Gochi Suda, the eccentric CEO of Grasshopper Studios, wields the video game medium in the same manner a surrealist wields a paintbrush. His games are beautiful, unique, thought-provoking, and play with conventions of modern game design. Critical and commercial reaction to his art is often mixed, though, and with decent reason – form trumps function, every time. You know what you’re getting into with a game helmed by Suda51, and Grasshopper’s newest effort follows that same formula…mostly. Following in the footsteps of Killer7 and No More Heroes, Killer Is Dead posits itself as a meditation on love and death, hunters-for-hire and the demons that stalk them in turn. By the end of the game, however, I wasn’t sure if the game was managing to say much of anything at all.
Killer Is Dead places the player in the shoes of Mondo Zappa, an international man of intrigue that makes a living as a government-employed hitman. The gameplay is spread across chapters, each of which concerns a different contract Mondo is hired to execute. There’s an overarching story, but it’s difficult to make out – the plot makes logic leaps so extraordinary that it’s near-impossible to keep up. Characters spout nonsensical platitudes and constantly break the fourth wall, and a late game twist carries little impact because, frankly, there’s little justification for why anything happens in this universe. It’s just another in a long line of non-sequiturs.
Visually, Killer Is Dead is a treat. Character design is varied and interesting – the Wires (corrupted, robot/zombie hybrids) that make up the bulk of the baddies in the game are sufficiently unsettling, and the bosses wildly vary in the creativity to their design. Contracted kills range from the bizzare to the downright insane, as Mondo faces down a giant demon bug that explodes out of the body of a young girl, a psychotic would-be ruler in gilded bondage gear who has literally stolen the moon, and a demented locomotive on a blood rampage, among others.
The distinctive art style always impresses, but occasionally obfuscates the action onscreen – the cel-shaded graphics are coated in an oily sheen that recalls a wet, neon-soaked city, making shadows bleed into each other and details sometimes difficult to pick out in the high-speed skirmishes. The launch edition of the game comes with an 80+ page art book, which is an excellent bonus because the design in the game is excessively strong and begs closer inspection.
The combat is Killer Is Dead’s bread and butter. Sword combat is mainly relegated to one button, with different timings to perform various combos. Mondo can also dodge/roll/evade, and use his giant mechanical arm, Musselback, to guard break. By evading at the proper time, Mondo can trigger a sort of bullet time, allowing him to dash forward and slice up an opponent. This creates an interesting, distinct rhythm that sets Killer Is Dead apart from other action games, requiring patience and quick reflexes. Mondo can also power Musselback with blood collected from defeated enemies, transforming it into a giant gun or drill for crowd control. What combat lacks in complexity, it makes up for in pure tension; because Mondo is basically a glass cannon, every enemy encounter is life-or-death. Even a small mistake can cost the player a huge chunk of the health bar. Gameplay is divided into chapters, usually culminating in a boss battle against the target Mondo has been contracted to kill. These battles are similarly white-knuckle affairs; most boss enemies have multiple health bars, and change tactics/forms midway through the fight. Fights can end up being kind of same-y, but it hardly matters when the action is this fun.
More problematic are the game’s ill-conceived Gigolo Missions. During these sequences, players must seduce one of several exotic women by sneaking glances at her naughty bits while her gaze is turned. Each successful predatory leer fills a blood pressure meter and is accompanied by an orgasmic moan from your chosen ingénue. Peep long enough, and she’ll let you give her an expensive gift. Repeat the process a few times, and she’ll let you take her to bed. The mechanics are repetitive and clumsy – and frankly, I was embarrassed to play through them. The sequences aren’t required, but certainly important, as they’re the only way to earn upgrades for your robotic gun-arm. Mondo was envisioned as a James Bond stand-in, but even at his worst (I’m looking at you, Roger Moore), 007 is infinitely more suave than…whatever this is.
It’s possible to argue that the game is intended to satirize the hyper-violence and objectification of women that runs so rampantly through the gaming industry. But my rebuttal is this – satirization only works if the player can engage with the underlying criticism on a deeper level. There’s no overt indication, no knowing wink to the audience, that Suda is purposely poking fun at much of anything; on the contrary, it seems much more likely that he chose to eschew any sort of cohesive message in an attempt to out-weird himself and shock players. What you end up with is an admittedly hyper-stylish game that consists of big, meaty chunks of action, but no connective tissue to help it make sense. Ultimately, Killer Is Dead is a zany mess that is mostly fun to play, but not to try and comprehend.
Things I Loved
- Tense, fast-paced fighting action!
- Gorgeous art style
- Deep, satisfying upgrade system
Things I Hated
- Cringe-worthy Gigolo Missions
- Finicky camera
- The boss battle against Tommy the Death-Engine was not scored to this musical masterpiece.