Review: Killer is Dead

KILLER_IS_DEAD

When I think back on my time with this game and try to come up with something to say about it, all I can think of is “style over substance.” This is a criticism that has traditionally been made of games involving either Suda51 or the auteur’s company Grasshopper Manufacture, which have often been original or unique in at least some respect but not memorable for tight gameplay and controls. Killer is Dead is most reminiscent in its look to Killer 7, a game for the GameCube and PS2 which had a slightly off-color palette with gallons of blood, oddly desperate heroes, and a style which can be described as otherworldly yet based in reality. Killer 7 also was a series of dull corridor crawls with awkward shooting mechanics that often let its need to display something cool looking get in the way of the action. 

Much of Goichi Suda’s game involvement has resulted in a series of cult hits, but the recent Shadows of the Damned and Sine Mora made it look as though what he was choosing to be involved in had turned the corner from “critic’s darling” to a visually inventive game normal people could enjoy. Killer is Dead is a regression in this progress. It is a fairly easy action game which has some moments worth seeing for the diehard aficionado of the strange, but nothing worth suffering through for someone that just wants a fun game to play.

In a blood red rendition of the Earth, players will select missions for the game’s hero: sword for hire Mondo Zappa. Set in the near future where it is possible to go to the moon on the cheap and have your eyes and arms replaced with robot eyes and arms, Mondo will take on jobs from a small assassins guild set in an office like that of a private eye’s in a hardboiled crime novel. A few memorable supporting characters are part of this agency and sometimes play a role in the missions, but mostly will just talk in Mondo’s ear while he completes the task of death at hand. It is a shame that characters like Bryan, the heavily cyberized owner of the agency who never seems to be concerned with his clients’ failure to pay, or Vivienne, the hot blonde who can sprout seven extra pairs of arms to blast enemies with sixteen pistols at the same time, do not factor into the game’s story more as it might have been interesting to meaningfully interact with them and not just see them pop up for a few seconds in a mission or make an appearance in a menu’s background.

The missions all unfold similarly: someone has stolen something from a new client and it is up to Mondo to go get it back. That “something” is never some thing that makes a lot of sense. In The Man Who Stole Her Ears, for example, the mission is given from a young, talented musician who had her sounds stolen by a bad man who is using those sounds to pervert people’s emotions. Soundless, the poor woman is doomed to never know joy again unless her ears are returned. Not the fleshy bits that hang on the sides of her head, the abstraction of her ability to comprehend what sound is. It’s like Mondo’s real targets are metaphors that have forgotten their own meanings. If you need any adherence to any kind of realism to have a good time, avoid this game. The stories do not make any literal sense, so questions or thoughts surrounding the “how” of things will be the death of enjoyment. If you just roll with it and watch Mondo look intense and disinterested all at the same time and the absurd reactions of the bad guys and supporting characters, it is possible to at least have a fond memory of the characters. Mondo says, “The mission: Killer is Dead!” when he starts down the path of compensated murder. It sounds cool every time but I have no idea what it means. The plot follows the catchphrase’s suit in this hand of murderous bridge.

The missions themselves are very basic and are a predictable series of rooms with accompanying encounters and boss battles at the end. Mondo is a katana-wielding cyborg with the Japanese sword in his right arm and a big robot left arm as his opposite limb. The cyborg part is fairly dull as it will transform into a gun, which does small amounts of damage and slows down enemies, or a drill that is difficult to hit with given the game’s clumsy handling whenever trying to aim. Most of the time Mondo will be slashing enemies like any standard third-person action game where he can dodge away from attacks but not jump. There is no variety to the basic combo that he will dish out again and again. I found myself going from one target to the next without killing the first enemy or using a big wind up spin-around-like-a-tornado move, not because it was required, but because I got bored just doing the same moves over and over.

By defeating enemies and picking up the crystallized treats they leave behind, players can upgrade their weapons and unlock additional moves which do very little to spice up the combat. Primarily these upgrades just make the combat take less time. On the Normal difficulty setting most people should have no trouble completing the game, particularly as the game allows for Mondo to purchase continues which will pick him back up immediately and not restart him at the last checkpoint after death. The only skill involved is being able to dodge or guard enemy attacks and move around to their flanks. As some hits will cause Mondo to be stunned for five seconds, which feels much longer in an action game, it is very important to read enemies and plan for the best moment to strike.

As lackluster as the game is to play, it does show off some imaginative visuals. In line with Killer 7 and No More Heroes, the characters are cel-shaded, but not to the point where they look like anime characters. It is possible to see how each one of the characters could have been skinned in more realistic flesh tones and not the bright colors which are sharply distinguished from the polygonal backgrounds, but they are colored in a style which is almost unique (and would be entirely unique but for the other “assassin” Suda51 games). Folds in cloth and tufts of layered hair are all slightly highlighted which allows Killer is Dead to show a level of detail and shadow complexity that has not been seen in a cel-shaded game. This is not to say there are not fantastic looking cel-shaded games, but unlike the detailed and brightly colorful characters in Valkyria Chronicles and Atelier Totori, Mondo lives in the dark. Everyone moves as a group of contrasts, a visual feast that goes hand in hand with the game’s otherworldly characters and settings. 

Missions will take players inside places like an M.C. Escher dollhouse, a mansion on the Moon and a place out of ancient Japan. The bad guys, evil cyborgs called Wires, are bizarre in their appearance but recognizable enough to know what to expect from them. “Why does that guy have a drill bit for a head? Oh, he has a shield. I probably need to work my way around him,” is an appropriate reaction to encountering most of the foes. Slain enemies will often explode in a plume of purple fire with tendrils of black energy, headshots will pause the action to zoom in on the exploding noggin (as seen in other Suda games). If Mondo guards or dodges at just the right moment, he can launch a powerful counter attack. This triggers what is easily the best-looking effect in the game: the world will fade away to black so that it is just the baddy and Mondo and he will proceed to slice and dice, leaving black and white static after images of himself at the end of each stroke culminating in a climatic blood eruption. The strange characters, visual effects and bizarre stories help to make up for the dullness of the combat, but it is still repetitive. Flashy, pleasant distractions can only do so much to hide that this is a bland action game with a very limited number of main missions and only a few extra side missions which actually manage to be less interesting to play than the main missions.

That most of the game runs smoothly only causes its primary technical flaw to jump out and stab you in the eyeballs: the game has absolutely abysmal screen tearing. To the best of my recollection, this is the worst screen tearing I have ever seen on a console game, at least in this generation. Whenever the camera pans around Mondo it is like there is a wave of nausea-inducing visual distortion that flows up the screen. There appears to be no reason for it to be this horrible as it is typically not an issue during the game’s cutscenes. Theoretically this would be less noticeable on a smaller screen, but that is little consolation to anyone with a thirty-inch or bigger television. After five missions, I simply started to not use the right analogue stick to move the camera as this causes the most distortion. This imperfect solution minimized the problem, though it still popped up often, and also created an issue of me not being able to turn to see the enemies behind the red-eyed cyborg. My review was confined to the Xbox 360 version, but looking at other comments on the internet does not cause me to believe the PS3 version is any better in this regard. It is beyond belief that a company would let a game with this kind of nakedly bad issue hit store shelves.

I would be remiss if I did not mention one of the few side activities available to distract from the uninspired slashing, the Gigolo Missions. These find Mondo having drinks with a young lady at a bar or admiring the Moon in a Zen garden with a maiden on a bench, but unlike most of the game they are played almost entirely from our hero’s viewpoint. In order to win, players must get more “juice” by staring at various parts of the woman’s body until Mondo’s “juice” meter maxes out, and then you can give the nice lady a present to increase her affection while taking care to not let the gal catch you staring at her. (The game may actually refer to the “juice” as “blood”. That doesn’t make it any better.) In plainer terms, players have to stare at a digital representation of someone’s daughter’s tits, mouth, crotch or ass, while taking care to do so when her eyes are elsewhere, because you wouldn’t want to be considered a creep. Then you give her a flower or whatever kind of gift she likes to get her to fall for Mondo. It is even possible to engage in “Gigolo vision” which uses the power of advanced imaging and cybernetics not to spot cracks in a house’s foundation or unseen stress fissures in a bridge or undiscovered malignant tumors, but to see the girl in her bra and panties and gain a considerable amount of extra “juice” when looking at her naughty bits.

I honestly don’t know how to take these missions. I can say that they are necessary to unlock certain sub weapons as this is what the successfully ogled and gifted girls will give in exchange for all of the junk you have thrust upon them. Beyond that, I don’t know. I cannot think of a more obvious use of objectification of a woman as a game mechanic. It is grossly offensive and a spot-on parody of the mindset and eye movements of a horny guy at a singles bar.  Playing one of these feels funny and disgusting all at the same time. It is a shame that they are required to be finished to unlock everything as it is understandable that some people will find them uncomfortable to the point of not wanting to finish them. Sadly, for these sensitive souls, there is no Match.com to land the drill arm sub weapon.

Killer is Dead has some unique-looking content in it, but there is a lot of slogging to get to those few nuggets, or even just to enjoy the looks and effects that permeate the entire game. It would be far more easy to recommend if the combat was not just hitting the X button a lot and sometimes dodging, or if there was not an omnipresent graphical bug. It is not a bad game, it just does not bring the strange and flash constantly enough to make one forget how basic it is. Whether you want to get this game comes down to whether you can say the following truthfully, “I want to see something weird and don’t mind playing a mediocre game while I look for it.”

TryIt

Pros:
+ Interesting character designs
+ Cerebral plot and settings

Cons:
– Atrocious screen tearing brings the entire game down
– Dull combat

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on Xbox 360, also available for PS3
Publisher: XSEED Games
Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture
Release Date: 8/27/2013
Genre: Action
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1
Source: Game purchased by reviewer

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About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.