Death Stranding Impressions (PS4)

1,245 words.

I’ve heard about Death Stranding for years, but I’ve never had any idea what kind of game it is.

Shortly after the game begins.

I tried to read some reviews, but I simply couldn’t stand to visit any of the major games journalism web sites to read them. Every game web site is completely obscured by ads that cover almost 75% of the screen, blinking at you, playing videos at you, whatever. The text is buried beneath an avalanche of constantly-shifting “reactive” crap. My laptop fan starts blowing full speed whenever I try to load these pages. It’s just godawful.

The only things I could read were the clickbait titles. I got the general gist that the game was about delivering things in an open-world environment, which certainly sounds unusual. Reviews, or at least the titles in reviews, seemed to vary wildly, which to me is a good sign. It indicates that the game is trying to do something new that’s never been seen before, and reviewers are either incapable of understanding it or undecided on how to react to it.

Incidentally, it never even crossed my mind to watch any video reviews. I didn’t want to be spoiled, which I assumed every video would do.

Struggling through water, trying not to fall down or run out of energy.

First I want to share my reasoning for buying it at full price without knowing much about it, something I normally try to avoid:

  • I love it when I’m surprised by an unknown (to me) game which turns out to be fantastic. It’s an extremely rare treat in life anymore. Death Stranding looked like it might be one of those games.
  • I love the television ads. They aren’t screaming at you, they aren’t filled with explosions or guns or catchphrases or anything. They’re just quiet, visually-striking images of amazing scenery and … just … “things” that make no sense. They’re targeted at adults, not kids. I like the ambient music as well. It’s a bold choice to advertise a game without actually telling you anything about the game. I was intrigued and mystified and wondered what it all meant.
  • It’s a PS4 timed exclusive game and I just happen to have a PS4 that I bought precisely because PS4 exclusive games are better than any other exclusives. If I didn’t buy it, it would have been like wasting my money on the PS4. Right? Kind of?
  • I’ve been seeing more and more tweets filtering out through my timeline suggesting that the game was, if not breathtakingly fantastic, at least not awful.

So I succumbed to temptation and bought the standard digital download, making it the fourth new game I’ve purchased in 2019, and the third at the full launch retail price. I played for about five and a half hours on Saturday. Here are some impressions.

Transporting a corpse to the incinerator to save the world, as you do.

I’d estimate that 90% of games become boring to me after the first hour. If not sooner. Death Stranding passed the first, most critical game test, and continues to throw new and interesting things at me over five hours later. I’m still learning how to play the game, and I love games with a learning curve.

The cinematics in the game are amazing. Not only is the story subject interesting, but it’s shot in interesting ways, with interesting camera angles and “long takes.” The 3D face technology or whatever they call it nowadays is pretty impressive. The de-aged Lindsay Wagner is like watching an old episode of The Bionic Woman (not counting the obligatory anime floating hair).

Jaime Summers? No, it's Amelie.

The story, or more precisely the setting of the story, since the plot and character arcs are still fairly opaque to me after five hours, is very creative and unusual and interesting. Maybe it’s derivative of something else, but I’ve never seen anything like it before in books, movies, or television. Everything is strange and mysterious, none of it is explained (well, okay, there was one blatant expository dialog scene in the back of a truck but it was brief and all the other stuff happening around it distracted from it). It just reaches out of the screen, grabs you by the eyeballs, and demands that every part of your brain stay engaged and pay attention.

Your basic game task (so far, at least) is to deliver goods from place to place on an open world map, unlocking new areas, upgrades, and story cut scenes. It’s similar to a space trading game (eg. Elite Dangerous), or to the pack trading in ArcheAge, except the way you deliver the goods is to strap the refrigerator-sized packages onto your back and walk across treacherous terrain, figuring out how to navigate rocks and cliffs and crevices, trying not to stumble and fall. I can’t think of any other game to compare it to. It’s completely new to me. Usually walking from place to place in games is a boring task you can either automate completely or use an auto-run key, but in this game, it’s an entire mini-game.

Other players sometimes leave helpful tools to navigate the terrain.

The biggest problem I’ve seen so far is that the game is locked at 30 fps. Personally, I always prefer performance over graphics quality. Other than that, I haven’t encountered any friction or pain points in the game at all. Even the loading screens-the bane of most modern games-aren’t too slow.

Well, okay, playing it with a PS4 controller is a problem, but that’s just me. Since I played so long on Saturday, I ought to take a day or two off for my hand to recover, but it’ll be hard to resist going back.

There are about a thousand other things I could say about this game (including, but not limited to, asynchronous player interactions, bridge babies, urination, Monster energy drinks, and breaking the fourth wall), but I’ll leave it there. I’m not trying to sell anyone on it. It’s such a strange enigma that it’s definitely not a game for everyone. The number of quirky features, especially in your “private room,” are too numerous to go into.

Sneaking around "BTs" in a "timefall." It doesn't look like it but this is intense!

But so far, it’s hitting all my buttons. Cool science fiction mixed with supernatural horror mixed with walking around exploring gorgeous scenery and discovering new places. And I just realized it’s also very unusual that there has been almost no combat in the first five hours of gameplay. I think I made a good choice with this one.

Will it take off and inspire a hundred delivery-service clone games in future years? Will it become a huge franchise with six more sequels? I doubt it. But for right now, it’s really cool to be a part of something so risky and inventive and weird in the AAA gaming space. It just never happens anymore.

Organizing your weight distribution is the key to balance.

P. S. I was going to livestream my game sessions but because it uses commercial music tracks (“courtesy of Nevado Music”), I got an instantaneous copyright claim on the first video I streamed. I suppose this might be considered a “pain point” in the game, but it only affects YouTubers. I did some editing and re-uploaded the first couple of hours. Mainly I just wanted to experiment with defeating the copyright claim algorithms.

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