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Death Stranding - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Message of overcoming adversity through unity and cooperation
  • Navigation is genuinely challenging
  • Core game loop of logistics and resource management
  • Tries to encourage non-violence
  • Permanent consequences for failure
  • Lonely, desolate scenery
  • Effective horror at times
  • Soundtrack

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Quickly degrades to busy-work
  • Way too long!
  • Climbing is clunky
  • Cumbersome UI
  • Excessive, unnecessary exposition
  • Incessant, immersion-breaking product placement

Overall Impression : C+
Novel ideas and a genuinely meaningful message
are bogged down by excessive busy-work

Death Stranding - cover

Developer:
Kojima Productions

Publisher:
Sony Interactive Entertainment

Platforms:
PlayStation 4 < (via retail disc or PSN digital download),
PC (via Steam)
(< indicates platform I played for review)

MSRP: $60 USD

Original release date:
8 November 2019

Genre:
post-apocalyptic backpacking / delivery simulator

ESRB Rating: M (for Mature 17+) for:
Blood, Intense Violence,
Partial Nudity, Strong Language

Player(s):
single player,
with asynchronous network features

Official site:
www.kojimaproductions.jp/en/death_stranding.html

I had no clue what to expect from Death Stranding. I probably would have bought it regardless because I usually enjoy Kojima's games. I was also curious if Death Stranding would be, in some way, representative of what the canceled Silent Hills might have been. Most of all, Kojima is a bold, and usually innovative creator, and I felt compelled to support his new studio -- if for nothing else than to give a middle finger to Konami.

After spending several dozen hours with it, I'm still not really sure what to think of Death Stranding. Much like with Final Fantasy XV, Death Stranding is loaded with novel ideas and messages that I find personally interesting or compelling. But just like Final Fantasy XV, those novel ideas take a back seat to time-wasting filler quests. Death Stranding can be hypnotically beautiful, zen-like, and maybe even emotionally moving, but it's also big, bloated, and convoluted, and it takes far too long to get where it's going.

At a very reductionist level, Death Stranding could be accurately characterized as "side quest: the game" or "Amazon courier: the game". But that characterization would be overlooking the nuance behind the game, and what it has to say about modern gaming and society in general. That makes it a very difficult game to review without giving one's self some time to let it soak in ... which is part of the reason why I've been mulling it over for more than a month now...

Rebuilding America, one Amazon delivery at a time

Carrying cargo is, in fact, the entire game! Our protagonist, Sam, is unwittingly tasked with delivering cargo across this post-apocalyptic America in an attempt to get in the good graces of the settlements dotting the land, and connect them all up to a vast information network to restore a semblance of civilization. On the way, you can literally build roads and bridges as you go -- rebuilding the American infrastructure little by little.

Online players will leave guideposts and infrastructure to help each other out.

This infrastructure is actually a clever implementation of the Demon's Souls / Dark Souls style of asynchronous multiplayer. In principle.

Instead of the ghostly visages of other player warning you of traps or ambushes or pitfalls, online players can build bridges, roads, vehicle charging stations, storage boxes, and other helpful infrastructure that will make your trek through the world legitimately easier. They aren't just cluing you in about what dangers to expect, or what course of action to take, the other players are actively helping you (and everyone else) without ever needing to set a digital foot in your game. Just like in FromSoft's Souls games, you can also leave little notes that take the form of emoticons, and which combine the function of the Souls player messages with avatar gestures.

When you first step out into the world, there's a sense of desolation and loneliness about the landscape. It reminds me a lot of Shadow of the Colossus, except our only company is a crying fetus instead of Aggro (who's such a good horsey!). The scenery itself is more evocative of Iceland, and doesn't look like any part of the United States that I've ever been. But then again, this is the same game designer who put a tropical rainforest in the middle of Soviet Russia, so... It's beautiful and serene, and figuring out how you're going to navigate the environment can be a legitimate zen-like puzzle.

Trekking through the map reminded me of the beautifully desolate environments of Shadow of the Colossus.

This game requires very precise and deliberate inputs from the player, and it can sometimes be very unforgiving of small mistakes. If you turn too quickly, Sam may lose his balance and fall over, possibly damaging or destroying the packages that you are carrying. Walk to quickly down a steep slope, and you'll risk loosing your footing and face-planting. You can hold one or both trigger buttons to try to stabilize yourself or catch your balance -- and there's no real reason to not hold both triggers the entire game, since balancing your load doesn't make Sam walk noticeably slower. And you'll have to manage Sam's stamina, the battery supply of vehicles or certain tools, and so forth. You might even find your hands cramping from holding down the triggers after a particularly long or strenuous journey over rough terrain, providing you with a small degree of physical discomfort to go along with Sam's physical exhaustion. And you'll be pushed along by occasional rainfall that will cumulatively damage your cargo and equipment.

Even though Sam will progressively get stronger and better able to keep himself balanced, and even though the game will gradually unlock new mechanics for making it easier to traverse the landscape, you can never get sloppy, and the game will punish you for impatience! It reminds me a lot of Dark Souls, except instead of getting killed by a hollow undead sword flurry because I thought I could sprint through a return trip through an early area of the game, I'm instead tripping over my own two feet because I tried to run down a mossy slope to get this delivery done faster.

Simply navigating the open world terrain without tripping and falling is a primary gameplay mechanic.

The terrain is important and relevant, and navigating it safely and efficiently is the game's core gameplay. You aren't simply holding the stick forward and walking a straight line to a point on the mini-map or radar, as you might do in, say, Skyrim or Far Cry. This is how you design an open world game! You make the traversal of the space into the operant challenge. Or, at the very least, make the space between landmarks -- and the act of traversing that space -- feel meaningful. I feel like game designers are really starting to vindicate all those blogs that I wrote years ago about the failings of open world design. The destinations aren't important in Death Stranding. It's the space in between (the open world itself) that is important.

And I was actually surprised by how well-designed many of the actual navigational challenges ended up being. The terrain looks so natural, that it's often hard to imagine that it possibly could be designed like a video game level, until you get there. If you come prepared, you'll find easy and readily-available spots for ladders and climbing anchors. If you didn't come prepared, then the way up will be longer, more roundabout, and more tedious.

You rarely interact directly with actual people,
only their holograms.

Heck, the destinations themselves are almost completely irrelevant. You never enter towns or bunkers, nor do you directly interact with their inhabitants. You only verify the package drop-off with a hologram of the person in charge. The only humans that you encounter in the flesh are the crazed, package-stealing Mules, and maybe the occasional NPC porter. The experience is very solitary and lonely and impersonal.

But then you connect a region to the network, and suddenly there's bridges and vehicle charging stations and literal highways all over the place. Not to mention a billion signs from other players warning of danger or cheering you on. That feeling of rugged, frontier-like isolation just completely dissolves in the blink of an eye.

This is, after all, the entire point of the game. We don't rebuild America through isolationism and conflict. We rebuild it through cooperation and community. We shouldn't turn away outsiders because they might be a threat. We should welcome them with open arms and give them a chance to contribute. And we shouldn't look at any task or goal as unachievable, because if we all chip in and do our part, we can solve seemingly insurmountable problems. In this sense, Death Stranding sits alongside Dark Souls as a masterful work of art about overcoming adversity through community and cooperation because players will experience actively participating in this community, reaping its rewards, and genuinely making the lives of other players a little easier. And if working together can allow us to transform this hellish post-apocalyptic wasteland into an efficient Amazon delivery machine, then what are the limits to what we can do if we all just work together?

In-dismissable criticisms

So why isn't this unifying message or the online cooperative element resonating with people in the way that Dark Souls and its online play did? Well, I could say that it's because the dumb masses can't understand a game that isn't about shooting things. But that would be as unfairly dismissive to the criticisms of the game, as the the negativity is to the nuance of the game.

Too much online infrastructure makes the game too easy and boring.

A big part of the problem, me thinks, is that perhaps the community and cooperation rebuilds America a bit too fast, but then the game still drags on for too long. The challenge of navigating the environment falls out quickly, since any obstacles are now bypassed by those ladders, bridges and highways that you and other players so altruistically built. And I was feeling that way before the zip-lines started showing up! At this point, completing deliveries becomes rote busy-work. And there is a a lot of busy work available for you to do! Shadow of the Colossus had a lot of walking from place to place, but that game only lasts about 8 hours (you can stretch it out to 12 if you really take your time and explore the map). So it never wears out its welcome. Death Stranding, however, is more like 40 hours of walking from place to place, then driving from place to place once the roads are built. Any semblance of navigational challenge or logistical problem-solving just fades away from sheer repetition.

Kojima wanted the online mechanics to empower the player and really make it feel like player cooperation and optimism is rebuilding a broken country from the ground up and making a difference. He succeeded at that, but in so doing, he left most players without much of a game left to play.

As a side note, I was also occasionally frustrated that I would sometimes load up on materials for finishing a bridge or road, only to get halfway there and find that another player has already finished it for me. Waste of time! I genuinely do feel that this game will probably be a lot better once its activity level dies down. At launch, there are just too many players playing, leaving junk scattered all over the map. I left one bridge and a series of ladders and ropes on a map in the beginning of the third chapter, and came back the next day to find that so many people had used and "liked" them, that I had gone up 30 levels in the Bridge Links stat and was suddenly a "Master Transporter" or whatever.

So many repetitive cutscenes!.

Time-wasters extend to the U.I., which is often unnecessarily cumbersome with loads of unnecessary cutscenes. I don't mind cutscenes for going in or out of the private room. That's probably masking a loading screen. But why does recycling gear or materials require going into a separate menu from all the other inventory management? Why do we have to watch the same repetitive cutscenes every time we turn in deliveries or recycle stuff? And why does trying to skip these repetitive cutscenes require multiple button presses?! Why can't I skip watching the BT sensor turning on and off? This sort of stuff can quickly wear down a player's patience and resolve.

A survival horror about package-delivery?

At this point, pretty much the only challenge that is left is the logistical challenge of properly planning out your delivery routes and making sure you have all the right gear. In this way, I'm actually reminded of yet another classic game that's on my all-time faves list: Resident Evil. Just like in that classic survival horror, you plan which equipment and weapons to take out with you on the next expedition, and you plan your routes in order to minimize conflict and distance traveled. This is especially true in the GameCube remake, which introduced the Crimson Head zombies and forced you to have to think carefully about what routes you take when you back-track. You also have to make sure to leave enough space in your inventory in case you find anything valuable that you want (or need) to pick up and take with you. But again, Resident Evil is only like a 6 hour game. Even the brilliance of Resident Evil's logistical planning and route-optimization would not hold up for 40 hours!

The emphasis on logistics reminds me a lot of classic Resident Evil.

See, in Resident Evil (and the REmake), you only have to backtrack a few times. At that point, the game is satisfied that you've mastered the fine art of planning out a safe route through the mansion, it lets you move on, and the game ends. Death Stranding, on the other hand, gives you an infinite supply of tasks that all require you to backtrack through well-traveled routes. Sticking to the story missions makes the game a lot leaner, but you probably won't be acquiring enough resources to actually build all those highways and bridges that let you skip past the parts of the map that you're already fluent in.

The survival horror vibes don't end there. Being a package delivery boy doesn't sound like it would be an effective setup for a horror game, but the world is one that is ripe for just such a horror emphasis. The threats and stakes are real. The ghostly BTs are mysterious and ominous, and their presence is always just uncertain enough to make every encounter with them tense. They are invisible to you unless you stand perfectly still, and you have to rely on a sensor that basically only gives you "hot and cold" feedback. It's actually a neat approach to stealth.

If you slip up and get caught, you'll be sent into a full panic mode, mashing buttons to desperately try to escape. Failure to escape won't restart you at a checkpoint. It will instead mean a "voidout". The entire region of the map in which you got killed will become a smoldering crater (surrounded by a force field that prevents you from simply travelling through it). Also, the cargo you're carrying and anything valuable in the vicinity will be damaged or destroyed, and you'll respawn having to live with the consequences of your failure for the rest of the game. The BTs usually show up at chokepoints between major landmarks, which means if you trigger a voidout, you'll be stuck having to find (or make) an alternate route between those two locations for the rest of the game.

Being caught and killed by the ghostly monsters will leave a permanent, smoldering crater.

More generally, within the lore of the game, these voidouts occur whenever a dead body is left for too long without being cremated. The game makes a big deal about how letting another person die is an unfathomable crime because of the threat it poses to the public good (so everybody receives proper health care and cremation services), and that killing someone (even in self-defense) is a suicidal risk. So the game encourages mandates non-violence.

OK, that's also a neat idea. Just like with Metal Gear Solid, Death Stranding wants to encourage the player to get through a situation with minimal conflict or violence. It wants you to be creative with how you approach a potentially violent situation, and to weigh your options very carefully before proceeding.

The problem with Death Stranding is that there are no lethal options available to you for much of the first half of the game. You aren't given the option to kill a Mule and risk that you'll get caught in a voidout before you (or the other Mules) can incinerate the body. Instead, you just have a bunch of relatively standard video game attacks and weapons that have all just been re-themed to be non-lethal. Instead of a handgun, you get a bola gun that ties enemies up and incapacitates them temporarily. It operates pretty much identically to the tranquilizer guns of the Metal Gear Solid games, except it's even more OP because every shot is a head shot. Instead of frag grenades, you get smoke grenades that temporarily blind enemies. Instead of sneaking up behind an enemy and bashing their head in, snapping their necks, or slitting their throats while they are unawares, you tie them up with an infinite rope. And you can always punch and kick to your heart's content. Heck, even running the Mules over with a truck does not seem to kill them!

Using lethal force may trigger a voidout (and possibly a Game Over) unless you incinerate the body.

When you are finally given lethal guns, the game waffles a bit with regard to the risk of a voidout. From what I've read on forums, you have to leave a dead body sit for 48 hours of actual play time. At that point, either a voidout occurs, or a Game Over occurs (if the voidout is in a critical area). But you just respawn at the last save point, and the dead body is automatically removed from the game. It's little more than a mild inconvenience, and so the pressure to play non-violently just isn't that strong. Further, I haven't found the non-violent play to be that difficult to begin with, which means I never have to fall back onto lethal strategies. Maybe playing on the harder difficulties would result in killing feeling more necessary?

Compare this to Metal Gear Solid V, in which the fact that you could capture enemy troops and convince them to work at your base provided you with a strong incentive to keep those troops alive so that you can recruit them. You didn't want to risk confronting a guard, having an alarm sound, and then being forced to kill another high-ranked prospective recruit in self-defense. Finding ways to non-lethally solve a problem in that game was both interesting and challenging because the lethal methods that were readily available were generally easier, less thoughtful to execute, and less likely to backfire and blow up in your face, but they were also far less rewarding.

The lack of lethal options makes the non-lethal play less interesting and challenging compared to MGS V.

Doing it for the likes

Death Stranding also swings wildly from pseudo-horror back to Kojima's trademark silliness, which is once again on full display. The backstory and narrative is overly-convoluted, and NPCs blather on for far too long in cutscenes about stuff that you already know, while still simultaneously somehow managing to not answer any of my most pressing questions. Time-travelling rain will prematurely "age" your cargo and equipment, gradually and cumulatively damaging it while it remains exposed to the rain. Like, this could just as easily have been acid rain, but NOOOOooo, this is a Hideo Kojima game, and acid rain would be too simple an explanation. So it's "timefall" instead. Which I guess is also the explanation for why the landscape looks more like Iceland or Greenland or Mars than anywhere in the United States. You carry a ghost-detecting psychic fetus around in a glass womb, because (again) simply having a machine that detects ghosts would be too simple. You can literally equip your penis and urinate on command, but if you hold it till you get back to base, you can convert your piss, shit, and dirty bathwater into weapons. I'm not kidding or exaggerating! That's all 100% true.

And it's a Kojima game, which means that there's also a healthy dose of backstabbing and conspiracies going on.

Despite the silliness (or perhaps because of it), the commentary in Death Stranding feels a lot more pointed than in the Metal Gear games. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that, instead of waxing philosophical about Cold War-era nuclear proliferation, more modern para-military industrial complexes, or proxy warfare (that very few people playing the game can personally relate to or fully understand), Death Stranding sets its metaphor crosshairs on elements of our society and culture that many of us engage with on a near-daily basis. The targets of Kojima's particular brand of auteur wit are Amazon, Twitter, internet culture in general, and (of course) the American political climate.

Is Death Stranding celebrating, or condemning Twitter and Amazon?

It wasn't enough that the game's plot be about rebuilding and re-uniting a fractured America by connecting communal urbanites and rural anarcho-libertarian preppers alike to the internet and spread the wealth of knowledge and truth. Nope, Kojima didn't want to rest until almost every element of the game's design has something to say about our modern society and popular trends.

This entire society seems to be nothing but cities built in the basements of Amazon warehouses and distribution centers. The bulk of the game consist of doing mundane busy-work with no promise of tangible reward other than "likes" from other players and NPCs (kind of like trying to start out as a novice YouTube content creator!). You don't make money or earn experience in the traditional sense (though you do level up various stats that improve your ability to deliver cargo). You don't even personally interact with vast majority of the NPCs you deal with. You only interact with holograms, keeping everybody at a safe, impersonal distance from yourself.

You are rewarded for your efforts with "likes".

Instead of monetary rewards, everything you do in the game is rewarded with "likes". These likes do serve to indirectly level up your reputation with any given settlement that you deliver cargo for, but the rewards are pretty banal. You don't trade likes in for new skills or upgrades or better weapons, as most of the important skills and equipment are doled out automatically as you complete key assignments. The likes are little more than a "high score" and trophy bait. Maxing out your reputation with a given settlement awards you a white star that you can stick on your pants as if you're back in kindergarten.

I started out my play-time with Death Stranding assuming that the vapidity of some of the game's reward structures was meant to act as an indictment of social media and our internet-enabled "on-demand" consumer culture. I mean, the device that connects Sam to the network is a literal set of handcuffs. How much more blunt could Kojima be? But I gradually came to realize that everything that you do in the game is constructive and the overall tone is surprisingly optimistic. You can only provide other players with aid. There are no PvP invasions like in Dark Souls. So the online interactions in Death Stranding completely eliminates the potentially toxic trolling behavior of so many gamers (even though trolls still find ways to get on other players' nerves by, say, wedging a truck into a narrow crevasse, then abandoning it so that it blocks other players).

Is social connectivity a blessing or a curse?

The demands of the various quest-givers require you to backpack great distances, over rough terrain to deliver packages, at great personal risk. Sometimes you even have to climb literal mountains, while avoiding deadly ghosts and hostile package thieves. Every time you turn in a delivery, two or three more are offered to you, meaning that you could get stuck in a spiral of hiking back and forth delivering small packages to the same few people for just a few more likes. Thankfully for you, the cargo you deliver is often necessary goods like food, water, medicine, and replacement parts for life-sustaining machinery, and your character is uniquely suited to transport this material across dangerous terrain that can't be traversed by just anybody. You give what is needed to those who need it, simply because you can. And in doing so, you find meaning and worth in your own life, while also making the whole world a better place. It's not like you're busting your ass (and wasting your time) to deliver Funko-Pop figurines to middle-aged nerds who are simply too lazy to drive down to Hot Topic or Gamestop to buy it themselves. Well, not usually, anyway...

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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