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*Disclaimer - This product is being reviewed on the PlayStation 5 on "Very Hard" difficulty with the code provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review. Gaming Instincts is an Amazon affiliate and does gain financial benefits if you choose to purchase this product on this page.*
You see, describing Death Stranding is like trying to explain to someone how a core gameplay mechanic that seems to be extremely boring and tedious can be addicting, rewarding and, most importantly, fun. Ever since the game's announcement many years ago, the gaming world was utterly puzzled, confused, nervous and excited all at the same time. Simply because it was the next big game from the very well-known game designer Hideo Kojima, who is famous for the legendary Metal Gear Solid franchise. Kojima loves to mess with people's minds and Sony enjoys playing along with him and his ideas. The game is over a year old by now and most interested gamers already know what it's all about. However, it's still worthwhile explaining what Death Stranding actually is, how it plays and why it's so damn fun and addicting.
There is quite a lot going on in Death Stranding, so it's best just to talk about the main premise of the game, some of its main characters and that's it. Otherwise, we will end up in the spoiler territory which we would prefer to avoid at all costs. America is crumbling, and its President, Bridget Strand, is in the final stages of cancer. Her last dying wish is to reconnect everyone and rebuild every part of the USA, facility by facility, region by region.
You assume the role of Sam, who is a porter and works for a company called Bridges. Porters are essentially another name for delivery people who take packages and cargo from facility to facility in the same region or across regions in the USA. Throughout the game, you will meet many different types of characters such as Deadman who is played by Guillermo Del Toro. Deadman is a doctor, who takes care of you and assists you as any doctor would throughout your journey. Then there is Amelie who is one of the core characters played by Lindsay Wagner. There is also Higgs and Fragile who play a vital role in the whole storyline. Higgs is portrayed by Troy Baker, the same actor who plays Joel Miller from The Last of Us I, The Last of Us Part II and Nathan's Drake's brother, Sam, from Uncharted 4: A Thief's End. The list goes on, but perhaps it's better to play the game and experience the characters and their motives yourself instead of describing every single character to you now.
If you've played any previous titles from Hideo Kojima then you know what to expect when it comes to the cut-scenes, characters, plot development, sound queues and so on. Kojima always strives to provide an emotional cinematic experience mixed with great gameplay design. While the game is filled out with a bunch of cut-scenes in the beginning hours, there is enough gameplay here that the players don't have to worry about running into another Metal Gear Solid 4 situation where the majority of the game was cut-scenes instead of gameplay. That's a good thing in my book.
Surprisingly, the plotline of Death Stranding is easy to follow and most importantly, the cut-scenes are fun to watch, well-acted and just as you'd expect: full with a great ambient soundtrack and fitting sound effects. Oh, and yes, there are plenty of moments where your mind gets confused and you think a bit more than usual, but that's normal for a Hideo Kojima directed game, otherwise it wouldn't be a Kojima game, and if you enjoy that, then Death Stranding will be right up your alley when it comes to storytelling and the overall plotline.
This is where Death Stranding has really caught me by surprise and in a good way. The game's core design mechanic is to make deliveries from one facility to another facility in the different regions of the USA. In the beginning, you are somewhat introduced to a short tutorial of carrying a package and traversing the environment all while learning about the game's universe and its characters. On paper, the idea sounds incredibly awful and tedious, but thankfully it was designed exceptionally well, to the point where it's one of the best games I've played this past generation. I'm not counting the 9th generation consoles since this is just a re-release with more bells and whistles.
So how is making deliveries in Death Stranding fun and what is so good about it? Death Stranding is a perfect example of when a game is solely designed around one core mechanic, which I previously mentioned is about making deliveries and managing your inventory. The gameplay loop is quite simple to explain, you go to a facility and pick up an order from the terminal. The screen menus tell you exactly what you are going to carry on your character and how much it will weigh and where the final delivery destination is. The challenge is to learn how your character and the cargo being carried interacts with the environment and the best way to traverse around it to get to the drop-off location. While some deliveries are quite long distances, others are in mountainous areas, which climbing steep locations in Death Stranding is a daunting task. That is, unless, you are smart with your inventory management, and can understand how the game's mechanics works with the game's physics.
Whoever designed the inventory system for Death Stranding seriously deserves a platinum medal, it is that good. To better explain, let's take a look at this scenario. If Sam is carrying cargo on his back, but also has some items in the private terminal locker (a locker that belongs to Sam in the facility that he interacts with) then the system will allow you to access both of these inventories through one single menu. Essentially, this means the player does not need to go in and out of menus 24/7 and everything is accessible right then and there.
For a game that heavily relies on inventory management, this is one of the smartest systems I've seen designed for a video game in a long time. This is a great example of how small mechanics and adjustments can complement the core mechanic making the gameplay loop fun, less tedious and fast. The player actually spends their time enjoying the game instead of twiddling with their fingers and trying to figure out where everything is in the game. Once the player turns in the cargo, Sam will receive a final score, the S rank is the best you can achieve. If you've played previous Hideo Kojima games then you will feel right at home with the ranking system. Sam gets graded on a lot of aspects including time, how much damage the cargo received, distance, weight and so on. I've poured more than 30+ hours into the game and played it on the Very Hard Difficult setting and quite frankly its actually not that difficult to achieve S ranks, especially once you understand the mechanics and get the flow going.
The game also has an extensive crafting system. Sam is able to fabricate items using 3D printing technology at the facilities. By providing the required materials players can craft things such as vehicles that can help with traversal and transportation, buildings that will affect gameplay in a particular region and useful items such as repair sprays, standard weapons for human enemies, called MULES, and anti-BT weapons, which are used against the supernatural forces of Death Stranding. Repair sprays are used to fix up damaged cargo. It's always a smart idea to carry one or two sprays with you during a delivery because you never know if you might fall off a cliff on accident, get grabbed by a BT or be hit by the MULES.
Crafting is very easy to understand and as the player progresses through the main storyline, Sam will receive higher-level items that are more powerful than previous versions. For example, you can equip an exo-skeleton to your body so that you may carry more weight than normal. Some exo-skeletons also focus on speed rather than on carrying capacity and both are useful depending on the type of delivery order you are picking up and where you are required to go.
What truly fascinates me about Death Stranding is how everything is perfectly designed for the purpose of making the deliveries easier, faster and more complex as you progress. Early in the game, you do not have access to many items and the delivery experience is quite basic. As a matter of fact, you have a basic level 1 exo-skeleton, anti-BT grenades, repair spray and that's pretty much it. You are completely on your own to figure out the land and the best routes to each of the facilities.
However, once you get to Episode 3 or so, things start to really pick up, the game opens up and becomes more complex than ever before, but all these new mechanics and ideas are incredible to experience. There are very few games, that are good at rewarding players for their time and overall progression. Not only does Death Stranding have great pacing when it comes challenging the player with traversal and combat as they progress but the game also rewards the player for adapting to these changes and complexities.
Vehicles in Death Stranding are a vital part of the gameplay while also adding a ton of personality and fun to the game. The first vehicle is called a Reverse Trike, Sam is able to put cargo on the backseat and also carry some on his back, not to mention the vehicle is quite fast if you use the L3 button to boost. However, you have to be mindful of the vehicle's battery, what you are carrying and where you are going. If the player drives sloppy or runs into a BT by accident and gets grabbed then they are in a world of hurt. The cargo can also suffer enough damage that it will negatively affect your rank.
As previously mentioned, you will start gaining access to new toys and gadgets and vehicles are no exception to that either. Eventually, you will be able to build two additional Reverse Trikes: one that is focused on carrying more cargo than the basic trike and another that is ideal for long-distance travel thanks to its additional battery. Sam can have up to four vehicles at a time in a particular region, if you want to craft a new one then you have to dismantle one of the other four, which makes sense from a balancing perspective.
Speaking of crafting vehicles, players can also craft buildings such as generators. The generators are basically battery charging stations, if Sam's exo-skeleton battery is almost out of juice along with his Reverse Trike then you should hit up a local generator or build a new one if necessary. You can also build safehouses where you may enter a private room to fully heal via sleep, take a shower, use the restroom and access other parts of the game such as Nightmares and the Firing Range. Normally, the private room is accessible through a facility terminal, but the safehouse HQ allows you to enter wherever you've built it. It can also act as a garage in the middle of the map for your vehicles.
Nightmares and Firing Range work the same way as the challenges did in the Metal Gear Solid franchise. In Nightmares, you can access to previous boss fights and compete for leaderboard rankings. Go to a Firing Range to get ranked on different weapon challenges such as killing all the BTs in a fast amount of time or shooting fake targets and racing your way to the goal location.
Death Stranding has another big component that makes it truly unique and different from many games released in the past. Not only is the game not a conventional action/adventure shooter game, but it also takes the Demon Souls and Dark Souls style of online integration to the next level. In the Dark Souls games, players are able to leave online messages to others and either use them to troll someone or help somebody out. These messages let players know there is a trap ahead or a monster is hiding around a corner. Death Stranding takes these types of elements to the next level, if you are playing the game in online mode, you can see other peoples buildings and use them to your advantage.
A good example of this is a generator that is placed by somebody else or even a ladder that someone put near a cliff so other porters can easily climb up and down when they need to make a delivery in that location. Not to mention, people can even leave a like on other player's placements. When you receive likes in the game, it's quite satisfying, it also progresses your in-game porter rank, an essential component for your core character upgrades.
Players can even leave their cargo in terminals and entrust other players to finish their cargo runs. That is if they are too lazy or if they just decide to give up. This gives other porters an opportunity to get more points because you might be going towards that destination anyway, so why not pick up extra cargo if you have the room and score more points? Perfection in game design is what I call that. It's worth noting that each facility has a maximum of five stars that you are able to obtain, obtaining all the stars in a facility will grant you a start symbol on your clothing, if you are able to obtain five stars across all the facilities in the entire game you will unlock one of the most time-consuming trophies. If you are going for that platinum then be ready for dozens and dozens of hours. But hey, when the gameplay loop is this fun, it doesn't matter.
During the beginning of my playthrough, I was extremely lucky to have someone leave a random Reverse Trike right in front of one of the main facilities in the start of Episode 2. It was a vehicle left by another player and I've used it for essentially 10 hours, which is something I found to be really interesting and something I've never experienced before where a player from a different part of the world is physically affecting my gameplay in a big way. The vehicle made the deliveries a lot faster, more fun and less daunting. Since the game is all about rebuilding America and helping each other out, the multiplayer aspect of this game suits the lore and theme of the game extremely well and just adds more value to the overall experience.
The combat in Death Stranding is an interesting case. It's not amazing, but it's not horrible either. It gets the job done. If you are looking for a heart-pumping action game then you won't find it here. DOOM Eternal or something like The Last of Us II and God of War are far better alternatives for combat-oriented games. However, that's not what Death Stranding is trying to be, and what it does offer for combat, I would argue, is more than serviceable. Death Stranding has two different types of enemies the MULES and BTs, as previously mentioned, and they are unique from one another and must be tackled in completely different manners.
MULES are your standard humanoid enemies that wear yellow hazmat-looking suits and run around with long, electrified sticks that act like spears. They can stun vehicles as well as Sam. MULES have two different types of attacks, regular melee combat and spear throws that can immobilize your vehicle if it happens to land on you. On "Very Hard" difficulty you can take about 3-4 hits before Sam becomes unconscious. If your health goes to zero, the MULES take away all of your cargo and weapons and either dumps them into a local dumpsite or puts the cargo in their lockers. You are able to retrieve your stuff if you make it back to the MULES camp and quickly access the locker before they get to you. Getting knocked out in this game is not that bad of a punishment as it may seem and it's not that difficult to recover.
Sam can fight the MULES by spamming the attack, which is your typical 3-4 hit combos, until they get knocked out. Knocked-out enemies can be stripped of their gear and cargo, so if you are looking for certain materials for crafting or utility gadgets, your best bet is to go and assault a MULE camp. Sam also has access to different weapons such as the Maser and Bola guns for example. The Maser is just a regular weapon that zaps enemies with electricity until they get killed. Bolas wrap a strand around the enemy and stuns them for quite a while, you can then kick a stunned enemy and knock them out for good. The combat is almost like a spiritual successor to Metal Gear Solid, it has a very familiar feel to it.
The other type of enemy is the BTs. BTs are essentially these weird supernatural beings that are part of the world in Death Stranding. BTs are not as common as the MULES are, they appear on what is called a BT activity site. You'll know you are near a BT activity site when it starts raining and the weather gets worse and worse. Eventually, your BB (the baby in the pod) will activate and let you know where the BTs are as you walk and stealth around. BTs can be avoided if you are very careful of your surroundings and know your way around certain areas. However, if you are forced into combat then you will be required to use the limited HT-Grenades which are special weapons that use Sam's blood as ammo.
There is an item in the game called a Blood Bag and if you use the grenade it will use the blood from the bag instead of your health. Think of it like ammo that ensures that you don't accidentally kill yourself. It's an odd mechanic, but it works well and makes the gameplay and combat a bit more interesting than usual. Plus it never seemed to get in the way of combat. If a BT spots you then you must crouch down and hold your breath by holding the R1 button. However, holding R1 for too long will drain your stamina and if it reaches zero you may fall down and have all your cargo fall on the ground or better yet off the cliff. The BT will most likely notice you and drag you into a pool of dark goop. If you do not manage to escape, then a catcher will spawn and you have to run out of the black-filled pool to escape the catcher. If the catcher catches you, then you are done for and Sam will respawn, not die. Sam is a character that physically is not able to die as explained through the game's lore - he is what they call a repatriate.
It wouldn't be a Hideo Kojima game without cool boss fights. In Death Stranding, you fight these unique scary-looking BTs. Since the game is already a year old, we figured it was okay to show an example of the first boss fight. This BT monster is called a Catcher, as the name implies it tries to catch you and eat you up. It's a basic fight in terms of mechanics, you are forced to run around a nightmarish-looking environment covered in the black goo and collect as many hematic grenades as possible.
Blood bags were also scattered around and are required for you to stay alive. After you gathered around six to eight grenades, it was pretty easy to finish the boss off. You just run around, throw a few from a far distance and then try to go to another side of the arena and avoid his attacks as much as possible. Rinse and repeat and he will be dead. The boss wasn't that difficult, even on "Very Hard" difficulty and took about two tries to take down. The design of the boss is quite cool, it looks like the artists wanted to take some inspiration from H.P Lovecraft because this Catcher is quite the Cthulhu-looking one.
Death Stranding is not your insane-looking, drop-dead gorgeous game, however, for what it's trying to achieve (the story it wants to tell) the visual art-style looks good and gets the job done. The game runs on the DECIMA engine, which is the same engine that was used for Horizon: Zero Dawn and now, of course, Death Stranding and the upcoming Horizon: Forbidden West. The environments in the game are quite plain and not very busy, but that's not necessarily a bad thing considering the game is set in a post-apocalyptic America. You won't find any trees in the game or a ton of foliage, but you will come across a ton of mountain tops, buildings built by players, rocks, cliffs, rivers, craters and so on. The game has a photo mode and there are plenty of locations to take beautiful pictures from, especially if you manage your way up a high mountain top.
Audio on Death Stranding is quite good. The menu inventory sounds are snappy and fitting, vehicles motor sound great, weaponry and explosions' are satisfying to hear as well. As previously mentioned, the awesome cast of characters and actors all have great dialogue and no one is ever annoying to listen to. That is important when you are trying to tell a good story, assuming that the character that is speaking is not meant to be disliked intentionally.
The ambient music fits the ominous vibe of the game and usually, cues at key moments during cut-scenes. Death Stranding has also licensed some music from "Low Roar" which personally is not my type of music, but it fits the game theme and meaning quite well, so it makes sense why Hideo Kojima and Sony decided to go after them specifically. It is usually played during certain missions in the storyline, but it can be interrupted if you come across a BT or a group of MULES and get into combat.
It's worth mentioning that the Director's Cut version of the game on the PlayStation 5 runs at a silky-smooth 60FPS at 1800p and defaults to the performance mode. Sixty fps is something the PS4 and PS4 Pro were lacking, so this is without a doubt a welcome addition. The game also features a widescreen mode that is similar to the PC version of the game. However, since the PS5 doesn't actually support a widescreen mode, you do get black bars on top and bottom of the screen but receive a much more dramatic field of view. This version of the game also features a quality mode, which is Native 4K and targets 60FPS. Surprisingly, it mostly stays at 60FPS but does dip a bit more often during BT encounters and in-game cut-scenes. Other than that, Director's Cut offers quite a bit more than your standard PS4 version. This is the optimal way to play the game if you have yet to play it or want a smoother experience.
Death Stranding has this odd feeling where picking up a simple delivery can create an interesting experience every time you hop from facility to facility. One time you could pick up the delivery but then decide to stop by a different delivery on the way. Before accomplishing the delivery, you could, maybe, build a road or fight a bunch of MULES because you need mats for this other building you want to finish. You can clearly see a pattern here, how each different gameplay element creates a fun and different experience every time you decide to go from one part of the map to another. There would also be times where I would say to myself: "oh ok, it's midnight, it's ok I'll just do these last two deliveries." Fast forward and it's 3 AM in the morning. It's extremely rare for a game to do that to me and I am not sure how or why but Death Stranding is very good at accomplishing that task. Anything that you do in the game rewards you in one form or another and it feels good. I feel that many games these days really lack a sense of good progression. Meanwhile, Death Stranding does the complete opposite and rewards players for their time and effort.
Maybe it's because I just want to see where the story progresses because it's actually good and I love the characters and how everything is set up. Or sometimes, I just want to get two or more facilities to the maximum five-star rank for that shiny new star on my clothing and character progression. Other times, I just enjoy driving the vehicles at blazing speeds on the roads that I've built earlier.
Death Stranding is a game that caught me by surprise, I am far from a Hideo Kojima fan and I was never overly impressed with the Metal Gear Solid franchise, but this game just hits different. It's a 10 out of 10 for me and I am happy to say that it's a game that is going on my list of Games of the Generation. While the game may seem very simple (which it is) it's the mechanics, characters and story that complement it and makes it a lot more than just a delivery simulator, but rather what I would like to call - an amazing and unforgettable journey.Stay tuned at Gaming Instincts via Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook for more gaming news.