplay loop is picking up packages, balancing them on Sam’s back by using the trigger buttons, stumbling towards a destination avoiding rocks, Timefall plus pockets of enemies then dropping said packages off. It’s way too laborious until the better upgrades start appearing, which is no joke at least 8 to 10 hours into the game.

It’s not a case of “get good.” Sam’s lack of tools is by design. It feels intentionally frustrating in the first couple chapters, I’d imagine as an allusion to how difficult it would be without connections to other locations or players. That’s not even to mention the survival elements. Sam has a stamina gauge, then an energy bar, then the ever-present annoyance of “time fall” which is rain that speeds up time (of course) to the point where packages deteriorate.

There’s little to alleviate these pains until after those near dozen hours, when Sam earns gadgets and tools to assist in his effort. Making it even more annoying, the controls aren’t anywhere near intuitive. It never feels all the way right. Not to mention this quest design never changes. Unlike its game world, mission structure doesn’t evolve. Sure vehicles and weapons help. But the missions are basically the same in hour one as they are at the end. It’s boring by the second act and plain tiring in the last.

And what’s the reward? This is part of the problem. The lack of incentive, other than to progress the narrative to the next cutscene. Each mission awards experience based on a number of factors, like speed or package condition. The same animation plays as Sam delivers the package, a little bar goes up, there’s some dialogue then often times it’s back to the menu to pick up yet another boilerplate order. Very infrequently, the bar fills up to a point where that location doles out an upgrade or gift. There’s no clear path to seeing which places give what or how much time or experience it’s going to take to get that upgrade. It stumbles through its incentive structure as much as Sam does while getting there.

The argument against this thought process is that the journey is the reward, rather than the destination or reward. I understand that appeal to an extent. Though I think both have to be true in order for a game to be elite: I can find reward in getting to a place just as much as the tangible benefit for arriving there. Great games do this consistently well. Death Stranding isn’t one of them.

Other than an intriguing side quest involved pizzas, I stopped attempting optional deliveries in the back half in order to devour the story as fast as possible. I couldn’t get enough of the narrative. I certainly had my fill of its snooze-fest mechanics and fetch quest design by then.

Once the pace picks up and upgrades unlock, weapons start popping up with characteristics explained in the underlying world. The main material used to combat BTs is.. fluid from Sam’s body. Bridges is constantly extracting these from Sam, since he’s special. Namely that his blood and bathwater impact the ghastly BTs. Blood is used for grenades and even bullets, in an interaction between character development and gameplay application. These kinds of gadgets along with other aiding in deliveries, like vehicles and stabilizing armor, help the minute-to-minute gameplay break out of its early rut to become much more tolerable in the game’s middle chapters.

A related nitpick in this kind of game, which is one I’ve expressed for others in the past. Namely stealth games. The expectation here is to be as non-lethal as possible. If someone is killed, and their body isn’t incinerated, it can cause a crazy explosion when BTs find them. Then the developers provide all sorts of lethal options while simultaneously chastising the player for using them. What the heck is the point? Thankfully, Death Stranding often offers non-lethal counterparts that are essential. Unless you want a crater on the map in the aftermath of a void out.

Let me say this now, because I can hear the comments already. I don’t think a game has to be fun in order to be great. There are classics that aren’t fun. I believe it should at least be engaging from a gameplay perspective as early as possible, otherwise who wants to play a game they aren’t enjoying or don’t think the rewards are justified except to see the story play out? I felt like this during both the beginning hours then the end here, when I wish I didn’t at all.

Getting back to the positives, the realistic look of its characters is a superb achievement. These roles feature near perfect acting, as they well should from an experienced cast of talent: The aforementioned Norman Reedus, Mads Mikkelsen as Cliff Unger, Léa Seydoux as Fragile, Guillermo del Toro as Deadman and even The Bionic Woman herself Lindsay Wagner as Amelie. Add in cameos from some of his more recognizable friends and even though it’s kind of a ridiculous concept to see Conan O’Brien or Edgar Wright as characters throughout the world, I can’t say it doesn’t fit with Kojima’s persona.

It’s the type of lineup rarely seen in games, if ever. Which is groundbreaking on its own, where blurring the line between cinema and interactive media is the intent. Each chapter focuses on a different character, which keeps it as focused as a game about so many different themes can be. There’s a risk of losing a player for a section if they aren’t interested in that particular person, which throws off pacing. For instance, I found Heartman, who induces cardiac arrest at intervals to search The Beach for his deceased family then revives himself back to reality, particular engaging while others not as much. Covering all of them here is impossible, so suffice to say it’s a diverse cast that supports Kojima’s character-driven saga.

I want to point this out before dipping into other areas: Troy Baker, one of the most prolific voice actors in games, is exquisite in his role as the villainous Higgs. It’s great to see him in action rather than as the voice behind a character. I hung onto every moment he’s on screen, almost proud how well he flexed his ability to hang right there alongside traditional film actors.

After a slow beginning from both story and gameplay perspectives, Episode 3 starts the second act which is the game’s absolute best. This is when it finally doles out the upgraded versions of gadgets and introduces weaponry that helps drastically. Plus, the puzzle of how characters interact and who they really are pieces itself together, namely the mysterious character played by Mikkelsen which up until then existed only in the memories of Sam Bridge’s Bridge Baby buddy (say that fast).

Main complaint is on its delivery method, which I should honestly expect by now in Kojima games. His writing is as subtle as a sledgehammer. It lays the exposition on thick during many scenes, as if the player isn’t smart enough to figure things out on their own. Like how the President, who wants to connect everyone, has the last name Strand. Or how the woman with a ghost baby is called Mama. Or how the guy nicknamed Deadman is cobbled together with organs from the deceased. We get it. Their names parallel their character traits. We don’t have to hear it every time we see them.

Its final act was exceedingly too long, exacerbated by the increased cutscene frequency combined with way too many places to deliver. By this point, the gameplay loop was way less satisfying as it asks you to do the same old fetch quest dressed up in a new way for the umpteenth time. Other than an intriguing side quest involved pizzas, I stopped attempting optional deliveries in the back half in order to devour the story as fast as possible. I couldn’t get enough of the narrative. I certainly had my fill of its snooze-fest mechanics and fetch quest design by then.

No story spoilers, other than to say it’s even further out there than I imagined. It goes places, then the ending flies off the rails. Turns total video game mixed with art film combined with anime. It’s totally aware and self-indulgent. I can’t tell if I love it or despise how Death Stranding wraps up during its, no hyperbole, more than two hours of cutscenes before actual final credits.

I firmly believe Death Stranding is the most important game of 2019. Not because it’s the best. Or even one I can recommend to everyone. It’s significant because it tries to be something more. It’s as special as it is flawed, stumbling all along the way to delivering its important message.

Speaking of the ending, we’re almost at the conclusion of this piece. I want to first highlight what I consider a main component of modern game design: Systems and quality of life. These are just as important to my game experience as how the game looks and runs plus its narrative progression.

To put it plainly: Death Stranding is cumbersome, in both movement and systems. As revealed by some very odd decisions. Namely, how the player navigates as Sam and his interactions with the world plus everything it throws at you in its myriad of menus.

There must be a hundred or more entries in the game’s log of how to play it or what to know about its mechanics. Hold the triggers to balance. Don’t let stamina deplete. Packages can be destroyed by falling or standing in timefall. Batteries power all the gizmos attached to Sam’s body. Smoke can hide you. Noxious gas can kill you. Don’t put too many packages on your back, there’s an encumbrance mechanic. You can hang onto parcels by hand, only by holding that particular trigger button. You can throw packages, only by hitting the punch button then letting go of said trigger. (This last one was especially comedic.)

It’s near comical how many times I had to check if I was doing something correctly. Or if I was forgetting some integral mechanic that would magically enhance my experience.

Then there’s the stealth. Mainly applies to two scenarios: Areas where Beached Things (BTs) exist, you know the ghosts that cross over to our dimension, or human enemies of MULEs and terrorists. BTs are intermittently invisible, so passing through those areas takes meticulous creeping and timing to kill them with Sam’s blood weapons. Not to mention time slows down for around 10 seconds every time Sam enters an area with these creatures. And they are around A LOT. It’s like when a Zelda game stops to tell you which item you’ve picked up, every damn time you pick it up.

The hint system is obnoxious, showing the same phrases over and over countless times on a huge portion of the screen. Sure they can be turned off. But what if I’m interested in learning new things about the game but don’t care about the hints I already know? I mostly appreciate these quality of life options in games. Not those that overstay their welcome, like they do here.

Then we have the infrastructure building system. It’s not bad. Players gradually get the ability to craft a variety of structures that help with navigation or combat. They can put up signs to encourage or warn other people. It starts with basic bridges and postboxes that require metal, then evolves into generators that replenish energy plus ziplines that zoom players around (however only if they can connect, which they often don’t, because only some of them populate from other people’s worlds).

All of this is governed by different materials like metal or resins, plus a general area has to be connected to the network in order for these to work. It’s a great way to make it feel like an evolving, connected world. I love how much it helps once it works. Though somewhat inconsistent in its application, plus Sam receives no help unless the main quest in a given area is complete.

Another major help in navigation that pops up after the first few painful hours is fast travel. Its implementation fits with one of the character stories, plus it allows movement between safe houses in different regions. Downside is the materials and gadgets don’t travel with Sam, so you can’t use it to actually make deliveries of course. It’s a travel system for him alone.

Final note before we wrap is the soundtrack. I really appreciated its integration, liking most of the tracks. There’s subtle, ambient tunes when traversing the world. It helps instill the sense of loneliness when delivering packages solo. Occasionally a licensed track will play during main story missions, accentuating the journey. It’s great, other than the track name being prominently displayed on the screen for way too long. As if the designers want you to know how much Kojima loves his picks for music. The band Low Roar, especially.

This reveals a common theme with Death Stranding: Great ideas, inconsistent implementation.

In what’s my longest review ever after spending an absurd 80 hours in this world, the craziest part is that there are things about this game I’m likely forgetting. It’s complex and opaque, with systems layered on top of systems for the sake of layering systems. It’s sometimes silly, breaking the fourth wall with that classic Kojima charm. Then turns serious, touching on themes that are obviously very important to him and his entire team.

It’s also a technical showpiece, a masterclass in game design when it comes to both motion capture and graphical fidelity. It rivals the most beautiful games on PlayStation 4 to date. I’d be remiss to not praise how special this is, plus the acting and cutscene work is the best in the business. It exists on another plane within the industry, one where film is as much an inspiration as anything. When we rank cinematic games, Death Stranding now has to be the preeminent entry on the list.

Still, it’s not without faults. Many of them. Its pacing is off, it’s nowhere near fun or even enjoyable to play and quest design is rudimentary at best. Among other negatives, such as way too many mechanics for its own good plus a lack of visibility on its rewards. This means there’s limited incentive to accomplish things outside of the critical path.

I firmly believe Death Stranding is the most important game of 2019. Not because it’s the best. Or even one I can recommend to everyone. It’s significant because it tries to be something more. It’s as special as it is flawed, stumbling all along the way to delivering its important message.

Title: Death Stranding

Release Date: November 8, 2019

Developer: Kojima Productions

Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment on PlayStation 4. (505 Games on PC.)

Platforms: PlayStation 4. (Eventually PC.)

Recommendation: It’s hard to broadly recommend. I know it’s special. Yet only certain people will love it. If you dig Kojima’s storytelling, beautiful graphics, character acting, esoteric themes and connecting with other players then try it. Caveat being you must also tolerate all sorts of frustrations along the way with busted controls, annoying survival elements, repetitive fetch quests and unclear upgrade paths.

If not, play at your own risk.

Sources: Kojima Productions, IGN, PlayStation 4 Pro Screenshots.

-Dom

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