As the credits rolled on Death Stranding, I found myself swimming in emotions and theories. The last half of the game took me for a ride that I will not soon forget, something I fully expect from a game created by Hideo Kojima–outside of Metal Gear Solid V, anyway. In fact, the way that Death Stranding’s finale shaped up completely justified all 61 hours I spent getting there. Traditionally, I begin my review writing process soon after completing a game, and oftentimes I begin writing my first draft the same night.
Not with Death Stranding: Too much took place in 61 hours for me to even consider writing in the limelight the ending created.
Death Stranding PS4 Review
Editor’s Note: The following paragraph will be the only specified story beats this review includes. These only occur in the first few hours of Death Stranding.
The last President of The United States, President Bridget Strand, calls upon Sam Porter Bridges to utilize his skills as a porter, a parcel delivery person, to reconnect a shattered country. His other initiative is to seek out President Strand’s daughter, Amelie, who is on the other side of the country, and bring her back East.
Along the way, he must find different ways to introduce the Chiral Network to people he comes across and convince them to connect themselves to the network. In doing so, the country, as well as the individuals, gain access to shared knowledge and resources, using their Chiral Printers (3D printers) to generate equipment, weapons, and technology needed to help bring life back to a kind of normal after the Death Stranding.
It goes without saying that Death Stranding is a Hideo Kojima title through and through. This means that lengthy cutscenes, plot twists, cinematic references, current events, and cutting-edge visuals all compile the complete package, laced liberally with spontaneous cheeky humor. A very generous amount of time is spent in the early hours of the game establishing the setting and the circumstances that have created it. What makes all of this better is the list of cameos that appear throughout the game, and said cameos’ performances even more so.
Not many movies have such an all-star cast as Death Stranding does. Combining Mads Mikkelson, Norman Reedus, Léa Seydoux, and Tommy Earl Jenkins is already a tall order, but you also see voice actor extraordinaire, Troy Baker, join the fray. Holy hell, does Baker steal the show in every moment he appears! Higgs, Baker’s bastard of a character, has both stellar writing and impeccable acting behind him, creating an absolutely fantastic villain.
All of these cameos aren’t gimmicks, either. Each character has his or her moment to shine. Most tragic, some heartfelt, some melancholy, but they all hit home stupendously. This holds true for many side characters as well. Even in small moments, they all etch out their very own fondness in the greater narrative whole.
Character code names all play a part in this as well. All of them carry into Death Stranding’s pursuits of allegory, some deep and hidden, some point-blank and peculiar, and others surprising. Some examples being Heartman, Mama, and Die-Hardman, the intentions behind these names all become clear during their respective backstories. From time to time, some of these allegorical attempts get heavy-handed and out of place; fans of Metal Gear Solid 4, be prepared for a line similar to “You were the lightning in that rain.”
As mentioned before, the first three episodes take up a huge chunk of time. Unfortunately, most of that time is spent running around, trying to learn how to play the game. In hindsight, I appreciated having that time to learn while not having that learning process distract from the more important narrative beats. Though enabling a leisurely pace, the lack of gameplay focus in the first three episodes will leave a lot of wavering players feeling cold.
Something I could never quite get over during my time with Death Stranding were the endorsements. Well, I can’t say for sure if they were endorsements, but their presentations within the game certainly gave that impression. Including a famous drink is one thing I ultimately came to terms with, but almost blatantly advertising a real-life TV channel left a bad taste in my mouth. I’m sure many will enjoy this little Easter Egg, considering the actor playing the main character, but I couldn’t help but see this part of the game like decorating a race car with endorsements stickers.
Traversing Hills and Wastelands
From the very first microsecond of playing Death Stranding, you see absolutely gorgeous landscapes. Hell, the first couple shots in the opener had me wondering if the scenes were computer-generated or real life captures. I have to wonder how much time went into creating the maps of this post-apocalypse America, simply because so many landscapes stopped me dead with eyes wide and mouth agape. Considering the in-house engines Sony granted Kojima Productions, it’s no wonder the final product looks mesmerizing.
It would be a lie to say that the vast, vast majority of gameplay wasn’t carrying packages around the map, because it is that simple–on paper. In order to be truly successful, you must utilize all your resources, as well as your techniques, to not only deliver goods but do so as quickly as possible. Some methods are much easier than others, but when on foot, you must consider a few things as you go. Little footfalls in the ground can trip you if move too quickly, for instance, or lingering too long in a Timefall storm will deteriorate your shipments past deliverable quality.
Very early on, you come across Timefall. Mimicking rain, Timefall falls from the sky and rapidly ages anything it touches. Timefalls don’t affect you as the player, because you come equipped with a protective jumpsuit. However, Timefall slowly degrades the quality of your shipments. While they are made of Timefall-resistant materials, you still need to find ways out of Timefall quickly so the quality of your haul isn’t diminished.
In Death Stranding, patience is not so much a virtue as it is a necessity. This stands doubly true for the first three episodes, which lasted around 35 hours for my first playthrough. While that is just over half of the time I needed to finish all fourteen episodes, I did spend an almost embarrassing amount of that time galavanting between delivery points on foot when I didn’t need to. The game offers plenty of different ways to get around the map, with upgrades and new equipment popping up basically after every delivery you complete for the first while.
Death Stranding does a wonderful job of minimally directing you to the next thing, whether that is a new means of transportation, gear, or strategy. It never tells you what to do, but when you get around to trying something, the game tells you how to do it. Everything has a tutorial body of text, and that text only appears when you start to use or interact with said thing. All in all, while the game delivers (ha) plenty of optional goodies to make your life easier, it is up to you to utilize these things frugally.
In order to truly find enjoyment in the gameplay, you have to really maximize what you can do. If you walk everywhere, you are undoubtedly going to have a dull experience. Of course, for the first episode or two, walking is mandatory, but you soon learn how to create enhancements to make your life easier. While some of these enhancements help you protect yourself, many more of them allow you to be a better courier.
Fabricating equipment plays a big part in the game. Before each mission, as well as whenever you visit a hub, you can utilize the resources you have collected and earned to create equipment. The more you deliver for a particular hub, the more resources you will have in that location. Take note that each hub will house its own resources, as the hubs only share information and not items, so make sure to replace any equipment that will soon fail on you.
Among the equipment you can fabricate are weapons you can use against your enemies, which you use with similar over-the-shoulder shooter mechanics found in Kojima’s previous works. However, killing enemies has its own devastating consequences, but Death Stranding offers plenty of different ways for you to dispatch enemies without ending them. I may stand alone in saying this, but knowing that there are consequences to killing in a video game is refreshing. Equally so, the consequences are built into the narrative, which you will have to find out for yourself, adding an intriguing combination of struggle and foresight, a handy combination that serves you well on all fronts in this game.
The menus themselves are noteworthy. Well-constructed menus work so well in so many circumstances, but the menus in Death Stranding took quite a while to get used to. So much information appears at any one time that visual overload is commonplace. Once I got completely acclimated to the different layers of menus, which finally happened somewhere around the middle of the third episode, my experience streamlined.
Give ‘Em A Like
Personally, one of the coolest aspects to the game is connectivity, which stands as a central theme to the game as a whole. While certainly a big part of the narrative, connectivity is a massive boon to gameplay as well. Everything you build appears in the world for other players (even though you will never see other actual players), and they can use those items if you leave them there. This goes for everything, including lost items, placed ladders, climbing anchors, and more.
In fact, one of the coolest experiences I had during my time with Death Stranding occurred the moment I logged in on my third day. Between when I had logged off the night before and logged back on the next evening, an entire road had been crafted, stretching across a massive chunk of the map. With each new crafted item, the game becomes easier, but the amount the world can change when people help each other just blew my damn mind. Connectivity plays a big part in the game, but the different ways the game delivers that theme makes them all feel special.
Everything built in the world can be liked by other players. Yes, much like any real-life social media outlet, players issue likes to equipment they find along their paths, and those likes contribute to the creator’s overall growth. The five branches of your star rating allow you to carry more, move faster, withstand more of what the world throws at you, and much, much more. It will feel cheeky at first, but it begins to feel genuine when you give likes to things that actually help you.
As players build the world, getting around becomes that much easier for everyone. Players can also upgrade equipment that others have constructed, allowing not only a sense of progress but a sense of contribution, no matter what you do. The more I play, the more I feel motivated to help others either by leveling their structures or creating other things to accentuate what other have created.
The Give And Take Regarding BTs
You find BTs scattered throughout the map, with the first warning sign of them being Timefall. Yes, not only do you have to worry about Timefall ruining your shipments, but you also have to worry about BTs, an otherworldly entity desperate to capture human beings. The naked eye cannot detect BTs, but with the help of your BB’s (your baby) scanner, you can see a shadow of them. The only catch to this scan is that you cannot be moving.
Early on, this adds heavy tension. In fact, this pairs well with the first cutscene and the thrilling horror elements it conveys. With BTs being such dangerous creatures, their presence feels incredibly daunting and severe. However, as you continue to play, you find easy ways to avoid them without having to worry too much.
In this regard, Death Stranding leaves a lot to be desired. I am almost certainly guilty here of projecting my hopes and dreams for a taste of PT in Death Stranding. For the first couple hours, I had a bit of that fear factor, worrying about every step I took and holding my breath whenever I had to creep next to a BT in order to move on. With continued exposure and increased resources, the fear revolving around BTs becomes a thing of the past.
This goes for boss fights as well. At the beginning of each one, I had a unique moment of awe and worry I would fail. By the end of those fights, though, I felt underwhelmed. All boss fights are more time-consuming than challenging; but that’s not the whole story either.
As mentioned throughout, connectivity plays a huge part in Death Stranding, and that theme carries into boss fights as well. I don’t want to talk about it too much, just so this part of the game feels unique to you, the reader, but in making the fights feel easier comes this feeling that you are never truly alone. More times than I can count, this feature came in clutch for me, both in the field and during boss fights, and Kojima proves that this point is the most important one he wants to make on all fronts. I’ve never played a game where I stood alone but felt like I still had people to rely on, and I think that, as well as the entire theme of connecting to other people, is far too important in today’s climate to ignore.
Crying like a baby in the best way
I’m not quite sure yet about timeless, but Death Stranding certainly makes a case for itself as something special. Daunting menus, rough game pacing, lackadaisical boss battles, and a few heavy handed narrative beats do not keep this title from dazzling in a way that Kojima can do so well. Undoubtedly, the journey to the end is well worth the cost of investment, combining both narrative and gameplay ideas into an oddly cohesive product. All the different ways that Death Stranding makes you feel connected without actually seeing other players offers up a unique experience all its own.
In regards to themes and the execution of those themes, I cannot help but recommend that everyone at least try Death Stranding. What it tries to say is well-timed. And do expect a few tears come the end. However, much like the vivid map you travel, be wary of uneven pace.
Review code kindly provided by publisher
Death Stranding releases on PS4 November 7, 2019.