Bob Dunn | Game On: Review: Death Stranding lost in its own self-importance
Death Stranding is the result of unchecked ambition, that is so intent and self-conscious about being "serious-art-with-something-to-say," that it fails to remember at times that it's a game.
A dense and confusing plot, a scattershot of half-thought-out themes and ideas, repetitive gameplay in which very little happens throughout most of the game, vulgar product placement and a wooden performance from Norman Reedus as the game's main character, undermine what is admittedly, an impressive technical achievement.
Death Stranding is the latest work from Hideo Kojima, the brilliant game developer most famous for the Metal Gear Solid franchise.
Kojima had an ugly breakup with game publisher Konami, which had released the Metal Gear games, leaving him to create his own studio, which apparently didn't include anyone to tell him, "no."
To be fair, the game is a technical marvel. The world in which the player exists is a starkly gorgeous, morphing, post-apocalyptic environment shrouded by a palpable and compelling sense of dread.
The veneer of that presentation is layered over a solid game engine that appears to run more or less flawlessly. It handles any number of complex calculations and near-photo-realistic portrayals of its characters without so much as a hitch or slowdown.
But that engine serves a game that is so lost and aloof in its own self-importance that it's easy to overlook what a feat it is.
The basic premise of the story is you, playing Sam Porter Bridges, voiced by Reedus, must deliver supplies and equipment to various outposts and reconnect them to a nationwide wireless network.
The world is recovering from the "Death Stranding," some type of supernatural event that blurred the lines between the worlds of the living and dead, allowing creatures from that other realm to roam the earth.
It's an interesting and accessible enough premise that becomes buried under layer after layer of pretense.
Kojima has never shied away from putting political and social themes into his work. Under the straightforward storyline of the original Metal Gear Solid, was the subversive subtext of shadowy figures manipulating governments into the creation of a new world order.
It was confusing and didn't always make a lot of sense, but it didn't overshadow the game (which is a damn masterpiece).
As the series went on, Kojima leaned more heavily into the Byzantine plot lines he'd created, which often required cinematic cut scenes of up to 10 minutes or more to try and explain, and, as a consequence, the games became less enjoyable.
Death Stranding has plenty it seems to want to say, but by trying to comment on everything, it winds up commenting on nothing. The themes wind up being ham-fisted conversation starters that don't actually go anywhere.
Not helping matters is the fact that subtlety is not among Kojima's many talents.
Early in the game, the player is introduced to the communication device that serves as their access to information. It's made clear the device is a metaphor for smartphones and it is literally a handcuff shackled to your wrist. Get it?
One of the game's themes is that of lost connections and re-establishing them. "Building bridges," if you will.
In case that's not made clear in the context of the game, don't worry, you will be beat over the head with it until it becomes as clear as crystal.
No opportunity to scream it at you is lost, starting with your character's name, Sam Porter Bridges ("Bridges" Get it?) who happens to be the son of the President (voiced by Lindsay Wagner) whose name is "Bridget."
Bridges! Bridget! Porter, like transporter! Get it?
Kojima also has a limited palette when it comes to character development.
Throughout his games, the only way he seems to be able to convey fear is for a character to wet themselves.
And, because Death Stranding is a Kojima game, there's urine involved. This time, it's actually incorporated into the gameplay.
You're given access to a toilet, which converts your waste into weapons to use against your shadowy foes and you can relieve yourself out in the world.
You read that correctly.
When you do, you're given a meter of exactly how much fluid you've expelled and strange fungi begin to grow in the spot you've chosen. Other players who find those growths out in the game world can then register "likes" on it.
It's a strange, idiosyncratic signature that's a hallmark of a Kojima game. Georgia O'Keefe had her cattle skulls, John Woo has his white doves, Kojima has urine.
Beyond that, the game appears to be incorporating commentary on social isolation, terrorism and the influence of social media, but never delivers on that commentary.
It's like watching a stand-up comedian who only has premises without any punchlines.
"Good evening, folks! Dating, am I right? Goodnight!"
Perhaps the game's biggest problem is also one of its main selling points, the casting of Reedus as Bridges.
Character in video games is sometimes tricky. It typically goes in one of two ways; either you're playing as well-developed, unique characters like Nathan Drake from the Uncharted franchise, or you're creating that character yourself through gameplay, as in a role-playing game.
The problem with putting Reedus in the game is that he doesn't do anything to make Bridges any kind of character separate from himself.
You're not playing as Bridges, you're playing as Reedus and the game never lets you forget it.
There's no effort to make Reedus look or sound any different than himself, or at least like Daryl Dixon, his character in "The Walking Dead." The only real difference between the two is Bridges has access to a shower and occasionally uses it.
He even utters the same monosyllabic grunts as his TWD character and conveys the same, brooding, reluctant savior vibe.
You're not able to relate to Bridges as a character because Reedus keeps getting in the way.
The game is absolutely fascinated with Reedus in a nearly-fetishistic manner. When you're in Bridges' private quarters, you can make the character perform strange gestures and mug for the camera, which is somehow slightly disturbing.
And, if, somehow, you manage to forget for a moment that Bridges is really Reedus, fear not, because when you use the toilet in those quarters (because, again, this is a Kojima game) there is an advertisement for Reedus' AMC program, "Ride With Norman Reedus," on the door that closes behind you.
If you're looking for a way to take a player right out of the game experience, that's a pretty good one.
The product placement doesn't stop there. Apparently one of the few things to survive the apocalypse was Monster Energy Drink, gaudy green cans and all.
It's not only beyond crass, but it's another thing that completely disrupts any immersion in the game and, honestly, is beneath it.
It's OK for games to be weird, or political, or to be slow-paced and require more patience on the part of the player than they may be accustomed to.
Ambition is good, but ambition in spite of itself that tries to do too much at once, making sure that none of those things get executed well, makes for a frustratingly obtuse experience.
There's a good game in there somewhere, but it's buried under Kojima's self-indulgence.
A bit more restraint and a lot less Reedus might have gone a long way in bridging the gap between frustrating and exceptional.
Death stranding was developed by Kojima Productions and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment. It is available for the Playstation 4 and is expected to be released on PC in 2020.
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