Death Stranding, the latest development from visionary artist Hideo Kojima has finally graced players with its presence, and it may be the most divisive game of 2019.
Players follow Sam as a post-apocalyptic delivery dude tasked with connecting America one ‘Knot’ and prepper at a time, all while uncovering the secrets of the enigmatic Death Stranding and the people involved. I should start by saying that I (and many others) followed the development of Death Stranding, therefore expectations of what we may have wanted it to be vs the reality of what it is should be clearly differentiated. Death Stranding is simultaneously, both a new genre of game, and a regurgitation and refinement of old. Unapologetically I love Kojima’s new creation/s and its inhabitants, Death Stranding is far from perfect – but a true gem for those with the time and patience.
Now, how one derives fun from a product tends to be highly subjective. Therefore ALL forms of review are opinionated, and should be taken with a grain of salt (this included). So let’s examine the product through the lens of more objective metrics such as; Graphical fidelity, story/characters, content/length, controls and gameplay, then finally, sound design and cinematics. Without further adieu here’s my spicy-take/review and analysis of the long awaited and highly anticipated: Death Stranding. Does it withstand the weight of its own hype?
“Once there was an explosion, a bang that gave birth to time and space.
Once there was an explosion, a bang that sent a planet spinning in that space.
Once there was an explosion, a bang that gave rise to life as we know it… And then came the next explosion. An explosion that will be our last.”Sam Porter Bridges
Without beating around the bush, visually speaking Death Stranding is likely the greatest looking game I’ve ever played. Even in an age of motion capture, with gorgeous titles such as God of War, Red Dead Redemption 2, Uncharted 4, or even Witcher 3, Death Stranding manages to outshine them all (if only by a little). The facial animations are absolutely incredible, it’s all the small details that truly bring it to life. Minor winces, subtle eye movements, and even body language add a depth to Death Stranding’s characterization that never before seemed graphically possible. One scene in particular with Die-Hardman later in the game (I won’t go into detail to avoid spoilers) is absolutely phenomenal and undoubtedly the best facial animation I have ever seen.
Surprisingly (for how good it looks), Death Stranding doesn’t have performance issues on launch PS4s, and if I’m being honest, runs quite well considering. I rarely (if ever) experienced stutters or hitches, the only drawback is lengthy loading times. However once players have loaded into the world, traversal is seamless. The only graphical detail I can negatively take note of is; texture loading distance is noticeably drawn in, but I imagine this is a concession made to help alleviate the CPU weight and encourage smooth gameplay with little frame dips.
Death Stranding runs/plays well, and looks even better.
Characters & Story
Extensive characterization and world building is where Kojima excels, and it certainly shows in Death Stranding. Accompanied by phenomenal performances with; Norman Reedus, Tommie Earl Jenkins, Mads Mikkelsen, Léa Seydoux, Guillermo Del Toro, and Troy Baker (just to name a few) these characters truly come to life, projecting their motivations, ambitions, and desires. With a massive Sony-imbued budget, Death Stranding fleshes out most of its characters at great length, and Cliff’s past (Mads Mikkelsen) unfolds beautifully over the course of the game. Cliff honestly has one of the best backstories I’ve experienced through the games medium. Though as expansive as the budget may have been, I felt a longing to learn and know more about both Deadman and Heartman by the time the second credits rolled. However, I understand that the cash and time investment was substantial as is, and Kojima likely had to compromise in regards to Death Strandings scope and scale, but at least it still embraces that Kojima brand weirdness!
The people inhabiting Death Stranding’s world each have a story to tell and a role to play, nomatter how miniscule or expansive. I must note that; Death Stranding has some of the most compelling villains since God of War’s Baldur. Both Higgs and Cliff are outstanding, not only for their presence, but their complexity as well. Granted, I’d have enjoyed learning a bit more about Higgs, but that’s because he’s so damn intriguing in the first place. Kojima has written his characters in a way where, their motivations are compelled by their past – by their story, which inturn defines their actions.
A last note on the topic of characters, I found Mama to be quite an awkward fit. Avoiding spoilers – I found her far more interesting further in the game, but that’s not to say that it isn’t a good performance, it just didn’t quite land for me.
Inherently, the plot of Death Stranding is a resulted culmination of the interconnectedness of its characters. After all, the game is about connections. Everything comes down to an action or reaction by one of it’s chatacters, presenting players with a tightly knit story. It can get slightly convoluted if players really dig into the knitty-gritty details, but for the most part it’s a well written plot (with a few acceptions) that even manages to subvert player expectations a time or two.
Death Stranding has an enthralling tale to tell. For those propelled by a fantastic story, you’ll certainly find it here. Plot junkies will adore what Kojima has created, and it’s deeply fleshed out characters.
Content & Length
‘Worth’ of content and length of gameplay in Death Stranding will vary greatly from player to player. Some will stop to smell the roses, some will rush the story. I completed my playthrough clocked in at approximately 46 hours. However, my colleague Alex earned the Platinum trophy at 125 hours, woah. The game is replayable post-credits for all you completionists out there.
At the time of writing, no DLC or microtransactions are available. Dedicated multiplayer is not a playable mode in Death Stranding, but the engrained connectedness of players offers cooperative functions. Though maybe not direct multiplayer, we’ll discuss the details in the following section.
Controls & Gameplay
To be completely honest, Death Stranding felt eerily familiar to play. Not in plot or setting, but it’s control and feel. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it feels like Metal Gear Solid 5 at times. This is likely just due to stylistic and core design philosophies of Kojima. This isn’t necessarily a complaint, it just felt recognizable. Controller scheme is directly tied to the gameplay loop, so let’s tackle these together.
So what’s the gameplay really like? Is it a walking simulator? Well yes… but no. Not in the way the ‘walking simulator’ genre currently stands. Death Stranding plays more like an open world traversal/action-rpg, it’sa delicate balance of risk and reward. The goal is to take on missions, and deliver or acquire items, to or from specific locations. These packages can be damaged by smashing them, tripping/falling, getting attacked, or environmental effects, Sam must quickly and efficiently deliver said packages in good condition. But it’s not as basic as, simply walk from point A to point B.
Players must manage Sam’s items, where and how they’re transported, centre of balance, and weight limits – all prior to even heading out. On your journey Sam deals with Timefall (that degrades your containers), and varieties of terrains to travel, forcing the player to be actively aware of their surroundings, and consider the best approach to each situation. Be it crossing ravines, valleys, mountains or rivers, it’s never as easy as a simple stroll. Additionally players face MULEs and B.Ts, essentially NPCs who try to rob your goods, and supernatural beings obstructing your path and drag you to spooky-town. Oh and – death will cause whats referred to as a ‘voidout’, in other words a large crater that can’t be travelled through in future expeditions. Though players can work together, sharing tools and paths with an indirect yet highly unique multiplayer system. Where different players continually tread, paths will form. Where players create bridges, others can use. At first it seems basic, but the results of a system like this are immediate. I spent hours building roads, specifically because I knew it’d help both me and others. The subtly of this system encourages mutual cooperation, and thus perpetuates Death Stranding’s theme: connectedness.
One detail that perplexed me, was the lack of polish in stealth and combat mechanics. They work, sure, but from Hideo Kojima – the guy who almost single handedly (along with early Konami) invented the action-stealth genre with Metal Gear Solid – I expected a bit more. Again, they work as intended but would have definitely benefited from the same levels of refinement seen in his previous works.
Traversing the world of Death Stranding feels like a solving a daunting puzzle – one step at a time. Players won’t be able to enjoy this game if they care more about the destination, than the journey getting there. The game is in the adventure itself, and if players rushed through it looking for “the real game”, you just played it. Stop and smell the roses, you just might find something magnificent.
Sound Design & Cinematics
In comedy they say, “timing is everything”. I believe the same principle can be applied to achieve emotional draw, or create moments of immense ambience. The times when Sam is scrambling over a hilly mountainside to reveal a sprawling valley, just as the artfully chosen musical score kicks in, is nothing less than atmospherically beautiful. The composition of Death Stranding’s soundtrack is breathtaking. And I say that, not just because of the choice of music itself, but its’ use for dramatic effect and immersion. Everything about the sound work here is fantastic, from dark and bassy when a B.T drags you under, to the sombre and explosive tone of a warzone. All of the main actors give phenomenal performances with incredible deliveries, particularly Mads and Die Hardman. Even the smaller details, such as rustlings of Sam’s jacket, or the swirling Odradek scanner sound crisp and clear.
Cinematics in Death Stranding are quite abundant, and by god, they look truly extraordinary. For players who enjoy a cinematic experience in their games, this is mighty compelling. On the other hand, if you’re not one to appreciate choreographic cinematics, this game might just not be for you. Because they’re here in droves.
In a world of instant gratification, Death Stranding holds out. The sense of achievement, progression and reward is tactfully delayed, but so very worth it. As divisive as people may be about Death Stranding, it seems to me, pretty clear cut: It is a masterpiece. That’s not to say it is perfect, it definitely has room for improvement. BUT with the graphics, cinematics, sound and character design, performances, and plot all being amazing, what else can I say? The package delivery gameplay loop is oddly satisfying in a way that’s difficult to explain. Death Stranding is a cumulative experience – a sum of its parts. It can’t be judged after a single mission, or even an hour. It is highly original with entirely fresh stories and characters, even though it certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste, purely based on subjective opinions of what makes a game “fun”, Death Stranding is truly a sight to behold.
What did you think of Death Stranding? Let us know in the comments and stick around ABG for all things gaming. If you enjoyed this content, why not check out our The Outer Worlds Review on PlayStation 4.
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An Incredible Experience, Patience Required
- Score: - 9.4/109.4/10
+ Visually Amazing
+ Great Story and Characters
+ Fantastic Sound Design
– Kojima Weirdness Will Not Appeal to Everyone
– Unrefined But Usable Stealth Mechanics