As big of a fan as I am of his work, Hideo Kojima has always been a bit of an enigma to me. There's no denying the innovation that he's brought to the gaming industry through the Metal Gear Solid franchise alone, and from recently watching the almost hour-long Death Stranding gameplay shown off at Tokyo Game Show 2019, it seems like he's bringing some of his innovative ideas back in full force. However, I find myself stuck at an odd crossroads when it comes to the gameplay of Death Stranding. A part of me is captivated by the masterful storytelling on display here, but I'm quickly bringing myself to question certain elements of the gameplay, and how it complements the narrative. More specifically, does it successfully sell us on what the game actually is?
Thanks to the briefing trailer, I got a good grasp on the story, at least on surface level. Amelie is next in line to lead the United Cities of America after a devastating collapse of the country at the whim of mysterious, supernatural phenomenon. However, being held somewhat captive in an isolated city, Sam Porter Bridges must traverse the open world, travelling from East to West, in order to rescue her and unite the remaining cities of civilization in order to lead a renewed and powerful country. There just happens to be a lot standing in his way before he can achieve that goal.
We won't get into the intricacies of Death Stranding's mechanics, since I want to mainly talk about the biggest elephant in the room that has been bothering me since we saw our first glimpse of the open world. The landscape, modeled after the rolling green hills and icy mountain peaks of Iceland, is striking and serene in its beauty. It's truly jaw-dropping what Kojima Productions have managed to create from an open world design perspective - something that they seem to have a good grasp on since I still consider Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain's open world to be among one of the best I've personally seen. However, gorgeous design aside, the land feels completely desolate - almost to a huge fault.
Maybe that is the purpose of the world, as Timefall, the strange weather cataclysms, manages to kill off all walks of life that it touches. I would compare Death Stranding's open world to something like Shadow of the Colossus, in that its so sparsely populated, it actually adds to the atmosphere of the game. I find this extremely prevalent in Death Stranding's open world too. I really get a strong sense of mysticism in its bleakness, like there's more to it that we aren't really seeing yet, and probably for a good reason. However, while Shadow of the Colossus' Forbidden Lands dazzled with its emptiness, Death Stranding's Washington feels remarkably tamed.
Of course, I'd rather not jump the gun and assume that is all that there is to the gameplay experience, which has Sam travelling to various outposts and delivering cargo, rinse and repeat. If we can piece together the bits of story and how it drives the gameplay, we'll certainly have our fair share of interesting characters (and monsters) to encounter in the wide wastelands. I would love to see exactly what is being kept from us when Death Stranding releases in a couple of months, but these past few trailers have been met with a bit of a mixed reaction from myself, and it seems many others too. I'd hate to believe that the world feels empty without any surprises in store, or meaning behind our long journeys across the mostly barren landscape.
Apart from that, let's dive into what really works and is firing on all cylinders in Death Stranding: the unexpected. We expect to be travelling around the open world doing our best Postman Pat impersonations, but the surprising moments that happen in-between is what brings the game to the forefront of excellency. The 49-minute gameplay showcases a boss fight that occurs after death, in what appears to be a black watery alternate dimension, with ruined buildings collapsed around the environment. You seem to use vials of your own blood as grenades to stun the monster, which is just unheard of. Paying closer attention, slaying the beast triggers some kind of time warp that alters the environment even further.
When travelling around the open world, you also get a good sense of how the Strand system works - Kojima's new multiplayer mechanic seemingly taking a few pages from From Software. While the game is primarily played in single-player, if connected online, how other players interact in their own world could drastically alter yours. For example, the now-notorious peeing on a mushroom idea is actually a demonstration of how Stranding functions (bear with me on the next sentence, as I never thought I'd ever type this). Peeing on the mushroom will cause it to grow, and if enough players urinate on the mushroom, it will continue growing and perhaps appear much larger in another persons world. This is only one of the many ways in which the Strand system could potentially be groundbreaking. Other ways include the fact that craters are formed in your wake whenever you die and are resurrected, which means craters will also begin to appear in another persons world.
I could go into more detail on the Strand system, but I'll wait until more information becomes available so I can do a better breakdown of its inner workings. Another thing to praise is the absolutely mesmerizing graphics and motion capture. Every actor portrayed in the game has a stunning amount of detail to their facial animations, reactions, and realistic movement. Coupled with high-budget film-level directing, it all feels highly cinematic - something Kojima excels at.
Going back on the question I brought up in the opening paragraph, I surely do hope that, from a gameplay perspective, there are things being kept from us that we have yet to see. Narrative-wise, I can understand the need for secrecy, but when it comes to the bare essentials of the gameplay, this perhaps isn't the best way to sell your gameplay and leave a great impression. What is our ultimate goal here? What drives the gameplay besides walking across empty, picturesque landscapes? Is there something we aren't quite figuring out yet about its mystical nature? I'm open to be proven completely wrong when Death Stranding releases on November 8, 2019. Please prove me wrong.
Writer. Enthusiast of all things geek. Legend has it he completed Final Fantasy VII without a memory card.
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