A non-Kojima fan check out the video game auteur’s latest. Here’s our review of one of the strangest games of 2019, as Death Stranding hits PC.
Hey everyone, I want to start with something a little different this time. I want to say that I am not a Kojima fan, by which I mean I don’t follow his works frequently. So I will be writing this review from the stance of an outsider, just to pre-emptively put down the “That’s just a Kojima game!” defence against criticism. I also want to say this: only buy Death Stranding if you have a good suspension of disbelief and a high tolerance for cutscenes.
The game has tons of very long cutscenes, some interesting story moments and gameplay reminiscent of a walking simulator mixed with an open world survival game. It’s definitely something you won’t see very often, but it has a lot of things that would dissuade me from buying it for the most part.
Anyway, onto the good stuff!
The story of the apocalypse
Death Stranding is a game with a good concept. You are Sam Porter Bridges, a delivery man making crucial trips to underground bunkers in the post-apocalypse, brought upon by the titular Death Stranding. After a spooky encounter with some ghosts and a disturbing scene where you sort of eat a ghost baby and die, you return to life as a respirate.
The world of DS is quite interesting. It’s stocked with the MULEs who started off as Porters but became addicted to it, and BTs that act as the main antagonists. BTs are the aforementioned ghosts, and the theme of the game appears to be the importance of human connection. It is a good message, especially relevant to this day and age.
Where the story falls flat however is the actual character interaction. It feels like I talk about this in every review I write, but character interaction is the make or break of any story. Your concept can be fantastic, your cinematography can be exceptional and your world mind-blowing, it won’t matter if you can’t make your characters appealing.
The dialogue in this game feels clunky. Sam himself is a cliché, all the exposition is given to you three times over with slightly different wording and there is a strong love here for sci-fi buzz words. Everything is chyral network this and people going necro that, which can be the breaking point sometimes.
The only interactions any characters seem to have is setting you up for a mission, licking your boots for existing, whining about how bad everything is or explaining how something works for the fifth time. One particular instance comes to mind where someone explained how good it would be for me to craft something about five seconds after telling me to craft it.
Exposition is important, but you can’t explain every single thing to me through dialogue. You must let your audience figure somethings out themselves, either from experiencing it or showing them. It is deathly boring to receive an hour of information from a character lacking charm, only to be shipped off to meet the next cutscene.
The unique selling point this time around is that DS is essentially a walking simulator with carry weight management. The more you play of it, however, the more Death Stranding’s gimmick becomes its greatest downfall. I understood why this was the direction they went, it gives each container you deliver a spectacular sense of weight, but it simply does not make for an entertaining time.
If you want your dreary, oppressive world to have an arduous traveling mechanic to reinforce the feeling of the scenery, that’s fine and maybe even brilliant. However, you must understand that running around is what make up for 90% of gameplay in most games. It may heighten the impact of the world, but it makes getting to every encounter and story section a chore.
While we are harping on the movement, I’d like to take a moment to talk about the keyboard controls. I endeavoured to play with just the keyboard and mouse, this is a PC port after all, and it works fine mostly. There are too many button presses to do basic activities like sorting through your item wheel. Driving is also bad, so if you called that then pat yourself on the back!
The combat in Death Stranding is either with the ghosts or with MULEs, rival delivery men that REALLY like their job. Combat is handled by hitting the MULEs with the V button and running away from the ghosts. The ghost encounters are such a chore that, to be honest, I ended up trying to avoid them. I also tried to avoid doing anything except the main story, because contextual button presses into 10-minute conversations with dullards isn’t my idea of fun.
There is a lot that I can’t fault the game on though. Yes, piss grenades and blood bombs are stupid, but they work well in the game and I enjoyed all the small features. Being able to plot your own course, within reason; soothing your spirit baby so it will stop freaking out long enough to show you where ghosts are; even the building mechanics are simple and useful.
This is a game that has a lot of stupid in it, but balances that by not punishing you too harshly for making mistakes. My favourite parts were just walking around anywhere that wasn’t a mountain. When the balance mechanic isn’t screwing you over, it keeps you active enough to get the same feel as games like Elite Dangerous. Death Stranding isn’t perfect, or even very good, but it is functional.
Sound design is amazing! This will probably be the shortest section because I just like it so much. Everything is done to put you in the right mood, from the terror of the noise the ghost detector makes to the serene tranquillity of the countryside. Even the music felt tailor-made to put you in exactly the right headspace for this.
The only problem I had was the incessant whining of the support characters. I didn’t exactly give the most glowing picture of the gameplay above but trust me. If you didn’t get phoned every 5 fucking seconds by your R&D department then I would have been soooo much more forgiving.
All of that wonderful work you put into the music and ambient sounds is ruined by the sci-fi screeching of your radio, filling me with dread as yet another concept I already grasped is explained to me. This is a game that will tutorialise menus 5 times, have 3 support characters email you about it, and write a book in the notes section; but will never explain the mailboxes properly.
Now, for the best part. The saving grace! This game is utterly gorgeous. My PC is no thrilling powerhouse, but even with the graphics on low it was stunning. The desolate countryside and colour pallet blend so well together, crafting that all so important tone. The technology looks good, the character models are beautifully detailed and even Sargent Skeletor’s mask is fun to look at.
It’s just a shame about the menus. A while back, game developers figured out that you can clean up your UI a lot just by hiding a bunch of information in 3 different menus. They don’t look bad, per say, but it just sucks to go from staring at this beautiful countryside to looking at a mess of information on Sam’s Fitbit.
I will say that the compass system looks good and works well. It removes the mini map, gives an easily digestible amount of important info and makes you feel like a real explorer. As I said earlier, my PC is a bit of a clunker now, so that may have been the reason why I experienced some lag. The beautifully shot movies they force you to watch get extra poignant when everyone lags a few seconds behind their spoken lines.
If I could recommend this game for one thing and one thing alone, it would be the visuals. The above may be an optimisation problem or simply my PC not quite meeting the specs, but even on the lowest setting this game is jaw dropping. All the designs work. They fit the aesthetic and lend to the environmental story telling. I only wish they had tried to use this more than the scripted cutscenes and encounters.
Death Stranding was a game that was hard to come back to every time I booted it up. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed myself, but I certainly didn’t hate it. The game does just enough right to make up for a lot of its flaws. However, I wouldn’t play it again unless a very specific urge grabs me. I can see why someone would love it though.
I can heartily recommend this to anyone who thinks walking sims need more action, anyone that is a fan of good graphics and desolate worlds, or anyone that can stomach Kojima’s dialogue. As for me, I can’t tell you to buy this. The concept was good, certain parts were executed well, but the ones that weren’t are just too important to overlook.
Release date: July 14th (PC | Steam and Epic Games Store)
Platform(s): PC (reviewed), PS4
Publisher: 505 Games
Developer: Kojima Productions
MSRP: $59.99 USD