Death Stranding Director’s Cut for iPhone review

Death Stranding Director’s Cut is the newest of the AAA blockbuster titles from console and PC to arrive on Apple’s platforms. Rebuilt for the Apple Silicon hardware, the game is available on Mac, iPad, and even the iPhone as a universal app.

Death Stranding Director's Cut for iPhone review

Death Stranding initially launched on the PlayStation 4 back in 2019. A Director’s Cut version was released for the PlayStation 5 in 2021, which brought with it additional content. That’s the version being released on Apple’s platforms so you are getting the most up-to-date version with all the extra content, including the PC-exclusive Half-Life easter eggs and the Cyberpunk 2077 collaboration items.

Death Stranding is a third-person action-adventure game by writer-director Hideo Kojima, who made the genre-defining Metal Gear games. The game follows the story of Sam Porter Bridges, a seemingly ordinary porter delivering packages in a post-apocalyptic world. Throughout his adventures, Sam must battle a rapidly aging rain, mysterious undead beings trapped between worlds, cargo thieves, terrorists, and most terrifying of all, uneven terrain. And along for the ride is a baby. In a jar. Attached to you by a tube. Pretty much on par with what you’d expect from a Kojima game.

Death Stranding Director's Cut for iPhone review

While this isn’t a review of the game, it’s worth having an idea of what you are getting into. I have close to 200 hours in the game, having played it once originally on the PS4 and again later on the PC. I have built all the roads, I have found all the preppers and got five stars on all of them. I’ve done about as much as one can reasonably do in this game and I’m here to tell you that this really isn’t a game for everyone.

Death Stranding has stunning scenery, some of the most amazing facial capture and performances in a game, and a sublime soundtrack from the late Low Roar who unfortunately passed not long after the game’s original release. At its best, it’s a truly inspired piece of work. However, it also has one of the most overwrought stories and writing, possibly ever, in a video game. And yes, the gameplay, for the most part, really is just delivering packages through tricky terrain. The game also has a strange inverse difficulty curve, where it’s more difficult early on but gets easier as your character gets vehicles and more equipment.

Death Stranding Director's Cut for iPhone review

All of this means most people just turn away from the game within the first couple of hours and never look back. You will be inundated with pointless yapping by the characters as you spend more time in cutscenes in the first hour than actually playing the game and when you do play it feels like you are thrown into the deep end where your character can’t stay upright without tripping over seemingly pure air every five seconds as you walk. It’s almost as if the game deliberately tests your patience so only those truly worthy can make it past the first two hours. If you do then you are likely going to make it till the end of the 40-ish hour story.

All of this is important because, unlike some other platforms, Apple does not have a quick and easy refund system should you not like something after trying it out briefly. So I would strongly recommend watching some gameplay videos first and then deciding if you still wish to purchase it afterward.

Death Stranding Director's Cut for iPhone review

Alright, moving on to the specific version at hand. I tested the game on the iPhone 15 Pro, which is the minimum required device to play this game with an Apple Silicon chip. Death Stranding on Apple’s platforms is a universal app, so you can purchase it on either iPhone, iPad or Mac and have it available on the others without requiring separate purchases. Just make sure the iPad or Mac has an M-series chip.

On the iPhone, you first have to download a 1.79GB file from the App Store. Upon launching the game, it will download 12.6GB and will inform you that more data will be downloaded later. After reaching a certain point in the game, it will download the remaining data for a total of 49.4GB of downloaded data through the game. The game will occupy around 77GB on your device so obviously you are going to need a device with at least 128GB base storage.

Death Stranding Director's Cut for iPhone review

Death Stranding DC on the iPhone has a fixed configuration with no adjustable resolution, frame rate, or graphical settings. The game runs at an output resolution of 720p, which on the iPhone 15 Pro comes out to 1561 x 720. Internally, however, the game is running at a resolution of about 780 x 360, which is then upsampled using MetalFX temporal supersampling. This doesn’t apply to the iPad version, which runs at a higher resolution, and the Mac version has proper PC-like visual settings.

The game’s visual aspects have also been pared back greatly on the iPhone. The settings used for the iPhone by the developers are lower than the lowest settings possible on the Mac or PC. Things like textures, anisotropic filtering, grass and foliage density, object density, and LODs are much lower than what we have seen from the game in the past on other platforms.

Death Stranding Director's Cut for iPhone review

The game does retain the screen space reflections from other platforms but this effect was always low-res in this game and never looked particularly impressive. Depth of field effect is also present, however, due to the way this effect scales with resolution, it tends to look extra blurry at resolutions this low, which can be quite distracting during the cutscenes.

Speaking of cutscenes, the game has a mixture of in-engine and pre-recorded cutscenes. The pre-recorded cutscenes get cropped vertically but the in-engine cutscenes benefit from the iPhone’s wider aspect ratio, as does the game itself. This means you are seeing more of the game at any given moment than you would on the consoles. On the iPad, with its taller displays, you see a bit less on the sides and the pre-recorded cutscenes have black borders on the top and bottom.

Note: The above video is a screen capture (and not game capture) from the iPhone 15 Pro. Despite efforts to correct, the uploaded video has minor contrast and frame rate judder that weren’t present in actual gameplay. The actual game looks and runs a bit better than what’s shown here.

In terms of image quality, Death Stranding DC on the iPhone is understandably quite soft, especially in motion as the temporal supersampling solution struggles with working with such a low internal rendering resolution. Upon closer inspection, there are also some disocclusion artifacts from things like the items Sam has hanging by his waist as they move about.

Performance can also be quite unstable at times. A lot of the time the game can maintain its 30fps limit quite well but there are notable moments when it stumbles rather spectacularly. This usually happens just as the game is loading something, meaning they tend to occur just before or after something important happens in the game.

Death Stranding Director's Cut for iPhone review

All of this seemed like a bigger deal when I first started the game but stopped being a problem as I kept playing. The soft appearance of the game isn’t much of an issue on the iPhone 15 Pro’s small display and despite what the numbers might suggest the game usually looks fine. The frame rate hitches are more noticeable but they don’t happen often enough for it to be a deal breaker.

Death Stranding is not a fast-paced action game and while there are some moments where you need quick reflexes, most of the game involves moving at a deliberate pace, minding your step, and taking in the scenery. These are the moments where the game truly shines and where the iPhone version runs just fine.

Death Stranding Director's Cut for iPhone review

My only issue with the visuals is that the game was obviously designed for the big screen and many of the on-screen elements and text can often be painfully small. This doesn’t include the game menus, which have adjustable size, but rather the text you see in-game as well as the game’s map. A lot of the on-screen controller buttons were also hard to see on the iPhone’s screen, which can be frustrating.

Speaking of controls, Death Stranding DC features an on-screen control layout like the Resident Evil games. There seems to be a bit more thought gone into this one based on the layout but ultimately it’s pointless as it’s a terrible way to play the game, which was never designed for a touchscreen to begin with. The developers have made no effort to change the controls for touch devices so you simply get the entire controller layout on the screen. Needless to say, you must avoid this and use a proper physical controller. Both Xbox and PlayStation controllers are supported with proper on-screen legends and icons.

Death Stranding Director's Cut for iPhone review

Surprisingly, and unlike the Resident Evil games, Death Stranding DC for the iPhone includes keyboard and mouse support. In my experience, the game does play better with a mouse but your mileage may vary. I can see someone using a keyboard and mouse with the iPad but it doesn’t make much sense for the iPhone, even if it’s supported.

What it doesn’t include, however, is HDR, something I quite enjoyed having on the two Resident Evil games on the iPhone. The game does support HDR on other platforms so it’s not clear why it was left out on the Apple platforms. Also not found are any spatial audio features. You get your basic stereo sound and while it is high quality, it would have been nice to take advantage of the spatial audio processing on these devices.

Death Stranding Director's Cut for iPhone review

Loading times were usually quick on the iPhone, at least at points where there was an obvious loading screen. However, there are times on the iPhone when the screen remains black longer than it should between transitions, as the game is loading things in the background. The iPhone 15 Pro only has 8GB of memory and that may be a bottleneck here as the game takes longer to shuffle assets around as it transitions between different areas when the memory is this limited.

Overall, I was pleased with the iPhone port of Death Stranding Director’s Cut. We are not quite there at PS4-level performance yet, with the iPhone often struggling to maintain 30 fps despite running at a lower resolution and quality settings than the venerable console from 2013. Of course, the iPhone does not have the luxury of a bespoke title tailor-made for its specific hardware nor the power budget that the PS4 had. So considering that I think it does fairly well here and it’s still impressive to see games of this caliber running on a smartphone.

Death Stranding Director's Cut for iPhone review

Compared to the previous two Resident Evil releases on the platform, I found Death Stranding to be a more enjoyable experience on this hardware. The flaws weren’t as egregious and the slow-paced nature of the gameplay lends itself quite well to mobile hardware. The game may be an acquired taste but at $20 for a universal version, it is an easy recommendation for those who have enjoyed it on other platforms and would rather just play on the smartphone they have than invest in a standalone device like the Steam Deck.

As a side note, after having tried three AAA releases on the iPhone in the past few months, it’s time for a retrospection. I think it’s commendable that Apple is willing to work with developers to bring these titles to its platform. The developers could be doing a bit more to make these games not just playable but actually enjoyable but these have been good first steps.

Death Stranding Director's Cut for iPhone review

However, Apple also needs to do more on the hardware front to enable these developers to bring their best. System memory is currently a major bottleneck for these games, which affects how they look and run, and Apple has often been stingy with RAM on its devices. 8GB RAM on the iPhone is fine for apps but not for games of this caliber. And 8GB RAM on base Macs and iPads is simply an affront in 2024. It’s high time we move on to 16GB or, at the very least, 12GB as the base on these devices.

Adding support for the Vulkan API will also make it a lot easier for developers to bring their titles to this platform. And, an easy refund process with a timed window like on other platforms will also make it easier for users to try out expensive games without either committing to something they don’t like or going through support to refund it.

Still, it has been an interesting journey so far but Apple needs to keep up the momentum, and with Assassin’s Creed Mirage being the only big game from last year’s announcement on the horizon, things aren’t looking too great right now.

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