Killer is Dead Review
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On 10/01/2013 at 12:00 PM by Nick DiMola
Let’s all put aside our preconceived notions and take a critical look at Suda51’s latest effort.
For Suda51 fans and anyone who can appreciate an anime-inspired action game.
Misogyny. It’s a word that’s been thrown around in tandem with Killer is Dead since the fated Gigolo Mode was first revealed. However, creator Grasshopper Manufacture has gotten a raw deal. This tongue-in-cheek mode (that only features two unique encounters) has thrown the stars completely out of alignment for the studio and the game at large. The fact of the matter is, Killer is Dead is quite similar to Suda51’s past works. Combining the frantic action of No More Heroes with the third person shooting from Shadows of the Damned and the darker atmosphere offered by Killer7, Killer is Dead is a fantastic fusion of some of Suda51’s oeuvre. The cryptic narrative that undercuts the experience further accentuates the charm of this excellent action game.
Yes, indeed – this is an excellent game. I know that might be hard to believe given some of the reviews you may have read, but it is the truth. I typically don’t explore other reviews before I write my own, but given the controversy, they were nearly unavoidable. I spotted plenty of claims that the game performs poorly from a technical perspective, that the combat was shallow, and that the story made no sense; however, I found these claims to be wholly unsubstantiated. Let me explain.
The tale of Killer is Dead revolves around protagonist, Mondo Zappa, an apparent executioner whose memory has been lost. After waking up one day, he decides to join the Bryan Execution Firm for unknown reasons. What quickly becomes clear is that Mondo is a simple guy, with some very simple motivations. He is dedicated to doing his job and doing it well, and he’s a ladies’ man – much like James Bond, a clear archetype for Mondo’s character.
It’s true that not much makes sense in the world of Killer is Dead up front. “Wires” from the dark side of the moon have infected a subset of people, which remove most of their facilities and send them on insane killing sprees. Bryan (head of the execution firm) is consistently accepting contracts and sending Mondo off to take care of the worst wires. In these individuals, the wires infection has manifested in drastic ways, turning many into unimaginable monsters capable of so much more than a common man. Despite how absurd this seems, it all works within the context of the world.
I liken the story of Killer is Dead to movies like Memento and Donnie Darko. While plenty of details are laid out in front of you to detail the subtext of the story, it’s up to you to observe the clues and piece together the bigger picture. This is part of the magic of the narrative and part of the reason why I love the game as much as I do. Certain segments of the plot are still shrouded in mystery and all of the pieces can be put together in much different ways, but there’s already some incredible discussion around the imagery in the game and what it all means (Warning: Links Have Spoilers). If you love a story that challenges your perception of the obvious and forces you to think, you too will appreciate the craftsmanship that went into the tale of Mondo Zappa.
Even if the story holds little intrigue for you, there’s arguably enough in the tightly constructed action to keep you engaged from beginning to end. Much like the levels in No More Heroes, Killer is Dead has players slicing and dicing their way through a bunch of low level enemies before taking on the big boss at the end. These enemies in large part are fodder for experience points to purchase upgrades for Mondo, as well as points to upgrade your blood meter and your health. They double up as a training exercise to gain mastery of certain techniques before heading off to the much more challenging boss encounter.
What’s most interesting about the combat in Killer is Dead is that it really has three levels of complexity, but mastering all is not necessary for success. At the most basic level, you can hack and slash almost all of the enemies to death and brute force your way through every mission. I fear that many people playing the game will never progress beyond this level of execution because it is a strategy that can be successful. On an intermediate level, you will master blocking, dodging, and parrying. This opens opportunities to attack enemies rapid-fire and allows you to build up your combo meter, which speeds up Mondo and allows him to tear through enemies faster and faster until the combo ends. At the highest level of execution, players will learn to master the adrenaline mode and take down enemies quickly and efficiently for the highest possible grades on missions.
Admittedly, I managed to make my way through the entire game without ever reaching the highest level of mastery, but the various challenges that unlock as you beat episodes forced me to reconsider my strategy and begin performing at a much higher level. When I eventually tackle the game again, I plan to head back through with my newfound skills and achieve the highest ranks.
All that being said, the place where Killer is Dead really shines is in the boss encounters. Many are sprawling and grand and all of them are unique in their own way. In the very first encounter you’ll fight a giant bug that crawls along the walls and forces Mondo to break out his arm cannon to knock it from the ceiling in order to slice it up with his sword. As you go along, the encounters become more and more challenging and force you to produce a unique strategy for success. This is done through observation, pattern recognition, and experimentation – the makings of a great boss battle.
Of course, the varied worlds and unique settings make for a visually stunning game. From an Alice in Wonderland house, to the Zen space of a Japanese Garden, to a runaway train in the snowy mountains of Russia, there’s never a mundane outing in Killer is Dead. Presented in a psuedo-cel-shaded art style, the unique settings are most definitely eye-catching. There is some intermittent screen tearing, but never enough to be distracting. There are also some technical hiccups here and there, particularly when new parts of the level are being loaded, but again nothing that truly detracts from the experience.
So, I’ve put it off long enough at this point, but let’s touch on Gigolo Mode. I know that the de facto response to it is utter disgust for its vile exploitation of women, but in reality, this is a ridiculous overreaction.
When the mode starts, Mondo is hanging out at the bar, having a drink and he notices the “beauty” a few seats down. He heads over and starts talking to her. It’s your job as the player to sneak a glance at her chest (which offers only slight cleavage) to build up your “guts” meter. Once the meter is full, you get on one knee and give the beauty a present. If she falls for you, the game cuts to a video where it’s implied that she stays the night. And that’s the whole thing that everyone has gotten so upset about.
In my opinion, the entire sequence is kind of goofy, and truth be told, not too far off from reality. I mean, one-night stands never happen, right? Of course not. Let’s not kid ourselves about this – Gigolo Mode is nothing worse than a depiction of something that happens quite frequently at bars all over the world. Coupled with the lighthearted tone of the whole thing and the fact that you spend about ten minutes with the mode in the entire game, I really don’t understand what people have gotten so upset about. I think it’s a harmless addition, but I’ll let you be the judge.
As much as I want to tell everyone to run out and grab Killer is Dead right away, it’s hard to make such a suggestion. While I don’t feel that other reviewers have given the game a fair shake, the reality of the matter is that Suda51 games aren’t for everyone. They’re weird and cryptic and, at times, offensive. In my opinion, he is a true auteur of this medium, but that inherently makes his works less accessible than your typical AAA game. If you already know yourself to be a fan of his work, you absolutely can’t go wrong with his latest effort. All others should take heed that this is a distinctly Japanese game that makes very little effort to cater to Western sensibilities. If you can accept and appreciate that, Killer is Dead just might draw you into the niche fandom of Grasshopper Manufacture.