Soft boiled eggs, samurai swords and sex-obsessed mini-games.
Grasshopper Manufacture certainly can pick a title.
The studio that brought us Lollipop Chainsaw and No More Heroes has a fine record when it comes to unabashed stylism and pulp appeal.
Madcap tour de force Suda 51 is at the creative helm for this release, and if the buzz beforehand is anything to go by - white knight’s screaming outrage at the game’s more risqué, nee pervier, exploits - it appears to be another in the long line of cult but inimitable offerings from the Japanese auteur of absurdity.Looking very much a spiritual successor to the Gamecube classic Killer 7, Killer Is Dead uses much of the same artistic design, with shadowy noir themes, lots of crushed blacks swamping the screen and blanket cel shading giving objects an obvious delineation amid the posterization. It’s not polished in terms of graphics fidelity - the screen tearing is shocking at times and the art style disguises the low res textures propping many environments up - but aesthetically it’s hard to argue that it’s not at the very least distinctive.
Style, style, styleThe story, script and audio (full Japanese voice acting for purists) mirror this panache. The first few hours are heady, with pulp influences butting up against sci-fi and an early example of screwy MC Escher-like level design denoting madness. Cryptic dialogue about the moon and executioners abounds, whilst dramatic pauses punctuate dialogue between bionically enhanced characters.
The jazz infused soundtrack sets the tone of sixties cool and the pervading atmosphere is a bit Tokyo Drifter/Golgo 13, albeit imagined through the eyes of a mental patient with a penchant for science fiction body modification. The whole slightly trippy vibe is heightened by little things like the subtitles misaligning as the words are spoken, as if it’s a dream like scenario, tying in with the story’s undercurrent of fractured minds.
The first few hours are heady, with pulp influences butting up against sci-fi...Playing as Mondo (a nod to the Japanese pronunciation of “Bond”, a figure Suda attempts to evoke) your job is as a state employed assassin, or “executioner” as the game puts it. Missions are straightforward target eliminations through occasionally branching but largely linear levels, set out as “episodes” with hard boiled titles such as “The Man who Stole her Ears”. Before each mission you’ll get information regarding who your client is and a description of your target. It’s superfluous really, neither in depth enough to add atmosphere or necessary for the level design as you’ll always end up at their feet anyway.
Swords and orbsIn terms of gameplay it’s a third person hack-and-slash title built primarily around melee combat. Mondo carries his faithful katana - dubbed “Gekkou” - with which he dispatches enemies whose blood will be absorbed by his swollen bionic left arm, “Musselback”. This appendage is your Swiss army knife, capable of multiple functions but largely it acts as your range weapon, firing the accrued blood. Once you run out, your rate of fire drops significantly and you’ll find yourself unable to perform some of the fancier melee moves; a good reason to keep the claret flowing then.
You’re graded after each mission on the standard areas of time and damage, as well as more stylised criteria such as “total cool kills” and “toughness”, emulating the Devil May Cry ethos of “it’s not what you do, but how you do it”, followed by an alphabetic stamp of approval. However, Mondo’s nowhere as nimble as Dante, nor has he the polished bundle of tricks to display. Dodge, block, parry and guard break are the main roster of moves as you’d expect, but due to some tight camera angles and the sporadic sharp screen tearing it doesn’t feel like there’s the required smoothness to proceedings.
This is alleviated somewhat by gaining better abilities. Defeated enemies (Wires) drop objects such as body parts. The array of items work as experience points to upgrade your total amount of blood and health, as well as offering a currency to be traded for new abilities, which help to offset the early, slightly janky nature to encounters; as your skillset increases, so do your chances of keeping the flow of combat steady.
However, linking attacks and flitting between enemies isn’t always as fluid as the genre - at its best - ideally requires. This can perhaps be attributed to the design of enemies and your viewpoint, which barely attempts to hide the fact that both were built without sharp, well defined interaction as the core priority. They’re pure style with a dash of substance thrown in. It’s a hectic display of fireworks that you’ll learn to feel your way through, timing combos in groups of multiple enemies less on when you see an attack coming and more on when you assume it will.
That’s probably because Killer Is Dead - like many Goichi Suda games - is not defined by the gameplay but instead by the mood created. Like a form of backwards game design; where most creators build around what feels fun to play and wrap it in a perfunctory aesthetic style and story, Suda51 seems to approach this process in the opposite direction. The gameplay is fine, but strip away the looks and the noir appeal and you’ve got some fairly ordinary and occasionally disjointed mechanics.
Embrace the oddYet, if you accept that bargain, and are keen to actively pursue the more unique games, by whatever criteria, Killer Is Dead delivers in spades. It’s all about the visuals and cool factor. Little touches like the dodge leaving a split second outline of where you’ve been behind you are the type of details which help the battles achieve a cinematic tone.
The weird characters are the thread of insanity, drawing you deeper down the rabbit hole. If the central criticism of many modern games is a sense of ennui brought about by lacklustre and unimaginative narratives ticking boxes, well Mondo’s trip (and it is a trip) is a blast of surrealism that attacks the senses. I’d say it has twists, but truth be told there are no straight roads in this bonkers tale.
It’s all about the visuals and cool factorThere’s a refreshing oddity to Suda51 games that keeps fans coming back, but it’s often the minor details that subconsciously start to amount in detractors’ minds. Yet, it’s these little blemishes that must be viewed as indicative of a maverick game designer, the grains of grit around which hopefully a pearl will be formed.
D'you come here often?The most publicised of which in Killer Is Dead - highlighted by many currently questioning the role of gender in videogames - is the Gigolo missions. These side quests are a weird ultra-streamlined dating mini-game which require Mondo to first buy romantic presents from the gift shop, and then proceed to build up his guts to offer these symbols of his affection by staring at her *ahem* assets whilst her gaze is elsewhere.
It’s the kind of inclusion that’s widely accepted by Eastern audiences but still ruffles feathers in markets where Gravure games have never hit shelves. Unfortunately, the pay off of new items means they are somewhat necessary. On paper it sounds far more inherently creepy than it arguably ends up being. The bumbling Bond-a-like characterisation mixed with the alt-world setting and sheer schoolboy nature of it steers it closer to teen frat flick idiocy than the supposed genuine seediness of the dirty mac brigade. If anything, it’s the closest the game gets to reality and making any sense.
Once the story is completed, the game doesn’t offer the same lure for replay as others in the genre, as the combat isn’t as precision based, but the reward of a visual flourish and cinematic bloodshed will be equally as tempting to others. Levelling up, unlocking abilities, farming cash, challenge missions and secret unlockables that don’t even hint at their criteria all help bulk out a circa 10 hour game.
The Dark Side Of The Moon
- Artistic visuals
- Bizarre story
- Satisfying combat flourishes
- Soundtrack sets the right tone
The Dark Side Of Game Design
- Lacks polish
- Gigolo missions
Killer Is Dead PS3 ReviewThe gameplay may not be revolutionary, but Killer Is Dead should really be viewed as something of a mood experiment, collating striking images with little in the way of universal themes or obvious meaning; disparate pieces of a jigsaw slammed together, overlapping and bizarre to look at yet strangely bewitching, almost Lynchian in nature.
It’s definitely niche, but you’ll know straight away whether it’s your thing. As a game, it’s tough to rate highly as flashy visuals propping up some pedestrian level design is hard to justify, but if you’re a sucker for the type of insanity Grasshopper Manufacture peddle, and you like a gaudy finishing move, then Killer Is Dead should be in your collection pronto.
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