Killer is Dead, developed by Suda 51 and Grasshopper studios, is a simple but interesting action game with some adult side content and a whole lot of crazy driving it forward. You take on the role of Mondo Zappa, professional assassin, gentleman, amnesiac and lady killer. Employed by a government funded hitman bureau, in classic Suda fashion a large chunk of detail is left up to the players imagination. The game is wrapped in a shroud of mystery from the opening cinematic and quite honestly doesn’t do all that much to clear things up throughout it’s roughly 9 hour long campaign. Mysterious clients saunter over to the office, present the team with a mission ranging from a case of house invasion to stolen hearing, and Mondo dutifully accepts the contract. The clients and jobs quickly escalate from strange to ridiculous, but none of the characters seem to ever acknowledge that anything profoundly out of place is happening, worried not that their client turned out to be a ghost but rather that this means they’re not getting paid for their services. It’s this case of everyone in the game being in on the joke while the player is left scratching their head that lends the game an aura of mystery and incomprehensibility.
Killer Is Dead also follows very traditional Japanese game design, promoting a rigid structure and encouraging repeat play throughs, which can be a boon or a drag depending on who you ask. Much like early Devil May Cry titles, everything here is segregated and compartmentalized. Missions are selected from a stylish overworld map and are fairly short in order to encourage multiple visits to grind out resources. Story is told almost entirely through cutscenes and doesn’t bleed over into the gameplay. Upgrades are bought through a shop rather than acquired, encouraging those repeat visits into past missions in order to grind out the needed currency. While this approach isn't necessarily bad game design, it does prevent the plot from feeling organic in it’s already quite convoluted story telling.
The gameplay is something you might come to expect from Suda. For those not familiar with his past works (No More Heroes, Killer 7, Shadows of the Damned) in a nutshell it’s simple but quirky. Each “mission” has you going from A to B in order to fight some form of boss at the very end. These boss encounters are often quite interesting but the classic rule of three makes each one overstay it’s welcome - one particularly offensive encounter requiring some serious button mashing to win a clash of swords, left my finger bruised and battered by the end of it. Levels are extremely linear and simplistic affairs of running forward through often lackluster environments and killing everything that spawns in. Some areas are better than others, and the unique over-saturated art style does a lot to help things out, but the simple geometry and lack of detail permeates throughout.
There is a small RPG element present allowing you to upgrade Mondo’s health, special bar or purchase additional moves. It’s a nice touch, even if it isn’t overly complex. This is no Final Fantasy and you won't even notice your health gems gradually increase as you pick up the various components from fallen enemies, but the fact that it exists at all does add on another thin layer to the already quite simplistic gameplay.
Mondo’s primary mode of dispatching foes is via his favorite samurai sword. You have a basic system of light attacks mapped to one button and a heavy guard break mapped to another complemented by guard and dodge moves - that is as complicated as the fighting will ever get. In addition to simple sword attacks, Mondo has a cybernetic left arm that can take on the form of four various subweapons which are fueled by blood. Everything about Killer is Dead screams style over substance - enemies explode when you kill them, blood sprays left and right fueling Mondo’s sword and special skill bar, and dodging enemy attacks at the right moment initiates a stylish time slow-down allowing you to mercilessly hammer down on a helpless opponent fueling your combo meter. All of this looks really great, except you’re basically mashing one button with no variation. Additional moves can be purchased, but they are either awkward in execution like the upward slash that I had difficulty pulling off reliably, or unnecessary like the radial slash that locks you in a slow spinning animation and doesn’t seem especially useful or powerful.
The driving force behind the combat is the combo meter. As Mondo strings together attacks without getting hit himself, his speed and damage output increases - visually also appearing to perform a lot more extravagant moves, despite the player simply hammering the X button. The idea of hitting without getting hit is not some earth shattering concept, but the "judgement kill" system makes it worthwhile to continue stringing along the largest combo you can. When Mondo happens to finish off a foe with a large combo score active, time will stop and four execution options appear on the screen with a short timer - choosing one will initiate a unique kill animation as well as rewarding Mondo with a specific resource that can boost one of Mondo’s attributes like health for instance. This not only encourages players to fight well in order to get a lot of chances at the judgement kills, but also allows you to spec out Mondo to your liking in real time.
As you make your way through the dozen or so main story missions, additional side content opens up. These side missions are basically small sections taken out of the levels you had just completed and given a small twist. For instance, one of the assignments takes place in a research facility where you ride up a cargo elevator - the side mission takes place exclusively on the elevator and if more than 2 enemies are standing on the platform it won’t move up, requiring you to continuously kill baddies in quick succession to reach the top. In addition you unlock the famed Gigolo missions. These encounters take place in first person view and basically require Mondo to stare at a womans breasts or crotch area when she’s not looking to fill up an arbitrary meter (comically shaped like your brain.. although shouldn't the blood be draining out in this case?). Once full, you can present the “beauty” with a present, which fills up her own happiness gauge. Completing these “seductions” rewards Mondo with the three additional subweapons for his bionic arm, and the player gets to watch a delightfully awkward love scene. The missions themselves aren't all that interesting and the giggle factor of looking at a girls boobs wears thin quite quickly. Fortunately they never take very long and you only need to do them three times if you want to unlock all the subweapons, which quite frankly I barely even used in the full game. If you take the time to complete several secret missions from Scarlette, the buxom nurse riding atop a giant floating syringe, she will reward you with special glasses that let you see through the girl's clothes and make the gigolo excursions go by much quicker.
Initially these are more silly than offensive, but if you continue to see the same girl each encounter escalates in it’s intensity and PG rating. By the third visit I was on Mondo’s boat, watching Natalia in first person gyrating and moaning on the bed underneath me, or getting a low shot of her bare leg arching upwards in an all too obvious manner. It’s these final animations that cross some sort of boundary where it’s no longer tongue and cheek, wink and nod, but simply simulated video game sex. Is this misogynistic? Not really, but it does seem a tad out of place.
In the end, Killer is Dead is an interesting title. There are some fun moments to be had, even if the story doesn’t always make a lot of sense. The camera can be a real issue as it has trouble keeping up with the hectic fighting. The level design is average at best and if the combat wasn’t fun in it’s unique simplistic fashion they would be a complete drag. That said, if you like Suda games and want to experience a really bizarre adventure with highly stylized graphics, this certainly fills the niche. The game looks great, the unconventional art style really highlighting all the violence it has to offer. Small touches like boss fights ending with a quiet moment requiring you to raise your sword and then bring it down feel cool and stylish. It’s not necessarily the best Suda game out there, No More Heroes being definitely a lot funnier and simpler to comprehend, but it does have the most refined combat out of all his endeavors. If anything it gives hope that future Grasshopper titles will continue evolving and one day the gameplay will finally match the vision. At full price it is difficult to recommend, but if you see it in a discount bin for $20 or less, it’s an interesting experience that offers a lot of replayability, leaderboards and unlockable costumes, if you're into that sort of thing.