Nov 7, 2019

Death Stranding Review: A Hideo Kojima Masterpiece



By Paul Hunter | Twitter: NextGenPlayer

Oh it's true, Death Stranding is a FedEx simulator. It also happens to be the best game I've played all year on any platform. So, does that mean I just have weird tastes in games? Have I long dreamed of being a parcel delivery guy? The answer, of course, is no on both accounts. Death Stranding, despite its heavy "package delivery" premise, is an immensely deep experience with complex characters, thick plot lines, and a strong, artistic message about the power of connections.


The question on everyone's mind: Is Death Stranding fun?


In the strictest sense of the word, no. Fun to me would be taking another spin around the track in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe or dropping in for another action-packed match of Apex Legends—these games were built on the premise of fun. Looking at Death Stranding, it's an experience evoking words like "captivating", "thought-provoking", "adventurous" and "mysterious". There's a tangible sense of a wonder as you explore this game's bleak world on the brink of collapse and fall further and further down the Kojima rabbit hole. There's a lot of weird and wonderful things happening here, and for those who like their games steeped in lore, you'll have a "field day" as you head out on your next delivery field run.



So what makes Death Stranding so interesting?


For starters, the all-star cast. Here's who you'll meet on your journey to reconnect America:


  • Norman Reedus - Sam Porter Bridges
  • Mads Mikkelsen - Cliff
  • Léa Seydoux - Fragile 
  • Margaret Qualley - Mama
  • Tommie Earl Jenkins - Die-Hardman
  • Troy Baker - Higgs
  • Lindsay Wagner - Bridget
  • Emily O'Brien - Amelie
  • Jesse Corti - Deadman (voice) - Guillermo del Toro (likeness)
  • Darren Jacobs - Heartman

The sheer talent on that casting list is staggering, and each and every one of them brought their A-game. Reedus, naturally, is a standout figure playing the role of protagonist Sam Porter Bridges. You get the sense Reedus was asked to be himself in this game, judging by the funny ways he chugs Monster Energy drinks or says silly lines like "I could really use a Starbucks right now". It all comes across as sounding quite natural, and relatable.

While I won't run down the entire cast individually, collectively they all did a fantastic job bringing their unique (and generally strange) characters to life. In signature Kojima style, expect some long cutscenes that really dives deep into characters' personalities, motivations and conflicts. This is especially true in the latter half of the game where cutscenes ramp up significantly, and the super-long ending that caps off the game. On the whole though, don't expect ridiculously long Metal Gear-esque cutscenes lasting 30 minutes or more: generally, the longer Death Stranding scenes are in the 5-10 minutes range.



What about those package deliveries?


The main gameplay loop of Death Stranding involves you, as Sam Porter, travelling from east to west across America to establish a "chiral" network. Essentially, it's a communication network that lets remote bases share knowledge and resources across vast distances. As you make your way across America to reunite the country, you'll need to deliver parcels, typically serving as a peace offering to warm the base inhabitants up to join your chiral network.

The cargo you need to deliver all come in storage cases that must (at least at first) be strapped to Sam's back, shoulders, or thighs. The amount of cargo you can carry is ridiculous—stacking 10-15 cases on your back is pretty common, easily reaching at least ten feet high. These parcels have a weight too, and the more you weigh down Sam the clumsier he walks. Overburden Sam and he can quickly stumble and fall, and down will tumble all your cargo, damaging it in the process.

For at least the first eight hours or so expect to be frustrated carrying this absurd amount of cargo. It's not fun, and you get the sense it's meant to feel like a burden on purpose—Kojima wants you to feel like it's a chore because, well, it is a chore.

There's the old adage no pain, no gain, and if you can muster the energy to get past the initial few hours of the game you'll soon find your cargo woes lessening. Eventually, you'll get hovering storage bots that can carry boxes for you, and amusingly enough you can also ride them like a skateboard. You'll also find robotic legs for Sam that increase his walking speed or power, and they also reinforce his posture so you'll slip and crash far less frequently. Later still in the game you'll unlock vehicles like motorbikes or transport vans, which completely eradicates the hassle of manually carrying cargo.

Death Stranding does an incredible job at pacing all these upgrades. Every remote base you convince to join the chiral network rewards you with new unlocks like the aforementioned mech legs or vehicles. This makes the trouble of getting to these locations feel worth it in the end, as you're usually given a reward that feels, well, very rewarding.



So where does the "fun" factor in?


Well, the real interesting parts of Death Stranding are subtle and usually hit without warning. My favourite moments occur about five minutes before you reach that next big parcel delivery location. Almost without fail, the game's atmospheric sounds will quiet down and a catchy tune with begin from hit artists like Chvrches, Major Lazer and Khalid, Low Roar, Apocalyptica, Silent Poets, and more. The tunes are fantastic, and they fit the game's death and somber themes perfectly.

The timing is flawless, too, as you've just spent ten minutes trekking across a harsh environment with heavy and awkward cargo. While I wouldn't usually consider songs to be a reward, in Death Stranding they feel very much like one. It's a cathartic experience with the songs providing psychological relief from the arduous journey you just endured.

As well, another huge highlight of this game is the incredible vistas you'll come across on your voyage. There are huge mountains you need to climb, and deep valleys you need to cross and these moments are simply breathtaking to soak in. Death Stranding uses Sony's darling Decima engine (the same one used in Horizon: Zero Dawn) and quite frankly, it's one of the best-looking games I've ever seen.

Bear in mind, though, that the visual variety isn't on par with Horizon or God of War―nearly all of Death Stranding takes places in a ravaged post-apocalyptic Earth, and the desolate scenery reflects that. Still, you'll visit a huge communication tower, a gorgeous waterfall, a collapsed highway system, a snow-capped mountain science facility, and many other visually interesting locations.



What's combat like?


Much like cargo carrying, during the early hours combat is underwhelming. You can punch ... and that's about it. Slowly but surely you'll acquire new weapons, starting with the Bola gun that sends out binding ropes, but quickly progressing to assault rifles, shotguns, handguns, and, err ... poop and piss grenades. You'll also get guns with bullets that get coated with Sam's blood before firing.

The bodily function weapons exist for story purposes: Sam is inflicted with something called DOOMS, which allows him to "sense" creatures called BTs. Sam is also special since he's able to die and get reincarnated before the dying process complete. These unique physiological properties allows Sam's bodily fluids (sweat, blood, piss, poop) to be weaponized. I won't get into the exact details as it's plot spoiler-y, but needless to say Sam's fluid are your best shot at fighting back against the BTs.

Once you start acquiring the more powerful weapons combat improves significantly. You can blast, bomb and punch your way through combat scenarios where previously your best bet was to simply run away. Vehicles, too, can be used as ramming weapons and you can easily mow down a mob of MULES (mentally corrupted humans) by smashing into them. By about the ten hour mark I was having a great time in combat, and it just got better and better as the story progressed and more weapons became available.



Is Death Stranding a multiplayer game?


Yes, but it's asynchronous so you'll never see another human player. The way multiplayer works is super cool: other players will build structures as you work together to rebuild America. At first, you'll start noticing random structures like a post box to deposit mail or a watch tower to map the surrounding area. Then, later you'll see even more impressive structures like zip-lines across large fissures in the ground or even full on highway systems where previously it was just rocky terrain.

With such radical terraforming, a delivery route that used to take 15 minutes of stressful walking could soon become a high-speed roadway crossed in a matter of minutes. Mountains that previously sapped your endurance and took forever to climb can be zip-lined to the top effortlessly. It's incredible to see the changes unfold, especially since hundreds of other players are building the structures in real-time. It's basically like Minecraft for adults.

It's worth noting: there isn't one "master" Death Stranding world that everyone shares, but rather multiple instances of the game world running on Sony/Kojima servers. So, while millions of players may end up buying the game, you'll likely only see structures in your game world from a few hundred of those players. It's for the best anyway: even with a small number of players building my world, the game world was absolutely packed with structures.

In addition to structures, you can also drop cargo for others to grab (e.g. drop a ladder for someone to climb over a wall with), and plants signs to warn or motivate others. For example, you can put a sign to warm players of "timefall," a corrosive form of rain that decays cargo and rapidly ages organic lifeforms it touches. There's a whole bunch of funny signs, too, like one telling people not to pee on a specific spot. And yes, you can pee whenever Sam's bladder meter fills up. It uhh ... grows glowing mushrooms for reasons I've yet to uncover.


Are there any other ways to interact with players?


Yup! You can "like" all structures and signs built by other players. You do so by mashing on the DualShock 4's touchpad, and the faster you mash the more likes you send. Likes end up funneling into the game's character progression system: you have five criteria, from delivery speed to delivery volume to liking built structures, and each one can level up. Gaining levels enhance Sam in various ways, for example, he might be able to carry additional weight or he might get extra likes.

There's a likes leaderboard, which indicates players that have gone the extra mile to complete delivery runs in record time, or helped built the shared world you all inhabit. At time of writing I've gotten over 150,000 likes, a few of them given to me by my BB (a baby Sam carries on his chest in an incubation container), which I thought was pretty hilarious.


How long is Death Stranding?


My run through was over 50 hours. I completed all the main story missions, and about half of the side quests. I would guess completing the game to 100% would require another 10+ hours, so it's a huge game with lots to see and do. The game is primarily split into three maps: Eastern, Middle, and Western America. There are a few other locations you'll visit, like a couple of incredibly awesome visits to the past that I won't get into to avoid ruining those epic moments.



Seriously though, what makes Death Stranding so damn good?


It's how all the elements of the game come together. The story is wild, wacky and incredible—complete with signature Kojima filmic cutscenes. The soundtrack is phenomenal, easily one of the best I've ever heard in any game. This is the kind of soundtrack you'll want to throw onto your smartphone and listen to on your commute to school or work. It's seriously excellent.

I also appreciate how Kojima wraps the entire game around the theme of "connection". It's a fragmented world and as Sam you're the bridge that binds America together. You'll also constantly connecting with other players from around the world, making this a hybrid single-player/multiplayer experience where connections matter. You can even deposit materials to add-on to other players' structures, which is incredible unique and should help build a strong community for the game.

Then there's the graphics: what a looker this game is. If you're the type to snap photos of your gameplay be prepared for picturesque landscapes and truly mesmerizing vistas. Death Stranding is also HDR-compatible, and flicking it on will add even more amazing lighting effects and colours for a truly stunning experience.

Lastly, while the gameplay isn't innovative by any means, I thought the pacing of progression was outstanding. You start off weak, underpowered and fragile. Over the course of the game you'll progressively unlock greater abilities, whether that's robotic legs to make walking easier, or a grenade launcher to give you the edge in combat. The transformation is huge: at some point you're bound to think back about how "weak" you used to be, and subsequently admire how powerful you've become. Best of all, every new ability or weapon you gain is a direct result of the connections you make—again reinforcing the game's overarching theme.

Game's of this caliber are rare. Death Stranding is a masterpiece, without question the best game I've played in 2019 and one of the best games of the entire gen. When the PS4 era is over, Death Stranding will absolutely be remembered as a defining moment for me.

Final Score: 10/10 - Masterpiece