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‘Death Stranding’ Review: A Mixed Bag of Wonder and Frustration

‘Death Stranding’ offers some of the most amazing and emotional moments of any game this year. However, it also packs in a ton of frustration.

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Death Stranding is a gorgeous piece of art. It’s a wonder to look at, a joy to experience and… well, also kind of a pain in the ass. Few games will be as difficult to review in 2019 as Death Stranding is. Rarely will a player find so much to fall in love with in a game, while also feeling totally frustrated with some of the most basic mechanics which drive it.

Initially Hideo Kojima’s no holds barred, apocalyptic, courier sim is a charming curiosity. After that it evolves into an all-encompassing odyssey. Then it becomes a tedious test of skill, and finally, it becomes an emotional tale of connection and grief. In the midst of that journey are going to be moments of absolute awe and abject irritation.

Let’s start with the positives, though, shall we? Death Stranding looks so good it could be a PS5 tech demo. From the expected Kojima attention to detail, to the amazingly intricate motion capture, to some of the most jaw-dropping art direction in any medium — Death Stranding is truly a sight to behold. Rarely will you find yourself snapping that PS4 share button so much as you will be here.

Death Stranding
Neither is there anything so novel in the AAA space as Death Stranding in 2019. Kojima Productions have made a game that may bear a slight resemblance to a couple of other titles (Breath of the Wild and Metal Gear Solid V come to mind) but is still, wholly and completely, its own unique thing. Think of it as Ghostbusters crossed with Delivery Simulator and you’ll be part way there.

The score and soundtrack are also incredible. While melancholic creations from Ludvig Forssell punctuate some of the games bigger moments, licensed fare from the likes of Low Roar and Silent Poets haunt the background of Death Stranding, folding themselves immersively into your gameplay experience.

Further, if you happen to be a Kojima fan, Death Stranding is like a mainlined hot shot of pure batshit insanity directly into your veins. Ghost babies, piss bombs, and courier-terrorists are just the tip of the iceberg. Basically, if you’ve been buying what Hideo has been selling since 1998, this is maybe the purest dilution of what Kojima-san’s singular mind can produce with little to no restriction applied to his creative control.

Death Stranding
Unfortunately, this is where we start to swerve into the more frustrating aspects of Death Stranding as well. It seems like, perhaps, there wasn’t anyone in a position here to rein Hideo in a bit on some of these more divergent gameplay elements. Take, for example, the balance mechanic. As Sam carries packages and equipment across America in hopes of rebuilding the country, he will struggle with terrain, obstacles and his own increasingly weighty load of goods.

The player is tasked with using L2 and R2 to shift Sam’s weight as he runs, or dig his heels in as he climbs a hill. He can slip on rainwater, lose his footing in snow, or just go tumbling down a series of rocks if you’re not careful. While these aspects can present a stiff learning curve, they’re generally not too bad once you’ve become accustomed to them. They become second nature almost, after a while.

No, where the real trouble comes in is when you’re presented with a threat. Though the MULES (delivery junkies who get off on the high of well… delivering packages, and yes that’s as ridiculous as it sounds) you’ll encounter in the game initially only come at you with futuristic EMPs and stun batons, the terrorists from later on in the game will fire real bullets and explosives your way. Now, since any dead body presents a threat to the world of Death Stranding (they are the source of interdimensional ghosts and antimatter explosions), Sam can’t kill anyone unless he wants to return later to collect the bodies.


This leads to truly maddening situations where the player is tasked with either running from trouble, often tumbling down a hill as a result, splaying his many packages all over the place, or attempting to fight off a dozen or so assault rifle wielding terrorists with non lethal means. The more times this happens, the more players are going to be squeezing their controllers in agony while holding in a guttural growl of rage.

Similarly BTs, the game’s most ubiquitous threat, appear at random intervals directly in the path of the player. Players must then tiptoe around, sending out sonar blasts, to either avoid or take out the ghosts. This, again, isn’t so bad initially, but once the player begins using vehicles, they will have to get out to deal with these situations time and time again. The added frustration of not being able to carry larger orders, outside of the vehicle they’re currently in, is another hiccup players will run into here.

Never mind that BTs are accompanied by timefall, a special kind of rain that gradually breaks down everything it touches — including the very packages your carrying. Now, timefall can be seen as a necessary evil, as Death Stranding‘s online allows all the players to share a world. Since each player can create objects in this world, timefall’s ability to break them down and eliminate them gradually keeps the world from turning into a theme park of player creations. Still, just try to hold in the sigh of frustration every time the camera zooms in and plays the animation that lets you know that BTs or timefall are entering the fray.


In some ways, these problems make Death Stranding feel like two different games jammed together. The first, a courier sim, is a fun trek with a satisfying gameplay loop that consistently rewards the player with NPC gratification and equipment upgrades. The second is a survival-horror/action game where the player battles terrorists and ghosts in hopes of reaching a safe haven. Both of these games could be fantastic on their own, but when forced into a single entity, many of their central mechanics are in direct contradiction with one another.

Now, this seemingly never-ending series of complaints may seem unnecessarily negative for a game like Death Stranding. Let it be said that there is plenty to enjoy in the game, especially if you’re a fan of Kojima’s previous work, particularly the Metal Gear Solid series. We don’t assign scores here at Goomba Stomp anymore, but if we did, mine would still skew higher than lower. Whether this is a game worth recommending though depends largely on what you enjoy about games.

Death Stranding is very story heavy, with long stretches of uninterrupted cut scenes punctuating the game. You can sink from 50-120 hours into the game, depending on how much side elements you decide to explore, and despite the troubles I’ve noted above, there is a ton of fun to be had here… it just happens to be broken up by occasional bouts of frustration, like being unable to limp a vehicle up a seemingly barren hill or dropping Sam six feet down, only for him to react as if he’s fallen three times that distance.


Still, the game is a gloriously immersive experience that locks you into its world with the sort of confidence one expects from experimental or arthouse cinema. It’s a one of a kind game, and if you’re tired of the AAA stagnation that has become commonplace with the rise of development costs, Death Stranding may be just the palate cleanser you’re looking for.

Speaking of the cinema, Death Stranding‘s near exclusive use of recognizable faces, painstakingly motion-captured and rendered into its world, is maybe the closest a game has ever come to mimicking real life without entering the dreaded uncanny valley. Because these are such talented performers, and they are so wonderfully immersed into this world, you will find yourself able to empathize with them in ways you might not expect.

Indeed there is a lot to love about Death Stranding, it’s just a shame that the game is so often held back by its own ambition. What we’ve got, after all of the years of speculation over one cryptic trailer after another, is a sort of mixed bag that will either skew more to the positive or the negative depending largely on what you enjoy about gaming as a medium. As a first effort for Kojima’s new studio, it’s certainly one of a kind, but the divisive responses Death Stranding has ignited across the community will only flare up further as more and more gamers enter into its world.

Mike Worby is a human who spends way too much of his free time playing, writing and podcasting about pop culture. Through some miracle he's still able to function in society as if he were a regular person, and if there's hope for him, there's hope for everyone.

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Most Important Games of the Decade: ‘Dark Souls’

Despite the difficulty and learning curve, gamers are still flocking to the Dark Souls series, and the genre it spawned, in massive numbers.

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Dark Souls Remastered Review Nintendo Switch

Over the course of the last decade a lot of games have made large and influential impacts on the medium of gaming but few have done so as significantly or triumphantly as Dark Souls

The pseudo-sequel to Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls took the framework of the original title and altered it considerably. Gone were the many individual stages and hub area, replaced by a massive open world that continuously unfolded, via shortcuts and environmental changes, like a massive metroidvania style map. 

Dark Souls also doubled down on nearly every aspect of the original. The lore and world-building were elaborated on considerably, making the land of Lordran feel more lived in and expansive. An entire backstory for the game, one that went back thousands of years, was created and unfolded through small environmental details and item descriptions. 

Dark-Souls-Remastered-Darkroot-Garden

The bosses were bigger, meaner and more challenging, with some of them ranking right up there with the best of all time. Even standard enemies seemed to grow more deadly as the game went on, with many of them actually being bosses you’d faced at an earlier time in the game. Tiny details like this didn’t just make the player feel more powerful, they added to the outright scale of the entire game.

Still, if we’re here to talk about the biggest influence Dark Souls had on the gaming world, we have to talk about the online system. While the abilities to write messages and summon help were available in Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls improved on and enhanced these features to the point where they changed the game considerably. 

The wider player base made the online components work more consistently as well. Rarely were players left standing around for 15-20 minutes waiting to summon or be summoned for a boss fight. There were more messages on the ground to lead (or mislead) players, and the animated spirits of dead players warned of the hundreds of ways you might die while playing through the game. 

Dark Souls

The addictive nature of the game and its rewarding gameplay loop would lead to the establishment of the Souls-like genre. Like with metroidvania, there are few compliments a game can receive that are as rewarding as having an entire genre named for them.

Since 2011, the year of Dark Souls’ release, dozens of Souls-likes have emerged from the ether, each with their own little tweaks on the formula. Salt and Sanctuary went 2D,The Surge added a sci-fi angle, and Nioh went for a feudal Japanese aesthetic, to name just a few. 

Either way, Dark Souls’ influence has been long felt in the gaming industry ever since. Despite the hardcore difficulty and intense learning curve, gamers are still flocking to the series, and the genre it spawned, in massive numbers. For this reason alone, Dark Souls will live on forever in the annals of gaming history. 

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Game Reviews

‘Riverbond’ Review: Colorful Hack’n’Slash Chaos

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Sometimes a little bit of mindless smashing is just what people play video games for, and if some light sword-swinging, spear-stabbing, laser-shooting giant hand-slapping action that crumbles a destructible world into tiny blocks sounds like a pleasant way to spend a few hours, then Riverbond might just satisfy that urge. Though its short campaign can get a little repetitive by the end, colorful voxel levels and quirky characters generally make this rampaging romp a button-mashing good time, especially if you bring along a few friends.

Riverbond grass

There really isn’t much of a story here outside something about some mystical leaders being imprisoned by a knight, and Riverbond lets players choose from its eight levels in Mega Man fashion, so don’t go in expecting some sort of narrative thread. Instead, each land has its own mini-situation going on, whether that involves eradicating some hostile pig warriors or reading library books or freeing numerous rabbit villagers scattered about, the narrative motivation is pretty light here. That doesn’t mean that these stages don’t each have their various charms, however, as several punnily named NPCs will blurt out humorous bits of dialogue that work well as breezy pit stops between all the cubic carnage.

Developer Cococucumber has also wisely created plenty of visual variety for their fantastical world, as players will find their polygonal hero traversing the lush greenery of grassy plains, the wooden piers of a ship’s dockyard, the surrounding battlements of a medieval castle, and the craggy outcroppings of a snowy mountain, among other locations, each with a distinct theme. Many of the trees or bridges or crates or whatever else happens to be lying around are completely destructible, able to be razed to the ground with enough brute force. Occasionally the physics involved in these crumbling structures helps gain access to jewels or other loot, but this mechanic mostly just their for the visual appeal one gets from cascading blocks; Riverbond isn’t exactly deep in its design.

Riverbond boss

That shallowness also applies to the basic gameplay, which pretty much involves hacking or shooting enemies and environments to pieces, activating whatever task happens to be the main goal for each sub-stage, then moving on or scouring around a bit for treasure before finally arriving at a boss. Though there are plenty of different weapons to find, they generally fall into only a few categories: small swinging implements that allow for quick slashes, large swinging implements that are slow but deal heavier damage, spears that offer quick jabs, or guns that…shoot stuff. There are some variations among these in speed, power, and possible side effects (a gun that fired electricity is somewhat weak, but sticks to opponents and gives off an extra, devastating burst), but once an agreeable weapon is found, there is little reason to give it up outside experimentation.

Still, there is a rhythmic pleasure to be found in games like this when they are done right, and Riverbond mostly comes through with tight controls, hummable tunes, and twisting levels that do a good job of mixing in some verticality to mask the repetitiveness. It’s easy for up to four players to get in on the dungeon-crawling-like pixelated slaughter, and the amount of blocks exploding onscreen can make for some fun and frenzied fireworks, especially when whomping on one of the game’s giant bosses. A plethora of skins for the hero are also discoverable, with at least one or two tucked away in locations both obvious and less so around each sub-stage. These goofy characters exist purely for aesthetic reasons, but those who prefer wiping out legions of enemies dressed as Shovel Knight or a sentient watermelon slice will be able to fulfill that fantasy.

Riverbond bears

By the end, the repetitive fights and quests can make Rivebond feel a little same-y, but the experience wraps up quickly without dragging things out. This may disappoint players looking for a more involved adventure, but those who sometimes find relaxation by going on autopilot — especially with some buddies on the couch — will appreciate how well the block-smashing basics are done here.

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Game Reviews

‘Earthnight’ Review: Hit the Dragon Running

Between its lush visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, Earthnight never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

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Earthnight

In Earthnight, you do one thing: run. There’s not much more to do in this roguelike auto-runner but to dash across the backs of massive dragons to reach their heads and strike them down. This may be an extremely simple gameplay loop, but Earthnight pulls it off with such elegance and style. Between its lush comic book visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, it creates an experience that never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

Dragons have descended from space and are wreaking havoc upon humanity. No one is powerful enough to take them down – except for the two-player characters, Sydney and Stanley, of course. As the chosen ones to save the human race, they must board a spaceship and drop from the heavens while slaying as many dragons on your way down as they can. For every defeated creature, they’ll be rewarded with water – an extremely precious resource in the wake of the dragon apocalypse. This resource can be exchanged for upgrades that make the next run that much better.

This simple story forms the basis for a similarly basic, yet engaging gameplay loop. Each time you dive from your spaceship, you’ll see an assortment of dragons to land on. Once you make a landing, you’ll dash across its back and avoid the obstacles it throws at you before reaching its head, where you’ll strike the final blow. Earthnight is procedurally generated, so every time you leap down from your home base, there’s a different set of dragons to face, making each run feel unique. There are often special rewards for hunting specific breeds of dragon, so it’s always exciting to see the new set of creatures before you and hunt for the one you need at any given moment.

Earthnight is an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.”

Earthnight

Landing on the dragons is only the first step to slaying them. Entire hordes of monsters live on their backs, and in true auto-runner fashion, they’ll rush at you with reckless abandon from the very start. During the game’s first few runs, the onrush of enemies can feel overwhelming. Massive crowds of them will burst forth at once, and it can feel impossible to survive their onslaughts. However, this is where Earthnight begins to truly shine. The more dragons you slay, the more upgrade items become available, which are either given as rewards for slaying specific dragons or can be purchased with the water you’ve gained in each run. Many of these feel essentially vital for progression – some allow you to kill certain enemies just by touching them, whereas others can grant you an additional jump, both of which are much appreciated in the utter chaos of obstacles found on each dragon.

Procedural generation can often result in bland or repetitive level design, but it’s this item progression system that keeps Earthnight from ever feeling dry. It creates a constant sense of improvement: with more items in your arsenal after each new defeated dragon, you’ll be able to descend even further in the next run. This makes every level that much more exciting: with more power under your belt, there are greater possibilities for defeating enemies, stacking up combos, or climbing high above the dragons. It becomes an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.

Earthnight

At its very best, Earthnight feels like a rhythm game. With the perfect upgrades for each level, it becomes only natural to bounce off of enemies’ heads and soar through the heavens with an almost musical flow. The vibrant chiptune soundtrack certainly helps with this. Packed full of driving beats and memorable melodies with a mixture of chiptune and modern instrumentation, the music makes it easy to charge forward through whatever each level will throw your way.

That is not to say that Earthnight never feels too chaotic for its own good – rather, there are some points where its flood of enemies and obstacles can feel too random or overwhelming, to the point where it can be hard to keep track of your character or feel as if it’s impossible to avoid enemies. Sometimes the game can’t even keep up with itself, with the performance beginning to chug once enemies crowd the screen too much, at least in the Switch version. However, this is the exception, rather than the rule, and for the most part, simply making good use of its upgrades and reacting quickly to the challenges before you will serve you well in your dragon-slaying quest.

Earthnight

Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.”

It certainly helps that Earthnight is a visual treat as well. It adopts a striking comic book style, in which nearly every frame of animation is lovingly hand-drawn and loaded with detail. Sometimes these details feel a bit excessive – some characters are almost grotesquely detailed, with the faces of the bobble-headed protagonists sometimes seeming too elaborate for comfort. However, in general, it’s a gorgeous game, with its luscious backdrops of deep space and high sky, along with creative monsters and dragon designs that only get more outlandish and spectacular the farther down you soar.

Earthnight is a competent auto-runner that might not revolutionize its genre, but it makes up for this simplicity by elegantly executing its core gameplay loop so that it constantly changes yet remains endlessly addictive. Its excellent visual and audio presentation helps to make it all the more engrossing, while it strikes the perfect balance between randomized level design and permanent progression thanks to its items and upgrades system. At times it may get too chaotic for its own good, but all told, Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.

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