Hideo Kojima and the almost supernatural aura that has surrounded Death Stranding since it was officially unveiled has captivated industry folk and fans of gaming alike. Coming from the troubled Konami and the disaster that was the final development of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, many wondered how Kojima would do at a studio on his own, with proper funding and no restrictions on what he could and could not do. Death Stranding is the culmination of all of those stories we heard about, the final stage for what was hopefully the end of Kojima feeling like a prisoner, and the climax for what fans had been asking for all this time. Kojima is a mastermind when it comes to game development, and no single experience he has ever conceived has proven that point more than Death Stranding. Was it worth the wait? Absolutely.
Title: Death Stranding
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Kojima Productions
Available On: PlayStation 4
Reviewed On: PlayStation 4 Pro
Release Date: November 8, 2019
Game Purchased for the Purpose of This Review
Right from the opening moments, it’s easy to tell Death Stranding is one of the best looking games to release this console generation. The way the world was crafted from the very tops of the mountainous peaks down to the rocks that spill out into the rivers and streams dotting the landscape, the United Cities of America that exists within this world is nothing short of breathtaking. Running on the Decima Engine from fellow Sony developers Guerrilla Games, this is the perfect example of a powerful in-house engine at work. Horizon Zero Dawn and Killzone looked amazing.. but Death Stranding blows those two out of the water with the visuals that are represented at all times.
There are a number of different ecosystems and environments placed in rough areas of where they ought to be in present day America. From rolling green fields to the tallest mountains capped off with snow as far as the eye can see, down to the destruction of what we currently have in 2019.. buildings, cars, roads.. all with moss and grass covering them. This is a post-apocalyptic world that is somewhat believable in the way that it’s presented, even if the more supernatural occurrences that make for a Kojima thriller could not technically happen in reality.
A powerful narrative about the collapse and reconnecting of America is told to you across 15 total chapters and more than 50 hours worth of gameplay. To see how these characters yearn for the strand and connections that once made America great, and how they are willing to do the impossible to recapture what was lost in the last Death Stranding. Extinction events occur throughout history and there isn’t much that can be done to stop them. But humans have adapted and have learned that it might just be possible to fight back and stop another Death Stranding from happening.
This is all helped along but one of the strongest cast of actors ever assembled for a gaming project that isn’t tied to a modern movie license or other property. Hideo Kojima reached out to a handful of his friends and was able to secure the insane talents of people such as Norman Reedus, Mads Mikkelsen, Lea Seydoux, Margaret Qualley, Troy Baker, Tommie Earl Jenkins, and Lindsay Wagner. Those seven names could be a cast list for any blockbuster Hollywood film, and the talent clearly shows in the way the characters each portrays in the game is conveyed to the player. Voice acting is superb and the more powerful moments that exist in the story are delivered with such care and emotion that it’s hard not to get choked up at certain times.
Speaking of Norman Reedus, he stars as the protagonist in Death Stranding, Sam Porter Bridges. One of the many potential negative features that constantly arose about the game leading up to its release was the fear that it would be, for lack of a better term, a glorified walking simulator. I myself had that fear after seeing countless trailers, and then when the first gameplay trailer was shown.. yeah.. I was worried. Having finished Death Stranding, it’s anything but, even though a lot of time will be spent walking from location to location, eventually being sped up through the usage of different vehicles and fast travel. Everything is taking place in a world littered with future technology, ghosts, terrorists, babies, and humans with supernatural powers known as DOOMs. A complex system of mechanics exist that tie all of this together, some of which is best experience through the natural motions of the games, and reading about them in a review would not do it any sort of justice.
But in simplistic terms, Sam is a porter, or deliver man. You accept a mission, which has you then figuring out the best possible path to take in order to deliver the package so that it arrives safely to its destination. Yes, this absolutely matters. Packages can take damage through the course of you moving through the world, and if you fall over, get the package wet, drop it too many times, or for the more sensitive packages, rattle them around too much.. all of this plays in to the durability of each package. It’s generally pretty forgiving and there weren’t that many times throughout the campaign that I failed a mission due to the package being damaged, but it certainly can and will happen the more reckless you tend to get. Being placed into the role of something we haven’t seen before in a game is an uplifting experience and part of the reason why I was so infatuated with Death Stranding from start to finish. Sure, the cast of characters, excellent acting, and strong narration certainly played a part in that.. but this was something much more.
That isn’t to say Death Stranding is without faults, because that’s far from the truth. Throughout the early moments of the game, things are moving almost at a snail’s pace, and it really isn’t until Chapter 5 where things start to pick up, make a lot more sense, and sink their teeth into you even further. It’s understandable to want to set the tone for the world and introduce mechanics slowly, especially for a new and different experience such as this. However, it almost went too slow at times, and I occasionally found myself lost in the vastness of the open world wondering when the next big things was going to occur to keep me moving forward. Once shit starts hitting the fan and the unexpected twists and turns begin to take place, it’s all uphill from there, with the strongest moments of the game existing in the last 25%. It would have been nice to have a few of those more powerful moments in the first 3 chapters, and granted there are some things there, but nothing like what you’ll experience leading up to the final moments and ultimately the conclusion of the story.
Besides walking and delivering packages throughout the world, you will find yourself face to face with enemies at various times. What makes combat interesting in Death Stranding is that killing enemies is actually worse than completely ignoring them or just temporarily knocking them out. Anyone who dies in this world causes an accident known as a Voidout, which destroys a lot of living things directly around them if nothing is done in a short amount of time. The only way to prevent this from happening is to burn the bodies, but when you’re out there in the world moving through a MULE camp for instance, it isn’t possible for you to burn all of the bodies after disposing of them. So throughout the story, upgrades, new skills, and weapons are introduced which make the task of just disabling enemies much easier. I wasn’t prepared for how in-depth the upgrade and weapon system was going to get, and it was indeed a lot of fun figuring out what equipment would best serve me for each trip I was about to undertake. Carrying too much equipment on you is a burden, because Sam can only carry so many pounds, and the weight of the cargo is factored in.
An asynchronous world is one of the strongest and most fun features found in Death Stranding, and as we discussed in a recent episode of the Max Level Podcast, can almost be completely missed if you aren’t careful, as Kyle discovered. So long as your PlayStation 4 is connected to the internet, you won’t miss out on what makes this mechanic so fascinating. Your gameplay experience is connected to other Sam Porter Bridges that exist on other players consoles, and by making strands and connections with these players (of which you really aren’t in control of.. the game sort of does it for you).. you begin to see their structures that they built in their game appear in your world. When delivering packages, you have tools and skills available to you that help you to cross the terrain, such as ropes to climb over and up ledges, ladders to help you reach tough places, and eventually, things like bridges, watch towers, generators, and full-on roads that make the process even easier to deliver packages. Making these connections with others allows you to see their structures, and in a way, you are all working together restoring the Chiral Network and building a better United Cities of America. It really kept me wanting to farm materials and add resources to each new structure, because it felt like I was part of something much bigger, even if it’s all just an illusion at the end of the day since you aren’t really in an online world setting.
Even having talked about the sense of connection through this asynchronous world that Kojima has created, Death Stranding features an unreal sense of loneliness. You never truly encounter these other players, and the only things that exist outside of the major settlements are the MULE camps and Beached Things (BT’s).. which are more or less just ghosts stuck here on Earth. BT’s are the only other threat players will face besides the enemies in the MULE camps when out in the world, and here we have a lot of elements being borrowed from Kojima’s other franchise he is most known for, Metal Gear Solid. Using a contraption on your back that is powered by the BB (baby) you carry around in a fluid-filled jar, you can sense these BT’s and sneak around the environment so as to just get sucked into their dimension for a time. If you do get pulled in, you must work to fight your way out as the BT’s try and drag you below the surface. Attacking the BT’s is eventually possible, making these segments much, much easier.. but it’s a different style of gameplay from the rest of the experience and for that it’s welcomed.
The mundane and boredom are truly meant to be the stars of the show. This is best shown by some of the more magical and serene moments that take place through the usage of the in-game soundtrack. Death Stranding has two different soundtracks.. one that features licensed tracks from several different artists, and one that is fully original from composer Ludvig Forssell. The original soundtrack features many orchestral pieces of music that filled me with many different emotions while playing through the game. “Once, There Was an Explosion”, which is the first track on the soundtrack, does an excellent job is setting the tone and painting the picture that this is going to be an epic experience.. but some unsettling and supernatural elements will be involved as well. “BB’s Theme”, a hauntingly beautiful vocal track featuring the talented Jenny Plant, almost made me weep with just how touching and emotionally powerful it really was.
But none of this holds a candle to when you accept certain missions in the game and set out from the major settlements. The game pans back showing a widescreen shot of Sam beginning his journey, and a licensed track (the best of which come from a band known as Low Roar) starts playing. Believe me when I say, these moments are chill inspiring and happened just enough in my opinion to not become corny and still remain powerful every time they appeared.
It’s in these moments that Death Stranding shines brightest. The vast wilderness laid out in front of you, with a simple objective to deliver a package. It sounds boring, but it’s far from it. It sounds simplistic, yet it’s anything but. It’s a beautiful capture of the way games are meant to be. The best ones not only provide hours upon hours of entertainment and fun gameplay, but they make you ponder the important questions. They get you to fall for their characters and become so invested that you have to see what happens next as quickly as possible. They deliver upon the premise of being game changing. That’s exactly what Death Stranding has done. Is it perfect? No. But it isn’t supposed to be. Writing this game off as so many people did initially is one of the biggest tragedies to happen in the industry in quite some time. You owe it to yourself to play and experience everything Death Stranding has to offer. Get lost in the moments that matter, and feel for these characters as we did. At the end of the day, you’re still going to be a delivery man. Get out there and deliver those important packages to keep the United Cities of America stranded together, just as Hideo Kojima has delivered on a game worthy of being in the conversation for one of the best games this year.