There’s No Better Time To Try Death Stranding
Think of a controversial game. Chances are, one of the first few you’re likely to name is Death Stranding. Mysterious since it’s initial reveal, not everyone was on board with what Kojima Productions went for in the final game. I loved it, and as a group COGconnected ended up naming it Game of the Year in 2019. Now, Death Stranding is on PC, published by 505 Games. Not only does the game hold up, it’s arguably more impactful than it was on release.
The game itself isn’t substantially different from the initial release. Most of my thoughts about the PS4 version still hold, though they’ve evolved in some ways. For the uninitiated, you play as Sam Porter Bridges, portrayed by Norman Reedus. It’s a competent performance, though the Keifer Sutherland problem rears its head here. There’s simply not enough voiced content for the title character, who stands around like a pylon far too often. Again, the content of the performance is fine, but throughout my PC playthrough I felt Reedus would be more effective in a series like Silent Hill, where the strong silent type is more prevalent. As it is, characters frequently spill their deepest secrets to a frozen, blank slab.
The other performances fare much better, with Margaret Qualley, Tommie Earl Jenkins, and Mads Mikkelson leading the way. The incredibly good motion capture work and outstanding character models help, for sure, but even the most melodramatic monologues carry a good deal of weight.
As with other Kojima productions, Death Stranding is written with a heavy hand. Exposition is lengthy, with scads of pseudoscience to tantalize the mind. This is a game about connection, both in a direct narrative capacity, and in a much more metaphorical one. While Sam attempts to rebuild America by constructing a cross country network, the player is desperately looking for connection — now more than ever.
The thing is, it’s rarely the writing that makes things feel impactful. The narrative itself is repetitive, covering topics time and time again, and incredibly direct. Kojima constantly explains exactly what’s happening, thumping players over the head with the quote unquote themes. It’s nothing new for the man, and it doesn’t bother me in the slightest given how strongly playing Death Stranding hammers home those same ideas.
Metal Gear Solid? This Isn’t That.
I get why people don’t like playing this game. I do. But for those who can deal with a less bombastic, more internally gratifying structure, Death Stranding offers a bizarre, meditative sort of satisfaction. Stacking cargo perfectly, or planning out a challenging route give me something I can’t get from any other game out there. It’s mundane and methodical, and yet somehow superbly satisfying.
The world itself is extremely well crafted. There are very few ways to get truly stuck – one of your tools is invariably a possible solution – and the game works hard to keep that challenge fresh. A steady stream of new items and upgrades ensures that each trek is more arduous than the last, but only in a single direction. Sam’s movement, balance, and agility are purposeful. He’s never quick, but he responds to the most minute adjustments to your input. Having to constantly shift your weight side to side? With the right planning and control input, you can almost completely avoid it. Believe it or not, there is a skill to playing Death Stranding, and I would’ve liked to see even more challenging terrain in the world for those who achieve mastery to attempt.
Another part that gets me in the feels is checking things off a list. Sam is a post-apocalyptic Amazon guy, and somehow hauling 100kg of cargo up Mt. freaking Everest feels worth the time invested. The environment is your primary adversary, and I often felt like the game might be more engrossing if it was the only antagonist.
Connection is perhaps the most interesting piece of the puzzle. There’s a meta game in play in Death Stranding, and it engages a part of our humanity we’ve never needed as much we do now. The online component of the game lets players assist each other with climbing ropes or ladders, or elaborate structures like roads and charging stations. The reward for doing so? You’ll make someone else’s journey a little bit easier. And you know what? Doing it feels incredible.
I’ve often marveled at how Kojima’s themes end up appearing in the real world. Death Stranding’s central thesis – that we’ve lost touch and need to reconnect – is exactly what 2020 has shown us. With that cracked, dirty mirror being thrust directly in our faces, Death Stranding’s message of doing something because it’s kind, moral, or right, is the exact message we need.
Graphically, this is the way to play Death Stranding if your PC is up to snuff. It runs beautifully, with 4k60 well within reach if you’ve upgraded in the last year or two. The gorgeous landscapes are all worth capturing to put into your desktop background rotation, and photo mode is sufficiently flexible to allow for superb creativity. With everything maxed, we’re getting startlingly close to “is that a real face” territory. Add in ultrawide support and DLSS, and you’ve got a fine PC package.
I said this in my original review too, but it bears repeating here. Kojima is an outstanding director, and uses angles, lighting and framing to brilliant effect. Show, don’t tell is on full display right away, where we see timefall and its effects, an inverted rainbow, and several other big story hints within the first 30 seconds of the game. His shot selection really captures the imagination, and the only shame here is that more of the story isn’t done up to cutscene quality. Budgets, amirite?
Something that really hit me on this playthrough is the brilliance of Ludvig Forssell’s original score, and the use of licensed tracks throughout the game. The score is stunning. There’s a beautiful use of theme, drawing familiar phrases in at just the right moment, and let’s not even get started on BB’s Theme. It’s brilliant. Similarly, the moments where the camera pans back and Low Roar plays Sam out of a stressful area take on a feeling of zen. In those moments, I felt connected to this game, and Sam’s journey. I didn’t need any of the UI or environmental sounds cues: the music just carried me to my destination.
That might sound indulgent, but I don’t care. This game is a piece of art. I admire the huge risk Kojima Productions took on the project. They could easily have made an MGS clone and called it a day, but they pushed the industry in an unexpected and, to some, unwanted direction.
**Steam code provided by the publisher**
- Stunning beauty
- Thematically impactful
- Outstanding score and soundtrack
- Clunky writing
- Not enough content for Sam