Giant Bomb Review

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Death Stranding Review

2
  • PC
  • PS4

Kojima's first post-Konami project is a bizarre, self-indulgent mess that never quite manages to tie its myriad pieces together.

What the hell is Death Stranding?

This is all anyone has wanted to know since Hideo Kojima unveiled the project three years ago. In that unveiling, all we knew was that it starred a naked Norman Reedus, that there were babies, dead sea creatures, and weird floating people. Not a lot to go on, but given Kojima's long, weird history with the long, weird Metal Gear franchise, it was enough to get people talking excitedly about all the things it could possibly be.

Sam and his BB are a regular Lone Wolf and Cub...if the ronin was replaced with a post-apocalyptic Amazon delivery man, and the baby lived in a jar and detected angry ghosts.
Sam and his BB are a regular Lone Wolf and Cub...if the ronin was replaced with a post-apocalyptic Amazon delivery man, and the baby lived in a jar and detected angry ghosts.

As time has gone on, and even as Kojima has said he himself does not fully understand the game, a clearer picture began to take shape, and now that it is here, we can say definitively what Death Stranding is. It is a third-person action game, with a heavier-than-usual de-emphasis on the "action." It is a game about exploration in which there isn't that much to discover. It is a game about America that takes place in a world that bears only minimal resemblance whatsoever to the country it's portraying. It is a game that takes, at minimum, 10-15 hours to actually become "fun," and even then the definition of fun is one likely to vary wildly for its players. It is a Hideo Kojima game in which the story is the least appealing aspect of the whole endeavor. Ultimately, Death Stranding is a game that is unlike much else I've played before, and I'm not entirely sure if I want to play anything like it ever again.

In Death Stranding, you play Sam Porter Bridges. He is named that because he is a porter, tasked with delivering things to the citizens of a fractured, post-apocalyptic America, and because he is a member of Bridges, an organization dedicated to, well, building bridges--both literal and metaphorical--to those people in order to reconnect the country. Sam is a reluctant hero in the grand Kojima tradition. He's on his own, wandering the country and avoiding human contact because of past trauma, until the last President, Bridget Strand, pleads with him in her dying moments to help bring the "chiral network" back online, and reunite the country.

This network is powered by chiralium, the game's primary McGuffin. It's a magical element that all of the game's technology is based around, and also is related to the game's apocalypse. You see, there was the titular Death Stranding. The barrier between the world of the living and the world of the dead was breached. The dead, represented here as sludgy ghosts attached to umbilical cords, roam chunks of the world and consume human bodies, creating "voidouts," which are basically ghost magic nuclear explosions. Also it rains time now, and if it touches you, it ages you and wrecks your equipment, which is bad.

Anyway, the chiral network. It's the super internet, and in order to reconnect America, you need to hook up the remaining cities and stations to it. Equipped with your trusty BB--a literal baby in a jar (😲) that helps you detect sludge ghosts through its link to its stillmother (😐) and the world of the dead--you do this by delivering packages to all those places. Rhythmically, this game has more in common with something like the Truck Simulator games than your standard third-person action game. As a porter, you schlep boxes of medicine and video games and semen to and from all these different stations throughout the world. Initially, all you've got are your backpack and your feet. The more jobs you take on, the more ludicrous the stack of packages on your back gets, and if you surpass Sam's weight limit, balancing and moving him becomes far more challenging.

Here's a gif we found on the internet that pretty well encapsulates what the early goings of Death Stranding are like.
Here's a gif we found on the internet that pretty well encapsulates what the early goings of Death Stranding are like.

Early on, this is a pain in the ass. You're constantly trying to navigate over rough terrain and through heavy patches of time rain and all you can do is hug the R2/L2 buttons to try to balance yourself. Eventually, you are given a variety of tools to make Sam's journeys more manageable. You start out with basic things like ladders and climbing ropes before graduating to portable, floating cargo trays and full-on trucks. Crafting all these tools takes small amounts of the various resources you'll find littered around the world, but even if you aren't looking to spend a lot of time building and placing things yourself, you may find that other players have been more than happy to do the work for you. Death Stranding includes an asynchronous online system that allows things built in other players' worlds to surface in yours. There are also straight up public works projects multiple players can contribute to, including whole highway builders that greatly mitigate the frustration of trying to navigate the world.

See, without those highways, vehicles aren't very useful. Death Stranding's vision of America looks like a combination of the Norwegian fjords and the surface of Mars. Rocks and cliffs are everywhere, and it's on you to build bridges (of course), highways, and whatever else is necessary to traverse these spaces. And even when you do invest heavily into the game's version of Infrastructure Week, the time rain will degrade any structure in the world, and if you don't add resources to repair them, they'll disappear.

In the opening hours, this doesn't matter as much because you're just on foot and hoofing it from place to place. When you finally get vehicles, using them mostly sucks because you're constantly driving into rocks. When you finally get highways you can build, it starts to feel a little like American Truck Simulator...if you had to craft the truck and the roads yourself. And then the game just kind of gives up on that infrastructure stuff and sends you off to the mountains to criss-cross huge, snow-deluged peaks that take a very long time to get around. And then it asks you to do that a bunch more until the game is essentially over.

I have several issues with Death Stranding, and one of them is pacing. This is a very lumpy game. The opening hours are a slog of endless, precarious walking and a near-constant deluge of new systems being presented to you. Then it just kind of settles into a rhythm of deliveries and discovering new places to deliver to, mostly putting the story on the back-burner until you finish the extremely long third chapter. After that, the A Hideo Kojima Production part of the game suddenly wakes up and you find yourself inundated with more cutscenes and character exposition than you'll ever know what to do with. The early hours have the feel of a child excitedly explaining to you the elaborate fantasy world they just came up with, and then the middle feels like the deep breath they take before launching into all the reasons why things are the way they are in that world. The last hour and change of the game is basically one long run-on sentence that tries to tie up every remaining loose end where you don't really do anything at all except listen to it ramble on.

There are moments of genuine, contemplative beauty in Death Stranding. It's just a shame the game wasn't confident enough to not break them up with extremely bland action and stealth sequences.
There are moments of genuine, contemplative beauty in Death Stranding. It's just a shame the game wasn't confident enough to not break them up with extremely bland action and stealth sequences.

Look, it's not like previous Kojima games haven't had pacing issues, but Death Stranding is the most egregious example of it. It's not nearly confident enough to just rely on the delivery aspect of the game as its main thrust, so it changes things up with combat and stealth sequences that never feel all that great. Early on, combat is something you mostly want to avoid. Human enemies consist of MULES, a group of ex-porters who have been driven insane by the chemical boost they get for receiving "likes" from making deliveries (helloooooooo social media commentary!). They are a nuisance who will come after your cargo, but thankfully you can mostly just beat them senseless with a few quick mashes of the square button. By the time they give you bola guns and stun bombs, they become comically easy to dispatch. BTs, the aforementioned sludge ghosts, need to be avoided until you learn how to make bullets and grenades from your own blood. If you do bump into one, you have to trudge your way through a pool of moaning tar bodies while mashing square to escape. If you fail, you get whisked away to a space some distance away and fight a giant tar animal, for reasons.

To be absolutely clear: these parts of the game are never all that fun. They are not broken or really even difficult; they're merely an oft-tedious distraction. They're the thing you do that's most analogous to Kojima's previous works, but the fights are never very memorable. Whenever a BT section or boss fight cropped up, I often found myself annoyed that my delivery missions were being sidelined, and that is not something I expected to say about a game like this. If I enjoyed anything about playing Death Stranding, it was the moments of solitude I experienced as I wandered from place to place, the moments of quiet beauty as I crested some big hill to see a new city on the horizon. Death Stranding is a game that shines brightest when it's willing to get out of its own way and just let the player exist free of the constraints of its own narrative and need to intersperse its mundanity with middling action.

About that narrative. This being a Kojima game, there is of course a cast of strange characters that exist alongside Sam, helping his mission or standing directly in his way. Each of these characters has some kind of ludicrous backstory that they will eventually explain to you in excruciating detail, even though most of them are literally named after the primary thing that defines their existence in the game. And there are significant sections of the game where everything grinds to a halt so that Kojima (by way of one of these supporting characters) can either explain at length what's going on with any of the myriad bizarre concepts built into the game's narrative, or delve into the latest Wikipedia article he somehow found a way to graft onto the game's plot. None of these inclusions should be surprising, because this is the way Kojima directs his games.

What is surprising is just how flat the vast majority of it all falls. In the Metal Gear series, Kojima's goofy tangents and batshit character monologues felt, to me at least, like amusing digressions set against the series' action cinema bravado. That stuff doesn't come off as well in what is essentially his version of an Andrei Tarkovsky movie. Nothing is allowed to be all that mysterious, and the game constantly tips its hand regarding things that might be considered twists or surprises. Whether it's through monologues, in-game emails and interviews, or someone just flatly stating the premise of what's going on out loud as obviously as possible, very little in Death Stranding is allowed to exist without overwhelming explanation.

As weird and amusing as it is to see Kojima drop a bunch of his famous friends into his game, it would have been nice if he'd written more memorable characters for them.
As weird and amusing as it is to see Kojima drop a bunch of his famous friends into his game, it would have been nice if he'd written more memorable characters for them.

There's also a surprising dearth of memorable characters. Norman Reedus' Sam is especially bland. In a way, he's the perfect video game protagonist, because nearly all he does is grunt and sigh. There's just not much personality to him, which is a bummer given how much time you spend with him throughout the game. The only actor who feels like they're truly on board with the weirdness of the whole thing is Mads Mikkelsen, who plays an otherworldly soldier wraith that pops up just often enough to remind you that Hideo Kojima used to make some games about war. He seems like he's relishing the role, which I can't quite say for most of the other actors involved. Actresses Lea Seydoux and Margaret Qualley do their best with some truly leaden dialogue, and Troy Baker at least tries to chew (or, more accurately, lick) some scenery as the deeply disappointing terrorist villain Higgs, who is named that because he thinks he's like the God particle, and frequently references video games because I guess someone in this game probably had to do that.

Frustratingly, I kept waiting for Death Stranding to offer something to say, something to justify the amount of breath spent explaining its most obvious metaphors and motivations. Unfortunately, it never gets there. Its early game musings on human connectedness and the need to bring people together never evolves over the 50 hours you'll spend playing it. The things it says at the beginning are pretty much the same things it's saying at the end, and none of those things are all that deep.

Even more frustratingly, there were multiple times during the course of my time spent playing Death Stranding that I could see the strands of a game I'd really like. There are individual pieces of the game that I think work well. It's gorgeous, for one thing, offering up a well-realized world with wonderfully unusual looking technology and terrific animation work. And there were times when I found myself genuinely lost in the experience of wandering that world, lugging gear from place to place, building roads and liking ladders and just drinking in the loneliness of it all. Even the massive pile of different systems all feel like they mostly work together in a way that's harmonious.

We get it, dude. You read Wikipedia.
We get it, dude. You read Wikipedia.

But the whole of the game never achieves that balance. There's a deep thread of insecurity that runs through it, one that manifests in its unwillingness to commit all the way to the arduousness of its main character's task, that's too willing to break that quietness with mediocre action, and that never trusts the player to understand even its most basic ideas without hitting them over the head with them. There is a weirdo, avant spirit to Death Stranding that I do admire, but that spirit fails to carry the game anywhere worthwhile.

At least now we know what the hell Death Stranding is: a disappointment.

Alex Navarro on Google+

285 Comments

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re4ctor

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so basically r/im14andthisisdeep the game

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PurpleOddity

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Edited By PurpleOddity

@wrofir:

I don't think that the divisiveness itself is a problem, I just think that most reviews have failed to separate Kojima himself from his fan base. All of Kojima's games are self-mocking throughout, and while I think the messages themselves are meant to be taken seriously I do not think the delivery (pun not intended) mechanism is. What I mean is that there is value in melodrama and overwrought storytelling--and there's also value in ignoring convention and seeing what happens. Kojima never calls himself a genius, an artist or a philosopher; he calls himself a craftsman. He's just a guy with a hammer, some nails and a few ideas who he wants to make something for people to enjoy. I personally respect the hell out of him, because I do think that the games are filled with so much love and care that their flaws come off as endearing more than anything else.

I think Giant Bomb has failed to present a clear-headed critique. To call something pretentious, insecure or self-indulgent really just serves the critic, as if to say 'I am a serious-business writer who is immune to this game's evil tricks' without actually engaging with the game on its terms. A critique is stronger when you attack it from multiple angles even if that means swallowing your pride here and there. I feel like there is a pervasive close-mindedness that is defining culture at the moment. I don't understand the impulse to protect oneself from being perceived as a 'dupe'. It's a given that we're just trying to have fun here, and it's okay to entertain different paths to enjoyment with a game, even if it didn't work for you. I think Jeff and Brad get that. I'm not sure everyone else does.

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Wrofir

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Edited By Wrofir

@purpleoddity said:

@wrofir:

. I don't understand the impulse to protect oneself from being perceived as a 'dupe'. It's a given that we're just trying to have fun here, and it's okay to entertain different paths to enjoyment with a game, even if it didn't work for you. I think Jeff and Brad get that. I'm not sure everyone else does.

The realization that there is a ton of money in this, and very blatant in-game advertising. Hard for me to respect a game that's shoving Monster brand energy drinks in my face while trying to make candid points about social media, it's main source of advertising... Just reminds me of FF15 again with all their meta bs.

Were in an age where huge corporations are pushing the limit on what people will let them get away with, with more and more money being funneled into millionaires pockets.

So not wanting to be duped by marketing teams trying to push something in your face as often as possible, all while fishing for the best narrative for publicity, in till you hand them money, is a pretty reasonable stance.
It's aggressive marketing and an aggressive "hell no" in kind by a % of those seeing it.

(Just being a bitter ass here, I do want to at least see what this game is about, but I fully understand the push-back)

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Topcyclist

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@wrofir: i'm more surprised CONTROL didn't get labeled pretentious. Mostly skipped that cause its part of the new weird genre and kojima is definitely functioning off cthulhu stuff that's kinda played out but eh. Still thought control should have gotten flak for just posting stuff with no answers. Like oh this creepy vacuum cleaner eats people when you sleep redacted we dont know how redacted it is from astral plane redacted. Aren't i clever. Just as bad as science people don't like to hear talked about ie big bang etc. Its all just a story device and i think both examples should get judged equally.

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JuggaloAcidman

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Edited By JuggaloAcidman

After playing the games for several hours and loving it, I took to the internet expecting amazing reviews. I was genuinely shocked reading Alex’s review and often felt like he and I played different games. The real question I’m left with... Are reviews for games in the 21st century actually useful? Several people in the comments said they were going to not buy/cancel their pre-order. Some of those people would probably love this game. Their individual life experiences would make this game more compelling then it was for Alex. I feel like games are becoming more non-binary like more traditional art. Nothing against Alex. I’m just a different person with different taste.

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riogordo

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Thanks for the full review, Alex! Well-written, enjoyable and informative, as always!

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gbrading

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Edited By gbrading

I'm personally still really looking forward to playing Death Stranding when it comes out on PC next year. A lot of what I've heard about the game just makes it seem like the kind of game I'd actually really like, because it is obtuse in ways I find appealing.

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kanyeeast

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DS really highlights the disconnect between game reviewers and the audience.

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Karwowski

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Edited By Karwowski

They should have made just another 3rd person shooter. Probably would have gotten a higher score. God knows gamers sh*t on anything that's different.

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JudgementKazzy

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Edited By JudgementKazzy

@karwowski said:

They should have made just another 3rd person shooter. Probably would have gotten a higher score. God knows gamers sh*t on anything that's different.

I love this nothing argument. There have been myriad different games this year — some praised, some not. A different game doesn't get a free pass just because it's different. It still has to be good.

And honestly, it sounds like the problem with this up-its-ass fetch quest bonanza is that it fronts the pretense of being different but mostly, outside of a tedious control mechanic that treats walking on flat ground like you're Nathan Drake on a tightrope, is a whole lot of nothing new. Bland stealth, bland combat, bland chore quest design, a story that goes nowhere. What's so different about any of this?

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Faith12

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@unreal999: completely agree, their written reviews are great.

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pastrami

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For those who are interested in this game and can afford to give it a chance, I would urge you to. I have been playing for about 25 hours and i am absolutely loving it. This review paints this game as a complete mess, when it is HARDLY that. If you do not enjoy the deliveries and don’t enjoy the b-movie batshit crazy plot, then this game will not be for you. But to say it is a disappointment is underselling it.

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MindChamber

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ouch...

Always figured it was No mans sky with no ships... I wanted to get the game later when its dropped ..BUt it looks like half of the world will be built for my by the time I do anyways,, ah well

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north6

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Edited By north6

Up to middle point of chapter 3, I'd give it a 4/5 or 5/5, I need to see this ending that they really dislike because I can't fathom this being 2/5 at this point. Playing on hard, though I'm not really sure what it affects.

Also, watching Alex avoid vehicles in the quicklook and claim they aren't useful in this review, and how he instantly loaded himself up to within 3lbs of breaking the upper weight limit in the late game impressions vid makes me understand a bit more about his playstyle and why he probably found the game tedious.

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LunarBeing

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I feel like I'm a little disappointed with Giant Bomb's coverage of this whole thing. Now, given the fact that there's no way I can divorce myself from the fact that I am a fan of most of Kojima's work, and that I've yet to finish Death Stranding, there is a certain petulance going on here. (Petulance might be too harsh a word but I cannot think of a more appropriate word, anyway.)

(...)

Nobody has to like this game, but why does Giant Bomb's coverage feel so mean?

Just wanted to say, some very good thoughts here.

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MarriottPlayer

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@djredbat: I was surprised by how many comments this review has that just say "Guess I'm not gonna play it" or "Guess it sucks."

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Onemanarmyy

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Edited By Onemanarmyy

Ultimately I dislike idolizing one person who, lets not forget, had a huge team of talented people working on this too, yet we see only that 1 face, and hear how perfect that face is.

I see what you mean with this (thinking back on the kojima tracker & the giggles from the GB crew as 'Hideo Kojima' pops up on screen for the umptheenth time) but at the same time, MGSV's insistance on displaying credits did a better job at making me care about random team members than any AAA-game has ever done. Like i heard that Ludvig Forssell was working on Death Stranding and that was a huge + for me, because that's the name that made all those atmospheric 80's songs on the MGSV soundtrack and i learned that without having to comb through a credit list at the end. Shinkawa has always been known for being hugely important for the look of Metal Gear games to the point where his name is well known enough to get mentioned in a quicklook for the game Left Alive. GB also had Ryan Payton on their couch during E3 who is still mostly known as a key producer on MGS4 and has been recruited based on that experience by studio's like 343 Industries afterwards. Stefanie Joosten was a model that became the face of Quiet and suddenly i see her appear on dutch TV giving interviews about her modeling career , living in japan, her singing her song, the fandom around her and such. It's not as if these people don't get the chance to shine once they're part of a game made by kojima. It's just a fact of life that the audience at large doesn't seek out that information and is satisfied enough if they can quickly tell if it's the 'guy behind mario', the 'guy behind metal gear' or 'the guy behind deadly premonition'. Just like we generally don't get to know the people behind Kojima all that well, i have no idea who works with Swery. I have no idea who works with Suda51. Who the key people were that made Mario a success while Miyamoto soaked up all the press. Who was Molyneux's nr 2?

If Kojima straight up didn't credit his team in his games and all you could glean from it that it's a 'Hideo Kojima' game, fair enough. But when you look at his games ,either he does the same amount of crediting as other games in the business, or he gives his team a bigger spotlight than other games because of his everlasting love for cinema. Does he like that mostly because it means he gets to put his own name out there? Could very well be so, but at the same time, every time someone else gets that spotlight, they benefit as well. Like i think back on MGS1 where every character got introduced with the voice actor in brackets. That stuff just didn't happen in videogames back then.

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KnockingNick

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I'll probably start playing this game tomorrow, I'm really excited to see what everyone has been talking about.

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Dussck

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I was hyped for this game from the very first trailer.
And now I played it.

And it was everything I wanted it to be. A weird, unique game, that has reviewscores between 9 and 4.

I love this game. I love playing it and I love thinking about it.

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FunkSFF

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Great review Alex. You did a fantastic job of grounding the seemingly lofty weirdo concepts into comprehension. Raining time, element McGuffin, ghost explosions, and the super internet.

Kpojima doesnt seem to have anything new or profound to say with his writing, not just in DS, but in all his games. He obfuscates rather simple messages with convoluted nonsense then proceeds to overexplain it all as if he doesnt respect the audience enough to pick up on it. In this case - people should live harmoniously and help each other. Thats it. Thats the take home from Death Stranding. After all these years Im still baffled why people kiss his ass over this stuff.

That being said the man can craft some gameplay. I really enjoy my time with his games despite the writing, and cutscenes provide a good opportunity to grab a beer and watch the sideshow. Im glad Heartman explained exactly why hes named Heartman. Watching him induce multiple cadiac arrests, wearing an AED, and living on the bank of a fucking heart-shaped lake wasnt enough. Holy shit...

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shiro2809

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It's fun coming to this review a bit later and still seeing comments complaining about all of the 'Kojima fanboys' in the comments when on day one most every comment has been like "yup, game's shit just like I knew it would be when it was first announced!" non-stop, or acting like it has so many middling/negative reviews that supports them when most of them are good to great. Just calm down people and just have fun with games.

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Killerfridge

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I really really enjoyed this game at the beginning, and as I go on and on (on chapter 8) I'm slowly coming to hate it more and more. Everything Alex says here is spot on. I think I'm going to stop playing this game

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Drachmalius

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I loved the game from start to finish, and feel like it was made for me in a lot of ways. Just tons of love and care put into the whole package, it made me feel really good for the first time in a while. It's okay that some people don't like it, but for the people it clicks with it's really something special.

Still love ya, Alex. You fought for Nier after all.

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LordLargo

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Really disappointed in your experience with the game. Mine was profound, transformative, and deeply fulfilling, all while remaining entertaining enough for 85 hours of gameplay and multiple viewings of the cutscenes. I agree with some of your criticisms, especially surrounding the heavy handedness of the story, and man the dialogue can grow stale real fast. But, that said, I have never been more entertained by something so oddly satisfying as this game, and I can't help but wish that you would be able to have the same experience with me. Reconnect!

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crcruz3

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I love this game and I love Alex's review too. Haha. One man's meat is another man's poison.

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Karwowski

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I'm looking forward to the PC release.
I want to play this game at locked 60fps on Ultra.

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doctordonkey

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I think the strangest thing about this review that I think might colour Alex's dislike for this game is the aversion to vehicles. Once I got the Bike and Power Skeleton, I could take a ton of cargo, and then the Truck is an absolute game changer, making long-haul trucking actually a viable thing. The jump button handles any rocks, and I was able to scale ridiculous mountains with it. You can Skyrim your way to basically anything.

If Alex actually ended up not using vehicles for most of the game, I can totally see why this is a 2 star review. That sounds like complete madness, I have no idea how you'd manage some of the deliveries.

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Rounderob

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It's so disheartening seeing people say they are going to cancel their pre-order if a game receives a "Bad" Review. I understand if you watch a little and decide a game isn't for you but especially a game like this is that is so different and so much about the experience it sucks to see some write it off before even giving it a chance. Death Stranding isn't going to be for everyone but if you enjoyed Kojima's games in the past this one lives up and even imo exceeds some games in the MGS series.

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AnEternalEnigma

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Just finished this game and nothing has shook me this much since Silent Hill 2. Alex got this one wrong and I hope all the suckers who canceled their pre-orders because of this review are enjoying the next Call of Duty.

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Alek

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Just finished this game, and mostly agree with Alex. Visually arresting, creatively ambitious and often intellectually bankrupt. Subtle as a brick. Falling on your head. From a skyscraper. With characters that had me wondering if Hideo Kojima has actually ever had a conversation with another human being. And it drags on FOREVER. The game set itself up for some kind of splendid metaphysical-psychoanalytic bang, then delivered only a whimper. I think I'm glad I played it, I just had to know. But there are so many far better things I could have been doing with my time.

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LonelySpacePanda

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Just finished this game and broke out crying. I had to call my mom and tell here, "It's time I tell you about Death Stranding." After she broke out into tears, we traveled to visit her dying mother and share the story of Death Stranding and she was able to pass away in peace knowing she had been graced by Kojima's genius.

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dolphin_tequila

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With respect, I've never disagreed with a review on this site more. This is the best game of 2019.

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TheTerribleFamiliar

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Finally. A high-profile game critic offers a scathing review of a Kojima game. Most of this review could be applied to any Kojima game since Metal Gear Solid 2. I've felt like I was taking crazy pills for decades. Finally... Someone sees his work for what it is: A big blustery mess.