Death Stranding Design Review – Showing what went wrong with MGS V by doing it again

I’m Kinglink and this week we are going to look at Death Stranding. This was originally on the PlayStation 4, it has come to the PC and it’s time to talk about it.

Though, I do have to leave a little disclaimer here. I worked at Sony for about 6 years on MLB the Show and left Sony about two years ago. I want to be upfront about this because you should know if there’s any potential bias, but I can say I don’t believe there is. This is just for you to best judge my opinions.

There was a little overlap when I reviewed games and was working at Sony, but I chose to review Steam games to avoid any potential bias, and sure enough Sony has now come to the PC.

 

And let’s get the other side of this out of the way. While Death Stranding WAS published by 505 Games on PC, the IP is still fully owned by Sony the last I heard, and as you’ll see Sony’s name is in the opening credit so… this is as Sony a game as you will see on PC. At least it was until Horizon Zero Dawn came out but we’ll talk about that game before long.

Death Stranding is the latest from Hideo Kojima who is famous for the Metal Gear Solid series published by Konami. After his public falling out with Konami, the real question is can his next project live up to Metal Gear Solid, and I’ll just give you the spoiler, I don’t know if it has, but I also think this game starts to explain some issues that occurred with Metal Gear Solid V.

I’m going to break Death Stranding up into two games. I’m going to call it the gameplay and the story, which kind of gives away what I’m talking about but stick with me here, that’s just the driving force of each section of Death Stranding.

Let’s just start with the common criticism of Death Stranding. A lot of people use the reductive statement of Death Stranding being a Walking Simulator, and truthfully, I see where they are coming from. More than seventy-five percent of my time with Death Stranding was spent moving between locations and delivering packages. I often called this game Doordash Simulator, because you spend most of your time delivering stuff to random people’s homes, and in 2020 parts of this game feels a bit too relevant at times.

Not everything is walking but I wanted to bring up one interesting part of Death Stranding. The opening hours of Death Stranding start to challenge the player immediately. It’s not just walking that’s important here, but rather staying upright especially when you’re carrying a large load. Much of Death Stranding is about balancing your cargo or avoiding falling over.

I think in a lot of ways this reminded me of QWOP or Q W O P by Bennett Folly. That little game where you try to make a runner dash 100 meters, and likely fail every time. I know I have. Now QWOP would not make for a very fun game especially one that takes more than a few seconds to play, however, Death Stranding does something similar in making the walking part of the game challenging so that it keeps the attention of the player as they move through the world.

If you ignore the way Sam, the main character, leans, he will fall over and items take a small amount of damage. This isn’t intended to be an impossible challenge, but the early hours of the Death Stranding make just traversing a map interesting. I could feel myself understanding how the system worked and something is interesting and wonderful about how the game handles larger objects and later mitigates the challenge of this system in a few ways.

With that said, much of Death Stranding is as you’re already seeing. You walk through rather beautiful locations with massive vistas and end up delivering packages to shelters. Those shelters are a bit of a bummer. The story is that the characters are afraid to go to the surface due to disasters, the player may see a few other porters, meaning delivery men, but most people hide in underground bunkers. The problem is it doesn’t matter the size of the bunker, a hundred thousand person city can feel the same as a single Prepper’s location because there’s not much to see. There’s a larger area of pavement, and sometimes a walled-off location, but that’s about it.

And just a quick side note. The world of Death Stranding could have been just 10 percent more interesting. I understand much of the world is dystopian and destroyed but it feels a little too sterile. There are story reasons for this, there are also some parts of the world remaining. Finding a few more destroyed locations, maybe a couple of locations that aren’t on the actual main mission path other than a couple of sterile prepper locations would have been a lot more interesting.

But yes, that moniker of Walking Simulator does describe Death Stranding. However, I think it’s time we retire that name. You see, Walking Simulator is about as descriptive as a First-Person game. It says nothing about the game you are discussing other than the main mechanic, walking. Yet every game has some character walking.

It’s like reducing almost every amazing game into First person or Third person. Even just calling Resident Evil a Third-Person Shooter doesn’t do it justice. It’s certainly true, but it’s not a helpful description of what happens, whereas survival horror as a genre is much more specific. While I know a lot of people love First Person Shooters, calling both Deus Ex and Call of Duty simply an FPS tells us nothing about the games.

So rather than Walking Simulator, let’s start calling these games Exploration Games because, at the heart of Death Stranding, the core gameplay is exploration. You want to hear and understand the story, you want to experience Death Stranding for everything you can, and you’ll do all of that while you explore the world.

And if you dislike Walking Simulators, you’re still not going to like Exploration Games, but at least it describes the core mechanic of the game. I also know people call them First Person Adventure games, but .. meh. It just doesn’t do it for me. Also, Death Stranding uses a third-person view so that doesn’t work, and I would argue adventure games are more about adventure, something more like Zelda or Okami.

Exploration is what Death Stranding is about, for most of the game. The mission structure is to deliver cargo to the next location. I find the main mission structure rather enjoyable. There’s a very chill feeling as you play through Death Stranding, and beautiful music will sometimes pop up at different points as you travel. That system is well done and hearing a song feels rewarding, but I wish there was a simple music player or radio station to let the player have some tunes on the various trips. This is something that Metal Gear Solid V did far better, and it seems like a missed opportunity.

Also, much of the Death Stranding doesn’t have a real danger. Your goal is to get from point A to point B and you’re getting there one step at a time. But even when there’s an intended danger in Death Stranding. I hesitate to call it a true danger. I found I was able to just run away from everything except for maybe five forced encounters in the main world. Even when Death Stranding pushes the ideas of stealth, action, or even some tactics to avoid the danger, it does it in such a weak way, that players can almost always ignore it.

That’s not to say there’s no action or danger, or even interesting occurrences. It’s just that Death Stranding struggles to make it feel like a major part of the gameplay. Throughout a sixty-hour game, I probably had to continue less than five times. It’s not that hard of a game and that’s with a limited amount of stealth. You can just flee from almost every encounter in Death Stranding as you can run faster, or be more evasive then any enemy here, even when everything goes wrong.

Yet I found myself enjoying the aspects of getting from point A to point B, especially when Death Stranding started layering in the ideas of power armor, and vehicles, as well as allowing an online system that shares pieces of your world with other people so you can help traverse the land.

I’d have more to say about all of this but it’s just “stuff that happens.” The core of the gameplay is just getting around. There are a lot of interesting systems, and very similar to Metal Gear Solid V there are huge systems that players can choose to ignore safely. The EX Grenades for instance are not necessary. There are also full gameplay systems that players may never discover. I’ll leave it to players to find out what happens if you end up killing a human and leaving them, but it was not something that came up in my game, even if it is interesting.

I do also want to call out the Like system which is the one gameplay system I feel weird with. You earn Likes by taking any task, or even by sharing a task with other people online. It’s an interesting way to play Death Stranding, and there’s a bit of commentary on social media here by the way of game design. It’s a clever system but eventually, this devolves into the fact that Likes is just another name for experience points and levels. There’s nothing wrong with this, but I don’t think Death Stranding does enough with this to drive home why it chose “Likes” instead of experience or faction points or some other generic term.

To avoid making this video an hour-long dissection of Death Stranding, let’s move to the story, which… will take quite a bit of time.

I’m going to heavily avoid talking about spoilers in regards to the story, outside of maybe the first two or three hours here because … spoilers are 90 percent of a Kojima story. This is firmly a Kojima game with Kojima’s brand of weirdness and Kojima’s style all over it. And if you buckle up for the ride, you’ll have a pretty good time. Though a little advice, don’t look up any information on any character until you finish Death Stranding, I got spoiled twice, so just trust in Kojima to give you that roller coaster ride of a story that players expect from him due to the Metal Gear Solid franchise.

As much as I enjoy Kojima’s brand of storytelling, I also think there are some flaws with the story in Death Stranding. You see, our main character is Sam Porter Bridges. Sam has already existed in this world for decades and does have a bit of backstory. People in the world have some concept of what a Death Stranding is, or rather they don’t but there’s a base level of understanding that is known for what that terminology means, yet this simple understanding is kept from the player for the most of the game.

Even Death Stranding itself constantly refers to the enemies, which are called BTs, but never decides to sit down and explain even the current understanding of BTs, however limited that might be. The name itself means Beached Things, and I don’t even know if the game makes this clear, but a simple five-minute scene at the beginning of Death Stranding explaining the current state of the world could have been useful at some point over the sixty-ish hours the game takes. Yes, there are data logs as you’re seeing on screen, but even those are not very clear about these topics.

It’s not even the world-building that has this issue, the main story is unnecessarily confusing and characters constantly talk in odd ways to make the player think the wrong thing. A simple version of this in the first hour is when Sam is invited to meet with The President, with invited being a generous term. The President wants to see you. Come meet The President.

You walk into the room and you get the surprise, Sam is the President’s son… I’m using this very specific example because it’s in the first hours of Death Stranding, there’s a lot of examples of this where the story tends to bury the lead for hours, on purpose.

Quite often it feels like what BTs are, or what the Death Stranding is, could have been made more interesting by a generic and potentially incorrect explanation early on in the story with a lot of holes so that players would wonder what is missing in their knowledge. Instead, for much of Death Stranding, I wondered if I had missed a critical scene somewhere that explained the current knowledge base of the world.

Even without the clear beginning, the story is what kept me playing Death Stranding. I might have played for ten hours of the uber chill game without it, but instead, I followed along for sixty hours because I kept wanting to know what was going on with most of the characters. There are many interesting characters here. From the enigmatic Fragile, a female porter, to Deadman who befriends Sam early on. There’s also Heartman, Mama, and more. And while I could explain these names to you, you must trust in Kojima for he has reasons for each name and character.

Without spoilers, I can’t dive into the heart of the story, but I will say that I think Death Stranding is a strong entry from the way it tells the story. The only real problem is the length. There’s a two-part reveal to Fragile’s back story in Death Stranding. She tells half of her story and then the player will eventually get the next chunk of the story a couple of missions later.

The problem is, that chunk of gameplay can be anything from two hours to eight hours depending on how much time the player takes between the deliveries for the main story. There’s a decent amount of side deliveries that the player can get into.

When Metal Gear Solid had a similarly huge overarching story, there was a mostly linear gameplay system that would take a player between ten and twenty hours with nuggets of information appearing multiple times over each of those hours. But stretching that same story over forty hours, such as in Metal Gear Solid V, or even sixty in Death Stranding, takes the player out of the narrative, no matter how compelling it is.

A quick side note. I think Fragile as a character is handled much better than Metal Gear Solid V’s Quiet. Both in terms of outfit and story. Quiet is interesting, but I think most fans will agree her nudity feels forced in. Listen, Kojima, if you wanted a sexy woman in your game who is barely clothed, I’ll support that fully, but don’t rationalize it this way. Back to thinking about the story’s delivery

There’s just a problem with the slow methodical gameplay that Death Stranding offers. While that does allow the player to contemplate what’s going on in the story and world and could have been the right place for podcast style exposition such as what was in Metal Gear Solid V, that’s not available. Instead, the long treks punctate the major story, or rather I should say the story punctuates the gameplay. The slow gameplay hindered some of the storytelling and this made me start to question the real issues that occurred in Metal Gear Solid V.

I think much of Metal Gear Solid V’s issues are blamed on Konami’s interference, and that may be true, but I also think the style of open-world gameplay Metal Gear Solid V went for doesn’t work well with the story it’s trying to tell. Even if Metal Gear Solid V’s narrative was fully fleshed out, spending five to ten hours without any story adding to the narrative is detrimental to the pacing of the game. The same is true for Death Stranding.

Though when you think about Death Stranding, Metal Gear Solid, and much of Kojima’s work, it excels because he is an auteur. You can see his hand in every part of Metal Gear Solid and Death Stranding, and that makes his works stand out because it’s a singular vision. Kojima is the storyteller and every aspect works to try to tell that same story.

I’ll admit, perhaps I’m wrong in my criticism of how the story is delivered. I get the feeling that Death Stranding will stay with me for decades, while other games I’ve played at the same time such as Assassin’s Creed: Rogue or Shadow Warrior have already faded before a month was up. Maybe there is something about how Kojima delivers the story to make it resonate more with the player.

There’s one last issue I have with Death Stranding, and it’s something that bothers me. By now everyone knows Norman Reedus, Mads Mikkelsen, and even Guillermo Del Toro appear in Death Stranding. Our main character is Norman Reedus. Yes, his name is Sam Porter, but look at him. He’s Norman Reedus.

Before I go on let me be clear. Everyone turned in a top-notch performance for Death Stranding. The experience is unlike anything else, Mads Mikkelsen made me care about a character you mostly see snippets of, Norman Reedus’s work is exceptional, and the technology to bring them to life is unparalleled. I would dare say we may ever have surpassed the Uncanny Valley that developers have been afraid of in-game development for so long.

Yet my problem is, by surpassing that issue we’ve created the next problem. If you look at Death Stranding as either a movie or a tv show, there’s not a strong reason for Norman Reedus to be Norman Reedus. In movies, we applaud characters for their superior acting ability when they become characters.

Gary Oldman is one of my favorite actors because I can see him in 10 roles as 10 different and unique characters. Daniel Day-Lewis becomes the character to such a high degree, the actor is always hidden in his performances. The movie industry is also willing to spend millions of dollars to hide actors. They will take the gorgeous Karen Gillian and make her into Nebula. Or perhaps take Hugo Weaving and turn him into the Red Skull.

The point I want to make though is the height of acting isn’t the recreation of a recognizable actor, but rather the ability to allow an actor to hide in a role or performance and to help create the illusion.

The problem is Death Stranding doesn’t do this. It doesn’t even seem to attempt it. Norman Reedus is intended to look exactly like Norman Reedus, Mads Mikkelsen looks exactly like Mads Mikkelsen. I realize part of this is showing off the level of technology we have reached, and as mentioned before I have some understanding of the face scan technology that Sony has available due to working on MLB the Show and it is rather incredible.

But this is the one impressive game that shows the tech. The tech is solid, but it becomes very noticeable and it doesn’t help the story. If I compare this to Metal Gear Solid and any character in that entire series, I find the characters in Metal Gear Solid to be more visually interesting because they are designed by artists rather than being a simple recreation of a very famous real person.

Many games do use facial models and that’s not my issue. The issue I have here is that they are using a well-known face. This will also be a bit of an issue for me when we reach Cyberpunk. I love Keanu Reeves, Bill and Ted, John Wick and of course the first Matrix movie, they are amazing. But I don’t think seeing Keanu Reeves in Cyberpunk is going to bring me further into the world of Cyberpunk.

The thing is recreating actors is a major issue. It has worked previously such as in L.A. Noire, though I think it should be done sparingly. However, the idea of acting and film is about hiding oneself and putting on a mask, no offense to Die-Hardman here. As developers, it might be better to take artistic license with the recreation and give the actors a better persona to hide behind.

Though with saying that. I feel like I have to bring up the Monster Energy drink. While I understand Kojima’s pension for layering in real-world elements into his games, which he did multiple times in Metal Gear Solid, and I can understand why he used the real faces of the actors even if I disagree with it, the Monster Energy drink doesn’t fit with Death Stranding and is a major gameplay element.

The biggest issue is it’s one of the only pieces of modern signages that remained. I enjoy Monster Energy drink, it’s reasonably tasty for what it is. The problem though is there’s so little of modern culture anywhere else in Death Stranding that exists where Monster just feels completely out of place.

There are a few solutions to this. They easily could have gotten more sponsorship so you might see signs of other brands, though that would likely be in the dystopian future presented, and I can’t imagine many companies signing on to have a burnout Wendy’s sign as you walk past.

They could have made a special Monster Energy drink specifically for Death Stranding, giving it a Death Stranding style or flavor. Though considering a big piece of the drinking attribute allows you to create items from piss, and then use those as piss grenade… Yeah, I think that association might have been awkward if brought to market.

Finally, they could and probably should have skipped the inclusion of Monster Energy drink. The problem is not advertising, listen, games are already advertising to people, and movies do this all the time and it isn’t that out of place. But the Monster Energy drink doesn’t fit in with the world here. This feels much more like Mac and Me than like E.T.

Ultimately though, I enjoyed my time with Death Stranding. I do like to chill out with the game and enjoy the atmosphere delivered. I did enjoy the story when I finally reached the end, even if it was stretched over too much filler gameplay. And I enjoyed that filler gameplay even after that story was done.

I do have to bring up again that many of the issues I had with Death Stranding are also issues I had with Metal Gear Solid V and I think in some ways Death Stranding helped me come to terms with the issues I had outside of the final chapters of Metal Gear Solid V. The realization that it’s not just the story that had issues but rather how it was told, and the same problems sadly exist here.

I enjoyed both Death Stranding and Metal Gear Solid V but in both games, I think the two parts of the game don’t fit fully together. The story of Death Stranding needs to be in a game half the length, and the gameplay needs to be in an unscripted world, with more to see, and the same is true for Metal Gear Solid V.

I picked up Death Stranding for 60 dollars. I think that might be too high, but I would recommend Death Stranding when it drops to about thirty to forty dollars, and it’s well worth it to see what Kojima has in store for us in the post-Konami world.

I can’t wait to see his next delivery.

That’s what I have for Death Stranding. If you enjoyed this video, consider clicking the subscribe button, the bell, or leaving a comment. I appreciate it.

For a small channel update, I’m going to be putting out design reviews every other week. I think it’ll allow me to produce better content and be less rushed. I will be writing more written reviews for games on Steam and my website because I love writing. I’ll leave a link to the website in the description, feel free to sign up for the mailing list there to see what I will be writing about.

If you want more, I’ll pop up my Design Review of Hitman 2, which is another game with a large number of gameplay systems and interesting interactions between them. Something every Kojima game has done. I’ll also put up my review for Metal Gear Solid V because I think that game is heavily undervalued due to story reasons, but it’s still a fantastic game even if it’s not perfect.

Until then I’m Kinglink and thanks for Watching

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