‘Death Stranding’ impressions: it’s fun, but…

November 22, 2019

There aren’t many video game “directors” known to the public, but Hideo Kojima is an exception. The Japanese auteur is famous known for creating the “Metal Gear” series. His follow-up, “Death Stranding” has been extremely polarizing in terms of reception. Some praise it as a masterpiece while some say it’s pretentious garbage. Ultimately, I don’t know who is right, as I’ve only played for three hours on my friend Harry’s PlayStation 4 (thanks!). But what I got during this time was definitely a fun experience with a quirky, engaging narrative.

What’s Good

You play as futuristic delivery guy Sam Porter Bridges (Norman Reedus) who delivers things such as drugs and corpses in a quest to “reconnect” a post-apocalyptic America ravaged by all sorts of strange phenomena. In the world of “Death Stranding,” anything touched by rain ages rapidly. The dead haunt the world of the living as invisible creatures called “BTs” that leave handprints wherever they go, and the only way for you to see them is carrying these manufactured babies aptly named “BB.” People who die become catastrophic timebombs and turn into BTs. Also, you’re immortal. 

Needless to say, the world of “Death Stranding” is weird and surrounded by innumerable mysteries: Some might find that overbearing and tiresome; I think it’s all quite engaging. Trying to find explanations to these oddities and tying them together was a major motivation that made me want to keep playing.

The cutscenes, which are a major feature in “Death Stranding,” are both a technical and cinematic marvel—I don’t think anyone can deny that. The facial capture of the actors is astonishingly detailed, and the acting is superb. The cinematography feels deliberate and dramatic. Every time a lengthy cutscene plays, I feel like I’m watching a sci-fi blockbuster. It’s understandable to complain that having too many cutscenes defeats the purpose of an interactive medium—and I share that complaint to some extent as you’ll see later on—but I find myself enjoying every second of them, which is a testament to just how well made they are.

The gameplay is best characterized as “fetch quests but fun.” Indeed, the core of the gameplay is you doing deliveries: You pick up packages, and you bring them places. But there are many more mechanics that go into the whole process. You can’t just recklessly sprint and jump like a madman to your destination as you need to balance yourself. Heavy cargo can easily tip you over. You’ll encounter obstacles like uneven terrains and rivers, and you’ll have to set up ladders and climbing ropes and other more advanced tools to conquer them, or use those left by other players (you can give these anonymous other players likes to show your appreciation). You’ll also have to stealthily avoid “BTs” with the help of your “BB,” as well as human enemies.  

The game doesn’t feel very difficult, even on the highest difficulty: There are many chances for you to escape if you get caught by enemies. You can fall over and damage your packages several times and still get a high mission rating. There seems to be very minimal combat elements, which I haven’t come across in my three hours of game time, so there doesn’t seem to be much demand on mechanical skill to succeed in “Death Stranding.” 

Overall, the gameplay is a surprisingly relaxing but fulfilling experience, a trek through beautiful natural landscapes while listening to mellow soundtrack in the background. You feel a sense of achievement as you gradually unite the scattered cities of America.  

The But

My concern for the gameplay is that it might be too repetitive. Without much combat, essentially all you do in “Death Stranding” is complete fetch quests. They might be really fun and elaborately-designed fetch quests that are engaging in the first few hours, but they might no longer be interesting after 40 hours or more of doing them over and over. I can’t say for sure, but this is a potential shortcoming. 

Perhaps this wouldn’t be a problem if you could actually explore the cities that you deliver packages to and talk to Non-Player Characters (NPCs) in person, making dialogue choices that will impact the state of the game. It would add an extra layer to the gameplay that would make up for the mundane nature of being a delivery guy. Though it seems the most you get in terms of dialogue and interaction outside of cutscenes is you talking to holograms of people as you complete deliveries, and that left me a little disappointed. I wish there were both cinematic cutscenes and player-initiated dialogue. 

There’s also no substantial online function. You get to use other players’ constructions in the world, leave pre-made signs and give likes, but you won’t be able to see or interact with them. I’m not calling for co-op modes or PVP, but it seems like a missed opportunity for a game about “connecting” to not allow players to see each other and have a basic level of interactivity like saying hello or something.  

Conclusion 

It’s important to remember that this is only a first impression, and my play time is limited, so take what I say with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, I can safely say that, within three hours of play time, “Death Stranding” was an experience that left me wanting more. When it comes to PC, which is next year, I will surely pick it up and finish it and give it a proper review because in the end, the concerns I expressed are not a deal breaker. I would love to recommend the game, even though you should probably still look at other reviews before you make a decision. But hey, everyone’s saying different things about it, so I guess the only way to decide if this game is for you is to check out Kojima’s vision yourself. 

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