Death Stranding – Review

I wasn’t really sure if I wanted or needed to play this game after letting it sit for this long. The game originally came out almost a year ago on November 8, 2019 so it’s had some time to settle into the gaming landscape. I wasn’t looking for something to play and for some reason this came up in my pervew and I decided to finally take the leap; playing it on my standard PS4 (the pro’s are in shipment on the way to Japan).  I would have loved to play this game on my OLED tv with a PS4 Pro (or even on my computer) since the game really does have a nice HDR implementation, but I’m here in a hotel and the graphics are pretty stunning even on the standard console on a hotel room TV.

It’s a Fragile world out there.

Something even more fascinating to me, other than the story or gameplay of the game, is the development history. You need to understand what an achievement this is. Kojima left Konami in 2015, starting with him splitting from Konami and forming a studio in partnership with Sony. He started looking for a game engine in early 2016 and had a small story teaser trailer ready by E3 of that year. The game was then released in 2019. 

Kojima was able to start a whole new studio, find a space, kit it out, obtain a new game engine and come to terms with this new system of creation, write a story and do everything else involved with starting up development on a brand new IP. He (both him and the people involved in production) were able to get this new IP out in just over 3 years. Another thing is that the video clips they showed at E3 were running in the game engine, it looked almost exactly as it does as in the final game, I think the model of Norman Reedus is changed slightly, and that’s it. 

Building Bridges

I’m just floored by this. This is a true game developer in my mind. He is an auture in the truest sense. It is what a lot of other game developers around the world are lacking. Not having a talented lead at a studio is what delays games and causes situations like the mess that was Mass Effect Andromeda. What I’m talking about is a game directory with a vision. A person that knows exactly what they want in the final game. Someone to answer the questions of the team and makes hard decisions on a daily basis, providing a focused and concise message to their team. It allows for a brand new studio to make a game of this graphical quality, with this level of polish and vision in such a relatively short amount of time. 

I just need to talk about this aspect of game development and how it’s not talked about enough in the gaming industry and media. During the process of developing a new IP, especially since you can’t just cookie-cut the mechanics of a previous game and just finesse some stuff to make it feel new. Decisions are needed to be made constantly. What feels good, how should a weapon act and feel, does the movement work, is it balanced, does the design of characters and props work in the world being created, is it fun to play? Decision after decision, not putting them all off or trying something for a few months until it’s ultimately decided that it doesn’t work and then changing it and crunching to fix it. 

And Roads

Kojima is an auteur game director. I don’t think I can name that many auteurs in the game industry, I can name a few that think they are, but not in any real way of substance. If you know games and their history, you can definitely play this game and know it was a Kojima game. You know it from the way the camera moves in a cutscene, the way items are displayed in the game world, the quirky silly moments in the game, the sexualized and fan service way some women are displayed, and the insane story. Kojima and the fallout from Konami, which it turns out, is a refreshing move for him and the people he brought with him from his prior studio. 

The Game

I didn’t know what to expect when I started up the game. I’ve seen all the trailers and saw some reviews and heard podcasts back when it was released, but I kind of dumped most of that out of my head in the past year. I wasn’t sure if I was really going to play this game because I heard of how long it is and wasn’t sure if it was worth the time investment. While my playthrough of the game didn’t take as long as most reviewers and commentators that I remember hearing, I didn’t think the game was too long. What I came to find out was that this game was a highly enjoyable and beautiful gaming experience that I’m sincerely glad I got to experience. 

Build out an infrastructure for the new world.

The game focuses on a small group of individuals, all of which seem to be modeled off of actors, which I tend to not like in video games as a medium. I don’t feel it’s needed to pay actors ridiculous amounts of money like in movies to help with video games or to promote them. The money in development shouldn’t go to actors or voice actors, or I should say that it shouldn’t go to them in a disproportionate way. The game developers are working extremely long hours for months and years bringing this title to life, they should be the ones getting the extra money that might go to a ‘celebrity’. While I typically don’t like actors in a game, this one works for some reason. I hope they didn’t get paid millions of dollars for their roles though. 

One aspect that I found really weird about using Norman Reedus for the main character was that I feel like the actor wasn’t really utilized that well. Playing through the game I noticed that he would turn into a silent protagonist for long stretches. I think they didn’t have that much access to him or something. You’d do delivery missions and turn in your deliver, the person on the other end would ask your character a question and then answer it themselves without Sam Bridges (Norman Reedus) actually saying a word. 

Story

The story in Death Stranding revolves around Sam Bridges being tasked with connecting the cities of the United States together, bringing them into the fold of the Chiral network. You set off on your journey, delivering items to each city and station that you find. Preventing this from happening is the weather, rain and snow that will age anything it touches, along with mysterious creatures called BT’s and groups of scavengers that want to steal your cargo from you. 

Hell of a collection there pal.

On top of that, you have an insane mix of people with the strangest names, from Die Hardman to Deadman. You’re quickly presented with strange ideas and concepts that start to piece together this world, one that when you die you create a void out (nuclear explosion basically) that sends your character to a sort of purgatory called the beach. It’s fucking strange and complicated and way more interesting and compelling that almost any other game you’re going to play this year. 

I don’t want to spoil anything about the story in this game, mostly because it’s a major driving factor in pulling you through the game. You want to know what is going to happen and how everything is going to connect in the end, or if it will actually connect and make sense. What I can say is that it was wrapped up nicely for me, I felt like it could have easily gone in a direction where most things were left up to interpretation. While I can sometimes get into a more obtuse story, it’s just nice to get a concise narrative that feels finished at the end. 

Gameplay

So yea, it took me about 37 hours to wrap everything up in the game and get back into the world to finish up any deliveries and trophies that you want to, which I didn’t. Some of that might have been a little bit of idle time, but I’d say it took me a good 35 to roll credits. I’m sure it would have taken about double that time to get a platinum, and I feel okay with not doing it. Although it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. There’s a sort of meditative quality with playing the game and doing deliveries that makes those aspects of the game enjoyable.

Load up that cargo, even humans.

The majority of my time in the game was spent traveling the world and making deliveries. Adjusting what I was carrying and trekking through the land to get to my next destination. I don’t feel like it was a hard experience, it actually sounds like it would be boring, but you kind of just get into this groove with the game. You get into a bit of a zen state and just focus on the landscape and plan your route. A nice thing the game does is that as you forge your way across the landscape, the next time you double back on your route it will have started to turn into an actual path, a visible path will start to appear and rocks will start to disappear. It’s as if multiple porters have utilized this path and made it simpler to move through. It just feels good to have made a path that makes subsequent trips way easier, if feels like you’ve impacted the world in the most basic way. 

That process goes into the online nature of the game. Oh yea, this game is online and a large aspect of the gameplay is making ‘strands’ with other players. The strands will show up in paths, charging stations, roads, and other helpful ways in your game world. This is actually a really cool and interesting feature that feels wholly unique to this game. The first time I turned the corner and saw that I had a road in my world, it was game changing. The road cut through a large swath of the landscape and made travel for the next few hours of my journey incredibly more easy. Other players put up charging stations along the path and time fall shelters. You’ll go on a long journey, hook up an area to the Chiral network and then be able to see other users items in your game world. It just makes this sense of connection to this world, you’ll take a path and find that right about when your motorcycles battery is about to run out is a charging station with thousands of likes. You see that you’re not alone in this journey and that all these people around the world have gone on this journey and were in the same predicament that you found yourself in. 

Create your own glorious basic paths.

Boss battles and enemy encounters are few and far between, mostly happening in the last portion of the game. They are okay, not really hard or anything. Minor Spoiler: You have a boss fight and the person you’re fighting mentions that it’s time for a boss battle, it even morphs into a fighting game motif for a while. It’s pretty hilarious and wall breaking, but it is a Kojima game so what can you expect? 

The action of traversal is the main thrust of the gameplay and it works well at conveying the sense of travel. You have to balance out the cargo you’re carrying, ensuring that you won’t topple over and damage anything, load up vehicles and steady yourself on a tricky climb. You become a porter by the end of the game and feel like you can accomplish any delivery with relative ease. It feels like a focused experience and that works well for the game as a whole. 

Graphics

Having played this game on a base PS4 on a hotel room TV (a Samsung that’s not too bad), I gotta say that this game is stunning. It actually made me recognize the power of the older, standard PS4, and how well it holds up over all these years. While we’re at it, let’s just admire how well hotel room TV’s are getting these days. Over the past few weeks I’ve spent a lot of time in different hotel rooms as I traveled and noticed a remarkable upgrade in quality, mostly due to quality going up and price dropping into the basement.

The game focuses around two main elements graphically, the people and the world. The people in the game are all rendered at an incredibly high amount of detail. The faces and animations are all well done, with the eyes drawing my attention the most. Especially compared to another game I played recently, Jedi Fallen Order. The characters and their designs in Death Stranding are all fantastic.

Oops

The design elements that were prevalent in the original Metal Gear Solid are still prevalent in this game decades later. That speaks more to the art style and presentation qualities that Kojima prefers in his games. It’s a subtle style choice that makes it feel like one of his games. The mechanical and structural elements of the world represent a design choice that is uniquely Kojima. It’s a joy to see and makes me think of Japanese otaku culture that Otacon taught me so long ago.

The characters are a defining aspect of the graphical presentation in the game and they do step above the majority of games available today. Faces and eyes are rendered to a quality that help draw in the gamer and doesn’t take them out of the experience or make them feel like you’re playing a game with characters rendered in a game engine. You can see just by looking at the images that the characters and graphical presentation in the game are all AAA quality.

Overall

Overall, I must say that I enjoyed this game more than I ever thought I would since finding out what it was really about. I didn’t think it would be that fun to play and that it was going to be this long 60+ hour slog through this world. It’s not that at all, I was constantly wanting to know what happened next in the story. I do feel like the story gets way to overloaded in the back-end. Some of that should have been spread out through the midsection of the game to make it more balanced, but that’s okay. One of the worst and most annoying parts of the story (it has to do with BB flashbacks), really started to feel dull until the full reveal towards the end of the game. It turned out to be a really emotional and effective story reveal that will stick with me for some time. 

Final Score – 9.4

A really great, wonderful gaming experience with an insane story that is more creative that almost anything else being produced in the gaming industry. I love the concepts and ideas used in the story, from crazy scientific principles to exploding corpses and end of the world events. You fall into this insane world and quickly start to be engrossed by it, aspects start to feel strange and you don’t even know how they relate to the gameplay. It breaks the typical gameplay archetypes and instead reinvents its own path, asking you to take a journey and experience an original story.

It has been a few weeks since I initially wrote this post and I have something I’d like to add. Out of all the games I’ve recently played, this is one of the games that I still think about and my love for it has probably grown through that time. It was just an unexpected experience that I didn’t even think I’d really get into, but I ended up falling into it pretty hard. I’m still not sure if I really even need to go back to get trophies, perhaps the grind would ruin what I had with it. It’s definitely a must play if you have the time.

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