Alex Birlo on November 18, 2019
First thing, there are no story spoilers here, I discuss only mechanics and concepts. This review will be split into several topics, the biggest of which are: Story, World, and Gameplay.
Also, you must understand that this game is a thing you can fully understand only if you play it yourself. This game is based around altruistic values Kojima had set out to share with the players and it had definitely reached me.
But will it reach everyone else?
The story is an indisputably original creation. It is exactly what you would expect from an experienced and involved artist as Hideo Kojima when you give him complete freedom.
But it may feel like the story really kicks in only after the first half of the missions. Though in reality, it is only because you find yourself so intrigued by the complexity of the “easy at first look” game mechanics, that you waste hours just exploring the delivery loop.
This is a thing that I noticed is rarely spoken about and I am happy for it because it means that some people had EVEN MORE fun with this game than I did.
But I want to talk about it first because I loved this game a lot and the rest of the review is very positive. And also to avoid spoilers, it is all I will explicitly say regarding the story. More will be in the other sections, but not that much.
Kojima laid out everything in this game too far apart. The unraveling of facts surrounding the plot and its mysteries were so slowly presented that I was not “fully surprised” by a single one of them.
I just slowly, bit by bit, pieced it all together in such a way that some of the biggest reveals of the story were known to me from the VERY BEGINNING of the game!
I constantly had the odd feeling that every step in the progress felt just a little too slow throughout the entire game. It felt like even the final credits rolled a second too late.
The story is extremely original and the message Kojima has is everywhere and is conveyed incredibly. The characters, the gameplay loop, the plot twists. But it’s all just one second too long, just one scene too much.
Yes, I understand that the slow and quiet journey, the solitude and the dangerous silent nature around you are all part of the idea and the gameplay that is built to facilitate the theme of the game.
But just like that, I was left generally unimpressed at the end of 91 hours playthrough. Because every truth uncovered during this journey lost its impact due to how “slow” things were taken.
No epic mood, no dramatic music kicking in. Just a good story, about interesting people in a strange and breath-taking world. But I still have the feeling that Kojima can do so much more!
No, it is not a walking simulator like the game functionality of “Dear Esther” or “Outlast” was for example. Where there are only minor deviations from the core actions of [running] and [hiding]. More correctly it is a “Delivery simulator” which implies a much more complicated set of actions undertaken at every single moment. But even then it is extremely diminishing of its gameplay process to actually call it like that.
It is truly a “Social Stranding” game as Kojima said it would be. And here we will see why.
Humor me for a second and create this logical chain in your own minds as you read:
When you create a game, you decide on the theme of the game you are going to create and model the entire experience around that theme – your story, your gameplay and the esthetics of the world. Because if not, then you will end up with a project that is all over the place and is all around “not fun to play”.
Here, the theme – as Kojima has stated countless times – is “Connections” or “Creating Connections” and that of altruism, and struggle for peace.
And thus, it is quite literally what the whole story revolves around – your aim is to at least reach a certain level of allegiance with various facilities scattered across the vast game world and get them to agree and join a “Network”.
Now, gameplay. When you create a game and now have a theme, you also think about what the player will be doing to further the progress of the story that revolves around said theme.
At this point, let us say there was an option to make the standard, run of the mill “soldier protagonist” that is some kind of warrior that literally fights the bad guys.
If Kojima would have gone with this type of character, the gameplay would revolve around killing some bad guys and thus gaining the trust of the people and getting them connected to the network.
Though let us not forget what was the theme – making connections, altruism, struggle for peace. If you want to convey this sort of message to the player, how could you possibly be creating a gameplay loop that revolves around murder and different sorts of violence?
This is where a different option comes to mind. What sort of occupation – for the main character – can facilitate the creation of a gameplay system that has its focus, not on violence?
Well, Kojima and his team had a great idea of a “Postman”.
A postman is a quite universal and peaceful occupation; around which you can easily create “altruistic” adventures:
Now that you have a theme and you have a character, you naturally start filling the game with “barriers” that the player will have to overcome. And those barriers naturally also correspond to the theme and the character’s occupation.
So, because the main character is a “postman” of sorts and his main function is to deliver stuff, how do you gamify this?
One of the most important things is delivering the packages in good shape – so something has to endanger the packages:
Well, every story has to have a predicament, most interesting are the predicaments that involve a specific villain and if there is a villain then it surely means there is some sort of conflict. Thus conflict – is a point that perfectly serves the dynamics of a story.
If you think about it, having violence in a “nonviolence focused game” is actually a good tool to further your plot and moral points. What if you make it so that the very cause of the cataclysmic events – that left the world in ruins in the first place – is death itself?
And not death as a fact – oh we killed too many of our fellow humans and now there are so little of us.
But death as a concept – if you kill, the person will return from the other world as a sort of ghost that you cannot see, but it can consume the living. And when it does, this causes an explosion that annihilates everything around it.
So now – with violence added with a hefty price tag for the player – you can add a bunch of bandits. These bandits will try to knock you out – not kill you – and take your stuff.
And you can add the main villain’s faction, who – in opposite to the main character – do not care, and kill people left and right, causing these explosions.
This creates a contrast of motivations and behaviors that you can play with as the writer of the story. Plus, still have some of the more traditional gameplay moments that focus on combat, but only when it is absolutely necessary.
You can also push it further, by providing the player with a choice to fight enemies with lethal weapons or nonlethal. And make it that your own death also can cause an explosion and leave a crater in the game world.
The shooting IS there and it is enjoyable and fast-paced when you get into it. Feels snappy as you run across a forest, sliding behind a fallen tree and with exaggerated grace shoot terrorists, that move to surround you, with an absolutely “recoilless” gun while swapping out the last bag of blood that slowly replenishes your health through an automated mechanism.
Stealth comes in two forms.
The first one is against humans. It is the more traditional type of stealth. When you have bandits called MULEs with camps across the game world and they try to take your stuff. But even here there is an interesting mechanic in place.
MULEs will care ONLY about your cargo and not even your equipment. So they do not want to even kill you, just knock you out, take your stuff and drag your unconscious body outside their territory.
They, just as you, have scanners that locate cargo – crafting materials and specific items you deliver for quests. So if you have nothing of the sorts on you, they can detect you only if they see you. This is when you go hiding in tall grass and sneak around to knock them out.
The second one is when you encounter an area with the ghostly monsters called BTs. And here you have a totally different scenario.
Most importantly, you can see the BTs only when you stand still and are close enough. As soon as you start moving you stop seeing them again, so you have to remember their positions.
On your back you have a scanner called “Odradek”, the name is based on a creature from a story called “The Cares of a Family Man” written by Franz Kafka. This scanner can help you look for cargo or show the general direction of the closest BT to you and spins faster the closer you are to it.
When you are very close to a BT you have to hold your breath so it does not sense you. But if they do detect you, then they will chase you to try and drag you towards the biggest of them in the area.
And if you get captured, then you begin a boss battle. But you can always try to escape it if you can’t fight it.
This creates a lot of thrilling, quiet stealth moments. Especially at the beginning of the game when you have no weapons to even defend yourself.
The biggest meme I saw about the game is how people would record themselves walking with a ridiculously tall pile of cargo on their back and then trip over because they did not maintain their balance.
On this, I will just give you a couple of advice to also illustrate that it is an interesting game mechanic and not that difficult to learn.
To keep you balance you just have to make sure to not create the “leaning tower of Pisa” on your back, by distributing the cargo evenly around as many slots as you have on your character (with time you get more options).
And when you go up or down a steep hill or a rocky terrain – hold both triggers for the character to grab his backpack with both hands and hold it that way until you’re clear. This way you get yourself balanced and just keep walking until the hard terrain ends.
And in case you have an extremely heavy load to be delivered or you want to do several deliveries at the same time – you just take a vehicle and load the cargo on it. It’s not as hard as IGN tries to make it seem.
You probably already heard a thousand times that this is a UPS courier simulator. And that the game is just a series of simple fetch quests, where every single time: you take something at point A and you have to deliver it somewhere else at point B. But it is not that simple.
Yes, the protagonist IS a courier, but in this world, a courier is a much more dignified occupation. Because since the apocalypse rendered most of the advancements of civilization obsolete and the outside world is so dangerous, people live isolated lives and are most times unable to acquire even the most basic things.
So, people rely on couriers who besides that are ALSO part engineers, part explorers, and part soldiers in order to deliver even a simple pizza without it getting cold.
So yes, you might look at it from an extrinsic perspective of “I take some box that weighs 80 kilograms from point A and carry it to point B to receive a reward”. Or you can actually give a damn about the details and feel the intrinsic satisfaction from “Carrying 80 kilograms worth of medical equipment, 3 kilometers into the mountains, through a snow blizzard while fighting otherworldly monsters, all for the sake of saving a pregnant woman”.
One hell of a difference in gameplay, wouldn’t you say?
In Death Stranding the multiplayer is based on the idea that when you do something useful for yourself, it can serve someone else as well.
If you will, for example, place a ladder to climb somewhere for yourself, it will also show up in a random player’s world and they can also use it and give you likes for it.
You will gradually gain more and more tools to not only traverse the world but also reshape it. You can build roads, shelters, bases, stashes, bridges and all sorts of things that will help you, while also will appear in other players’ sessions and will help them as well.
I just wanted to shortly address the fact that throughout my 90 hours of playing I have encountered NO bugs, not a single glitch or unloaded texture or frame drop!
The game is perfectly optimized and supports even its busiest scenes.
One other problem I think arises from the fact that people go into this game expecting a “good old” Kojima MGS game. There is shooting, there is stealth and there are vehicles, but all of those are not the focus of the game.
As we can understand from what Kojima said in an interview he gave to BBC – in an age of local warfare between us, raising walls between us (Trump), burning bridges between us (Brexit) – and without getting into any pointless argument over politics, where each of us is free to make their own mind, he just says that we forget about what it meant once to be connected.
So he did not set out to do another “Metal Gear” or some Third Person Shooter or even a traditional stealth game. He said he wanted to create something that “there was not” and share a thought he had on his mind and in his soul.
The world and its lore are massive and meticulously designed using biblical and cabalistic references, real-world science and history, together with social commentary and philosophy.
It is complicated and a lot of the enjoyment comes from uncovering exactly HOW does this world function, so I will talk only about some things that I really liked and that will not hurt your own adventure of discovery.
Even the way Kojima plays with the names of the characters adds depth to the world and makes each of the main cast extremely memorable.
It is about how they all have a kind of “middle name”, so to say, that represents their occupation or origin. A call back to how in the medieval ages people and knights would have the name of their order or their occupation used as a middle or surname.
This creates a sense that, for example, Sam Porter Bridges – who is the main protagonist of the game – is some kind of “knight errant”. “Sam” is the name, “Porter” is his occupation and “Bridges” is in essence what he ends up doing “building bridges” as he does his work.
I cannot even describe the feeling that I had then. One day I am playing only with a couple more people whose structures I encounter here and there. And then when I wake up on the day of the launch and suddenly I see roads, bridges and even footpaths that created narrow mud paths from all the people who ALREADY passed through this same place!
Even if there is no direct interaction with other players, you never feel like you are alone.
Another interesting concept supporting Kojima’s idea of a game that reminds people of compassion is the “Like System” of Death Stranding. Through it, you collect Likes as an intrinsic reward for good deeds and are free to use them to like structures and actions made by other players. As I found from in-game lore bits called “Interviews” – that you can read up on as you progress through the world – the like system in this game is related to the fact that there is a hormone that cures “Chiral Contamination” – the new radioactive mineral they discovered after the cataclysm – they called it “Likecin”, see what they did there? – [Like]cin, nice one, I like it. And the thing is that it cannot be administered externally, only produced by the body. They discovered that this hormone is produced when a person gets a sense of accomplishment or receives praise from others – hence the “Like System”.
At the end of the game, I saw exactly what Hideo Kojima wanted me to see. It was a screen that calculated all may gameplay statistics.
Connections made with other players: 1,139
Total likes received: 90,091
From NPCs – 28,170
From other players – 61,921
I was surprised to see with just how many other players did I end up indirectly connecting and how much more likes I received from other players than I received as a reward from NPCs.
This makes you understand how many people you can never see and yet, be connected to them.
This game is about connections. This game is about how we should not forget
that we began connecting to each other with good intentions.
Not to spill dirt and fight with each other on the internet, but to share and help. We were connected not for the hatred and anger, but for knowledge and to evolve all together.
I keep on believing that as Kojima continues his path as an independent studio developer, he will manage to nail the following games better and better.
At the end of the day, Hideo made something beautiful with a nice message.
Yes, it does not have all the standard STRONG impressions we expect, but it fits me personally.
And still, I want to say that I know he can do better and I see that we all are much better off letting Kojima do his own thing than forcing him into some publisher’s corporate frame.