Title: Death Stranding
Available for: PlayStation 4 / PC
Tested on: PS4
Developer: Kojima Productions
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Release Date: November 8th 2019 (PS4) / 2020 (PC)
One rule that I always stick to when writing video games reviews, is to refrain from referencing a score. It’s something extra, a complimentary term we use separately. However, Death Stranding is such a special case that I’m going to break my own rule and score my experience towards the end. Just a kind disclaimer; my score may seem low for such a well-advertised and anticipated title that was developed by Kojima and published by Sony, each one of them a gargantuan company in their respective fields. That is because Death Stranding is a game that goes against all modern norms and trends set in the gaming industry; something like the opposite pole of the Red Dead Redemption 2, a title that shifted the modern open-world gaming and added features that we hardcore gamers rarely see anymore. All things considered, my grade is generous and supports the argument that this is quite possibly the best gaming experience of the year.
As the trailer teased, we were expecting to see something different than the usual stuff. We just had no idea how different. Turns out, the title we’re reviewing today is not made for the plethora of mainstream gamers, but it has been developed rather similar to the Metal Gear Solid. Come to think about it, the latter title gave birth to an entirely new kind and the Dead Stranding is here to do exactly the same.
‘Death Stranding’ is an action-adventure game with a touch of science fiction - cosmic horror, no doubt. Starting the game we took the role of Sam Bridges (Norman Reedus) and we found ourselves in a future harsh version Earth that has barely made it through major destructions that altered its mechanisms. The population is cut down to a few scattered groups of people here and there, living behind walls and all the safety that technology can provide. Nature has become unrecognizable and unpredictable: rains destroy everything by speeding up the time for everything and every one the drops touch, gigantic ropes can be seen in the horizon keeping the sky strapped to the earth and weird dark creatures walk around in urban areas making death seem usual, to say the least. The rest of the setting is so surreal, to the extent that few - if any - other sci-fi video games have dared to go thus far. If you’ve seen the trailer showing babies closed in glass bubbles, you know what I’m talking about. In other words, Death Stranding is the outcome you’d get if you would put David Lynch, Clive Baker, Lindeloff’s ‘The Leftovers’, David Bowie, Nicolas Winding Refn, and Hideo Kojima on the same table.
Back to our protagonist, however, Sam some sort of courier. He transfers boxes on his back from one place to another. And despite all the advanced technology of that time, Sam goes from point A to point B on foot. Always on foot. In fact, the trailer showed so much walking that the game has been dubbed as the ‘walking simulator’. And transferring boxes from place to place, on foot, reminds you pretty much of what we call ‘fetch quests’, right? Well, actually no. Fetch quests are practically quests where your character has to carry an item with no other interactions or obstacles along the way. And that’s far from being the case in our world; thankfully.
While controlling Sam, you can choose to either fight or go on stealth mode. This gives you many options while facing different opponents and bosses. On the downside, both fighting and going under the nose of your foes can get boring after a few hours. That’s thanks to the simplistic concept under which the battles and the stealth options were designed.
Starting from one place and having to deliver across the map, our character walked through mountains, rocky beaches, deep rivers, cliffs, canyons. Every element required a different set of skills to make it through. The moving physics is amazing and they really add to creating interest and offering varying experiences between the different terrains. For instance, when we put too much load on our back the center of our weight changed every time, depending on how we stacked the packages. In addition, we were less able to keep our balance and had to pull the ropes of our backpack every time to change the weight distribution on Sam’s back. While running, we stumbled on a big rock and we were very surprised to see that Sam could easily fall down if we didn’t try hard to regain balance. I still remember one specific river where the depth changed every few meters in a very realistic way. The result was the most difficult walk I ever had to take in my life, both virtual and real! In short, the physics are so realistic that every movement must be made strategically.
Apart from feet, our character can also use various tools, such as stairs, climbing ropes and others that are unlocked gradually. Some of those tools require stamina that can be replaced by resting and some others just use batteries. The one thing that all activities require is time.
And this is where the multiplayer factor weighs in. Other players are not visible from the very beginning. This is more of a complete version of similar multiplayer titles such as ‘Journey’ or ‘Dark Souls’. We can leave all sorts of messages written on signs to other players so that they’re informed about a danger or maybe a useful tip. After all, one of the main points that ‘Death Stranding’ focuses on is human emotional connections. With that in mind, the game tries to take multiplayer a step further. You can put stairs near a mountain that is hard to climb or hang climbing ropes. As the game progresses you also start building more complicated constructions, like a bridge above a river, or a phone charger in the middle of nowhere, or even roads!
That having been said, ‘Death Stranding’ is a very lonely game. You can spend literally hours in real-time without seeing or hearing another player. Most interactions between players are made through messages, devices, and constructions that each player leaves for those who are going to go through the same spot later sometime. That can go on to the point where they are just boring due to the intense backtracking that they force upon you.
Yet, this world is beautiful and weirdly soothing. Jaw-dropping views and vivid surroundings made me understand the developers over there at Kojima have put lots and lots of thinking in the level design. Gameplay, dialogues, camera points of view; everything adds up to video games that could very easily turn into a movie; besides Hideo Kojima is known for blurring such lines.
Sam’s main concern in the game is to connect distant territories and lonely people in a broad network, building a new society that is based on the opposite things than those that brought the destructions mentioned above. The scenario is filled with symbolism about community, loneliness, human communication, life, and death. And - up to a certain extent - the title does a really good job of exploring all those concepts. The characters that we came across while playing were very inspiring and the actors that played them literally put a great deal of effort into the role. The cast with Mads Mikkelsen, Lea Seydoux, Margaret Qualley, Norman Reedus and many others that put in their soul, will give you many wonderful scenes filled with feelings.
Unfortunately, the backstories are a tad short and they fail to give us a deeper understanding of all the characters. In addition, some interactions start and end too soon to get emotionally attached. This makes some interactions and battles lose their potential, even though they were shot and directed astonishingly.
All in all, ‘Death Stranding’ is the game of the year. It may not be the most complete game in all aspects and it definitely has more than a few things here and there that just didn’t add up. But it’s still the most memorable game that will mark 2019. And that’s thanks to the emotional attachment that Kimoji helps you develop with Sam Bridges as well as the mountains, the rivers, the deep snow and the multiplayer community that after a while feels like family.
My grade for this game is 8 out of 10. It may not be a perfect 10 but it certainly was a huge achievement in the right direction. This is the first time that a title that is widely considered mainstream, has been designed with such an artistic approach. While playing ‘Death Stranding’ you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll feel the existential crisis weighing on your shoulders; all because this game is a celebration of human communication, love, life, and death!