What an interesting couple of days it’s been since the Friday release of Death Stranding. It’s gotten mixed reviews, people are hailing it as the biggest game changer since sliced bread and others are calling it an uninspired mess of a title that fails at the most basic levels. Sifting through the experience I can see where both parties are coming from because this game is full of up and downs and it’s really hard to quantify experience, but I’ll try my best.
First things first, I have to admit that this game gets off to a pretty terrible start, you play for about 5 minutes then you are stuck in what feels like a never ending cutscene loop for almost an hour, a lot of the negative reviews make the criticism that Kojima should just make movies and I’m of the impression that the first 2 to 3 hours of the game are the reason. I’m used to exposition dumps, but I’ve never come across a game this excessive before. Over the course of the intro you’re given info about the characters, their motivations, the world, the BTs and the time fall but you’re not given any time to process it because the moment you have any time to think you’re immediately thrown into a timed mission to deliver a body before it causes a voidout and it’s all just bit of a mess really.
As far as I’m concerned, the game doesn’t really start until you are given your first big haul and you’re let out into the world with no more hand-holding and once you get to this point you begin to see the pure potential of this game and its mechanics. The mechanic I think is really neat, is the Dark Souls-esque online communication and assistance. Basically, you can leave objects, signs or structures behind to help other players in their quest to unite the United States of America once again. The way this works is say for example you see a cliff that you can’t climb so you have to walk all the way around and take a path to get to the top, once you’re there you can leave a rope behind so other players can scale the mountain in their world rather than going around it like you had to and vice versa. This ‘strand system’ is a nice improvement on other systems introduced in previous games such as Arise Hand of Kul or the aforementioned Dark Souls, it’s strange that you don’t see many games take this approach to player interaction as it’s a system with more than a few applications to it. Annoyingly though the servers for Death Stranding aren’t as stable as you would expect them to be with both me and my partner being disconnected from the servers about 3 to 5 times a day, the worst outage I had lasted an hour which meant that any of the online structures I came to rely on disappeared from my world, not really game breaking but definitely annoying to say the least.
The main gameplay loop of Death Stranding is centred around going from point A to point B with your cargo in tow, you have to keep an eye on your cargo weight and the terrain you traverse over to ensure that you get there quickly, the better condition the cargo is in the higher the score you receive at the end. All in all it’s pretty basic and not too much really goes into it, if you are carrying a lot of cargo you’re going to become really familiar with your left and right trigger and holding them increases your stability preventing you from toppling over. At first I did find this system to be very aggravating and uninteresting but as I unlocked more upgrades and got used to it I found the gameplay to be quite relaxing, I get more of a ‘Journey’ vibe from this game where it’s not the destination that matters it’s the journey itself. As you play Death Stranding you’ll end up sharing tales with your friends about this one time you were making your way to this place and you fell down while climbing the mountain and so on so forth, DS is a watercooler game where you will always have a tale to tell and each experience is different which I will mostly lay at the feet of the online system, because the world changes depending on which players you are connected to you’ll find that one person had to struggle to get to a certain location while another had a nice shiny bridge built by xXNoobSlayer2019Xx taking them right there. A lot of developers like to claim that their game have unpredictable worlds that are always evolving and changing but DS is the only game that comes to mind which actually lives up to this claim.
The environments steal the show in Death Stranding with a nice variety to each locations and all in all they’re well designed, the starting area is mostly flat land which is used to ease you into the gameplay which then takes you to the 2nd area which is rocky and full of hills and rivers and it’s in this area you spend most of the game and the multiple ways you can traverse this area make the 2nd area the part of the game you’ll really find your stride. The 3rd area has you going up a mountain, I hate it and I don’t want to talk about it. I do appreciate how Death Stranding likes to sweat the small details in it’s world and environment, for example when it’s about to rain you see an upside down rainbow, when climbing up a rocky surface you can see little rocks fall from your boots and most of the time it’s amazing but sometimes you get small details that are a massive annoyance, for example every time you step into BT territory you get thrown into a 5 second long cutscene where your scanner comes out and does a little spinning thing and you may be thinking “that’s not so bad” you have to realise that this is every… single… time. On a side note the vehicles are terrible on anything other than completely flat land which is about 10% of the game so be prepared to get annoyed with those.
Visually speaking this game is stunning, even on the base PS4 it’s still one of the best-looking games I’ve seen this generation, all the way up there with the likes of Metro Exodus for me. The character animations in both cutscenes and in game are amazing as well however there is a weird inconsistency with the cutscenes that players will pick up on where sometimes the facial animation is amazing but other times (Mama’s back story bit for example) it looks really weird and not the good kind, you could chalk this up to the facial capture software not picking up facial expressions correctly but it does feel like a few cutscenes could do with more polish.
By far the most inconsistent thing about Death Stranding however is the acting, this game has both some of the best performances I’ve ever seen in a game from Troy Baker, Mads Mikkelsen and Norman Reedus, and on the other side of the coin it has some of the most flat and at times hilariously bad acting I’ve seen in a while such as the performances from Léa Seydoux, Mala Morgan and Conan O’Brien. This game has such a varying level of quality which I find to be truly odd and at times it feels like focus was having famous faces in the game more than quality voice actors and more often than not emotional scenes are point blank ruined by terrible line delivery or the actor reading their lines like they’ve just taken 50ccs of ketamine, it’s hard to stay invested in a scene when it sounds like the actor themselves doesn’t even want to be there.
I’m going to talk about the story for a little bit and I’ll try to avoid spoilers but it’ll be hard to mention some of the best parts and some of the worst parts without directly mentioning moments. Death Stranding has an issue at telling its narrative at times, the game itself took me about 60+ hours to complete and it felt like 20 hours of it were story related but my problem isn’t how long the story is, my problem is how it’s told. I mentioned earlier how you are railroaded into a bunch of cutscenes at the beginning that drop a metric truck load of story on you and then you get cut loose and left to your own devices for a few hours before being thrown into another long cutscene which exposits all over the place and then throws you back out again, every now and again you get people talking at you over the radio but because Sam rarely talks back outside of cutscenes it just feels like you’re not taking part in the story at all which makes anything outside of the cut-scenes pretty inconsequential and hard to engage with. The story as a whole is pretty hit or miss, while the method of telling it pretty awful at times the content of the story is quite interesting, to put it simply the main quest is to reconnect the US using the chiral network and delivering packages to each city and prepper shelter. During your quest you’ll be wrapped up in a terrorist plot that threatens the last few survivors.
One of the most interesting idea in this game is the void out, a void out happens when a dead body is left long enough the BTs will pull the body into the ground and explodes the surrounding area creating a massive crater which can also be replicated in gameplay, one thing I’ve always appreciated about Kojima games is that you get a bunch of mechanics that you can play around with and it often gives his games more depth gameplay wise.