Killer Is Dead is a fun title that hits the Japanese quirkiness that we occasionally expect from Japan.
If you’re a fan of Grasshopper Manufacture, then you know what you’re getting into when it comes to every Goichi Suda (Suda 51) directed or influenced game that comes out from that studio. Grasshopper Manufacture releases titles that are aimed directly at a niche audience. Compared to the typical mainstream games studio, Grasshopper Manufacture is the rebel child that doesn’t want to create things that are the norm, it doesn’t want to succumb to using the famous video game development guide “How to Make a Game For Everyone in Ten Easy Steps” and it certainly doesn’t care what the right or wrong standards are for a genre. That’s what makes the studio so interesting; it’s exciting to see what random concept comes out next from the team that claims Punk’s Not Dead.
This time it’s Killer Is Dead, an action hack & slash that is set in the near future, where people can fit themselves with cybernetic enhancements and the possibility of travelling to the moon is normality. The protagonist is one Mondo Zappa, an executioner with a katana and a cybernetic arm, who works for the Bryan Execution Firm. It’s Mondo’s job to carry out the requests of clients that come into the firm wanting someone to be removed from existence. It doesn’t sound that crazy, but factor in that the targets are monsters, demons or people who like to steal people’s ears for their own pleasure, then you have that trademark Grasshopper Manufacture strangeness seeping into the story. Mondo is dressed in suit and tie, far from the loud designs that have featured in past Grasshopper titles. He’s personality is straight forward and less likeable compare to some of the charming or otaku characters that have come before him. Suda 51 mentioned that this is a dark and seedier take on James Bond, and I can see that in the design of Mondo.
The story is split into episodes, and this is where I feel that the plot loses coherence with its pacing – I sure didn’t understand all of it when I played through the game. The episode structure is very similar to TV shows. What I mean by that is some episodes don’t even add to the story, while some are solely focused on Mondo’s troubles with his forgotten past. It’s a worldwide adventure for Mondo that is full of style, but lacks structure to make sense. If you’re looking for a plot that’s deep and meaningful, then you aren’t going to find it here; however, if you want Suda 51 bizarreness and don’t mind how it relates to the story, then you’re going to have a blast at some of the situations that happen throughout the 12 episodes (+1 if you preordered) on offer here with the game’s seven to eight hour adventure.
What baffles me is that I saw a comment on a popular forum mentioning that Killer is Dead is “dead serious.” Really? Are you stating that a game that breaks the fourth wall on numerous occasions and is so self-aware that it’s a video game and is full of typical clichés, which most are purposely written in for joke material, is “dead serious?” The cast is ridiculous, too. One of the team members has multiple limbs hidden somewhere in her body and another key character is a dude dressed in what looks like a golden gimp suit/codpiece, who wears a golden crown and lives on the moon. This isn’t a game to be taken seriously; it’s a lampoon of itself and the James Bond character that inspired the creation of Mondo and the video game.
In terms of getting into a Grasshopper Manufacture game, Killer is Dead is the easiest one to understand when regarding its gameplay. This is due to the straight forward level design and the combat’s simplicity – this is no Devil May Cry or Bayonetta. Instead, to make it easy to pick up, Mondo has katana attacks assigned to one button and players can just tap that to lash out combos. Press a directional input and you’ll get a different move (when the skill is unlocked). The button can also be held down for a whirlwind charge attack. That’s about all you get with his blade.
Combat is more focused on the player being able to incorporate Mondo’s mechanical arm and his ability to dodge with precision. Tapping B at the right time will enable Mondo to dash dodge. If you manage to time this as an enemy is about to hit you, then the screen goes red and Mondo gets free hits on the frozen opposition. The timing is lenient, to the point where I would accidentally do it when I was pressing dodge to simply get away from enemies.
Y allows for guard breaking, which becomes helpful later on when the enemy AI begins to offer a challenge. A few hits of Mondo’s fist will crack open any blocking enemy. Mixing this up with the arm gun makes the combat more engaging, but for the most part I found myself happily hacking away with my sharp katana. Even though the combat is simplistic, its fast pace makes it tolerable during the game’s length. Any longer, then it would have become a chore. Including a wider selection of bad guys would have helped keep the combat fresher, but sadly, the same few enemies, called wires, fill each stage throughout the game, with only bosses serving as a way to change the flow of combat.
Being able to dodge correctly works into the combo gauge, a metre on the top right of the screen that gradually increases in levels, until hitting level 4 and granting the chance to execute enemies and picking the rewards that spawn, rather than the game randomly selecting them. Two of the items, the health gems and blood roses, add to an experience bar that will level up once you’ve gained enough, rewarding in more health or more blood to use. Health is self-explanatory, but blood is used to power sub-weapons and is very valuable, as a skill unlocks that allows you to use blood to regain health. Moon gems are used as currency to unlock new abilities for Mondo. There isn’t a vast selection and some will be much more helpful than others. I didn’t even touch three of them as they seemed worthless to me. I concentrated on being able to deal more sword damage and gaining my health back.
Sub-weapons are obtained from the game’s much discussed Gigolo mode. These are optional side missions that appear on the world map after finishing episode three. You can get by the game without even touching them, so if you don’t like what it depicts, then you can ignore them. Gameplay wise, these aren’t all that exciting, as it boils down to having a virtual date with a pretty woman who constantly repeats the same piece of dialogue until the mini-game is finished. It’s not compelling or engrossing – it’s a game of peaky pervert, in which you have to stare at the woman’s face until she looks away, then peek at her sexual regions to raise the gut metre. Hit 1000 guts and you can offer the lady a present, the more relevant to her desires the more hearts you fill. Fill up the hearts and you win, gaining a sub-weapon (or money if you’ve already gained said sub-weapon). Doing it a few more times grants imagery of bra and panties and obscure angles during the couple’s sex act, which you never fully see or hear. If you fail, then you’re rewarded with a drink to the face, almost as if it’s a comedy sketch.
The issue people seem to have is that the portrayal of women is disrespectful, especially if you gain Scarlett’s glasses or have the preorder bonus, as you can use those glasses to see through overlaying clothes and peek at their undergarments (it also makes the mini-game go much faster, thanks to the boost in points gained). I agree that it’s distasteful, but I don’t believe there is some hidden agenda that spreads message of hate. This is an adult jeer at James Bond, on how he goes to bars, drinks a Martini while checking out the women, no doubt imagining them what they look like under the clothing, then precedes to bed them, and in some cases, gets the poor ladies killed. Killer is Dead tries to convoy that into a mini-game. Does it do that successfully? No, it’s boring, but does that mean it is some sadistic piece of trash that has it in for women? No, it does not. There seems to be some notion video games aren’t allowed to touch darker, more adult areas of life, but it’s fine when it’s on TV or other forms of medium, and I don’t like that. I want video games to be treated equally and not as something that has to abide by its own laws, just because it’s in the young stage of acceptance as a form of entertainment.
Gigolo missions aren’t the only side amusement on offer, as the further you progress in the game the more optional missions that open up. These vary in quality, some are great fun, such as hunting down a cursed Japanese doll, which requires the player to find nine seals and break them without getting spotted by the enemy, but others are dull, like the survival gun turret sequence. Challenges are another optional piece of content that are hidden away in each episode. Unlocking them requires you to find Scarlett, a nurse with a taste for blood, and when discovered refills your blood metre and unlocks a challenge in her arena. These are rather fun, as they offer a twist to the usual combat, but you won’t stick with them for long.
Killer is Dead’s visuals are reminiscent of Killer 7. It features a similar direction that relies on bold, thick and vibrant colours blended with mature cel-shaded modelling and ultra-violent, flashy display of blood. It looks fantastic in HD and it runs on Unreal Engine 3, but thanks to the style, it never suffers from those problems that are associated with the engine. Sadly though, on the 360 at least, the graphics are spoilt by some screen tearing that starts becoming more predominant the further you get into the game.
If you have read through the review, then this game will sound very Suda 51-esque. Whether it’s by design choice or maybe his team really is incapable of producing fantastic gameplay to go with these eccentric and peculiar worlds is something I guess we will never know. Killer Is Dead is a fun title that hits the Japanese quirkiness that we occasionally expect from the land of the rising sun. It’s not mechanically deep or rewarding to be a classic, but Killer Is Dead remains a solid piece of entertainment that Grasshopper fans will enjoy, while the rest of the world looks in bemusement as to why someone would like this.