(Played on PC through Steam with controller in Japanese, both text and voice-over)
Playing through Death Stranding is not unlike climbing a mountain. It’s a uphill battle at first, with even basic movement being an adversary to player moving more cargo. Then near the mountaintop, with fatigue turned into euphoria, figuratively fresher air and literally better views, the game started to feel magical. Finally, on the downhill trip, the game became all about its not great story and even worse combat. Overall, I found quiet view on the mountain top worth the whole journey for me, but the game hard to recommend.
Fragile From the Valley of Timefall
Like the story made up as it went on from Metal Gear Solid 1 to 4, the plot of Death Stranding has so many twists and turns that it practically goes in circle. One character would seem like the ultimate evil in the world at one moment, the next they would seem like savior. They all paved roads to hell with respective good intentions and somehow flipped those into ladders to heaven by the end. The “Face turn” by the end of 2004’s MGS3 went so well that Kojima and his narrative team just repeated that over and over with lesser effect each time.
Kojima Productions’ signature long cut scenes are present. They were made with great craftsmanship as usual and surprisingly less diagrams than any MGS game. They used to bother me in those games but they didn’t bother me as much in Death Stranding. What Death Stranding really bothered me with its interactive credits segment.
In this segment, player is in an empty place with nowhere to go. Player needs to wander aimlessly until Sam ,played by Norman Reedus, decides to sit down and allow Amelie, a digitally de-aged Lindsay Wagner, to dump backstory on him. This would happen 4 times before the player can move on. It is more tiresome than watching cut scenes, as the player needs to move the camera if they want to see Amelie’s whole show-and-tell.
Considering Hideo Kojima and Kikuko Inoue, the Japanese cast member in this scene, I would call it extreme self-indulgence. As a Kojima collaborator for the longest time, Ms. Inoue is about the same age as Kojima and the two of them share fondness for Bionic Woman starring Lindsay Wagner. The whole thing feels as if they are playing with the digital sock puppet of Wagner at the expense of player enjoyment, narrative pacing and many other things.
Death Stranding’s narrative does not feel off because it break the “show, not tell” rule like MGS games. Instead, it feels off because it insists on doing “show and tell” for everything in its post-apocalypse story. It completely disregard the economy of storytelling. Then it steamrolls player into a lot of lore dumps with one action set-piece that the mechanic cannot support after another by the tail end. All result in a self-serious story with not much meaningful to say.
The game opens with a Low Roar song titled “Don’t be so serious”. It’s a good advise to the players who are about to embark on the bizarre journey in Death Stranding. I just hope that the writers of this game would have taken that advise themselves.
Sam’s Delivery Service
To use Hayao Miyazaki’s animated movies as analogues, while Death Stranding failed miserably as a Nauccica of the Valley of the Wind wannabe in terms of its post-apocalypse story, it succeeded in “ripping off” Kiki’s Delivery Service with its gameplay.
Mechanically Death Stranding is an open world action adventure game in which violence, especially lethal violence, is not encouraged. Player needs to traverse a hard-to-traverse post-apocalyptic landscape in order to deliver packages to the pockets of civilization out there. Metal Gear Solid V Phantom Pain’s open landscape has its wasteland feeling with a sense of emptiness and the danger hidden in it. Death Stranding just makes the wasteland brand official from the beginning, mainly through 2 design choices.
First one is making most of the game’s terrain hard to drive vehicles on. The handling of vehicles in Death Stranding is functional and serviceable like that in Phantom Pain. But doing it on more-often-than-not rocky landscapes would make driving Mako in original Mass Effect feel like joy rides. Without the highway, which require player to gather resources to rebuild, vehicles seem rather useless. Better shoes and exo-skeleton are worth more investment in this game.
Second one being the game’s quite half-assed combat sections against monsters called Beached Things and other human.
For the monsters, player usually have to sneak past them with the heavily marketed baby in the jar as their guide. Fail at that or try to drive through a monster filled zone, there will be the boring boss fights. Player need to use weapon made of Sam’s blood, piss and shit at big monster made of tar. If player has no weapon of the kind, they might as well reload a save. The last fourth or fifth of game’s main line is like this, which is why I think the tail end is bad.
For other humans, there are simple fist fights and fire fights. Killing is not recommended, as dead bodies would cause nuclear explosion like Void-out and lead to Game Over. Sam is no ninja commando capable of doing non-lethal combat with just a tranquilizer pistol and CQC takedown like them Diamond Dogs in Phantom Pain, so thank the developers for putting in the Very Easy difficulty and fully automatic weapon shooting rubble bullets. The latter has been present in “Hideo Kojima Games” since 2008’s MGS4, but I haven’t use for those until Death Stranding.
In terms of driving and combat, Death Stranding is a much less fun than Phantom Pain, yet it has the better loop of the two. While Phantom Pain only has spreadsheets to say “Good Job!” to its ninja commando, Death Stranding’s NPCs has holograms to thank Sam the postman for delivering the packages, before the spreadsheets come out. Guess I am kind of a sucker for this sort of flourish, even though they would repeat.
I find Kojima’s calling the Strand game a new genre to be a conveniently constructed lie, if not a complete and utter lie. This system, which allow players to help each other online to make the game easier to progress in, is ripping off thatgamecompany’s award-winning indie darling in 2012, Journey. The only difference is that Death Stranding require more preparation before deliveries. While the system lack originality, it makes up for its usefulness.
I’m the type of Death Stranding player who just want to blast through the main line and talk shit about its story. Without the player generated infrastructure populating the map, I don’t think I can beat the game within 31 hours and write this review even on Very Easy difficulty.
Doing deliveries in the snowy mountain is my favorite part of the game. If the myth about Kojima Productions is to be believed, some of develop leads working on Death Stranding had worked on 1998’s Metal Gear Solid, a game starring a snowy Alaska on PS1. With the power of PS4 and PC, they certainly make snowy mountains a quiet and hauntingly beautiful place. Futuristic zipper lines might be helpful, but I did not mind the scenery route.
The snowy mountain bits in Death Stranding feels like Journey’s horror-themed snowy mountain bit and final ascension combined into one long and intoxicating sequence. If Kojima Production is “ripping off” thatgamecompany, they did a great job.
Before you pick up this game, you need to ask yourself how much of preparation you are willing to put into delivering packages. Sam is a fairly futuristic postman as in he has exo-skeletons, portable ladders, better shoes and so on to help him deliver more package better. And even with all those gears to help and at the lowest difficulty, balancing Sam with left and right triggers is essential to keep the cargo safe.
Much like Kiki with a flying broom in Kiki’s Delivery Service, Sam is also the delivery service worker with special er, skills and help from people around him. It feels good to get gratitude from those receiving the packages through holograms. It feels even better to get help from strangers. Too bad the whole game is not all that.
Voice Talents From Metal Gear Saga to Mass Effect Legend
I am going to indulging myself a bit with this segment since I’m reviewing a self-indulgent game. I have quarrel with a lot of creative decisions Hideo Kojima made in the past, but the man does have an ear for good Japanese voice cast. Some of them I would love to hear in Mass Effect Legendary Edition if EA is doing a new Japanese dub with the new release. Shout out to Abnormal Mapping’s Great Gundam Project podcast, their introduction of Japanese voice cast members on the show encourages me to continue my writing on the subject matter here.
Akio Otsuka voiced Die-hard Man in Death Stranding. Mr. Otsuka has a long history playing playing men in Die-hard scenario for Kojima, as he voiced all the playable Snakes in MGS series including Punished ”Venom” Snake of few words in Phantom Pain and even Solidus, the final boss of MGS2. He has a booming voice not unlike Keith David, thus perfect for voicing David Anderson in Mass Effect trilogy.
Aforementioned Kikuko Inoue voiced the two Strand women in Death Stranding. Ms. Inoue’s Kojima collaborating day dated back to Snatcher and Policenauts, before 1998’s Metal Gear Solid made Hideo Kojima known outside Japan. She played various characters throughout MGS series, including one tough lady code named the Boss in MGS3. Samara in Mass Effect 2 and 3 sounds a lot like Lori Alan’s English dub of the Boss, so it’s only fair Inoue voicing the ancient asari.
Nana Mizuki voiced Fragile in Death Stranding. Ms Mizuki played the ill fated double agent Paz in MGS games subtitled Peace Walker, Ground Zeroes and Phantom Pain. Her vocal performance as Fragile came off as a hard to reach Femme Fatale at first, but Sam and she grew closer as they find mutual benefit (not sexually) between them. Which made her suitable to voice Cerberus operative Miranda Lawson in Mass Effect 2 and 3, where that mutual benefit can be partially sexual...
Maaya Satomoto voiced Mama and her twin sister in Death Stranding. This is the first time Ms. Satomoto working with Kojima on a game. I would love to hear her along with her husband and fellow voice actor Kenichi Suzumura voicing engineers Gabby Daniels and Kenneth Donnley aboard Normandy SR-2 in Mass Effect 2 and 3. I hope the true couple energy might make the comic relief odd couple performance more lively.
Satoshi Mikami voiced Higgs in Death Stranding. This is the second time Mr. Mikami dubbing Troy Baker for Kojima as he was the Japanese voice of Ocelot in Phantom Pain. If the pre-release TGS meet up is to be believed, Mikami did not return as the Baker dubber, but chosen by Kojima to deliver Bond villain monologues. Miranda Lawson’s father appeared in Mass Effect 3 as a Bond villain, shitty like Death Stranding’s Higgs. After hearing aforementioned Mizuki verbally roasting Higgs as Fragile, I would love to hear Mikami got roasted by her again as Lawson Senior.
Tomokazu Sugita voiced Conan O’Brein’s character in Death Stranding and MGS’ retconned Master Miller since 2010’s Peace Walker. O’Brein’s shtick is bound to lost in translation to Japanese, so the character is practically rewritten beyond dubbing. The Phantom Pain joke they sneaked into the Japanese TV spot sure does not sound like something the Clueless Gamer would pull. Anyway, Mr. Sugita’s performance has duality in drama and comedy. Combined this duality with his manly voice, and you are practically hearing Urdent Wrex in Mass Effect trilogy.
Some Final Words
On the night of November, 1st , 2019, I canceled my pre-order of Death Stranding’s PS4 limited edition from Japan seconds after I finished listening to that day’s Beastcast. Come to think about it, my decision had less to do with the 3 men on the podcast being down on the game and more to do with the announcement about the PC version. Then the Steam product page went up on the day Death Stranding launched on PS4 and I was all too happy to wait.
Overall, I like it more than the Beastcast crew did while I didn’t except to like it at all. It’s overall a fitting game to play while listening to podcasts. But do not come here for combat and story like Dan Ryckert did, or there will be disappointment.