[Review originally published on 1st November, 2019]
Genre: FedEx deliveryman simulator with babysitting and half-baked stealth plus combat.
I really wanted to like Death Stranding.
From the day the game was revealed at E3 2016 up until the very day I received my review code, there was a consistent feeling of wanting to see Hideo Kojima prove to all his detractors, especially those at Konami, that he could produce something brilliant beyond the Metal Gear Solid series. Personally speaking, I believe that Kojima started losing his edge beginning from Metal Gear Solid 4. There was a clear indication of exhaustion.
Each new MGS game would always end up retconning something established by previous games and MGS4 did it so much that it pretty much ruined the entire series for me.
It took me a while but it was after MGS4 did I realise that Kojima just couldn’t really write coherent stories. He depends too much on the few great cinematic moments that stick in people’s minds. It’s why the first Metal Gear Solid remains my favourite game in the series. It was chock-full of those moments and there’s very few downtime between those moments.
Death Stranding appears to be Kojima’s attempt in translating those cinematic moments into actual gameplay. In my almost 50-hour playthrough of the game, I felt that intent in my core being very early into the game.
Alas, he has failed miserably in that dubious task. I simply didn’t enjoy the core gameplay of Death Stranding nor did I find its story to be impressive.
Job Simulator On Steroids
The biggest appeal of Death Stranding to potential buyers is the mystery that surrounds it. Even after watching all the trailers and gameplay demos, most people don’t really get what the game is about. Of course, this is what Kojima wants. Confusion generates discussion and discussion will generate sales.
I’m here to tell you not to buy into the confusion. Get a clear picture of the game before you decide to buy it.
Here’s my attempt at giving you a clear picture: At its heart, Death Stranding is a deliveryman simulator through and through. You take orders from one place and then you walk, run, bike, or drive to wherever your order needs to be delivered.
True, there are some diversions along the way but you’ll be spending 80% of your time just traversing the environment. The rest is spent on dealing with those diversions and watching cutscenes.
Traversal in itself isn’t a straightforward business. There will be times where you’ll have to cross rivers, descent down or climb up slopes and deep fissures, and even brave through harsh terrain such as knee-deep snow.
Aside from carrying cargo, you’ll also be able to fabricate and bring along tools such as ladders, ropes, and portable chiral constructors (PCC) which are basically 3D printers that can be used to build structures such as bridges, road pavers, electrical generators, and more. With a weight and capacity limit in place, this does introduce an interesting gameplay aspect which will encourage players to plan their inventory before heading out for a delivery.
Some of the aforementioned diversions will come in the form of rogue cargo bandits called MULEs. These guys will try to steal any cargo you have the moment you’re detected within their area of operation. Killing them is not an option -I’ll explain why later because it’s tied to the story- so your only options are either sneaking past them or incapacitating them with melee or non-lethal ranged weapons.
The other common diversion you’ll come across is the ghost-like creatures you’ve seen in the trailers called “Beached Things” or BTs. Once you enter an area that has BTs, your shoulder-mounted Odradek scanner will indicate the direction of the BT closest to you. The closer you are to a BT, the more erratic the Odradek behaves.
BTs can’t see any human beings and that includes our main character Sam Bridges (Norman Reedus) but they can hear us. When you get too close to a BT, the Odradek will emit an orange light and you’ll be prompted to hold your breath.
How long you can hold your breath is determined by how much stamina you have left. If you start breathing again after almost running out of breath, Sam will inhale very loudly so you’ll need to keep an eye on the gauge.
Bridge Baby, or simply BB, is more than just a character to make audiences go “What the hell?”. It’s what you need to detect BTs. Sam’s Odradek can’t locate any BTs if he’s not connected to a BB. So you’ll need to take care of the BB and by take care, I mean monitor its stress level.
If the BB gets stressed out due to Sam being attacked or falling down a cliff, it will cry. This can make it easier for BTs and MULEs to detect you.
As some of you probably know by watching some gameplay demos, being detected and caught by a BT will flood the area around you in tar. There will then be at least one large hostile BTs that will try to kill and consume Sam. In these situations, you can use a wide range of weaponry including grenades, assault rifles, and even rocket launchers to defeat the BTs. If Sam gets killed or consumed, you will trigger something called a Voidout.
When a Voidout happens, the entire area that was flooded in tar will be absolutely destroyed and you’ll be left with a gigantic crater. Voidouts are caused by the contacting of matter in human beings and antimatter in BTs. The same rule applies to dead human beings as well, which is why we can’t kill MULEs.
If you do end up causing a Voidout, the resulting crater will become a permanent part of the world for the rest of your playthrough. Any structures built within the area of the Voidout will also be destroyed.
It’s an effective way of reminding players that their recklessness and lack of preparation will have lasting consequences.
Speaking of preparation, you’ll also need to add weapons into the list of things that you want Sam to carry on each delivery. You never know when you’ll bump into MULEs and BTs so that’s another aspect that you will need to consider before heading out to make a delivery.
Rain Rain, Go Away
In the world of Death Stranding, terms like “rain”, “rainwater”, and “rainfall” are almost never used by its characters. The only word you need to know is timefall. It’s basically rain but instead of just making you wet, the water will accelerate the ageing of anything it touches, including your cargo.
Sam himself is pretty much unaffected by timefall thanks to his porter suit having an automatic hoodie that deploys whenever it happens.
The important thing is to monitor the damage that timefall does to your cargo. Stay in timefall too long and you risk failing your delivery by ruining your cargo.
Staying in timefall in itself isn’t going to be easy anyway. Whenever and wherever this occurs, it’s almost guaranteed that BTs will be in the area as well. So not only do you have to haul ass out of the timefall zone but you usually also have to do it stealthily.
Early on in the game, I found these segments pretty exciting. However, the formula remains the same all the way until the end of the game. Every time it happened, all I had to do was crouch and keep walking towards my destination while avoiding BTs.
I don’t remember a single instance where I had to anything differently in going through timefall. After the first few hours, every timefall occurrence felt like a chore more than anything else.
Kojima’s “Strand” Genre
An extremely important mechanic in the game is the integration of online play and how it affects the game’s overall enjoyment. If you have an internet connection, your experience with the game will be so different compared to players who can only play offline.
I would dare say that offline players simply wouldn’t be able to experience the game the way that Kojima planned for it to be played.
Playing online, you won’t ever see another player in the flesh. What you see are the signs and structures they’ve decided to put down in their worlds. A lot of my deliveries were made easy thanks to other players’ paving roads for me to use with my trikes (three-wheel bikes) and trucks, and building safehouses that I used to restore health, stamina and other parameters.
If you’re attacked by MULEs or BTs and you drop non-essential cargo including tools, weapons, and materials for building or fabrication, there’s a good chance they will pop up in other players’ worlds and they can help send those items to nearby settlements or Distribution Centers. They will be rewarded with Likes if they do so. Same goes to you and other players’ dropped cargo.
Picking up other players’ tools and weapons means that you can use them as well. In my experience, I found a decent number of chiral printers, ladders, and handguns scattered throughout the environment, most probably dropped by players who were being chased by MULEs or attacked by BTs. They’re really helpful whenever I decide not to carry my own tools and weapons.
Oh yeah, I haven’t touched on Likes. So this game doesn’t really have a currency system. Instead, almost everything good you do in the game is rewarded with Likes. NPCs in the game will give you Likes for completing deliveries and you can get extra Likes by fulfilling bonus conditions like ensuring the cargo isn’t damaged beyond a certain percentage or completing the delivery within a set amount of time.
If you play online, you can also get Likes from other players when they use the tools and structures you put in the world. Vice versa, you can also give Likes to other players whose tools and structures appear in your world.
As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one noteworthy benefit of getting lots of Likes. The Likes from NPCs will determine your “connectivity” level with their settlement. A higher connectivity level translates to more materials being deposited at the settlement. The materials are used to fabricate tools and weapons as well as to build certain structures like roads and bridges.
The Likes you get from other players don’t seem to affect your game in any significant way. I only found that I felt somewhat happy knowing that the stuff I put into the world was helpful to other reviewers.
In combat situations against BTs, mannequin-like figures bearing the usernames of other players will occasionally appear and throw weapons and blood bags (for health restoration) your way. I found this to be the most helpful aspect of Death Stranding’s online integration.
It’s super helpful whenever you run out of ammo and blood bags. Unfortunately, it also makes the game too easy. At some points as I could lighten my cargo by not carrying any weapons and just depend on help from other players.
If this idea of a shared world and sense of community through purely indirect cooperation is what Kojima meant by his establishment of a new “strand” genre, then I’ll admit that he managed to create an interesting experience but it’s not worthy of being called a new genre.
As a big fan of the Souls game, it seems to me that Kojima’s idea is merely an extrapolation of the online system found in Souls games. The major problem here is that it’s an essential part of the game. Bad news for anyone without internet connection.
An Experience, But Nothing More
Now that I’ve given you the most basic overview of Death Stranding‘s core gameplay, I can finally start to talk about why I didn’t enjoy playing this game.
But bear with me, this is the most anticipated game of the year, if not the decade. So a lot of detailing and context is needed before getting to the game’s core problem.
Death Stranding is boring.
When it all boils down to it, Kojima has successfully made an over-glorified walking simulator. Imagine that out of the 50 hours I spent playing this game, most of that time was used to simply push the left analog stick forward while occasionally pressing R1 to scan for nearby cargo, structures, and enemies.
As I played through the game, I was expecting the formula to change up a bit and introduce something fresh. The presence of MULEs and BTs did that but only for the first few encounters. I bumped into more MULEs and BTs dozens and dozens of times as I progressed through the campaign and the encounters never change.
The MULEs kept using the same weapons and tactics while the BTs were so easy to sneak past that I can count with less than 10 fingers how many times I had to fight them.
I kept hoping that the combat would provide the “highs” of the gameplay during the “lows” of just walking across the continent. Not only were combat encounters far and few in-between but they were so primitively simple that I started considering them another chore. MULEs were easily dispatched using sneak attacks and Bola guns while BTs could be defeated in mere minutes by using assault rifles and grenades which didn’t cost much to fabricate.
On a more positive note, I definitely enjoyed playing online and seeing how my world was becoming better thanks to the contributions of other players. I remember placing a road paver one night and the next morning I found that not only was my road completed but it was also extended into a highway that connected multiple settlements.
Observing something like that truly made me feel something special inside. Since I never meet any other players in my own world, it created this paradoxical feeling of being alone, but not really.
Perhaps that’s what Kojima meant by the “strand” genre; building meaningful connections in a disconnected world. That’s commendable, at the very least.
As mentioned in the start, Kojima manages to disappoint me yet again through his inability to write coherent stories that are sensibly paced throughout a video game that will take you at least 20 hours to beat. I know for a fact that a lot of people are interested in Death Stranding for the story alone. Admittedly, the premise is extremely interesting so I can’t fault anyone for feeling that way.
Without spoiling anything, all I can say is that Kojima doesn’t do anything mindblowing this time and all of the plot twists carry shock value but make very little sense.
However, I do believe that there’s a big possibility that I’m one of the people who simply can’t comprehend the lessons and messages of Death Stranding similar to how I couldn’t find the appeal of Nier: Automata’s philosophical themes. I suppose it’s just one of those stories you have to experience and piece together yourself.
Let me try to give you guys a synopsis of Death Stranding’s premise. *deep breath*
Many years before the beginning of the game, a cataclysmic event called the Death Stranding caused a gigantic Voidout in one of America’s major cities, killing millions of people. Shortly afterwards, millions more died as more Voidouts happened throughout America. This large scale destruction was what began the process of cities and states in America becoming disconnected from each other.
As if things weren’t bad enough, timefall and BTs were now becoming common elements throughout America. As people began to understand what they were facing, they began to retreat into cities with towering walls to protect themselves from the outside world. The destruction of infrastructures such as roads and extreme pollution of the skies caused by a material known as chirallium further reinforced the disconnect between the scattered populations of America.
The walled cities don’t have infinite resources so there was still a need to trade and deal with other cities and settlements for food and other necessities. This was when people started depending on porters like Sam.
Playing as Sam, our main goal is to reconnect America. We do that by making deliveries and linking up the cities to something called the chiral network. When a city joins the United Cities of America (UCA) through the chiral network, it will be able to use chiral printing and access the rich database that the UCA possesses.
Connecting cities and settlement to the chiral network also brings gameplay benefits. Some structures can only be built once the local settlement is connected to the chiral network. It will also open up the option for other players to contribute materials to your structures and vice versa. Also, most of the other players’ structures only pop up in your world once the local settlement is connected.
Another motivation for Sam to travel from east to west (we start the game in the eastern side of America) is that his sister Amelie is being held hostage at a city situated on the western edge of the country. Terrorists known for intentionally causing Voidouts to blow up cities are trying to get their hands on her for some big menacing plan. These bad guys are the Homo Demens.
So yeah, that’s basically it, jargons and all. There’s ton more that I haven’t touched on, but I have to be super-cautious because there’s so much of this story that might be ruined by even just giving hints and small details.
And as for the baby? It’s just used to detect BTs. That’s for the gameplay side of things and that’s all you need to know if you plan on playing this game yourself.
Again, I want to put it out there that none of the plot twists and story beats were satisfying.
I walked away from this game, without a shout of a doubt, that Hideo Kojima cannot write a good story, even when given creative freedom, nigh-unlimited budget, and a star-studded cast.
I don’t think it’s necessary for me to go into Death Stranding’s presentation. The Decima engine is able to render painfully beautiful environments and extremely realistic character models. It’s a gorgeous game that never fails to impress with how detailed and wonderful everything looks. Anyone who tells me this game looks bad is either blind or a liar.
Kudos to Kojima for choosing a collection of great songs from the band Low Roar. The soundtrack is mostly made up of songs from them and I’ll admit that they are beautifully integrated into some of the game’s best moments.
I vividly recall a Low Roar song that started playing the moment I saw a settlement that took me almost half an hour to reach. That moment was so poetic it felt like a reward on its own.
In the end, however, Death Stranding has to be judged as a game, not as a movie. Gameplay forms the majority of the experience and unfortunately, it just isn’t all that fun.
I should stress again: I sincerely wanted Death Stranding to be mind-blowing. Instead, it’s the biggest disappointment in my history of playing video games.
Kojima doesn’t need to worry. I’m 100% confident that Death Stranding will still sell millions of copies. Most people will probably love it and call it one of the most brilliant games to ever come out. To me, it will serve as proof that Kojima should just take up filmmaking already instead of continuing to make games. It’s always been his dream, right?
- Brilliant integration of multiplayer without players directly meeting each other.
- Beautiful and detailed visuals for the environment and characters.
- Great soundtrack that makes many of the game’s moments more memorable.
- Interesting premise.
- Yawn-inducing gameplay.
- Unrewarding storyline that doesn’t make sense.
- Likes System feels pointless.
- Requires online connection for the “strand” experience.
FINAL SCORE: 40/100