A Chimp's Comix Death Stranding Review:
Before I start this review, I do have to say that I have been a huge Hideo Kojima fan ever since Metal Gear Solid 1 on the PS1. I have put countless hours into each and every Metal Gear Solid since as it is my favorite video game franchise. That being said, I did however skip on the Metal Gear Survive game as with it being made without Kojima, I wasn't interested. I love the over the top style and espionage of the story of MGS and know how "meta" Kojima can be. There is always an underlying meaning to his games and some are influenced by his own personal experiences. I understand that Kojima games are not for everyone so I'm gonna write this from my own perspective being a MGS fan. I will try not to put anything too "spoilery" in this, but there will be some parts of the story covered. So read at your own risk if you don't want anything at all spoiled.
In 2014 it was announced that Norman Reedus, Guillermo Del Toro and Hideo Kojima were working on a new Silent Hill video game from Konami. This game was silently released on the Playstation network as P.T. (playable teaser). You would play through this creepy game roaming a looping hallway trying to solve the story of PT. When you finished the game it led right into a trailer for the new Silent Hills video game.
On September 1, 2015 Konami and Kojima released Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. There were reports of internal struggles between Kojima and Konami to the point where it was reported that Kojima was let go by Konami. They removed his name from the game packaging and didn't even let the game get finished. This comes back to the whole meta thing. We as the players now had our own "phantom pain" of an unfinished game. Konami even cancelled Silent Hills and pulled it from the PSN. If you had downloaded it in the past and deleted it, you would not be allowed to redownload it so finding a copy to play nowadays is very difficult.
There has been a lot of people who question whether what we were being told was true. Was Kojima really let go? Do we really know all the truth about this breakup? People have since been putting together conspiracy style theories about this. Kojima being very meta makes some long time fans believe that there could be some validity to the conspiracy. Especially when a new Kojima game called Death Stranding was announced. It was even announced that Reedus and Del Toro were involved as well. Metal Gear Solid has it's own fair share of conspiracies that take place during the game, the Phantom Pain of an unfinished game and even the cancelled game, and the meme (shown here) from Ground Zeroes. If you've followed Kojima like I have, it's not too much of a stretch to start to see how we can connect the strands and see that something doesn't seem to add up. Some people don't believe in the "Ruse" and some do. Kojima is known for saying the "game" begins as soon as the game is announced. If any of this sounds intriguing to you, I have linked a YouTube channel that has some of the best coverage of the theories about Death Stranding. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC61_iNs7zL9q3eZtAa7xHJg
On November 8, 2019 after many years of anticipation and lots of theories about what the game is, Death Stranding finally releases. The game is broken up into chapters. It starts with a Prologue #0 chapter and goes all the way to a chapter 14 before the credits roll. In this game you portray Sam Porter Bridges and like he says in the trailers, he makes deliveries. The first couple of chapters of the game feel very much like watching a movie for most of the time. Kojima uses this time to set up the story and the world of Death Stranding. You meet Fragile right away and learn that the world has experienced the event known as the "Death Stranding". What the event was is part of the mystery of this game. If you've been following the trailers, none of those have lied to you. This game is very much about making deliveries and exploring the United Cities of America (which look nothing like America). Knowing Kojima I'm sure there was a point behind it looking so different but was never said in this game.
Once in Chapter 2, the game opens up a lot. You actually get to play the game instead of watching most of it. This game has been called a walking simulator and that is not entirely inaccurate. You will do a LOT of walking. Taking in the scenery while delivering packages and the scenery is very gorgeous. There is a lot of open space with no one around that adds to the feeling of being disconnected from society.
Your goal is to cross the entire country connecting people to a "Social Strand System". This is how you make friends in the game. When logged online you will find items, signs, vehicles, roads and bridges that have been built by others or yourself. If you've built some of these, they will show up in other peoples games for them to see or use. This is how the game does it's online gameplay and tries to encourage you to be helpful to others and make friends. My complaint about this system is that I have yet to find any way to actually connect to my PSN friends. Instead you get connected to a bunch of other users you don't personally know. I'm sure this is completely intentional to make you make "strands" with other people in the world, but it would've been fun to do this with people I know.
Playing through chapters 2 and 3 takes a lot of hours. It's very easy to get sidetracked with optional side missions, but in reality it is a lot of fetch quests or road building. Since this game is very heavy on fetch quests, I eventually went away from side quests to start focusing on the story. At this point I logged in about 25 hours on those 2 chapters alone and yet had only about 3 hours in the first 2. That threw the pacing way off for me and I started to feel delivery fatigue. Having played all the MGS games I expected more balance between the game and the cutscenes. I know sometimes they can be heavy on cutscenes but at this point in the game, cutscenes were almost extinct for me. I don't count the small interactions with clients as cutscenes as most of those don't progress the story unless they are required deliveries.
In Chapter 2 you also get your BB Pod so that you can start seeing the BTs (beached things) which are ghost like figures that will pull you into a mini boss fight if you get caught. If you die in the fight you will cause a "voidout" which will destroy anything in the immediate area. Voidouts are used heavily in the storyline. Eventually, I started to spend a lot of time in my "Private Room" making sure to have Sam shower, use the restroom, customizing my gear and bonding with BB. There are a lot of easter eggs you can achieve in your private room and below is a link to one that I found rather humorous.
As I got further into the game I earned more weapons and vehicles to make traversing the world of Death Stranding that much easier. But eventually the game itself started to catch up and make other aspects harder as you would want any game to progress in difficulty. The game has a tendency to let you get comfortable walking around and then throw you head first into a fight when you least expect it. There are some story fights that feel like they are just made more challenging to make up for the lack of combat. My first time I had to traverse the WWI era (as seen in trailers) it took me a few tries as I wasn't used to using weapons and having combat.
As you progress through the story you meet other characters in the game and learn some of their back stories. In typical Kojima fashion, you are left not really being sure who to trust or who the villain is. With things constantly making you question if you should trust anyone and yet you need to get everyone in America to sign onto the network and work together. I found this kind of odd and contradictory that you need to make friends and connections and yet if they are a main character you often question "Do they have a hidden agenda?"
Once in Chapter 5 I felt like the pacing was getting better. I think that chapter took me about 6 hours and had a good balance of cutscene to gameplay ratio (at least for me), UPS fatigue was starting to wear down and the story started to feel like it was progressing again. Much of the story of Death Stranding is found in old journals and interviews that you read. Think of these like the cassette tapes from MGS if you've played those. These flesh out the universe much more than just the cutscenes do.
After Chapter 7 the game starts moving very fast again like in the first 2 chapters. More balanced between cutscenes and gameplay but with most of the following chapters being able to be knocked out in 1-3 hours. The further you get in the game, the more the in game conspiracies start to show up. Still not knowing who to trust. The core part of the story starts coming together, but I do have some dislikes about some other aspects of the story. I feel that some characters were given enough screen time to tell their required story and others like Cliff and Sam don't really have what they needed to cover them thoroughly. Most of Cliff's back story is unlocked via BB showing Sam flashbacks. I never found out who was in the picture that Sam carries with him through the entire game. I felt like they left too many untethered strands in some of the personal stories.
Once you get to Chapter 9 of the game, each chapter speeds up the story immensely. Now, I'm gonna try and cover this without spoilers the best I can. Everything starts coming to the crescendo of the plot. In typical Kojima fashion, he brings in the plot twists left and right in his own signature way. Unfortunately for me I've played and studied Metal Gear Solid a lot and each of these "shocking" revelations fell flat for me. I saw most of them coming from pretty early on in the game. The story is interesting but honestly needed more to it. It left way too many unanswered questions for me. I know Kojima is known for leaving threads not answered until sequels come into play, but with this being a new IP I expected anything that mattered to the story to be answered. You learn the basics of each character and enough of the plot to follow what the "villain" is trying to achieve. The story definitely is trying to drive home the point of everyone coming together to help each other. And by everyone, we are not just talking America, we are talking the entire world. At least that was the point I was getting from it. This is Kojima's way of making a point about what he believes is happening in the world today.
Kojima doesn't make this game without adding a lot of fan service. Cliff's wife's name is Lisa and the female in PT was also Lisa. Fragile teleports and instantly leaves behind a "dust" in the air that looks almost like the "dust" from Quiet in MGSV. Deadman has a Game Over sign show up when he is talking to you and it's the same as the game over screen in MGS1. Higgs keeps talking about it being time for your "Game Over" which also relates to Eli's shirt that says "Never Be Game Over" from Phantom Pain. Both MGS and Death Stranding use Codecs to have conversations. The Sorrow from MGS3 bleeds out of the same eye as Cliff. These are just a few of the things I noticed.
Troy Baker playing the villain Higgs in Death Stranding and having this fight scene be sooooooo similar to the fight at the end of MGS4 is just pure fan service. Especially since Baker played a younger Ocelot in Phantom Pain and it even has some of the same slow motion movements..
Lets review some character performances:
First up is Sam himself: Norman Reedus. I felt like the story didn't really give him enough for being the main character. His performance for the script was OK, but honestly it felt like Norman's performance on the Walking Dead. Not much different. His fun little mocap easter eggs in the private room were fun to see but wasn't enough for me to feel anything for him. I don't know if Kojima was trying to play too much on the "I'm Sam too" phrase by not fleshing him out much as he is supposed to be our avatar in the game. Kind of like he did with Venom Snake in the Phantom Pain. There were moments you would expect his character to react or say something, but he just stood there silently. Kind of makes it difficult to get into the story of his character. At least for me it was.
Mads Mikkelsen's performance of Cliff was masterfully done. I loved his singing to BB and just his overall attitude he portrayed in the game. He was a character whose story wasn't as fleshed out as I was expecting but I still felt more for his character than Norman's. His character gets a lot more coverage in the last chapter of the game which helps with at least what you need to know about him. If you play the game, pay attention to this guy. I felt like out of the "Hollywood" actors he gave the most range.
Margaret Qualley's performance as Mama was well done. Her character has a tragic story where she is stuck in a lab which was where she lost her baby who is now a BT. Having experienced this kind of loss I could relate to her not wanting to leave her baby no matter what. Her story is heartbreaking, especially if you've been through this.
Fragile portrayed by Lea Seydoux kind of let me down. She's shown as a strong character, which is true, but I felt like her voice acting part was kind of flat. I couldn't really sense any emotion in her. I don't know if this was an intentional choice by her or Kojima to show how strong she is all the time, but it felt unrealistic to me.
Tommie Earl Jenkins portays Die Hardman. His character was very much a political leader character. Keeping calm and collected through most of the story. Only showing emotion on few rare occasions. His character finally shows a LOT of range in the final chapter of the game. Until that point I found it very hard to judge his performance, but at that point I was very impressed and felt he did a great job.
Heartman and Deadman were basically cameo appearances. Having Guillermo Del Toro and Nicolas Winding Refn come in and do face capture and then other voice actors portraying the characters. So, speaking of the voice actors, they did these characters very well. I felt a range of emotion coming from them and thought they were characters I could believe were really in this world.
Lindsey Wagner shines in her performances of Bridget and Amelie. Her characters carry the majority of the plot of this game and she portrays both of them beautifully.
And finally, Troy Baker as Higgs. This guy, he's pretty good. Now that the MGS reference is covered, Troy knocked this out of the park! His performance was bar none the best in my opinion. Lots of range in his voice and emotion. Lots of cool character attributes. Even when you are fighting him and he's taunting you, he will quickly change to getting angry if you hit him. It made for an entertaining fight. His constant taunting of Sam and big "master plan" was very enjoyable. Troy Baker did fantastic!
Most of the music in the game comes from the band Low Roar. This is not usually my style of music but it fits the style and scenery of this game beautifully. There is little like walking around for a while and seeing this beautiful landscape and suddenly one of Low Roar's songs starts playing. It really sets the mood of the game and has this calming effect when mixed together with the grass, mountains and snow. I found myself listening to this music frequently while staying in my private room and prepping for the next delivery. While there are some other musicians work in this game, Low Roar is by far the most prominent.
Overall it was a fun game although it did have a lot of down time and emptiness to cover which did make it kind of boring in parts unless you just like wandering around to see the beautiful scenery. If you are looking for a deeper Kojima style story, this unfortunately is not it. This still feels like a Kojima story with the plot twists and such but wasn't anywhere near as surprising as anything in the MGS franchise for me personally. Gameplay is polished but of course has lots of unnecessary movements or actions, like when you have to hold L2 and R2 to hold your straps and walk more balanced. Soothing and rocking BB doesn't need to happen anywhere near as much as you might expect, mainly only happens when you fall and cause stress or have a hard time with the BTs. The stealth is not as polished as it is in MGS games but it also doesn't feel like it should be with us playing an "every man" as opposed to one of the best soldiers ever.
In the end, I just expected more out of this game than I got and did feel a little let down by this. For me I had more fun riding the "Ruse Cruise" and checking out YouTube videos on the conspiracy of the Konami/Kojima split than I did with this game. I didn't hate it by any means but I also didn't love it like I was hoping I would. In the end using it's own (and many other video games) ranking system or the star style if you prefer, I would give this game a:
Still a decent game and I don't regret picking it up, but I wasn't blown away either.
Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed it. I decided to put this together as I have been asked by many of you what my thoughts have been on this game.