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Death Stranding PS4 Review

Death Stranding... is a hard game to describe.

Simply put, it is the newest video game by famed-and-infamed developer Hideo Kojima’s reborn studio, Kojima Productions. Death Stranding is available for PS4 at the retail price of $59.99. Steam and Epic Games slate a PC release sometime in Summer 2020.

An elevator pitch Death Stranding would be something like, “Norman Reedus and his pickle jar fetus star in a buddy film-game where players face an Elder Fish God apocalypse and deliver the mail on time while Kojima's mixtape plays in the background.”

Kojima describes his project as a “Strand Game,” but I think “tactical terrain-traversal game with action-adventure-survival elements and asynchronous multiplayer” gets the point better across. Even with the mysterious marketing and unhelpful explanations, the strange-seeming Amazon Prime simulator isn't too different from other recent titles.

Death Stranding takes a lot of elements from Breath of the Wild, Monster Hunter, Metal Gear Solid, Dark Souls, and Euro Truck Simulator. Death Stranding's presentation of these elements is what creates its unique premise.

I have some gripes with the execution of these ideas, mainly in how Death Stranding chooses to make players relax and slow down. Some interactions, like delivering cargo, can have way too many interrupting cutscenes.

I’m not sure why the results page has an auto-skip function if I have to manually skip a delivery cutscene, mash x through a “Wow, can’t believe you did your job” conversation I’ve heard 50 times, auto-skip through results, and probably manually skip through a “Here’s an 80 kilogram present you can struggle to find space for” cutscene.

These moments feel like they wish to imitate gameplay slowdowns similar to Red Dead Redemption 2's many "realism" choices. They don't work here.

Death Stranding's delivery missions are intentionally grind-y, like with Monster Hunter's hunts or Disgaea's battle maps. Interrupting the rinse-and-repeat rhythm of quests damages momentum when doing the many optional deliveries.

The gameplay is almost always smooth, but its moving pieces can sometimes clash. I’ve had vehicles instantly detonate after falling from a tiny drop, destroying all of my cargo in the process. I have had ropes allow me to moonwalk up a cliffside. Some ladders bounced me off them and flung me straight down waterfalls.

None of those were all that frustrating, but an unexpected freeze did come up during a rather lengthy boss fight. Luckily, it was my favorite fight from the entire game, so I didn’t complain too much.

I never ran across any other major technical issues while playing. Death Stranding ran well on my PS4 Pro with only a few frame drops before a recent patch. Some pop-in was noticeable when driving vehicles at turbo speed. When walking, scenery comes in and out of sight without any jarring pop-in.

That is as easy as explanations get. Anything further, and it gets mixed and murky in the Beached Thing-filled tar. That may be entirely on purpose. Most marketing and pre-release coverage of Death Stranding has been vague and confusing.

I could (and will) go further into describing Death Stranding, but I recommend that you hold off on reading past here if the game already interests you. While I will be avoiding major spoilers, Death Stranding demands to be experienced with little-to-no previous knowledge of its twists and turns.

So, if it seems up your alley, go ahead and explore the world of Death Stranding. If you’re shaky on delivering 200 kilos across a ghost-ridden continent or just curious about what I have to say, read on.

The Rope

After an event known as the Death Stranding occurred, life was changed forever. Several explosions, called “voidouts” happened in various places in the United States, leaving unexplained craters with handprints within. Slowly, society crumbled as the dead reappeared as unfathomable creatures.

Sam Porter Bridges is asked by what is left of the American government to try rebuilding the nation a few years after the first voidout. Using space magic and 3D printing, Sam can connect survivors (known as “preppers”) with the government, creating the United Cities of America (UCA).

But it isn’t as easy as knocking on every prepper’s door. Many preppers swear off the idea of a nation after the failure of the United States at the start of the Death Stranding. Others fear “Homo Demens,” a terrorist group seeking to kill civilians and cause more voidouts.

This is where the game’s core gameplay mechanic comes in: delivery.

The act of delivering can take many shapes as the game progresses.
Death Stranding accounts for this, and I was always delighted to see some of my outlandish ideas
 be rewarded with faster delivery routes and creative shortcuts around enemies.

The UCA and its folk offer supply deliveries as the main part of their deal with preppers. Sam, being the president’s son, is the poster child of the new postal service and works as a “porter” for the government.

Although Death Stranding has very quickly gained the label of “walking simulator” for its walking-focused gameplay, I’d argue the label’s not entirely accurate. Walking is a key ingredient to gameplay, but the act of getting from A to B is made much more challenging and interesting than it is in most Triple AAA titles.

To better explain, Death Stranding looks at walking as something more than “move the analog stick to straddle a ledge and then walk to the waypoint.” Instead, it asks the player to prepare for a journey across fierce rivers, rocky shores and steep mountains. All while Eldritch nightmares and delivery man cults wish to ruin your day.

A typical gameplay loop looks like this: Sam arrives at a terminal at any UCA-connected facility. The terminal provides an order to deliver something to another prepper. This can be anything from medicine for a sick child to 500 kilograms of high-performance lingerie. After a minute or two, Sam chooses to deliver someone’s body pillow in the next 30 minutes without dropping it off a waterfall to wash away the sin. Then, the fabrication menu opens.

Sam can access ladders, ropes, grenades, motorbikes, and even portable 3D printers in an instant. As long as there are enough resources, that is. Players start with little more than a few trusty ladders and a pack of dental floss, but many items appear over time, each finding a way to make deliveries more efficient and creative.

After deciding on how many boots and ladders one man needs, the cargo menu opens. This allows players to arrange items on their person however they want.

I find that manually organizing cargo can be a bit challenging as there’s no efficient way to reposition items in the pack. But the automatic organization feature does an absolutely splendid job of helping adjust boxes and canisters. It is surprising how well the feature accounts for total carriable weight, variable item pouches, cargo importance, and space.

Once you’ve likely let the game reposition your cargo and items, you are set off to wander to the next shelter to drop off whatever items they need. They'll check to see if you didn't smash their new game console. Afterward, they'll give you results showing how many "likes" you received and how much they trust you.

Getting to your destination is anything but simple. All sorts of factors come into play. Is there currently Timefall, a special rain that decays what it touches? What about MULEs, a cargo-hunting group that will knock Sam unconscious if he’s detected? God forbid there are BTs on the way.

Overcoming the complications of delivery is one of the main goals of the game. Death Stranding encourages players to plan ahead, looking at the topography, hazards and weather between them and their destination.

Even with all the knowledge available, players may find themselves missing an extra ladder to cross a river or in need of a resting spot to wait out the Timefall. The Strand system takes care of that.

While the idea of asynchronous multiplayer is nothing new, Death Stranding views it as both a tool for storytelling and a way to majorly impact gameplay. Titles like Dark Souls use asynchronous multiplayer as a way for players to leave messages and visions of death around the map. Death Stranding lets players leave a much bigger impact on each other.

Any object placed in the world, whether it be a climbing rope, bridge, watchtower, or vehicle, will show up in others' games if you are connected to them. And vice versa. Every time you use another player’s item, it will leave a like, letting them know they helped you out.

While I love the minimalist UI in Death Stranding, it suffers from being so incredibly tiny.
I had issues reading tool info or alerts on my screen until I got uncomfortably close to my screen.

No worries about structures making the first few missions in the game too easy. Death Stranding doesn’t allow player structures to appear in areas unless it is connected to the Chiral Network. Meaning you have to complete enough missions with high enough marks to unlock player’s items in a UCA or prepper's area.

Players can also find lost cargo around the world from where others may have had a tumble or been abused by local MULEs. Returning lost items to players via terminals and finishing players’ deliveries can net many likes from NPCs, highly boosting your connections and making someone else’s life a bit easier.

Likes, themselves, are the lifeblood of Sam’s growing skills. Likes help him level up different skills, such as how much Sam can carry or how long he can sprint.

“Love thy neighbor” is the core of Death Stranding. From its story to its gameplay, everything focuses on supporting others, building a community, and seeing how that community has turned the wild world into something a little easier to handle.

Starting in Episode 3, players can contribute resources to a sprawling highway system linking most of the prepper settlements together. It makes traversal so much more efficient, but each piece of the road requires a ridiculous amount of materials to complete, but all players on a server can contribute to it. It serves as a giant, active collaboration. Successfully building the entire highway with my servers' help is easily one of the most satisfying accomplishments I’ve had while gaming all year.

It isn’t entirely 3D printers and thumbs up, though. Not everyone or everything has Sam’s best interest in mind.

The Stick

A lot of coverage of Death Stranding speaks mostly of in-game traversal. Understandably, as players will be trekking across the lovingly crafted landscape for many, many hours. But with the cargo fanatics, the “Homo Demens” terrorists, and the BT beasts, Sam struggles with more problems than just crossing lakes.

Fortunately for Sam, his body is a weapon. In many ways.

Sam can punch, tie up human enemies and toss cargo. That is all he has to start with. MULE encounters are hard, as the bandits are armed with non-lethal weapons and use radars to sense any signs of cargo.

MULEs favor thwacking Sam with their favorite electric spears. At a distance, they can easily
toss the spear at Sam, creating an electric blast to tase Sam and steal his goods and pride.

It took a few hours to fully grasp combat. It seemed quite limited, but a few mechanics hide away, waiting to be mastered.

For instance, Sam has a Strand he uses to stealthily hogtie enemies. But, he can also use this to parry almost every melee attack coming his way. Learning the timing for these parries can turn combat encounters into cakewalks. MULEs never know what's coming.

I love both the concept and execution of the MULEs. Their resilience and aggressive combat styles make them a fierce force to contend with. When it seems like they've lost their upper hand, their ranks crank out a new weapon or item. It takes time to completely out-gear them.

But they weren't the faction I was fascinated with. The "Homo Demens," the terrorist faction heavily inspired by Egyptian mythology, caught my eye at their first introduction in early trailer footage.

It was too bad they were quite disappointing.

MULEs are only after cargo, which means they never try killing Sam. Demens desire chaos and a thrill, taking porters’ lives. That in mind, one would expect they would have a different approach to combat and be even more of a threat to all life.

Demens have shotguns, assault rifles and grenades, but their actions are little different from the MULEs. They try to detect Sam, then they gank him. The lethality is the only difference. It’s a major let down after dealing with similar fights for over 20 hours. A lot of potential with the idea feels lost.

BTs never lose their potential.

Higgs (played by Troy Baker) serves as the main antagonist, tossing out advanced BTs and witty banter.
His fights are some of my favorites, even with his sometimes corny dialogue.

There is an instant shift in tone, gameplay, atmosphere, and landscape once running into BT territory. Battery-powered goods shut down momentarily. Sam’s BB, a baby strapped to Sam and connected to his suit, stirs from its slumber. Shrieks of the dead can be heard through the heavy wind.

Each BT area holds an army of invisible specters haunting old towns and forests. They cannot be seen except when Sam stands still and focuses on them. BB can help by using an odradek, a radar-like object on Sam’s back, to point at them.

Even with knowing where BTs may be, it can be tricky to stay quiet and distant from their Watchers. If Sam alerts a Watcher BT, other BTs will attempt to sink Sam into a tar puddle and drag him towards a miniboss fight.

These fights are visually stunning. The BT monsters are always some form of Lovecraftian fever dream, giving whales or hounds gaping maws and hand-like tendrils. Buildings will rise and sink back into the tar, creating momentary land to latch onto to escape the sea of darkness.

Get hit during these fights, and it's bad news. Most BTs can instantly kill Sam if he's toppled over, causing a voidout. BT attacks are often heavily telegraphed, but failure only takes one fatal mistake.

If the player dies, Sam will "respawn" due to his own supernatural abilities; however, the world will suffer as a new crater is created and local BTs get stronger.

These fights start off impossible to win. Over time, Sam learns he can use his bodily fluids as weapons against BTs. Sam starts transfusing his blood into bullets or grenades, and his urine, feces, and bathwater can all be used to some deadly effect.

Boss fights expand on the already amazing BT battles. I don’t want to spoil any surprises, but they are easily some of my favorite fights in any Kojima title. One encounter in the late game especially took me off guard, and I would replay Death Stranding just to face it again.

Mads Mikkelson steals the show in any scene he's in.
Often quite literally, taking Sam and the player into disjointed cutscenes or battles.

That said, combat isn’t very challenging. I played Death Stranding on Hard difficulty my entire playthrough, and I had little trouble besides one death during a BT fight and a few losses during boss encounters.

I also heavily prepared for most fights or long treks. Had I not brought the right gear, it would have been overwhelming. I also spent a few hours earning extra side weapons, like a bola gun, a blood grenade launcher, and an assault rifle. These all saved my ass in too many situations. 

Death Stranding always respects the player’s initiative to prepare, learn and explore, even if it means being a bit less easy. It allows players to get more competent and strong if they work for it.

From Sapiens to Ludens

Death Stranding is a hard game to describe, and it can be even harder to explain what is so damn satisfying about every minute of it.

The loop of delivering never felt dull for me. Even before having an electric exoskeleton, turbo truck, and my favorite rifle, I loved the pacing and storytelling in the game. Everything felt constantly transformative and reflective of the new Kojima Productions slogan: “From Sapiens to Ludens.”

When Sam and the player struggle to carry a few packages, they grow from the experience and tread a little more soundly. While Sam and the player travel the massive, beautifully designed map, they earn more tools to conquer the transformed world.

And once they conquer the world, they reach a hand out to help others do the same.

There is a lot of love put into Death Stranding. From the evocative acting
to Ludwig Forssell's emotional soundtrack, a refreshing amount of effort echoes throughout the entire project.

Death Stranding is a game about connection and the fear of being hurt. It is a game about overcoming that fear and all the challenges around it. It is a game about facing impossible odds and laughing. And it is easily one of my favorite games of the fading decade.

Final Verdict: Recommended

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