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Death Stranding (2019): Death Is Not Defeat

System: PS4, PC | Publisher: Sony / 505 Games

Developer: Kojima Productions | Reviewed On: PS4


In 1986, a young man in his mid-20s was hired by Konami's Home Computer division. Initially snubbed for his limited programming skills and his gameplay ideas often brushed off, he would later go on to direct one of Konami’s most successful game franchises; Metal Gear Solid. His name is Hideo Kojima.


To give you an idea of his influence, Kojima Productions was formed as a subsidiary within Konami in 2005; expanding to 200 staff by 2008. In 2011, he was appointed the Vice President of Konami’s Digital Entertainment division. He was a producer on Castlevania’s most successful game (Lords of Shadow) & was also working with now-Academy Award-winning director Guillermo del Toro on a reboot of the fan-favourite Silent Hill franchise. Kojima appeared to have a long and prosperous future in the company....or so he thought.


Following a management restructure in early 2015, Konami began to focus their efforts on the mobile market & with a number of occurring events including his name being removed from MGS5 artwork & the cancellation of Silent Hills, this would conclude in his departure later that year. But like a phoenix, he rose from the ashes by re-establishing his production team as an independent studio several months later and began working on his next project with Sony, to be released on the PlayStation 4. This would later become the game we will be reviewing today.


This is going to be a long journey so secure your cargo and make sure those boots are nice and snug, as we embark on a journey into the mysterious, desolate & dangerous world of Death Stranding. Let’s break it down!


Story


An event known as "Death Stranding" took the lives of many on Earth and caused extensive damage to civilisation. The world also became connected with a realm inhabited by souls of the deceased, in which entities appear in the world in a variety of forms and are hostile towards the living. In addition, bouts of rain known as "time-fall" intermittently occur that accelerate the time of anything it touches; even ageing you aggressively if you become exposed for a short period of time. The world became a mere shadow of its former self.

The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic United States (now known as the United Cities of America), several years following this event. A company known as Bridges rose up & attempted and help rebuild the country; using their resources to help cities & settlements effectively communicate with each other, in an effort to reboot civilisation. Unfortunately, their efforts were fragmented by those who disagreed with them & took matters into their own hands. With all of these impending threats, survivors had no choice but to confine themselves in their protected settlements, relying on the brave efforts of porters to deliver goods and supplies across this treacherous landscape in order to maintain their survival.



Here enters our main protagonist, Sam Porter Bridges played by The Walking Dead star Norman Reedus; a freelance contractor known for being “The Man That Delivers”. He is a person who keeps himself to himself & simply completes the jobs he’s assigned. Following a couple of jobs that are a little eventful, he is one day assigned to deliver supplies to the President of the UCA. It is here that Sam is asked to take on the almighty task of reconnecting all the cities & settlements across the country to a network, allowing them to communicate and exchange information with each other effectively.


As his journey progresses, we learn the extent and difficulty of this task, especially with the presence of a militant group who oppose the UCA's views on a united country. Furthermore, the group holds a valuable card in their deck and use this as a tool to try and nullify his efforts. Throughout his journey, Sam will gradually learn more of the dangers in this post-cataclysmic environment & the hidden truths he is confronted with along the way.



The plot has a blend of sci-fi and philosophical themes layered with additional storylines; ranging from single chapter stories to some intermittently maintained across the game. Its characters are uniquely affected by the event of Death Stranding & the game does a great job in allowing us to dive into their experiences, which in turn builds their characters. By withholding certain information and sprinkling gradual reveals over the course of the game, it helps to create moments that I was either emotionally touched by or positively approved of.


The game can also be perceived as an interpretive work, due to its underlying themes. I felt a similar feeling when I watched the anime TV series 'Neon Genesis Evangelion' for the first time. The game makes a conscious effort to try and explain its events & leaves room for personal analysis of its messages which if you can interpret, it can help to enhance your overall experience.


Overall, the story is an intriguing and action-packed journey full of twists that rewarded me for my attention. While it does contain a lot of elements, I felt it worked well without compromising its integrity. The only negative I found was that the story’s pacing was held back in its execution due to some elements of its gameplay, which I will now go into.


Gameplay


The game uses an open-world setting, played in the 3rd person where you can explore the barren wastelands of this country. Throughout, you will encounter a number of different environment types that use mountainous landscapes for its base; adding in sections that include wintry conditions, vegetation, Mars-style deserts, bodies of water & broken structures to name a few. The world is beautiful to look at but when certain enemies are nearby, it can turn this environment from a desolate beauty into a thick atmosphere of despair.


Throughout, you are primarily tasked with making deliveries to and from stations; ranging from small bunkers to large facilities. There are main quests linked to the game's storyline and optional side quests that offer extra bonus points if wish to take them on. There are also some side gameplay segments throughout the game where you are thrown into a unique situation, in order to defeat a reoccurring enemy. The diversity of these parts was unexpected and strangely, I jumped into the situation without hesitation or thought. On reflection, they did feel a little out of place but I understood their intent eventually and they were a lot of fun.



The missions themselves were a mixed bag. Those integral to the plot were generally favourable, however, a few of them and primarily the side quests often felt a bit repetitive or uninspiring. There was one mission near the end of the game that made me go “...really? Are we actually doing this?”


On one side of the coin, missions can provide us with further backstories into the world and a settlement’s situation/history, but often the mission itself made me feel less intrigued to hear them out regrettably; whether it be presented as a scene or via messages you receive.


A-to-B missions have been more criticised in open-world games in recent years and whilst I understand its intent is to give you a sense of helping the world, I often felt the opposite. If there were a few missions that I could visually see my deliveries being implemented into this world, this would’ve made me feel a greater sense of accomplishment; that I made a proactive and positive impact in the world.



The quality of a cargo’s condition and your ability to deliver it in time will impact what rating you receive for each quest. In addition, you will be rewarded with Likes, linked with Sam’s ability and stats progression; giving you access to upgraded items and resources. All cargo and items in the game are physically weighed and Sam will have a threshold that determines how much cargo he can carry because...well he's human of course.

Increased loads will impact your stability and speed, as you walk around the world. There are also other assets available that can help spread the load such as vehicles and floating carriers that unlock during the game. Managing your cargo is key in order to effectively complete your missions, whilst carrying items you feel are necessary for your trip. The unfortunate downside is that this act of management can feel a little tedious at times and when I found items left abandoned in the world, the temptation to pick them up is often indulging.


The other thing you need to look out for is Sam's balance, especially when he is walking on inclines or uneven terrain. If Sam begins to lose his stability, he will begin to wobble in a certain direction. By pressing/holding the appropriate trigger button, this will re-align him to a central stance. However, if you don’t keep him in balance, Sam will fall over and damage the cargo; costing you Likes when you complete the quest or worse, death (depending on your cargo type).



The game uses a standard health and stamina system. Health is managed by blood and can be topped up either by eating a strange bug known as a crytobiote or by using blood bags that, when connected, can fuse blood to Sam automatically if he gets injured. You also have the option to urinate anywhere outside, bringing a mushroom on-screen so if you don’t relieve Sam, urine big trouble.........actually, there are no bad sides to this. Sam may say a humorous comment & the bigger the mushrooms get, the likely you can harvest crytobiotes from them so it’s a win-win scenario. If you happen to succumb to your injuries, the game has a unique plot device that explains how Sam can return to life. Just wait until you see this play out; your first time experiencing this will be memorable.


Your stamina works in two ways. The first involves short-term stamina, used when running or holding your breath. This can be recharged quickly by stopping for a break or not performing anything physical. The second involves long-term stamina that will deplete over time and will also limit your short-term stamina threshold. Whilst drinking water and resting will help a bit, you will eventually need to rest.



Luckily, if you are in a station that allows it, you can go into a Private Room where you sleep, take a shower, go to the toilet, check out your collectables and pull funny faces in the mirror. Interestingly, the residue from your bathroom activities can be turned into grenades that you can use in the game......OK. You can also drink Monster Energy drinks that can regain your stamina (because apparently a particular brand of energy drink can survive the near extinction of mankind). There is also an advertisement for Norman Reedus’ show “The Ride” when you go to the toilet. For me, the product placement is on Lethal Weapon levels of obvious & whilst I wasn’t offended by this, there’s a time and a place Kojima...


One of the other games features includes fast travel, but hold your cargo boxes because there are some catches. First, this feature is limited only to large facilities and safe houses that can be placed in-game. The disadvantage to this service is that you must leave all of your cargo and belongings in a local locker at the base, so this is not useful when completing missions. Also, you will need to rely on the resources at the destination base so if there are no vehicles or items there, you may struggle if you re-enter the world at your destination.



There are numerous item types that you can collect and use to assist you on your journey. Vehicles will help you reach locations quicker, but will struggle on bumpy terrain, can take damage & run on a limited supply of electricity, so make sure to charge and look after them. You can also carry and use resource tools such as ladders and climbing anchors, to traverse past tricky sections. Even container sprays that can repair your cargo’s external casing.


Weapons also make an appearance, ranging from handguns to grenade launchers to name a few, including projectiles and different types of ammo that utilise Sam’s “bodily produce” to help take down various enemy types. Through the game's progression in-game and via its Likes system, upgraded and different variants of items will become available to you over time, which help in situations where you feel a certain asset would be best suited for the journey ahead.

There are three main enemy types in the game. First, there are various bandits known as MULES who will scan for cargo and use non-lethal weapons to try and steal your goods. Next, there are terrorists that use lethal weapons and will try to kill you, so it’s best to avoid these where you can. Finally, there is also a range of entities formally known as BTs. These range from Gazers that use sound to detect your breathing and try to engulf you in a pool of tar, Gas Bags that will gravitate towards you and explode if they come into contact with you & Catchers that are huge animal-based creatures that you can either choose to defeat with great effort or flee if you can.


This variety offered a number of tense encounters, which were very enjoyable and felt I had the option to either be strategic or just go in all guns blazing. The boss fights in this game were also visually impressive and left me wondering if I was actually going to survive.


With the varying enemies types, it’s difficult to circumvent some of them, especially involving BTs as they are invisible by nature. Luckily, you will be provided with a unit called a Bridge Baby (BB for short); a premature baby confined in a pod simulating a mother’s womb. They have the unique ability to detect BTs and help you visually see them when you are both connected; helping bring clarity in potentially dangerous situations. However, BBs can also get stressed and too much can lead to them to becoming sick. To prevent this, you must rock your BB gently to ensure it re-enters a calm and healthy state. You can also interact with your BB during the game, which I did start to form a bond with & eventually paid off later on in the game.


One of the most intriguing elements of this game is its use of a cooperative system, similar to what’s been implemented in the Dark Souls games. Throughout the game, you can place aids ranging from bridges, recharging stations, safe houses, ladders, even simple signs that remain in the world. However, when you place these aids, these can actually appear in another person’s game, which can help them out when they reach that location.


This was a welcomed feature without bringing another person into your game in the traditional sense. It creates a sense of community and appreciation for other people’s efforts. You can also give the person Likes for their efforts (to boost their stats) and I felt compelled to give them, especially if I were in dire situations or was able to save a few minutes by avoiding a longer route. Some of these are also customisable; being able to play music, expanded or being used for specific purposes.


Overall, there are a number of fresh gameplay features which I enjoyed their inclusion, however, its pacing and emphasis on walking did overshadow my experience. The first three chapters were very heavy going before it began to effectively pace itself. In regards to the walking, I initially felt that these long-distance missions felt like a necessary evil, but often it began to grind. I don’t mind a struggle but when it starts to come off as a chore, this is where I begin to feel a loss of investment in the game as a whole. It was certainly something I acknowledged on multiple occasions.

Presentation


In short, Death Stranding looks stunning. Kojima Productions did an amazing job in bringing out the beauty of this broken world and the character models are next-level. I remember playing Heavy Rain years ago and thinking “this looks incredible” for its time. I thought the same thing when playing Uncharted 4 & Detroit: Become Human. Both the in-game graphics & storyline cutscenes are all beautifully crafted and offer an ultra-high level of detail that made me question myself on a few occasions.

In terms of the cast, Norman Reedus is joined by the likes of Mads Mikkelsen, Léa Seydoux, Lindsay Wagner, Margaret Qualley & Troy Baker amongst others. Overall, I felt they played their roles very well and maintained a level of consistency throughout. With most of the cast having their appearances captured and imported into the game, I felt more connected with their performance; almost like seeing them a movie. Some of the characters had their voices dubbed by a different VA and I honestly couldn’t tell the difference which is a notable positive. Special mentions to Emily O’Brien (Gamora in the Guardians Telltale series) & Jesse Corti (Lefou in the 1991 Disney film; Beauty & the Beast), as I enjoyed their performances of Amelie & Deadman respectively.



The game’s soundtrack is also expertly formulated. First, we have the game’s original score composed by Ludvig Forssell; creating an air of orchestral & ambient tracks, sometimes peppered with futuristic synths that give them a sense of atmosphere and tension in their respective situations. BB’s Theme featuring Jenny Platt is a notable favourite. Its use in its respective scene made me well up without shame.


The second part of the soundtrack uses licensed tracks, featuring the likes of Low Roar & Silent Poets; offering a blend of acoustic & ambience to create tracks radiating a tranquil beauty that perfectly complimented the game. Finally, there are a number of singular tracks from artists such as Major Lazer, CHVRCHES & Bring Me The Horizon; offering more of an upbeat vibe against the game’s score and calmer tracks.



Overall Thoughts


Death Stranding is an overwhelming experience. It has an intriguing plot with an emphasis on the connection of humanity and spiritual awareness, taking our protagonist on a personal journey of enlightenment. Its presentation is highly commendable, the subtle use of cooperative gameplay was refreshing in its implementation & enemy encounters were generally positive. The gameplay itself was hit-and-miss. Whilst I enjoyed the inclusion of its features, it was unfortunately weighed down by a sense of repetition, coupled with a reliance on back-and-forth journeys & a slow first quarter, which did begin to lose my interest and cause frustration at times.

This game has been given the reputation of being a walking simulator and it’s hard for me to detract myself this particular perception. However, I would argue that there are enough positive elements that helped me to overlook these shortfalls. Although I did enjoy the game in hindsight, I personally don’t feel the need to initiate a second playthrough, but would still encourage players to play this at least once. Even just to say that you’ve played it and have an opinion on it. I personally felt that the plot is too intriguing to ignore; just be prepared to endure the less-endearing elements and embrace its journey as a whole.


Death Stranding is a complex story that may not present all of the answers to you, but my interpretation was one surrounding the value of humanity; our ability to connect with each other, to help one another & to endure even in the adverse of circumstances. Something I believe is very much present and appreciated in these current times.



Note to PC gamers, Death Stranding is now available for your platform. While it will rely on your setup, I’ve heard the game’s performance is notably improved from the console version. It also contains support for ultra-wide resolutions & features an exclusive cross-over with legendary Valve series; Half-Life. Although I don’t believe it includes Gordon’s gravity gun in-game. Sad face.


Thanks for reading & hope you enjoyed my analysis of this polarising game. For now, I’m going to patiently wait for the postman to deliver the next game I’m going to review in the future & make sure to give them a thumbs up for their efforts and service.

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