Review Summary: An epic journey that's worth every second of your time.
Death Stranding is inarguably the biggest game of the year – arguably of the decade. When it was first announced way back in 2016 the project was an enigma; shrouded in its obscurity, drenched in oppressively breathtaking sci-fi visuals, and leaving millions to speculate on what the hell it was all about. Fast-forward to November 15th, 2019, and the game has caused a contentious divide amongst gamers. This is largely down to one aspect of Death Stranding: its gameplay. Getting down to brass-tacks, it’s essentially a walking simulator that has your player character delivering packages which range from trivial trinkets right up to nuclear weapons. You take these parcels across all terrane, through every element and weather condition, using simple yet effective tools, such as ladders and ropes, to get you to your destination. Trudging through a sprawling, post-apocalyptic world that makes you feel every hardship this dystopian world has to offer; basically, the game wants to break you. As such, despite the fact the game has moments for gunplay to come to the forefront, Death Stranding sits on a slow boil and puts you in the boots of a glorified postman. And I’m not going to pull the wool over any of your eyes; when you take away the expertly crafted story, gorgeous graphics, phenomenal score and excellently implemented and idiosyncratic multiplayer elements – ones that have you helping your fellow player succeed by crafting items for them to discover in the world, or liking something they’ve contributed to it – what you’re left with is a dead husk in the way of actual gameplay. And I just can’t justify the terrible pacing issues, lazy missions, horrendous backtracking, or the mind-numbingly repetitive fetch quests that feel like side missions than story missions with proper weight because of it.
With that said, we’re here, now, to talk about the incredible score – and a weird one to review since I’m going to be tackling a number of sources for this game. Death Stranding is a collection of pre-existing songs from artists such as Low Roar, originally composed tracks made just for the game, ala Chvrches, and a staggering, synthed-out score composed by Ludvig Forssell. I could review one part in particular but I think that would miss the point of what the game is fervently trying to convey, which is that it’s about people coming together to form a greater whole – to make something with tangible meaning and weight to it as a collective – and I feel all who contributed to this game did a tremendous job in bringing this game world to life.
The purpose of these tracks was clearly implemented to add a human element to the overall experience; to really dig into your soul and find yourself while you were playing the game. I’ll say straight off the bat, the most effective pieces in the game come from Low Roar’s melancholic folk-rock pieces that disrupt the contemplative silences: the lamenting cries that come from “Breath In” (found on Low Roar’s 0
LP) bring an unprecedented emotional response out of the player, or at least out of me. The inclusion of Low Roar is simply a masterstroke, as their sound seems to fit the bleak game world harmoniously. It’s like a symbiotic relationship; both parties seem to co-exist with one another and the combination is like nothing else. When one of their songs disrupts the silence in gameplay it’s like being hit with a sledgehammer, commanding your attention as it lethargically smothers the world you’re absorbed in. The likes of “Because We Have To”’s (found on Low Roar’s Low Roar
LP) haunting guitar lines and Ryan’s transparent vocal works evoke a spiritual mystic that can’t be denied and works flawlessly, elevating the game to unprecedented levels. “Asylums for the Feeling” (found on Silent Poets’ dawn
album) is another one which hits the desolate anguish Death Stranding pertains to, intensifying the deeply flawed problems humanity has been going through since the dawn of time with the utmost of convictions. In spite of the fact these songs weren’t written for Death Stranding, if I had to pick a collection of tracks that moved me the most, it would probably come from this compilation tracklist, because the effectiveness of each song was so drawing and beautiful.
As if the Low Roar tracks weren’t enough to bring a waterfall’s worth of emotional dolour to the table, Ludvig’s low-key score brings the same amount of melancholy to the fray, but is a reactionary counter-attack to the aforementioned – being more in tune with the sci-fi setting the game is based in. Tracks like “Once There Was an Explosion” matches the same emotional scale of what Low Roar or Silent Poets’ song choices do, but the delivery has a more sterile and phlegmatic disposition. It’s a collection of orchestrated pieces mixed with drone and 80s Blade Runner-esque synth work. The likes of “Cargo High”, “Demens” and “Mules” have that contemporary, aggressive whirring-synth backdrop over booming percussion, while “A Final Waltz” and “An Endless Beach” partner up in the tracklisting as being the epic orchestrations. But it’s the ethereal ambiguity of “The Timefall” and “Chiralium” that bring the most emotive and engaging listens from the record.
The last tracklist is what I’d call the hip, young artist promotional offering for the game. Certainly the weakest offering of the bunch, but by no means a bad one. It suffers from your usual radio pop songwriting, but the eclectic lineup brings enough to the table to warrant a solid listen. Bring Me The Horizon’s hodgepodge of sounds for “Ludens” was the sonic equivalent of a patchwork quilt when I first heard it, but upon repeated listens it draws in a pretty celebratory sound for the band and utilises several different aspects from their career and puts them into one track. “Trigger” combines derivative pop traits with spacey, cavernous synth work, while “Ghost” merges trap beats with a pretty memorable set of hooks to sink you into it. The Neighbourhood’s “Yellow Box” is easily the best offering of the bunch and offers minimalist ambience with a Chino Moreno style vocal performance, and “Sing to Me” closes the album off strongly with a Twenty One Pilot’s inspired rock number.
Regardless of which section floats your boat the most, this is an exceptional body of work that proves Hideo Kojima knows and loves all walks of music. This is a sprawling and diverse ride that always manages to cling onto the coat-tails of consistency and a repeated mood. If you listen to all of these chapters at once (like I did), it provides a wealth of entertainment that will hold your interest right up until the end. But I think the biggest takeaway from this is that this compilation offers a reference of bands and artists to check out if you’ve never heard of them before – which is a wonderful thing. The gameplay to Death Stranding might have been a miserable experience for me (and an experience I’m still debating was intentional by Kojima), but at the very least I got an exceptionally told storyline and one hell of a compilation soundtrack to walk away with.