A man whose name rings synonymous with some of the greatest games of all time. The visionary responsible for creating the stealth action genre – has over the years – proven to be a well of innovation and thought experiments. A deconstructionalist by trade – his work’s run the gamut of challenging preconceived game design, using the abstract as gameplay tools, and marrying the theatric with the outrageous. A Hideo Kojima Game is not a release – but an event.
So it comes to no surprise that Death Stranding, the first original IP from the celebrated creator in decades, is met with high anticipation. The last three plus years have grown ripe with a half dozen or so cryptic trailers that have showcased a star studded Hollywood cast, atmosphere ripped straight out of an Edgar Allen Poe fever dream, and gargantuan production values. The greater gaming audience has been left with hype, questions, and confusion.
Well that changes today. It’s finally here. Remote Play presents our review for Death Stranding – a game which may be the most important release of the generation.
Mythos of Madness
The World of Death Stranding is a post apocalyptic dystopia where society has fractured and crumbled after what is called an “extinction event”. Under the duress of multiple threats including terrorism, cataclysm, the supernatural, and the anxiety of interaction – humanity has regressed to communities of seclusion, choosing to settle underground. This is the make up of what is referred to as the United Cities of America.
Furthermore, technology has advanced far enough to explain the phenomena after Death. The afterlife harbors invisible creatures known as Beached Things or BT for short. The BT are both a pivotal antagonist and a representation of lost souls.
You can imagine that communication between people in this world must be a bleak affair. This is where Porter’s come in. A Porter is a futuristic Delivery Man whose main job is to deliver packages or messages between these societies.
This leads us to the protagonist, Samuel Bridges (played by Norman Reedus). Samuel is a special being whose blood can somehow damage and hurt the BT. He works as a Porter – and has been tasked with the mission of reconnecting America. In order to complete this task he will need a BB – AKA Bridge Baby – an infant inside of a synthetic amniotic sac that have the ability to see the invisible BT.
One interesting Kojima quirk is the stunning art design. Characters will conveniently suffer from illnesses or have afflictions that predispose to visually arresting spectacle. For example, a phenomena from the Death Stranding predisposes humanity to an allergy that breaks them into tears. Die-Hard Man wears an almost Montulette inspired mask. And the beautiful, Leya Seydoux explains in the opening hours – that Maggots called Protobiotes are an edible nutrition to blunt the greater toxic environmental dangers. It’s beautiful, boisterous, and bizarre.
This is where I feel comfortable enough to stop talking about the plot. The narrative, mythos, and explanation of events in Death Stranding are chalk full of spoilers, allegories, and revelations that I feel would do players a disservice to talk or even hint about.
Gameplay Loops Galore
The gameplay of Death Stranding is based around three specific models.
The first is traversing the terrain and it’s hazards while performing deliveries. The game’s opening hours are deceptively difficult. Players will fiddle with a clunky, janky, underpowered character that makes massive treks up and down the game world– all while managing a multidude of gauges, stamina meters, and durability stats that effect Samuel, BB, and the cargo itself.
While making these trips, the trigger buttons are used to maintain stability whilst the analog stick controls acceleration. Players will have to be mindful of terrain because it constantly changes. Grass lands can suddenly turn into Rocky uneven Earth slowing you down considerably.
A Batman Vision-esque radar scanner is crucial to your success. Pressing the radar button highlights terrain – alerting players in color coded maps of untraversable areas versus safe passage. It can make or break a delivery.
If that wasn’t enough – hazards seem to lurk around every corner. Weather, under the influence of a pheonoma called “Time Fall”, can age anything it touches. This means the precious cargo Samuel is carrying (and Samuel himself) is suspect to damage from environmental rain and snow.
But it gets much easier! Those willing to endure learning the intricacies of traversal and making safe passage will be handsomely rewarded. Around the end of the first few hours- the game begins offering the player upgrades, stat boosts, and most importantly the ability to 3D Print much needed tools to recharge, resupply, or even make the journey to and fro much faster with a vehicle.
Suddenly what was once an inexplicably arduous task becomes second nature–oh and that Mountain that once felt like a digital heart ache – is now water under the bridge. Deliveries become faster, routes become second nature, and mechanical balance isn’t as foreign.
The second gameplay model is called the Social Strand System. Samuel travels from beacon to beacon, outpost to outpost, and community to community connecting humanity. Once you’ve activated a particular area – the player is now eligible to participate in an asynchrous co-op multiplayer session. Think of it as the Bloodborne messaging system meets MineCraft.
The Strand system allows players to help others by opting to leave tools, supply beacons, or even completed structures for another player to use. This is the crux and the innovative aspect of Death Stranding. Players have the ability to profoundly effect others whilst also terraforming passages with Bridges and Highways through shared player resources. The game also employs a social meta-game with Facebook style likes. The more useful you are to other players, the more likes you get, and in turn the ability to connect, collaborate, and upgrade further.
By the halfway point of the game, I became engrossed with the idea of building structures for the larger community benefit. In turn my efforts were rewarded when the community chose to help complete structures and highways that I once started. We never once met or spoke a word, but we were an invisible hand of guidance to one another. It was something I’ve never quite experienced.
The last gameplay model in Death Stranding is the familiar Metal Gear model you’ve come to play from prior Kojima games. However, make no mistake, this is no Metal Gear.
During your 30 plus hour journey you will be caught by a BT at some point during your deliveries. BT’s drag Sam into a bespoke parallel netherworld where the world fills with tar, aquatic rivers of black flood the area, and the combat finally starts.
BT’s engage in psuedo boss battles. Samuel fights them off with hemato-grenades and weapons (crafted from Samuel’s blood and bodily waste). These are almost always massive spectacles – and visual marvels to behold! The latter half of the game also has some absolutely magical boss battles that I’ll refrain from spoiling here.
So to answer the question: Yes! Death Stranding has Combat. However, combat is not the focus, the modus operandi, or the goal of the game. The game at it’s core almost always goes out of its way to suggest a pacifist approach. If you want to kill everything – this is not the game for you – and in this game world – you will be punished for it.
A Statement Piece in Fidelity
Graphically Death Stranding runs in a Checkerboard 4K using the world class DECIMA engine. Let me just come out and say this bluntly: Death Stranding is the most graphically impressive game today. Full stop.
Character models are intricately detailed with pores, sweat, and muscle animations that best even the greatest work from Naughty Dog. Vegetation ages and decays whilst swaying with character interaction. Environmental diversity is punctuated further with a desolate, arrid, alien world that evokes feelings of beauty, horror, and mystery.
Rocks, debris, water, grass, snow, and rain are all so lifelike – it feels like concept art come to life. It’s no shock either – Kojima Production’s very own – Yoji Shinkawa is one of the greatest art designer’s in gaming today. On more than one occasion – I had to just stop with a hypnotic sense of wonder. The world is a visual feast for the eyes – and places an emphasis on making the Earth, the hypernatural, and the bleakness of the world it’s signature.
However, this all couldn’t be possible without the resources of Playstation. During the end credits of the game, there are countless developers from Guerilla Games and Sony Interactive Entertainment that assisted on the title in a technical sense. This has the footprint of a PlayStation 1st Party game.
One final thing I’d like to mention is the soundtrack. The game’s soundtrack is absolutely incredible. On some of these long hikes – Samuel will be in complete and total silence – when suddenly “Asylum for the Feelings” – starts playing at the absolute perfect time. The mix of tracks on the OST are a broad and vast selection from Poppy upbeat tunes from Chvrches to the haunting Cliff’s theme. For anyone reading, the first time you hear BB’s song will send goosebumps down your spine. Truly breathtaking material by the talented Ludvig Forssell.
After 40 hours of mystery, bewilderment, excitement, and connection- I’m finally happy to see the end credits roll. Death Stranding didn’t just live up to the hype – it exceeded them. While AAA Publishers are in lock step retreading familiar ground – Death Stranding bucks the trend by turning it’s back on conventional wisdom. Kojima isn’t afraid to tell players to think outside the box. Death Stranding is the type of game that comes once a decade. The type of game that ushers in gameplay loops, trains of thought, and leaves the familiar behind. It is a defining game of the generation. Game awards come and go – but Death Stranding will be talked about for years to come.
Review code provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment.
Developer: Kojima Productions / Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Release date: 08/11/2019
Platforms: PlayStation 4
Version Reviewed: PlayStation 4 Pro
“Death Stranding is utter brilliance. Part cinema, part social commentary, and part madness-- it is a one of a kind masterpiece.”