4cr Plays – Killer is Dead
Killer is Dead was released with very little fanfare at the end of last month. Apart from some reviewers criticizing its explicit “dating” mode, the stylized action game by Grasshopper and its figurehead Suda51 went by mostly unnoticed and is unlikely to get more exposure in the coming months with all the blockbusters monopolizing gamer attention. But is this game unworthy of your time, like some reviews claimed? Or should you give it a try if you enjoy offbeat experiences? Well, if you can look past a few rough spots, there is a lot to love here.
The story follows Mondo Zappa, an assassin working for an agency undertaking top-secret assignments. They regularly deal with the most bizarre criminals around the globe… and even on the Moon. It’s hard to really describe the story much more further than that without spoiling anything, because it goes in so many directions and is so cryptic. While it doesn’t quite match it, the storyline in Killer is Dead is close in tone and weirdness to the one in Killer7. Don’t expect to understand everything that happened when you reach the credits sequence because there is a lot left open to interpretation. It is up to you to decide if the weirdness and vague nature are positives, but I personally enjoyed it a lot. One thing I disliked however is how undefined the characters are. Mondo Zappa is an empty shell you never get to know or understand, and most of the supporting characters aren’t much better. We’re far from the eccentric Travis Touchdown from No More Heroes.
If you’ve played some of Grasshopper’s previous games (Killer7, No More Heroes, Shadows of the Damned, or Lollipop Chainsaw), you should recognize a lot of recurring themes that are coming back in Killer is Dead. The Moon, tigers, numerous references to music, blood as a consumable item, and 4th wall breaking are all featured. The gameplay, centers around sword fighting and is also very similar to the system in No More Heroes or Lollipop Chainsaw. Killer is Dead will definitely feel familiar to Grasshopper and Suda51 fans; but make no mistake, this does not mean that the game is bland or generic in any way. If you already played any of their previous games and were put off by their peculiar style, chances are Killer is Dead will not turn you into a new fan. The game is classic Grasshopper, with the unique personality and the technical problems that come with it.
As with most other games by the studio, Killer is Dead sometimes shows that it was made on a tight budget. There is a large amount of screen tearing, occasionally enough to diminish the impact of the beautiful visuals. There is also some recycling in the levels, meaning that you will revisit some locations a few times during the 8 hours or so it takes to beat the game. It mainly occurs in the side missions and does not happen often enough to become tedious, but it’s still a reminder that the game was probably built on a shoestring budget.
While Grasshopper’s games are usually a mixed bag on the technical side, the audio-visual is often top-notch. In this respect Killer is Dead is no exception. As you can see in the screenshots and trailers, the visual style of the game is simply stunning. This is one of the best uses of cel-shading I have ever seen, rivaling games like Okami, El Shaddai or The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. The soundtrack, partially composed by Akira Yamaoka (Silent Hill, No More Heroes 2, Shadows of the Damned) is also very good and fits the dark atmosphere well, with some particularly catchy boss themes.
Like No More Heroes and Lollipop Chainsaw before it, Killer is Dead is an action game with an emphasis on melee combat with some ranged weapons thrown in (no pun intended). KiD‘s combat system is noticeably more advanced than in Grasshopper’s previous titles, but never approaches the sophistication of games like Bayonetta or Ninja Gaiden. The game starts simply, allowing you to defeat enemies by mashing the “attack” button, but as you unlock more moves and meet trickier enemies, you need to master some combos and use the block and dodge moves efficiently. Well-timed blocks open an enemy’s defense, and dodging at the last minute triggers a very stylized sequence in which you can pummel the enemy for a few seconds.
While the smaller enemies are relatively fun to fight, they lack variation. The real meat of the game is in the bosses and their unique battles. They are the most interesting and creative characters in the game, and the tactics needed to beat them is very different from one to another.
One feature I haven’t talked about yet, but that seemed to take up most of the media attention surrounding the game, is the “Gigolo Mode.” In these optional segments, Mondo is on dates with girls and you have to get him to sleep with them. To do that, you have to fill up a “guts meter” by staring at the girl’s breasts without her noticing. Once the meter is full, you get the chance to give her a gift, and if she likes it enough, you will sleep with her. The odd result of this coupling is that you receive a weapon enhancement. During the “date” segments you can also unlock special glasses that let you see what the girls want to receive as gifts, and see their underwear through their clothes. In terms of quality, it’s nonsensical, embarrassing, and dull to play. Many game journalists discredited the whole game because of this mode, describing Killer is Dead as “sexist” and “exploitative;” and they’re not really wrong to do so. The impression that it left me with was more like that of an exploitation film. Subsequently, I have a hard time understanding how someone can take the “Gigolo Mode” at face value. The whole setting is incredibly cheesy, with smooth music and a suave voice-over saying, “Magnifico!” every time you succeed. If you manage to get a girl into Mondo’s bed, he throws the camera a thumbs up and yells, “Oh yeah!” in a very exaggerated manner. The whole thing is pretty obviously a joke, even if that joke falls flat and is arguably in bad taste. Taken in context, Grasshopper’s games are heavily exploitative and shocking, but just like exploitation cinema, that does not mean that they condone or glorify everything the characters do. Part of what makes this hard to discuss is that the debate over exploitation in art has been going on itself for decades without resolution. My ultimate response to “Gigolo Mode” was that it is stupid and optional and should not be taken any more seriously than any of the other content in the game. I opted to play through it to get the weapon enhancements, and not touch it again but you could easily skip it entirely.
Killer is Dead is a future cult classic. It’s flawed, unpolished and controversial, but it has a completely offbeat personality that makes it worth experiencing for fans of unusual games. In a sense, it fits perfectly with Grasshopper’s “punk rock” game design philosophy.