Gaming Thoughts – Death Stranding

So last night…after 60 hours of gameplay I finished my playthrough of Death Stranding, Hideo Kojima’s first game since parting ways with Konami back in 2015. The umm…discourse surrounding the game have been fairly mixed as the game itself is showing to be quite divisive, as Kojima games tend to be in general. I’ll admit I have been fairly reticent to chime in(much) on the discussion surrounding the game as so much tends to be completely subjective, and also the fact that there are so many facets and aspects of the game that I find myself quickly spiraling into a semi-coherent ramble(just ask my wife…). For today’s post, I’m not going to delve too much into the general reception of the game but have decided to focus primarily on my three main takeaways from the unique experience presented by this game. For the sake of spoilers and the overall Kojima-ness of the game’s near bewildering storyline and the many, many metaphors contained within I have also decided not to tackle too much of the story other than just the basics.

Death Stranding takes place in an America that has been nearly destroyed by a cataclysmic event known as the Death Stranding in which the worlds of the living and the dead have converged with the remnants of humanity hidden below the surface in fortified bunkers as otherworldly creatures known as BTs or Beached Things which are unable to be seen by the naked eye and plague the land above ground. With the country fractured(METAPHOR ALERT) and in disarray Sam Porter Bridges, played by Norman Reedus is employed in reuniting the country via the Chiral Network, a sort of internet. To complicate matters any type of precipitation, known as Timefall causes any organic material to rapidly age and decay, including humans. This brings into the game an element of item deterioration, including the very boots you wear.

Sam is equipped with an Odradek a spider-like apparatus that sits over his shoulder used as a scanner along with the most-memed aspect of Death Stranding – the BB or Bridge Baby, which is carried in a glass “womb” that Sam carries on his chest as BBs are able to detect the invisible BTs. One of the central themes of the game is death and the afterlife along with the space, or beaches as they’re referred to in the game serving as the space that separates the living and dead.

The World

I love the rugged terrain and moody atmosphere

The America that Kojima Productions has created is nothing short of astounding, the rugged rocky terrain with stretches of grassy expanse is simply breathtaking. There’s also the snowy beauty of mountain ranges with marshy lowlands in the valleys below. Several areas feature a barren, rusty, Mars-like landscape you must traverse. One order may ask you to transport supplies to a settlement on the very edge of the map, while the next may direct you to retrieve items that had been lost in an ambush. Upon completing the deliveries, Sam is then able to connect the location to the larger country via the Chiral Network forming another “strand” along the way. You can also undertake additional deliveries which upon completion assist in strengthening your connection level up to 5 stars.

The key word in describing the gameplay is traversal, the game has been labeled as “just a walking simulator” by some; the central gameplay element sounds anything but complex, Sam takes on orders(missions) at different terminals across the country and sets out to transport a myriad of items to the corresponding locations scattered about the area. “The game is just a glorified Amazon delivery person-simulator” is among the most common criticisms of the game…..I understand I may just be weird, but that’s part of the game that I find endearing – would anyone other than Hideo Kojima be crazy enough to pull something like this off? The fact that traversal is the primary gameplay element along with a generous amount of inventory management and stealth with just a sprinkling of combat into the mix. One order may ask you to transport supplies to a settlement on the very edge of the map, while the next may direct you to retrieve items that had been lost in an ambush. Upon completing the deliveries, Sam is then able to connect the location to the larger country via the Chiral Network forming another “strand” along the way. You can also undertake additional orders to build your “connection” with the settlement along your journey across the country.

From the moment I began playing the game and was placed in this gorgeous, expansive world I was compelled to keep going and to see just what lay over the next horizon. I kept thinking to myself while playing, “Ok…I’m supposed to be bored now right?”. The bulk of your travels will by made by foot, with the eventual ability to fabricate additional tools and even some vehicles. The traversal through the game across the desolate landscape has such a haunting otherworldly vibe I found myself in near disbelief at the quality of visuals in Death Stranding. While traveling there isn’t a whole lot in the way of soundtrack outside of a few ambient sounds until encountering a point in your journey which triggers one of the many licensed songs from the Icelandic band Low Roar. This generally occurs just as you venture to the top of a hill and see your destination finally lays ahead of you. The feeling of relief in just the fact that you’re completing a mission and reaching your destination became such a weird, almost intoxicating feeling. The feeling of satisfaction as you think “I’ve finally made it” is unlike anything else I’ve played in a game, with the closest example being the moment of finally defeating that giant boss in a Dark Souls game. Another aspect of the game I have also seen many others reference is the contemplative, zen-like feeling in your travels as you will spend a great deal of the game all alone. I found the game downright relaxing at times.

The music used in the game is phenomenal, with Ludvig Forssell’s original soundtrack evoking waves of emotion throughout the game, particularly in BBs Theme which is a melody patterned as a lullaby one might hum as they cradle a newborn. Just hearing BBs Theme since beating the game is enough to bring back the rush of emotions I experienced through the game. There is an impressive amount of licensed songs used in the game as well; nearly twenty songs alone from the band Low Roar, with nearly a dozen other songs used by other artists. Similar to the range of 80’s music that was placed throughout Metal Gear Solid 5. Among my favorite licensed songs are Pop Virus by Gen Hoshino which I listed in last week’s game music post and the song Death Stranding by Chvrches which essentially acts as the title track of the game. I liked Chvrches prior to playing the game, but I really have fallen in love with this song. Kojima certainly understands how effective audio is in conveying emotions and moods in any piece of art, and it is no more evident than while playing Death Stranding.

A Helping Hand

Another gameplay element central to Death Stranding in asynchronous online play that lets players leave ladders or ropes in various places not only to assist you in traversing the rugged landscape, but also to leave behind you a hand of assistance to others making their way through the game. Once an area has been connected to the Chiral Network you can begun to rebuild the country decimated by the Death Stranding. You can use gathered materials towards building paved roads or eventually zip lines(awesome!) to provide greater ease in traveling from place to place. You can build additional structures like watchtowers to survey the surrounding area or Timefall shelters to offer a brief respite from the container-ravaging rain or snow. You may find the battery of your reverse trike is running low on battery and find a generator standing just up ahead; the satisfying reward of knowing you’ve helped someone else in the lengthy journey through the world is one of the biggest achievements of the game. One any of the several boss fights, you can see the specter of other players fighting and will assist you by tossing weapons and health in your direction. This isn’t a completely new gameplay facet as this was also used in From Software’s Souls series where players could leave messages of warning or encouragement for others. The idea of “connections” and “strands” were meant to be central to the game experience as Kojima himself has stated. The landscape of America is vast and barren and has been a criticism of the game from some publications as the experience was found to be an empty and lonely, that’s precisely the point. The pervasive feelings of loneliness and detachment are at the heart of Death Stranding as Kojima stated the game was a result of the loneliness he himself feels from time to time in our current world. More than ever before we are able to communicate and connect with others around the globe, but for many there is still a missing feeling of being “connected” to those around us. Something as simple as a sign of encouragement from others can help remind us that even though we may feel all alone in this giant empty space, we aren’t. Metaphors like this aren’t hard to see, particularly given how NOT subtle many tend to be in Kojima games.

The Journey

It’s only been about 24 hours since completing the game, but I can already feel the game has been an experience that will stick with me a long time. After finishing the game, there’s a feeling not of being exhausted, but more that you know you have climbed the mountain and have seen a long journey through from start to finish. While playing Death Stranding I have mentioned multiple times how it felt similar to making my way through the even lengthier storyline of Red Dead Redemption 2 in that it wasn’t the hyper-stimulating gameplay experience like playing through Doom or any number of action or FPS games, but there’s a feeling of satisfaction in seeing the resolution to your emotional investment.

It wasn’t as much of a surprise that the voice and motion capture performances in Death Stranding are nothing short of phenomenal. Norman Reedus is probably the most surprising as initially most of his lines were delivered in a low gravely tone that it sounded as if he was trying to play Solid Snake, but as the game progressed you see Sam open up a little more and displays a greater range of emotions and feel like you’re not JUST controlling Daryl from The Walking Dead. I can’t go without professing my love for Mads Mikkelsen, who I was beyond excited when I first heard he would be starring in a Hideo Kojima game. I love his movies and especially his portrayal as the evil Dr. Hannibal Lecter in the NBC show Hannibal(gone WAY too soon…); the quiet intensity he brings to the story as Cliff was excellent. Troy Baker and Lea Seydoux were great as usual as the terrorist Higgs and as Fragile. Tommie Earl Jenkins who plays Die-Hard Man was one of the best performances I have seen recently as he begins the game as seemingly just another Col. Campbell/Major Tom type to give you advice or directions or is he? By the end of the game I was nearly as attached to these wonderful characters with way-too-on-the-nose namesakes as I did to Arthur while playing Red Dead Redemption 2, but what surprised me the most was attachment to my BB. I have no nurturing instinct whatsoever but I got quite attached to the little guy. It was such a heavy “feels” moment to see Sam and BBs journey come to a close and in a way felt similar to that of Kratos and Atreus’ in God of War.

But…is Death Stranding a fun game? I personally didn’t find myself ever bored or frustrated when playing the game, I felt so enamored with this gorgeous world and the truly unique story it tells. I absolutely love this game, but I have no problem with the fact someone else may find it boring and hate it even after “actually playing the game”. My biggest critique of the game would be that the controls aren’t completely perfect, but not enough to put me off playing the game, the pacing of the game I totally understand may detract others from enjoying the game as much. I found it interesting that the game begins with you being nearly helpless and had to progress to make connections and fabricate weapons, being able to create the different powered skeletons made it immensely easier to keep Sam upright. By the final chapters of the game you feel a sense of progression in both the storyline and your abilities. I had to laugh that after the final credits you are shown your stats from your time in the game and there’s a category for Tumbles Taken which tracks just how many times you fell over due to unstable terrain or losing your balance. The OCD part of me also enjoyed how the game will force you to prepare for potential situations that may arise during your mission and will not think twice about punishing you for being careless.

Death Stranding is a game that was never intended to be a conventional experience, and that’s the two key words I will use to describe the game, experience and investment. If you’re looking for something simply to hold your attention as you zone out in front of the tv, you may be utterly disappointed. In a gaming industry being more and more dominated by sequels and remakes as they provide the safest return on a publisher’s investment, one cannot deny how impressive it is that a big-budget game with such an abstract story and more non-conventional gameplay features exists. Despite there being those still insisting the contrary, video games can be art, and any artistic medium is mostly subjective. Editor-in-Chief of Game Informer Andy McNamara has stated the interesting thing about Death Stranding would be as a discussion piece and likened it to something you would see in an art gallery. I have also sadly noticed those out there defending the game and claiming that those who were critical of the same simply hadn’t played it or “just don’t get it”. Now that I’ve finished the game I will mostly likely attempt to wrap up some other games on my plate as I want to get a decent sampling of games released in 2019 before I start with my game of the year talk, which is obligatory for anyone blogging about video game it seems. I will most definitely come back to Death Stranding as I’d like to go for the platinum trophy. At this point, I would have to say Death Stranding is definitely Top Three of my favorite games of 2019. I do find it amusing however, that Kojima’s game about connecting others has proven so divine already…

Has anyone out there taken a gamble and picked up Death Stranding? If so, what did you think? Did you love it or hate it, what did you like/dislike about it? I’ve been looking for others to actually discuss the game in more nuance than simply “It’s the best game ever!” or “it’s a pretentious walking simulator!”. Feel free to leave a comment or you we can discuss on Twitter @gamingomnivore. I also included a couple tracks from the game that I’m currently in love with! Thanks for reading!

What I’m Playing Now – Weekend Gaming Review

Having recently finished the mostly long, not so arduous task of getting the platinum trophy for Assassin’s Creed:Origins so I found myself once again asking myself “What do I feel like playing next?”. The platinum trophy for Origins took approximately 74 hours as I had started playing it back in January after setting out to actually complete an Assassin’s Creed game which I had only played a couple up to that time. Without spending too much time going over and discussing the game I will say that I really enjoyed the game, so much that I spent 70-plus hours completing everything and getting the platinum trophy. I don’t typically spend all of my energy(or sanity) trying to collect every trophy for every game, save for a relatively small group of games that I had loved so much that I was determined to accomplish everything within the game. Now that I had Origins wrapped up, I decided I would set my sights on another game. I am usually “juggling” several different games, on different systems at any given time. I have still been playing MLB The Show 19 pretty steadily since it released over a month ago and had just recently begun playing through Cuphead on my Switch, along with still playing a few rounds of Tetris 99 and Super Smash Bros: Ultimate on a routinely basis.

There are three games in particular that I have had in mind for a while now that I wanted to play through – Persona 5, Final Fantasy XV, and The Witcher 3(Complete Edition). All three of these games being somewhat intimidating as I’m not usually able to play a sprawling, epic (J)RPG game while still playing too many others so I decided I would finish up some other games before devoting myself to a more “demanding” game. I have played a good amount of RPGs over the years since first discovering how satisfying and addicting they can be, especially after finally “figuring out” the strategy in turn-based combat…thanks, Pokemon Red :)…but always had trouble finishing them as I would seemingly always just…not play them for a few days or a couple weeks and would have trouble getting “back into” the control scheme and story.

I woke up one morning and just decided to jump in and start playing The Witcher 3, which I am really liking so far and will make sure to keep playing consistently as the control scheme for the game is a little different and can seem more complex than some games. However, after a couple days I decided that I wanted to try Persona 5 as well and started playing that randomly one morning, the update for SSB: Ultimate in adding Joker to the roster may have “assisted” in that decision as well…I was a little hesitant to begin playing Persona as I was thinking the rumors COULD BE TRUE about a port of Persona 5 coming to the Switch and having a 100+ hour JRPG to play on my Switch to take around with me sounded fun. Well…a few days ago Atlus announced that they were bringing the Persona series to the Switch with Persona 5 Scramble – not a straight port of the game but more of a fighter-type game in the vein of the Dynasty Warriors games. So my decision to play Persona 5 on my PS4 was the correct one. I absolutely love Persona so far and have put about 15 hours or so into it already.

The last few couple days however…I felt like going back and playing through some of my childhood favorite games on my N64. I played Star Wars: Rogue Squadron – still one of my absolute favorite Star Wars games, along with some Star Fox 64 and I also dug out my old copy of Mario Golf which brought back tons of fond memories of summer days gone by. I am still in love with many games on the N64, even ones that my not have aged as gracefully like a lot of early 3d era games did, Goldeneye in particular. I do intend on bringing out my old Gamecube and original Xbox to play some of my all-time favorites like Halo(1 &2), Metroid Prime, and Eternal Darkness. I would like to also play through Timesplitters 2 as well as attempt to finally beat Viewtiful Joe which was more difficult than I could accomplish in past years.

I apologize if there doesn’t seem to be much more to this week’s post than a lengthy recollection of my weekend of playing video games(that IS pretty accurate). Part of my mission with this blog has been simply to sort out the endless rambling about “vidya gaemz”. What games are you currently playing? or what’s a game that you have wanted to play to haven’t gotten around to for one reason or another?

Keep on playing…

Here’s some Persona 5 Scramble news if curious –

MLB The Show 19 – First Impressions

The 2019 MLB baseball season is finally here! Though The Show 19 has only been out for not even two weeks, I can already say this year’s offering from San Diego Studios is looking to be one of the best ever.

The most difficult thing for a developer has to be finding ways to make a sports game interesting and engaging year after year. This year’s The Show game includes the new mode March to October which is a sort of condensed season where you play mostly situational spots through the scheduled season to help your team build momentum, or “catch fire”. This can be anything from completing a series sweep against a division rival to completing a no-hitter for your starting pitcher with player rewards coming at the end of the season. Also new this year is the Moments mode where you play out significant situations throughout baseball history. The starting Moments programs include a Babe Ruth career arc, as well as Willie Mays, the Chicago Cubs historic World Series season, and rookie season for current cover star Bryce Harper. The different challenges have archived in game footage setting up the moment, which I really enjoy as a baseball fan and history geek.

The new Moments mode where you can “call your shot” as Babe Ruth or make “The Catch” as Willie Mays

The XP/Rewards system this year is a little different, and for the better I believe. There are two different paths that you can earn rewards from player cards and equipment to simply more stubs…to purchase more cards and equipment 😉 The first is the XP Path Rewards in which you receive a new reward every five or so levels you increase your profile which is looking to pay off with some pretty nice cards for your Diamond Dynasty team. There is also the Star Program rewards path, which is pretty much the same as the XP path only you receive varying amounts of stars as a result of winning a game or completing the rotating in-game missions that are offered. This too, results in some nice rewards as I already picked up a level 95 diamond-rated Goose Gossage to add to the bullpen of my Diamond Dynasty team.

The game mechanics have been tweaked a bit over the offseason; the player defense is the most realistic I have seen in a baseball simulation game meaning no more awkward throw animations or bumbling fielding attempts. The hitting has also been altered ever so slightly, there is actually good, solid feedback when you get the bat on the ball which is an improvement over last year. I genuinely hope San Diego Studios doesn’t feel the need to experiment with batting physics again this year. There is also an array of different home run calls and animations that can be used for your Road to the Show players which are fun to set, even if it doesn’t affect how the game plays.

There are a couple very minor dislikes about the game such as there isn’t really any additions or improvements made to Franchise mode, or simply the fact that the game boast an overwhelming abundance of game modes and settings and cards that it is near baffling to first play. There is also a feeling that the Live Series player cards actually have a “live” bat versus some of the Flashback Series cards I have used in the past few years…nevertheless, I have truly enjoyed the 40 or so hours I have put into the game so far and have to remind myself that the baseball season is a marathon, not a sprint. MLB The Show 19 is another home run!

Apex Legends – No Titans, no problem

There are 8 playable characters you can choose, though the characters Caustic and Mirage initially need to be unlocked

Any given week I’m usually playing several different games, however the past couple weeks most of my time spent playing games has been playing Apex Legends and with over 8 million players in the first 48 hours after launch, a sizable portion of the online gaming community has been too(understatement). 

Apex Legends was launched completely unaware by just about everyone two weeks ago on the date. I awoke Monday February 4 to read news that Respawn Entertainment had announced their newest project; a class based battle royale shooter “set in the Titanfall universe” and was launching immediately. I have to admit I was unsure what to think upon hearing the announcement as I, along with many others were hoping for news of Titanfall 3. I absolutely loved Titanfall 2 and regard it as one of my favorite first-person shooters I’ve ever played, alongside games like Goldeneye, Halo, and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. As mixed…well…generally negative feelings as I have for EA, I wanted to support Respawn and give Apex Legends a chance. 

The premise of Apex Legends is standard battle royal fare, (drops, shrinking area of play, random weapons scattered throughout map) but with 8 class-based “Legends” to select from at the beginning of the match. I find the class-based angle interesting in a battle royale game, as each character has different abilities to use throughout the match. Each character has a passive, tactical, and an ultimate ability. This being similar to Overwatch…I’m curious to know how long Blizzard has been contemplating creating a BR mode for Overwatch?

I have been playing Apex Legends for two weeks now and so far I have been very impressed. My favorite aspect of the gameplay would probably have to be the Smart Comms system, where you simply tap a button to point out or “ping” anything from your next map destination to items and weapons to pointing out enemies on the map for your squad to see. This intuitive context sensitive design lets you do ALL of this without having to get on the mic to talk to you squamates. Ask anyone who has ever tried to play in a squad with random players online or simply prefer not to use a mic can tell you what a blessing this is. There is also a respawn ability where even after you are knocked down and killed your teammates can grab your player beacon from your loot; a “death box” and bring it over to a respawn beacon and you will get another chance as your character jumps down from the next dropship. This gives away your position to the other remaining players as well, so you will need to move quickly as soon as you hit the ground.

Your teammate can bring your player beacon to respawn you from an incoming dropship.

The gameplay itself in Apex Legends is as smooth as it gets, this comes as no surprise to anyone that marveled at the gameplay of Titanfall 2 (also the fact that Respawn was founded by Jason West and Vince Zampella from Infinity Ward – developers of the first two Cod: Modern Warfare games). The shooting feels good and tight, the movement has enough “weight” to it, but you don’t feel like you’re running through quicksand. 

King’s Canyon – One large island but has multiple areas and terrain from mountains to swamps and desert

There is currently only a single map you can play – King’s Canyon, but it has become one of my favorite maps in any battle royale game. The map has different terrain, from dry sandy wastelands which look like something out of the Borderlands games to green swampy lowlands with streams running through, reminiscent of SOCOM games.

As with most battle royale games, there is a very slight learning curve. Mostly just familiarizing yourself with which weapons are what and what the attachments and ammo types are, which in turn makes it more satisfying to utlitlize all the different gameplay aspects and see your squad as Champions.

Apex Legends is definitely worth checking out if your are a fan of the battle royale genre and it plays well enough to give a chance even if you aren’t a fan. I am having a blast playing this in the meantime. Here’s hoping the enormous success of this game in such a short time may result in Respawn making Titanfall 3 in the future…