Death Stranding Review – Charmingly Innocent
Platform: PC, PS4
Developer: Kojima Productions
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment Europe (PS4) / 505 Games (PC)
Release: PS4 (8th November 2019) / PC (2020)
Kojima is one of the most prominent game creators in the current landscape. Marketing himself and being marketed as a master of direction and the father of Metal Gear Solid, he gained a giant fanbase. This isn’t new information at all for many but it helps at grounding Death Stranding in a bigger context: It’s his first game in decades where he had complete creative freedom, probably the first title that offered him this degree of creativity and budget. So, what did Death Stranding turn out to be? A game so soaked in Kojima’s flaws, views and love that I can’t like nor hate it.
The world is barely holding together after being hit by the so-called Death Stranding, a catastrophe that killed nearly all life on earth. Only a few, including the scattered fragments of human civilization, are holding on, relying on so-called Porters to deliver goods and materials they need to survive. Sam Porter Bridges is one of them but his past soon hunts him down in the form of Bridges, an organization trying to reunite America and all the fragmented cities and rebuild humanity.
In theory, Death Stranding has a fascinating setting, full of possible stories and encounters to tell. Well-presented apocalyptic settings are rarer than they should be nowadays and the early trailers established Kojima’s latest title as a mysterious but ultimately fresh place full of things to uncover.
Unfortunately, all of this is quickly brougt down by a staggering amount of factors, however, in order to truly convey why I don’t dislike Death Stranding nor like it, I’m going to focus on two central aspects of the story: The writing and the integration into the game. For one, the dialogue is quite problematic as a whole as many conversations just consist of… characters talking to each other by anaylzing themselves. When I encountered Heartman for example, my interaction with him didn’t consist of a normal conversation but he simply told me what his history is, why he became who he is and why he acts like he does. Compared to the fact Sam and he just know each other since a few weeks (though that was never established since all character just get dropped into the narrative before even encountering Sam), it just looks so artificial. Nearly every single line of dialogue consists of this self characterization without any real context, simply because the plot has very few but very long cutscenes.
Kojima’s trademark were always the cinematic cutscenes but considering the length, but when you only have 3 of those per character and want to tell an entire arc, it often just doesn’t work as the progression between states is just too rushed to make sense. This is also caused by the lacking interaction between everyone in the gameplay. Cutscenes and characters seemingly exist outside it, taking away any posssible development throughout te 40 hours long hiking, making the cutscenes so scarce and short that I don’t actually see a better way to handle it. Nonetheless, the lack of design choices to support its huge character drama.
Either way, when Death Stranding isn’t badly written, it’s cringe-y, so cringe-y I kinda came to love it. Every character being designed and written around a single fucking pun, puns and cutscenes so childish and dumb that you can’t believe Sony spent millions on it and much more. It feels like the truest form of Kojima if you follow his Twitter account, the essence of this man who may be famous but still remained naive and childish throughout his life. I don’t like all of that from a narrative perspective but it tells a fascinating meta-narrative of a man and what he wanted to tell since years. Death Stranding is all about connecting, how connections are necessary to survive and essentially, what Hideo Kojima regards as a big problem in our current society. I don’t blame him.
The thing that sets this game apart from titles with a similar themee like parts of NieR:Automata or movies is this childish, naive writing. Believing a message can carry any actual emotional weight simply by having cliche characters recite cliche phrases may be ultimately a sign of bad writing but shows just how Hideo Kojima actually designs, writes and well, sees games when he isn’t caged by any company or franchise. It shows way more facettes of this man than any of his previous games and ultimately, story-wise, I enjoyed this kinda cringy, awkward and flat story for exactly that, at times.
Gameplay-wise, Death Stranding is a similar case, featuring a feeling similar to Metal Gear Solid 5 in how Sam controls, moves and even how combat feels. This being a game all about carrying cargo from one station to another through vast landscapes without many options to defend yourself though, the whole feel kinda falls apart here. The infamous center of Sam gets influenced even by moving the camera, making him lose balance and forcing you to hold the trigger buttons or his walking/climbing always feels kinda wrong etc. It’s not a game that feels fun to control, it does feel unique, which was the intention I guess. Still, is a unique idea mixed with a uniquely annoying movement worthwhile?
Not really in my opinion. So to compensate Death Stranding does two big things, the action sequences of various sorts and keeping a nice pacing:
In the two big open world segments are various MULE spots, basically human plunderers trying to steal your cargo, and BT areas invisible ghosts you have to avoid by moving slowly and holding your breath from time to time. Honestly, neither are really exciting. MULEs can’t counter the overpowered “running away” or “driving away” tactic I employed, which consists of, well, running or driving away from them. BTs on the other hand just need you to crouch and hold your breath when the game tells you to.
The pacing on the other hand initially showed a lot of promise. Given, the 6-9 hours first real open world chapter features a slow drag through the quite big land accompanied by backtracking and many other initially clunky systems. Still, the constant stream of new little things like bridges, bikes and alike actually kept the whole thing at least a bit interesting until chapter 3. Honestly, the first half of chapter 3 and every chapter in reality, is quite fun as each of them introduces just enough new ideas and things to play around with to keep things entertaining. After that, Death Stranding makes it all the more obvious that ultimately, it’s a game about running from point A to B and gets more and more monotone. Accompanied by bigger and bigger growing backtracking passages, nearly half of the gameplay sections feel like a drag, a boring drag. Maybe doing the side missions leads to unlocking cool new stuff too but the gameplay barely holds the 35 hours campaign together so why do more of it?
Presentation-wise, and probably the best but also last aspect of Death Stranding: It’s a wonderfully well directed game, offering cutscenes on par with movies, where many other games fail, while featuring a beautiful soundtrack full of soothingly great tracks, as expensive as it might have been with all these licensed tracks. While I’m not a big fan of the obviously “feel passages” where one of the licensed pieces is played while, well, walking through monotone terrain, they at least provide an excuse for those boring paths (though delivering a solution to a self-made problem isn’t great design). Looking at any part of Death Stranding, nonetheless, is almost breathtakingly beautiful, from a technical but also simply visual standpoint and at least it deserves the praise in that regard.
Death Stranding is one of the most unique AAA titles of the past years, boasting a gameplay and writing so inheretly Kojima that it’s probably worth it for everyone who wants to experience something that he truly created by himself. For better or worse. Otherwise, it’s an almost childishly naive take on its themes and metaphors, full of bad pacing and design decisions, yet this also makes it such a fascinating video game. Should you play it though? Most likely no?
[A Review Code was provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment Europe]