Stylish swordplay and set-pieces with minimal substance.
Cyborg assassins, random monsters, trips to the moon, a unicorn, a tiger and a motorcyle... WTF is happening?! These will be the feelings and thoughts experienced during your playthrough of Killer is Dead, but whether or not you connect with such strangeness is a different matter.
I'm a fairly open guy when it comes to video games, but Killer is Dead challenged my willingness to experience something different and completely off-the-wall. This new title from renowned and quirky developer Suda51 looks eccentric and suave on the outside, but for all of that misleading style, there is almost no substance, and the game is carried by it's simple but entertaining swordplay combat.
Killer is Dead is centered around cybernetic assassin Mondo Zappa, an 'executioner' working for the state-funded Bryan Execution Firm alongside its titular boss, the sultry second-in-command Vivian, and what seems to be the mandatory annoying Japanese schoolgirl and walking stereotype, Mika.
As Mondo, you take on a series of private contracts on targets around this warped version of earth and on the moon. The firm is vaguely referred to as a government organisation, of sorts, and the start of each mission has Mondo and the crew discussing a new, and usually bizarre contract that only they can apparently handle in an episodic-like format.
Meet Mondo Zappa, a protagonist who somehow makes all cyborg assassins seem like try-hards.
The targets range from fellow assassins gone rogue, an undead criminal who has stolen the ears of a talented musician, a Japanese samurai who has a tiger living within his soul, and all manner of supernatural monsters.
It's obvious early on that the world of Killer is Dead isn't exactly right in the head. It's set sometime in the near future where cybernetic enhancements are commonplace, monsters and supernatural entities wreak havoc in society, and the moon is apparently habitable.
It becomes quickly apparent that Suda51 is more interested in the entertainment derived from surreal presentation and symbolism rather than a conventional story, and the game mechanics also take a backseat here. As a designer, he seems to bank his success on extremely bizarre narrative scenarios, numerous film references and vague subtext all juxtaposed in a nonsensical format as to emulate some sort of greater meaning.
I don't think you'll find that meaning, as Killer is Dead mostly devolves into a random array of sometimes entertaining missions stringed together with a weak plot with a overly vague ending, carried by excellent swordplay combat.
Watch the action-packed launch trailer.
If there is any meaningful subtext within the game, much of it will be lost on the average gamer, though the ones who play Killer is Dead will most likely be loyal Suda51 followers, and perhaps some elements will resonate more with the intended crowd, and I'm guessing that crowd loves quirkiness and plenty of scantily-clad women.
This time around, though, it seems things like visiting a nightmare version of Alice in Wonderland complete with tea and cookies, travelling to the moon, riding a unicorn (yes, you read that right) or killing a tiger while on a motorcycle exist not for the storytelling but merely because it sounds cool, and admittedly, the Killer7-esque art-style allows it to at least look stylish.
The enjoyment you'll find from the short campaign of 12 Main Missions will mostly stem from the well-executed combat system. Mondo's primary weapons are his katana and robotic left arm which can transform into four different types of guns. You'll stylishly hack and slash your way through a variety of 'Wires', strange enemies that look neither humanoid or alien, and gather blood, health and moon crystals to power your special moves, level up your endurance and obtain new abilities through an upgrade system.
The swordplay resembles No More Heroes but without the motion controls, and
the end result is satisfying, if only for the spectacularly gory ways you can behead an enemy and string together some fun combos and well-timed dodges that reward player reflexes with devastating finishers. The end bosses are definitely the highlight for these melee sequences, with a particularly enjoyable set-piece involving cutting off a giant's head.
At least he can decapitate monsters with style.
Mondo's left arm and its attachments are also fun to use, ranging from the standard blast gun to a freeze gun which can slow down agile opponents, and a drill which can unlock secret areas in every level. These usually consist of finding nurse Scarlett, who addresses players with a phallic-shaped syringe and rewards you with new side-quests and time/combo-based challenges that extend the hack and slash experience.
Speaking of side-missions, the game's optional 'Gigolo' missions are sure to stir up some controversy. These involve Mondo meeting up with one of three lovely ladies on a date, but the 'date' consists of gaining enough 'guts' to give the girl a gift and win over her 'affections'. The missions are played through a POV perspective of Mondo and you gain 'guts' by looking at your date's goodies while she looks away. If successful, the scene fades to black and your beauty may give you a new weapon to use.
While it's all fairly sad and tasteless, it's not the ultra-misogynistic or sexist take on women that many may think. I personally skipped all of these missions after getting the weapons I needed as they were devoid of depth, and the small group of gamers who aren't interested in collecting skimpy costumes for the female cast probably won't bother either.
Even with a range of upgrades available, there are plenty of other games in the genre ruled by Platinum Games that make the combo and sword-centric gameplay of Killer is Dead feel less refined, silky smooth and in-depth in comparison. But the swordplay is easily the best aspect of the game and is what saves it: it's just too bad what's going on in-between and why you're slashing things to pieces isn't very compelling, because it looks so damn cool.
There are a few interesting moments in the nonsensical reality of Killer is Dead that stick out in a good way, such as Mondo breaking the fourth-wall and perhaps critiquing the average gamer's ignorance and insistence on killing everything and everyone rather than talking things out, or another antagonist pointing how Mondo -- and the player, by extension -- cares more about sexual favours from a woman rather than facing the reality of the situation.
Even the eye-candy isn't alluring enough to keep you invested in the characters and story.
However, these moments are mostly lost in a sea of less meaningful set pieces, and the game's random conversations play out as if the player knows more about the situation than we actually do.
The premise and setting are strangely intriguing at the very least, but eccentricity can only carry a game so far, especially one so insistent on focusing on story and presentation, and everything else quickly falls flat.
The characters, the contracts and the story lack vital personality, substance and relevance. Compared to Suda's previous titles, something in Killer is Dead just doesn't click: No More Heroes always had players looking forward to the next weird and wonderful character to assassinate, and Shadows of the Damned had the hilarious repertoire between Garcia Hotspur and his shape-shifting side-kick Johnson and the twisted setting of the demon realm.
Without these unique characters and settings, the otherwise simplistic action gameplay in these games would have grown stale quickly.
The premise and setting are strangely intriguing at the very least, but eccentricity can only carry a game so far.
Killer is Dead instead has Mondo, a one-dimensional protagonist who tries to be James Bond, a professional killer and a troubled child with split personalities all at the same time, but he gets little time to develop and the story will end without any meaningful connection to him.
The other characters and villains also get little time to make an impact and literally make no sense half-the time, speak in riddles or otherwise trail off or die before any sort of adequate context or meaning can be gathered from their actions and words.
The 'personality' any of them may embody are solely based on their appearances and stereotypes that may be derived from them. One assassin smokes a cigar EVERY cutscene with a close-up EVERY time for no thematic reason other than it looks cool. Mika is an annoying, whiny Japanese school-girl who hangs around Mondo but makes no sense in the context of a game about professional assassins, even if the final missions give a half-assed attempt to link her existence to Mondo as representing something beyond human understanding.
Despite the unsatisfying characters and story, I found the journey of Killer is Dead strangely enjoyable, even if I have no desire to go through the story again on Hard mode. The ultra-violent, stylistic swordplay was so engaging and the artstyle so unique that these aspects may very well be the only things gamers needs to play and enjoy Killer is Dead in all of its weirdness.
The Final Verdict
When it comes to bizarre but intriguing ideas, Suda51 has gamers covered in what has effectively become his niche, but Killer is Dead embodies both the best and worst of his design philosophies.
If you want a violent, action-packed title with stylish swordplay and excellent presentation and a weirder-than-normal setting, it'll be your perfect game, and the combo hacking and slashing really does get fun as the upgrades become available. But chances are Killer is Dead won't resonate with the average gamer due to it's overly random nature, short main campaign and lack of incentive to invest in the story.