Thanks to the amazing, and useful, Zunos app I was able to get my hypothetical hands on a digital-deluxe copy of Death Stranding! I’ve been mildly curious about this game since it was revealed, but as the months stretched on into years one thing never changed: I had no idea what this game was meant to be. There are ghosts, society has fractured, Norman Reedus and Guillermo Del Toro are here, but Junji Ito isn’t. The open world was introduced, the terrifying baby was introduced, package delivery was introduced, but I still had no idea what the Hell Death Stranding was meant to be. Since this is a game helmed by Hideo Kojima, I expected a hand crafted open world that I would be allowed to wander around in, in between 45 minute cutscenes. I don’t like being a contrarian; I never expected to buy this game but since I was given a free copy, I was determined to do everything I could to enjoy this game. This is what I’ve come up with so far.
(Hideo Kojima Presents, a Hideo Kojima Production)
I’d like to start by briefly describing my first hour or two with Death Stranding. Once the game was downloaded, and I initiated the opening cutscene, I was called into the living room because my partner wanted to tell me an anecdote about their partner. It was just one of those things where party A receives a call from party B at 3am because party A loves party B, and no alcohol isn’t involved. Also, I was told for the 12th time to play Man of Medan. About 15 minutes later, I get back to my room and watch Norman Reedus lose his motorcycle. I‘m then told by the game to get from the wilderness, to a distribution center. I’m feeling pretty positive at this point! This isn’t another Metal Gear 4 scenario, I’m able to play the game within an hour of starting it up. I trek down a hill, realize that a big part of the game seems to have gamified walking itself, feel a pang of annoyance, but then come to grips (I think there’s a pun in there) with the controls and continue on. I lead Mr. Reedus into a cave and a cutscene plays. Woo-yay! This gives me a chance to crack open that first volume of Sunstone I picked up a month or three ago.
I did pay enough attention to the cave cutscene to get a feel for what’s going on with the world. A character is introduced, and I feel neutral toward the, but I don’t really know anything about them yet. The cutscene sets up intrigue, and a short while later I’m allowed to get back into the wilderness. It didn’t take me long to figure out how to use the compass and set waypoints in first-person mode. It also didn’t take me very long to figure out that it’s easier to put things on my back rather than try and hold them in my hand, though I’m still not sure if I need to hold either of the 2 buttons or not. It seemed like letting go of L2 or R2 would drop whatever is in the corresponding hand, but it also seemed like there was an instance where that didn’t happen. Even after several play-sessions, and unlocking the trike, I still don’t know if I only need to hold the L2/R2 buttons to initiate picking an item up, or if I need to keep those buttons held down to hold onto them.
Anyway, I tried getting used to moving around in Death Stranding again, and it reminds me a bit of how movement worked in Grand Theft Auto IV. There’s a profound sense of weight which is nicely conveyed by Norman Reedus and extensive motion capture work. It also seems like gravity is somewhat more intense than what it should be in real life based on how often you can lose balance and how hard you impact on the ground when you fall over. I look forward to the PC release of this game, where modders add in non-playable old women and massive staircases to push them off of.
From the cave, I made Norm waddle down a hill, and through a river until I made it to a distribution center. A massive chunk of the story then happened at me in a series of cutscenes I probably could have skipped. I lost interest, but unlike Phantom Pain or Metal Gear 4, I wasn’t agitated by the interruption. I wasn’t engaged either, but I wasn’t feeling the irritation and borderline anger that other Kojima games have inspired in me recently. After a much lengthier bout of exposition, and me guiltily skipping a cutscene once, I’m introduced to a stupid-looking car and a character whose name I don’t remember. A new aspect of the world is introduced via cutscene, but not really, because I can control the camera and miss all of the poignant bits of said cutscene.
(I wish I could drive a pick-up truck and a scissor lift at the same time...if only...)
I was given the freedom to look at the skybox, and I took that opportunity, but controlling the camera in this cutscene was very imprecise. I did try keeping the camera pointed at what I thought was an important point on the screen, but this scene played out in a moving vehicle so focusing on much of anything was beyond me. The worst part was that moving the camera didn’t correspond with my inputs: I could nudge the right stick and that would send the camera’s point-of-view spinning wildly in that direction. A cutscene with a professional cameraman happened soon after, (that is to say, an actual cutscene happened) yet another aspect of the world was introduced, and without an explanation that I can remember, I wake up back in safety and with a job to do even though I should probably have died. The task at hand is directly related to what we just learned about the world, and even though there’s a ticking clock element to consider, the gameplay doesn’t really reflect that. What is reflected in gameplay is that certain bits of cargo are a lot more difficult to handle than standard boxes.
Upon completing this mission, conflict finally happens. I’m playing on the hardest difficulty, I had no means of defending myself, I don’t know how stealth works in this game, and I was spotted by hostile entities fairly quickly. Surprisingly, I wasn’t killed. I thought I was going to die, I SHOULD have died, but even though I fell over and seemingly entered a world made up of the vengeful spirits of [insert latest oil tanker spill tragedy here], I was able to just casually walk away from the deep ones and the world just kind of decided to go back to normal. I walked back to base feeling more confused than anything. I wasn’t attacked again, and when I was graded I got an S rank. I made a joke along these lines months ago that I seem to have been living at the time: I was playing Death Stranding, and I had no idea what Death Stranding actually is, or what it’s trying to do.
It was after this point that I started playing American Truck Simulator, and Fallout 4 again. I can’t say I hate Death Stranding, but there are things that I would much rather do than play it. I could just skip the cutscenes, but I only did that once because I felt like I should meet the game half-way by acknowledging them. The problem with that is, I don’t feel any investment towards any of the characters, and the plot is quickly losing me. I don’t watch TV, so Norman Reedus is just an ugly face to me. I like Del Toro’s movies, but I would rather watch one of those than watch him in Jim Sterling cosplay talking about taking care of babies. There’s another guy who wears a stupid-looking skull mask that I just can’t take seriously at all, and those name I’ve forgotten. Then there’s Mads Mikkleson; every single time I see him in-game, it just makes me want to switch over to Netlu or Huflix and watch Hannibal again. Out of every actor in Death Stranding, he’s the one I want to see more of and the one I’m most curious about. Finally there’s the baby: To be completely honest, the baby freaks me out. I don’t know what my issue is with small children, but they trigger a flight response in me, and the baby in DS sits comfortably in a region of the uncanny valley that makes me want nothing to do with it. Something about the way it moves freely in its tank while looking at you with its massive anime eyes...It unnerves me to no end, and not in a good way like Mads Mikkelson’s face.
(I can't tell if he's disappointed in me or if he's trying to smoulder)
I played Death Stranding a few times this month, mainly because I found a motorcycle and I was positive the game would get better if I didn’t have to waddle around hostile territory. Problematically though, the resource that I needed to power up the motorbike is at a place I left and have no plans of returning to; or so I thought. In order to power up the trike (I think it’s called the reverse trike) I needed to build a generator. To do that, I needed to craft a construction kit, but the way they’re presented, I thought there were specific construction kits for specific structures. When I played the mission to build a post box for example, that was all I was able to build so the tutorial mission was straight-forward and simple. Building a bridge was also straight-forward, but I didn’t realize the item I used to build the bridge was the same as the one I used to build the post box. It could be a text size issue or maybe I missed a line somewhere, but if I was forced to equip a PCC and manually select a structure during one of the tutorial builds it would have illustrated that you can do that.
I figured out how an important item works, learned that I can dismantle a thing built by someone else with no negative effects (it would have been nice to know I can do this sooner), and once my generator was up it only took a few seconds for my brand new trike to be fully powered and ready for action! At this point I resolved to ignore any specific missions and just wander about the world to see if BT’s show up randomly, and more importantly, if they show up while I’m riding a vehicle.I drove toward the coast with an intended goal of making it back to starting-knot-city. On my way, another annoyance came to mind: item management and menu navigation.
The idea that everything in your inventory is physically attached to you and hinders your movement in some way or another is one that I like a lot. Opening a menu, selecting one item, hitting X to confirm that selection, scrolling to the bottom of a menu, hitting X again to double-dog-dare confirm your selection is something that bothers me to no end. Having the trike is great since I feel like I’ve failed every time I had to walk by a lost bit of cargo, but I couldn’t figure out a definitive means of finding its carry limit. I couldn’t find a way to auto-sort carried equipment in a way that incorporated my vehicle, just the cargo and the player character. Grabbing a box from the ground and walking it to the side of the bike worked fine for me, until it stopped working. I did manage to load up my bike and Norman’s spine with a bunch of packages and drive to Central Knot Capital. My plan was to deliver the one piece of missing cargo that was meant to go there and see if vehicle storage also meant vehicle customization. Unfortunately, the terminal menu and I had a misunderstanding and I wound up delivering all of my cargo, entrusting a majority of it to strangers after I hit ‘no’ on that option and specifically selecting one piece of cargo to deliver anyway. On the plus side, my trike-ride was completely free of BT’s and disgruntled USPS employees.
At this point, nearly all of my good will towards this game is gone. I feel like I’m having the most fun with Death Stranding when I’m cycling around delivering lost boxes, but that seems to be antithetical to the unique way movement, momentum, and gravity work in this game. I dislike the characters, I don’t like the story, the way missions are scored is baffling to me and not in the usual way. I joked about the PC port being modded to include old women and staircases, but I think modding would be the best thing for it. I firmly believe that modding Death Stranding specifically to remove all enemies from it would be the best way to improve it. Fighting with the controls and terrain is challenging, even satisfying from time to time, but the addition of ghosts, hobo-USPS men, and acid rain, push the core waddle-based gameplay way past the point of tolerable and into the realm of insufferable. Then I found a motorcycle that took the challenging movement and terrain management away from me altogether. I hear there are boss fights in this game, but I can’t imagine how terrible those might be given how Norman Reedus fighting style is a mix of flailing and throwing his own poo (spoiler alert).