Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture
Publisher: XSEED Games
Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360 (reviewed)
I think by now we all know what to expect when we pop a Suda51 game into our disc trays, and that’s the unexpected. Goichi Suda made a name for himself with niche titles like Killer7 and the No More Heroes series, and has since gone on to make interesting, if not controversial, games such as Lollipop Chainsaw and Shadows of the Damned. It’s fascinating how once a game, or in this case the face of a development team, achieves cult status or falls into the routine of appealing to a niche audience, the game is viewed under a different light; free from the customary critiques of more traditional games. “You just don’t get it!”, fans begin to cry out. “It’s a work of art!”, they assure. Well, having finished Grasshopper Manufacture’s latest release, Killer is Dead, I have to wonder if Suda51 has gotten drunk of his own legacy.
To be clear, I have played and loved just about every game Suda51 has ever been a part of. I adored this generation’s Lollipop Chainsaw, subtext and all, and consistently find No More Heroes to be an incredibly satisfying experience. Hell, I even love Super Fire Pro Wrestling Special (I have a buddy with a Super Famicom). So being no scrub when it comes to Suda51’s particular brand of flair, and in fact loving him for it, I think I can properly critique Killer is Dead having a firm grasp of what I’m talking about.
Without spoiling too much of the story, let me explain why I think Suda has gotten lost in this monster of his own design. Killer is Dead centers around a character named Mondo, a man with a bionic left arm and an occupation working with the Executioner Office; a pseudo-government-funded yet also work-for-hire firm that will kill anyone so long as clients are willing to pay enough cash upfront. Now, story has always taken a back seat to action and aesthetic when it comes to Suda51 games, but Killer is Dead seems to go out of its way to avoid making sense. As far as the player is concerned, the only priority is killing targets. There’s some semblance of personal drama spurred by Mondo’s memory loss, and most of the folks that walk through the Executioner Office’s door end up having some personal connection to the characters, but there’s never enough explanation to tie anything together. It’s one thing to leave it up to the player’s imagination, it’s another thing to constantly have adversaries telling Mondo “You don’t understand, do you?” and then never go about explaining any of the key information we need to piece together a coherent plot. No Suda51, neither Mondo nor I understand, and that’s because I don’t even know what part I should be misunderstanding.
Once a narrative loses focus, it can be hard to feel any sort of attachment to the story, and thus the player loses any sort of immersion or agency in the experience. For folks who are used to typical anime character tropes, it feels easy to assume we know these characters and their personalities. But without any tangible sort of explanation or backstory as to who these characters are, there is absolutely no emotional connection linking players to them. Unfortunately, the end result is that most players will trudge through Killer is Dead not caring whether the characters surrounding Mondo live or die, effectively tossing any plot twists or shocking revelations to the wind. Most Suda51 games are fun because they are so far out there they seem ludicrous, yet always seem to have some tangible story point that tethers them from drifting completely out into space. Killer is Dead either suffers from trying so hard to be unique that it loses its own way, or is simply the end result of focusing so much on gameplay that story fell by the wayside; and the end result becomes a jumbled mess of confusion leading up to a terribly unsatisfying conclusion. Between the two scenarios though, I honestly can’t tell which affliction the game suffers from.
What Killer is Dead does do right, however, is gameplay. For those who only enjoy Grasshopper Manufacture titles because of the fast-paced combat, this will be the ultimate payoff for a decade’s worth of refinement. Hacking and slashing has never been so satisfying, and I think every other developer interested in the genre needs to take note. Killer is Dead feels very reminiscent of No More Heroes in more than a few ways, but it’s the combat system that will seem most familiar. Some major refinements to the mechanics that enhance Mondo’s hacking capabilities include a smoother Dodge/Evade/Counter button. During an enemy’s attack, Mondo has a few options: For weaker foes, he can simply beat them to the punch, or sword swing in this case, with a slash of his own. For more powerful enemies, he can either evade to the side, or parry. Further down the line, Mondo then acquires the ability to counter attacks. Timing an evade just as an enemy attacks will trigger a counterattack opportunity, wherein which time will slow down and allow Mondo to unleash a devastating combo attack. Pressing the evade button without a directional input will cause Mondo to stand his ground and block. In this case, perfect timing will net a parry opportunity, leaving a foe stunned or otherwise susceptible to a damaging follow-up attack. Since most of the game is simply a series of rooms full of enemies, the fact that combat is wonderfully fluid and engaging nearly makes Killer is Dead worthwhile all on its own.
Adding to the gameplay is Mondo’s bionic arm, which has the ability to transform into four distinct secondary weapons. These weapons range from a drill bit that breaks down walls to hidden areas or decimates enemies holding shields, to a freeze shot that slows enemies and makes them easier to combo. These weapons are fueled by Blood, which is acquired by building long combo chains and executing enemies, or also found randomly in destructible objects. Each of them are uniquely situational, but only the drill and the standard blaster end up being necessary to accomplish any tasks throughout the entire adventure. Which is lucky, because the only way to unlock most secondary weapons is to successfully complete the infamous Gigolo Missions everyone has been so worried about.
Gigolo Missions boil down to a simple mini-game: Mondo most ogle a girl by looking her up and down without her noticing. The objective is to send enough blood rushing to Mondo’s brain that he works up the courage to give the “beauty” – as the game refers to them – a gift, which is then rewarded with a non-nude, softcore sex scene and a secondary weapon or other type of much-needed item. When the girl is looking Mondo’s way, he scores points by looking her in the eyes. When she’s looking away, however, he must stare at her other “assets.” Taking this a further step over the line, Mondo can acquire x-ray specs either by completing the first few stages of the game’s challenge mode, or downloading the DLC code that came with new copies of the day one edition. Unfortunately for decent folks who don’t want to partake in this pervy side-attraction, the x-ray glasses help tremendously by facilitating the scoring of points. They not only massively increase the amount of points Mondo gets for staring, they immediately reveal which ideal gift to give each lady to maximize her affection for him. There are three women who must be seduced to acquire all in-game items, with a fourth beauty accessible by completing various levels of the challenge mode.
Gigolo Missions on their own aren’t necessarily a problem, for much the same reasons I mentioned before in my review of Dragon’s Crown. It all depends on context, except Killer is Dead doesn’t provide anything in the way of context. Mondo appear to be a James Bond-esque womanizer. As a character type, the womanizer is perfectly acceptable. But as an audience member, we have no idea why Mondo acts this way. For one thing, he’s not a secret agent: He’s a merciless assassin with very little charm. He also appears to be a tiny bit bat-sh*t crazy, but more on that in a moment. So from our perspective, Mondo just seems like a sleazeball who uses women for sex by courting them with gifts. Yet the game would have you sympathize with his character and praise him as the hero of the story. Yeah… if you’ll excuse me, I’m just going to keep hacking and slashing, cause that part’s good.
Aside from Gigolo Missions, there are a variety of other sub-missions to complete as well. These are, thankfully, focused on a number of other scenarios; ranging from fetch quests that see Mondo searching for a particular item relevant to the level selected, to gun turret segments which switch to a first-person perspective as he mows down opponents. The sub-missions are, for the most part, as equally enjoyable as the main campaign itself. While some objectives force the difficulty to spike in rather frustrating ways, i.e. making a single mistake will force the mission to restart, they offer enough in terms of diversity to feel like a fresh and welcome diversion.
In addition to padding the overall completion time, which clocks in at anywhere from 9 – 11 hours spread across 12 (13 with DLC) “episodes” depending on your difficulty of choice, these bonus missions offer the opportunity to level up Mondo’s skill and abilities. Since there isn’t any sort of experience bar in Killer is Dead, the health and blood meters are increased by acquiring items either dropped by enemies or found scattered in pots, small trees, and other archetypal video game destructibles. Once enough has been collected, the health and blood meters will level up, which incrementally increase Mondo’s maximum life bar and blood gauge. The final piece of the puzzle are moon crystals, which are earned in the same way as anything else. These are used to upgrade abilities, giving Mondo additional sword attacks or improving secondary weapons, as well as typical combat improvements such as better evade and counter abilities. Completing missions will net Mondo cash, which can then be used to buy gifts for use in Gigolo Missions, or spent in exchange for items to increase health, blood, or your stock of moon crystals.
Some minor technical hiccups affect Killer is Dead‘s overall fun factor, but nothing is so detrimental as to truly hamper the experience. Players will often need to fight against a camera trying to pick the worst possible angles, which will inevitably lead to a few dropped combos that will leave folks frustrated. Hard mode has some strange difficulty spikes early on, before becoming a little too easy once Mondo has a few upgrades boosting his offensive capabilities. The lack of an enemy lock-on means it’s neigh impossible to select a particular enemy amidst a handful of oncoming pursuers, but since hacking and slashing is the name of the game it matters little which opponent takes the brunt of an attack first (until challenge mode, that is.) This may not be a glitch or bug, but completing the game on Hard mode does NOT unlock the achievement for completing it on Normal as well, which I find to be personally disheartening and a strange decision. Most modern games already understand this, but why make me play the game over again on an easier setting when I’ve already finished it on Hard? I’d much rather play again on a more challenging level and earn an achievement for that.
On that note, finishing the game does unlock “Very Hard” mode as well as opening up a few items at the shop and a Free Play mode so players can revisit any stages/sub-missions to achieve higher rankings for the online leaderboards. Such items at the shop include new costumes with upgraded stats for Mondo and a few other things to make combat easier. Additionally, extra costumes can be unlocked for the female characters in the game by completing side-missions and earning AAA rankings on as many missions as possible. Yes, these costumes are mostly pervy and will make you feel uncomfortable while equipping them even if you live alone.
It’s easy to criticize the seeming lack of cohesiveness to Suda 51’s story structure, but it’s one of the things I love the most about the experience each time I play one of his games: I have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen each and every time I step forward, and it’s exciting the whole way through. Rather than watching an opening cinematic or hearing the protagonist’s opening dialogue and being able to pick out the story beat for beat with near-total accuracy, as with most games, Suda’s truly unique style of gameplay puts the focus on pure enjoyment and fun;, everything else be damned. It’s takes pride in the fact that it’s a video game, as evidenced by the ludicrous boss battles and assortment of bizarre locations. (Sword play on the moon while wearing a business suit, anyone?) While this comes at the cost of a quality story and leads to some bizarre choices – Mondo breaks the fourth wall and recognizes he’s in a video game for no discernible reason, which feels beyond out of place – it allows to game to sink-or-swim based solely on the combat, which in this case is incredibly gratifying. In a saturated market filled with dozens of AAA games trying to make us care about our characters, (I love you, Ellie!) perhaps the world needs a few nonsensical, “for fun” games to let off some steam and allow us to turn off our brains for awhile.
I hate to tack this on at the end, but it’s worth noting that in addition to the diversity of stages, the soundtrack to Killer is Dead is incredible. In what may be the best set of sounds ever strung together in a Suda51 title, Killer is Dead provides a number of tunes to suit every particular scene of the game. From start to finish, the variety of genres perfectly blend into every level and seamlessly accentuate both cinematics and moment-to-moment gameplay, offering the perfect accompaniment. Those with a day-one edition who were treated to a soundtrack and hard-cover art book should count themselves lucky, because this is one of the few non-RPG video game soundtracks worth owning.
For folks looking to be entranced by an engaging story full of memorable characters, Killer is Dead has nothing to offer. But for anyone looking to kill a weekend, among other things, with a mindless, yet fully satisfying hack ‘n slash, this is one of the best in recent memory. Fluid combat and a buffet of optional content don’t entirely make up for the lack of any recognizable plot, but they go a long way in ensuring anyone who picks up Killer is Dead is in for an insanely good time. “Insanely” is definitely the opportune word there. I wonder what Suda51 dreams about? Hmm…
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