Review: Death Stranding (PS4)

Platforms:

  • PlayStation 4

Platform/Hardware Used:

  • PSN Download
  • PS4 Pro
  • 4K HDR

Extras:

  • DualShock 4 Required
  • Move None
Title: Death Stranding
Format: Blu-ray Disc / PSN (48.72 GB)
Release Date: November 8, 2019
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Kojima Productions
Original MSRP: $59.99 (US)
ESRB Rating: M
A code for the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy

Gameplay:
Before I proceed: I did my best to avoid narrative spoilers when reviewing this game. I do talk about gameplay and a lot of the features, but I realize some folks want to stay away from absolutely everything that might be considered a spoiler regarding this game. If you don’t want to know anything, skip to the score.

What if I told you that the gameplay of one of Sony’s most anticipated games of the PlayStation 4’s generation is based on the fetch quests that we all hate from other games? You know, when an NPC in a Zelda game asks you to fetch some bugs for her brother because he loves collecting bugs? I know that I personally only take on those quests when I’m out of other things to do in a game, and sometimes I never return to them. Doesn’t sound very fun, right?

What if I then told you that Hideo Kojima has taken the most loathed quests of adventure games and turned them into something meaningful and unique? I might have lost you at fetch quests but believe me when I say that the term would be a gross over-simplification of what Death Stranding is about.

The truth is (and it’s one that’s been known for a while) that you play as Sam Porter Bridges, and he is a UPS guy of a dismal future where humanity is on the brink of extinction. The term “porter” actually refers to his occupation (much like Witcher or Bounty Hunter), but in this universe, it’s incorporated into his name.

Forget zombies or aliens, the outside world is so dangerous, that even the rain will kill you (like, instantly). Humanity has chosen to remain holed up in the demolished ruins of cities or small outposts scattered across the United States. Thus, it is into this world that Sam must venture in order to deliver anything from medicine to rare metals. So, yes, while you could summarize Death Stranding as a delivery-boy’s journey, there is so much more going on here; so much in fact, that I am obligated to only talk about certain components of the game’s story.

I want to go into the multiplayer aspect of the game here because it’s such a unique component to Death Stranding, but more on that later. To be clear, this is a single-player game. So, if you were expecting a story-driven game here, you are absolutely getting that.

You will walk in Death Stranding. You will walk a lot. But, walking isn’t as simple as you might imagine. It’s such a unique component to this game, that I immediately had to laugh at the ridiculousness of it. Not because it’s bad by any stretch, no. But you know how in Zelda, Link can carry, bombs, a bow, a boomerang, multiple swords and shields, potions, and even a raft? Yet none of these things affect his ability to traverse dangerous environments, nor do they show up on his person.

Well, everything Sam carries is seen on his person, and everything has a weight and balance to it, including the equipment you use on the field.

For example: you often travel with these small, expandable ladders that help you cross ravines or climb up certain steep cliffs. Well, these ladders come packaged in small metallic cases. Those need to be carried. So, where you place them on your body will affect Sam’s ability to keep his balance during rough terrain. Place a heavy object on your right shoulder and Sam might start leaning to his right while walking on uneven ground, causing you to lose your balance. If you fall, you might drop some of your cargo.

If all of this sounds annoying, it’s not. Sam is a tough guy. He can more than handle the weight. So, for the most part, he can still run and walk fast, despite the weight. But if you are descending a steep hill, you might not want to try to sprint, because inertia will kick your ass if you need to stop quickly. It does make planning your journey pivotal to its success, especially if you decide to pick up some scattered items while venturing out into the world. I realized that maybe I didn’t need that many ladders on the trip. You can re-collapse them when you’re done with them anyway.

But keep these ladders (and leaving them behind) in mind, because they come up later when I discuss multiplayer.

That ladder is one of many, many components that you can use on the field. As you progress in the story, you will be able to 3D print items to help you on your journey. You start with the ability to create a watch tower, so you can scan the environment and tag items or locations of interest.

What all of this does is create a true sense of struggle for the journey. Getting from point A to point B is something that will feel like an absolute achievement, even when you don’t see a single “soul” on the path. But when you do see someone, or something, on the field, that’s when things get very interesting. There is a reason why people have decided to stay hidden in this version of the future, and it’s not just the killer rain. If you have watched trailers or gameplay videos for Death Stranding, then you know about the BTs – the strange floating beings (I’m describing them based on what I saw in those videos, not what I now know about them).

Making a delivery when you must cross paths with BTs is both intense and terrifying. Add to their presence the fact that you’re carrying precious cargo. Thus, if you try to run and trip over, there goes your cargo. Again, Sam is resourceful. And you have ways of perceiving where the BTs are. So, if you see one, you can attempt to hide and hold your breath (your in-game breath that is). Further in the game you will develop a means to combat them, but I’ll skip details on that.

Confronting the BTs harkens back to my days of playing Silent Hill, and I still theorize that Mr. Kojima may have brought some of his concepts from the Silent Hills game into this world. They can bring a sense of dread, and then relief when you finally get through an area plagued with them. Like I said, getting from one point on the map to another is something that will be a journey unlike any I’ve personally experienced. Yes, survival games might give you that same sense of purpose simply in the traveling. But Death Stranding factors in what you are carrying on your person, and when you are crossing BT territory while stacked with cargo, you cross your fingers that your trip won’t have been in vain.

But therein also lies some of the brilliance in the physics of Death Stranding, because the weight also plays into how you ascend and descend a hill. Sam can run pretty fast, even when carrying a load, but why not use gravity and weight as a way to gain some speed (at your own risk of course)? In this example, I decided to cut some time from my journey by running down a hill. Of course, Sam started running fast because of the weight and down-hill slope. As long as I didn’t hit a rock, I was going to shave some serious time from my arrival. But if I did trip on something, I would tumble and potentially damage (or lose) my cargo. Thus, it’s almost like a system of sailing in the ocean, where gravity plays a role in how slow or fast you can go (much like the wind).

Sam’s overall mission is to reunite the scattered remnants of humanity by linking all of the outposts using a network that allows for absolute instantaneous communication (yeah, even your 1GB/second speed pales). As you visit these locations and link them to the network, you will earn the ability to create new devices and even earn some new means of travel.

BTs aren’t the only enemies you’ll face. There are also *spoilers* and *spoilers*. Sam is able to melee his way past enemies, but stealth can also be used to get around without conflict, or to end a conflict before it begins.

I have to admit, as much as I loved this game, there is no immediate way to teleport from place to place. It’s strange but I was ok with that because I feel the game would lose its soul if I could just warp somewhere from the onset. It wouldn’t have fit into this game’s logic, and then there’s something more about this that I’ll explain in the multiplayer section, but I digress. Fortunately, you will eventually earn better, faster ways to travel (I will not go into details). But initially you will walk… a lot. So, I was grateful when I discovered that there would be other options for travel.

The multiplayer component to this game is such an integral part of the game (despite being very much a single-player game) that I will continue the rest of this gameplay review in that section.

Visuals:
The Decima engine is a helluva thing. I still consider Horizon Zero Dawn one of the best looking-games of this generation, particularly when you factor in the open-world nature of that game. Death Stranding also takes advantage of this engine with gorgeous visuals and some damn impressive human facial expression and texture. It’s not so much that the characters look photo realistic. It’s more that they look and move like real people, so you believe they are real people.

The way Sam traverses the environment indicates a struggle, and you feel the weight of your cargo thanks to some meticulously designed animations. Throughout the game, you can visit your own personal quarters, where you can take a shower, and even look at yourself in the mirror (for no other apparent reason than to just check out the character model). It’s during these moments when you can really see the amount of effort that went into character animations and texturing.

I don’t want to go into too much detail regarding the environments you will visit because I feel there could potentially be spoilers even in that, but you can’t have gotten this far with interest in this game without having witnessed some footage or screen shots. With that said, despite the apparent sparseness of the locales, the visuals excel for the environments, with some of that lush mossy foliage that looked so amazing on Horizon Zero Dawn.

The cinematics are vibrantly lit and carry so much emotion, particularly during some *spoiler* moments.

Audio:
I can’t think of a single Kojima-produced game that was lacking in the audio department. Even if performances weren’t always up to par, the sound design was always there to compensate. The same can be said here. I have yet to experience any poor performances in the narrative

Death Stranding includes a soundtrack by some industry artists. Admittedly, I questioned this when I first learned about it. This isn’t Grand Theft Auto, where you jam to some Queen while driving through the city. But after seeing how some of this music accompanied Sam on his journey, I understand its inclusion. These don’t appear to be tunes that were randomly chosen. It seems like the list was curated for the purpose of complementing the feeling of loneliness that often is at the forefront of Sam’s travels.

Another standout moment in sound is the use of the DualShock’s speaker for your BB (the baby that Sam carries with him on his journey for *spoiler* reasons). Whenever it becomes distressed, you will hear the cries coming from the speaker on your controller, connecting you more to Sam than if it just came from your sound system (which is an option as well).

Online/Multiplayer:
Back to the review on the side of multiplayer, where Death Stranding treads some semi-unique grounds. Again, this is a one-player game, with a strong narrative, long, Kojima-style cinematics and pacing that depends on you, the player.

But multiplayer is incorporated in a way that even I (someone who is not really into multiplayer games) enjoyed a great deal.

While you are experiencing Death Stranding, other gamers will be playing at well. And while you never actually see these players in the environment, you might see a little sign left by another player encouraging you on the road with a “Keep on keeping on” message. Or, someone might leave a spare ladder on the ground with a sign beckoning you to take it if you need it.

Hell, a few hours into the game, I acquired a motorcycle. But it runs on electricity and needs to be charged by a generator. Well, I was out of the components needed to build my own because I had a heavy cargo and needed to leave some tools in my locker. Fortunately, I saw a small generator on the field that was created by another player. Just in time too, as I was almost out of juice. I charged my bike and gave the creator a like. Somewhere else, while playing his game, I’m sure a message appeared for that player, letting them know that someone liked their generator station.

Later, I needed to cross a large river, and I didn’t want to ditch my bike. Fortunately, someone had built a bridge across the river. I thanked them as well with a like. That’s the universe that Kojima created with this game, which in itself is metaphoric of what’s happening in the narrative as well.

Everyone is in their own personal version of the game. But you might see a daunting mountain up ahead and find a rope sitting there to aid you in cutting across instead of having to go around the entire mountain. When you reach the top, you realize that it was left there by someone else.

So why not just put all the players in the same playground? I think it goes back to the narrative. I wouldn’t want to experience this story with some asshat jumping around in circles nearby while I’m experiencing a BT encounter. It’s just not that type of game. Instead there is this feeling of connection despite the isolation. I silently thanked the guy who left that generator there because they must have known that the location would have been a terrible place to lose charge of your bike.

But it’s not just small items that you build alongside your Porter companions. This is about rebuilding the entire infrastructure of the United States. Thus, at a certain point, you will work together to build structures as grand as roads. I was lucky enough to be the final person to add elements to a road-building unit, so I watched as the road was created in front of me. Where before there had been a grassy field, now there was a paved highway that I could use with my vehicles. I imagine other players could now use this road. What I’m curious about is if this road is available to players who only just arrived in this section. If so, I’d worry that it might steal the appreciation of what it took to get to this point.

But I found myself taking a break from the story and looking for some raw material in order to work on a system that would allow for crossing a very large mountain range within seconds, instead of almost half an hour. I really got a feeling of “paving the road” for those who would come after me. Again, I don’t know if these things will be erased when the game releases, but regardless, this is the emotion the game creates on the multiplayer side of things.

Multiplayer goes further with the locker system. When you arrive at a city or weigh station, you can access a public locker, where you can leave tools or weapons that other players can use. Strapped for the components to build a ladder? Why not check the public locker. Chances are someone left a used one that will serve you well. All of this is part of connected theme of the game. Whereas, within the game there is a quest to unify the people of the United States, outside in the real world, the game allows you to help other gamers without really intruding into their game, or dislodging the experience in any way. And as far as I’ve played, it’s all a positive multiplayer. You can’t jump into a game and help the BTs or kill your fellow Porter. Again, I can’t talk about later in the game, but I don’t believe that’s what Death Stranding is about. There is also a component that has you working closely with another player, but I wasn’t able to link up with anyone at the time of this writing, so I’m not sure what type of benefit that brings aside from the obvious “someone always has your back” side of it.

Conclusion:
I knew from the moment that I started Death Stranding that I would be in for something different. But I also realized during my long trek across the dismal world that not every gamer will have the patience for this. It takes the knowledge that traveling does get easier and quicker, but it’s also part of what makes this game so unique, to really appreciate what’s here. The journey is part of the gameplay. Not because you’re fighting bad guys along the way (even though that absolutely happens), but because sometimes the environment itself is the enemy. During stealth gameplay, it can also be your friend.

The online component is one that I greatly appreciated, particularly for someone who rarely plays online. It may not be the first time that the online presence is one of cooperation across a united world, but it still felt like you were a part of something grander, especially in those moments when another player provided you something that you really needed at a particular moment. It always brought a great feeling when a message popped up, stating that someone had used a generator I created and thanked me for it with multiple likes.

Narratively, I can only say so much. Albeit confusing as hell initially, things do come together. But this is Kojima’s new universe, so there are new terms to learn and new “realities” to accept. And I promised I’d avoid spoilers, so I can’t go into too many details. Hell, I’m not supposed to talk about anything that happens after Episode 3, so take that as you will.

But when it comes down to it, this game took me on a very different journey than most of the games I’ve played in the last couple of years. Sometimes it takes a something a little “out of this world” to take me out of my comfort zone. At times, it felt like I wasn’t doing anything but delivering packages, but right when I started to ask, “is that all there is to this?” things began to change, and like a slowly developing novel, things started to get more interesting. If you don’t mind a well-paced experience, then you might agree with the excellence that is Death Stranding.

Score:
10

* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Share functionality on the PlayStation 4.

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