Death Stranding Review : The Good and Bad

Written by Shaan Khan (25/12/19)

Death Stranding, a game that invites you into a weird and wonderful world packed with character like no other, It’s hard to find anything that resembles the culture and design choices of the game. It’s ingeniously quirky, it latches onto your curiosity and tries hard not to let go throughout this immensely long campaign of a 45 hour-storyline. But, does it achieve this? Will the depths of the death stranding lore be as memorable and revisit-able like the other greats in gaming such as the Fallout and Elder Scrolls series?

But first, let me preface by saying, I’m the guy that meticulously angles an analogue stick of a controller to simulate a character’s walking motion or a vehicles sensible driving pace within video games, especially ones with RPG influence and in-depth storylines that viscerally port you into an existence different from your own.

I adore roleplaying, and my enjoyment is not constraint by a need for sensory overload or stimulation, but rather is compensated by a vivid imagination complimented with a cool, calm and collected temperament. The sensations I might receive from elements of the game might be estranged to others, making this game highly perplexing as I believe it’s purely designed for ‘my’ type of gamer, despite its intriguingly elusive concepts which captivate a mass audience.

Well, where to begin? You’re not a god of war, neither are you some cybernetic assassin. There are no dragon killing plotlines, Grand Theft Auto car chases or Uncharted style traversal. You are Sam Porter Bridges, a stoic, little-to-say, character that feels as if he is trapped in an intrepid world of torment with all these melodramatic side characters that he disdains—which does, however, make for some amusingly awkward dialogue.

You find yourself being more than just a porter that delivers packages but rather, a planner, surveyor, administrator, trader and so forth—a one-man army set to ergonomically reshape a post-apocalyptic America.

Story, Gameplay, Art & Sound

Now, due to the nature of your mission, you’re mostly fed with a treason of pedantic and overly excessive fetch quests with little to no action in between, making it a rather sub-par experience when pitted up against the more robust quests of RPG’s like The Witcher series. Therefore, it’s hard to find yourself getting ‘lost in the experience’ of questing, but more so, it presents itself as ‘a tantalising obstacle you are adamant on getting through’.

It doesn’t feel like something you would want to return to or 100% complete, the stories of the side-quests are un-appeasing and feel cheap, and eventually the same old format of a holographic quest-giver with copy-pasted expressions and rushed plot concepts, all-in-all becomes tiresome. It’s especially disappointing once predisposed to the masterful storytelling and cutscenes of the main plotline.

The traversal system of Death Stranding is typically cladded as a ‘Walking Simulator’ by many, but in retrospect, the mechanics in conjunction with the terrain, make it more plausible as a ‘Hiking Simulator ’ more than anything. In being so, you share the many gratifications of hikers; a challenging sprawl or at times, a relaxingly introspective experience as you work towards an ending.

Therefore, in my own experience, it was two-folds. For one, being met with swarms of uneven terrains and disastrous weather conditions throughout a journey had riddled me with clench-worthy moments and stress, on top of that, the added element of MULE’s and BT’s exacerbates the feelings and even create an unnerving horror experience on the hikes. Yet, once you overcome the obstacles you are met with breaks of fresh air where although the journey is long, you are met with some impeccable vistas as you reflect on the gruelling progression you have put-forth towards your road to success.

Eventually, as I came accustomed to constructing reliable routes, resource-lines and conditioning my character with the various technologies and materials which are at your disposal—my trips began to feel…therapeutic. You develop a sense of ‘gained expertise’, you feel well equipped to deliver packages throughout the many excavated routes that you’d traversed.

The most satisfying moment the game offers is the implementation of songs that play in the background at certain moments in the game that gives you goosebumps. It’s the quintessential hallmark of what the game has to offer; a man on the move, with the weight of America on his shoulders as you persevere through treacherous landscapes.

Whether you’re heading up sharp ridges that are ravaged by storms or as you descend mountain slopes to be greeted by rocky, barren plains—a tailored song might accompany you that truly invigorates the sensation of actually being there on this epic adventure— with this cute, possibly out of place, fetus strapped to your chest. 

The music in its nature and the feelings it tries to evoke in relation to the gameplay and environment, I feel it’s comparable to the style of soundtrack and its usage from the Life is Strange series.

Lore & Culture

Speaking of the fetus, known as ‘bb’ or ‘Lou’, it’s passed off as a mere tool, a fetus with the adorable characteristics of a newly born baby that is teasingly enclosed in some form of Kojima-esque imaginary contraption. The concept in of itself is whats sets it apart from any other game. Quirky ideas like this and the timefall, cryptobiotes, chiral detector, suit designs, package-carrying system and so forth—gain this world a great sense of depth to its character as the creative fantasies excite you and become memorable purely based on these notions.

For me, it shared a similar spark of appeal I have with the Star Wars universe, in which the worlds and it’s concepts are just as appealing as the stories that come from them. I don’t find myself wanting to further explore the world in comparison to the model example of Star Wars, but for what it was worth, it left me entangled with the culture as I was constantly intrigued and excitable to enter and explore such an unusual world from what I’m used to.

Character Development & Relationships

The unique characterisation of the game also allowed for truly ‘out-of-the-box’ relationship building and engagements that iconically stick with you. Although, it can be completely hit or miss, whereas for some it might feel uncomfortable and out of place. For me, it’s oddity was amusing, I looked forward to the next moment of mental gymnastics put forth by the creative team that envelop the direction of these completely estranged scenarios between Sam, Fragile and Deadman.

Great examples of this are the loops and ridiculous reasonings presented all for the sakes of creating a shower scene with Sam and Deadman—c’mon, just why? Or the elaborate backstory of ‘Fragile’ and how her actions, story and dialogue are ironically linked to her not being ‘that fragile’.

The most endearing relationship that blossomed from the long progression arc of the story was between Sam and BB. Adorable moments and glimpses into BB’s backstory slowly revealed the similarities between the two characters and the ability to empathise and confide with BB grew with Sam, who typically seemed to be quite an apathetic individual. Once the bond was solidified, the game begins to throw hurdles at every corner; twists of torment, dangers and sad ships that play at your heartstrings and further reinforced the connection between the two.

It was a wholesome bond that grew from there interactions of this dauntless adventure, presented in both the cutscenes and gameplay. It was all, so aspiring when you had those cosy moments of exploration with the passive thought of you not being truly alone and that your companion BB was there at your side throughout this monolithic journey—made better with the fact that you can interact with BB by cradling it in your arms and speaking to it.

Locker Room

Playing into my captivation with the creative world of Death Stranding and it’s many quirks, the concept and design team deliver on this common appeal by implementing one of my most cherished features within video games—a ‘cultural hub’ or ‘collection of cultural amenities and memorabilia’ which was that of the ‘Locker Room’ in Death Stranding. It’s a space that video games deploy to exit you out of the grind so that you can mentally recuperate, manage your inventory and abilities or socialise with side characters and online players.

These areas are typically embellished with forms of amusing entertainment to bring you joy after a daunting run in a looter shooter like Destiny or a break from being chased by monsters like in The Evil Within or Resident Evil 7. In the case of Death Stranding to where the delivering of packages with unappealing stories, might be seen to be just as horrifying as the latter games, I then felt the implementation of a cultural hub was a perfect match for the game. In my opinion, it was implemented better than most games I’ve ever come across; on-par with the protagonist apartments in Sleeping Dogs and GTA series.

It felt as though the ‘Locker Room’ was a shrine of appreciation for the world and your progression within it; collector items begin to sprout up throughout the space once you reached certain milestones in the game or discovered something interesting within the universe.

On top of this sense of accomplishment the area gives as being a form of ‘trophy room’, it also presents to you a great feeling of personability. It throws at you creative elements that most games will dismiss or gloss over as they bring up a traditionally ‘squared-off’ approach to their game design. Kojima always strives to take the opposite direction; in this case, it made the central protagonist feel more ‘real’ and ‘human-like’ compared to what other games have done. 

You can direct Sam to look and interact with areas and objects within the space, yet you never feel like you have ultimate control over him, but instead, it’s sort of like he’s listening to our commands and making the decision to comply or not—playing into the rebellious and independent nature of Sam. But oh no, the developers don’t stop there. You want to have this perception of Sam being more than just a generic ‘playable character’? Well, fear not, you can bathe, take a number 1 & 2, make silly faces in the mirror to receive a ‘like’ from BB or enjoy a beverage from the stack of ‘Monster Energy Drinks’ at your disposal.

The icing on the cake is the ‘breaking of the 4th wall’ as Sam might occasionally stare, give a gesture or attempt to interact with you directly as he’s fully aware of your presence. Albeit strange, it manifested a presence to where you and Sam are partners; gaining Sam a sense of respect from me as an individual entity and not just a puppet under my control.

Database

Another point I can commend the development team on is their attention to detail in delivering literature and a virtual rendition of an email system that are both present within the ‘database’ section of the game. It indeed was an answer to the countless number of cries and questions raised about the origins of the universe and its current state of affairs.

This was especially notable within the ‘interview’ segment, an extensive list of accounts from individuals who’re of various professions and backgrounds, past and present, that included details on the history, technology, backstory and politics of Death Stranding. With the many detailed explanations provided, it stood itself apart from games that simply pull from tropes, common conventions and pop-culture references to bait the consumers.

With Death Stranding, prepare to indulge in the polished lore of the game, built from the ground up that deviates from the norm. You become further enticed with this ‘special’ intrigue, to where you feel your apart of something fresh and exciting with all of this expansive and creative information at your leisure—that makes for a satisfying read as you take a break from delivering boxes.

The emails to hold a purpose in giving life and a sense of sociability in this decrepit state of post-apocalyptic America. It tries to compensate for the lack of personality and story of the characters presented in the quests. Email’s from characters are on-going, they supply you updates upon their livelihood and experience that are typically shaped around the interventions you granted them—they even might present you with a clue to unfold a hidden Easter egg.

It’s humbling to know that your efforts are making an everlasting change to the lives of these characters. They present you meaningful and personalised messages that differ from one another—something that I felt was lacking in the one-note, regurgitated ‘quest giver’ dialogue from the holographic cutscenes.

The Ultimate Flaw

Leading me to my ultimate gripe with Death Stranding that makes you question the sophistication of this Kojima game—the lack of continuity and harmony between various elements of the game. As you see, the game deploys excellent crafts-ship of cinematic cutscenes at the start that seeps you into a plethora of concepts about the game’s world, leaving you curious about uncovering the mysteries to reveal the answers.

You applaud the creative thought-process of the developers pulling from real-life history and mythos and designing the story and its concept in light of them with its imaginative twists. An example of this is that words used like ‘beach’, ‘bridge’, ‘chiral’ and ‘stranding’ all symbolise real-life meanings and occurrences and play a creative role in the game without many players knowledge unless they read up on the literature within the database.

However, throughout the game, it felt there was disconnection within the narrative to continue their efforts of incorporating hidden messages, symbolism and ‘on-the-edge-of-your-seats’ storytelling. It did a great disservice by handing us hours of cheap dialogue and cutscene that is more focused on making you do a ‘fetch quest’ without any compelling or thought-provoking story to do so.

I felt this game would’ve benefited drastically if it took the ‘Red Dead Redemption 2’ approach to where the game introduced you to interesting characters along your journey. The reason being is their backgrounds were well-written, and their requests were compelling by consistently deploying a variety of cutscenes that capture the realism and emotions of the characters unlike with the same old dialogue and cutscene format used for nearly every-single character within Death Stranding.

I feel the ‘database’ tries to make good in this regards, but it leads me with a bad taste in my mouth as I sensed that the development of the characters, stories and the worlds were all constructed as an after-thought and that they had these wild ideas at the beginning of development but didn’t continue their growth and left a large portion of the game feel alienated from what we were initially introduced to.

With this loss in focus, which may be accounted to the games budget, poor team management and deadline limitation—the database takes away from the opportunity to incorporate these creative elements within the gameplay and the cutscenes. If not, they shouldn’t have bombarded us with these fresh ideas to leave them unexplored within the game. They could’ve drastically reduced the story-length without sacrificing the unique experience of accomplishment that comes from the artistically monotonous gameplay.

The Feeling of Completion                         

All in all, if Death Stranding was Sam Porter Bridges on one of his many delivery missions, then I’d say he started strong, stumbled along the way but at the end of it all—he delivered a one of a kind package that was destined to reshape the lives of every American. This is the sensation I and many others who played the game to the very end felt with the final story arc—a satisfyingly intricate turn-of-events, one after another, throughout multiple plotlines that all came together within the ending.

Moments of awe, shock, gratitude and sadness all come rushing in as you reached the last stand or strand *giggle-to-self* of this articulate storyline. The progress you make connecting America will leave you with a sense of accomplishment that is unmatched compared to the many modern games of today that spoil you with saturated action at every step with little to no sense of payoff on completion.

The game oozes artistic passion and breadths of creativity. You’ll bite your tongue until it’s torn off once you realise the amount of time you thought something was silly but happened to make so much sense at the ending. Be wary of the many abstractions associated with the terms used in the game, like ‘beach’ and ‘strands’ as they happen to be designed in light of a creative interplay that lay the foundations to the overall narrative of the game—this is the creative element of the game that will feed you with the most amusement and is what many people adore about Hideo Kojima games. 

There are many games that I might happen to enjoy more than Death Stranding, yet this game is far more unforgettable than most. It’s an experience that will hold strong within video game culture as a one-off relic or a new wave of ‘gaming experience’ which either way, I had found refreshing.

Death Stranding is best understood as an interactive art-piece, an adventure reminiscent of a once in a lifetime road trip that you had to endure that was full of laughs, anger and turmoil, but still, an unforgettable life experience that you can ultimately appreciate as an escape from the norm.

Death Stranding Rating:

8/10

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