Grasshopper Manufacture has released their newest title, Killer is Dead. Goichi Suda, Grasshopper's team leader (also known as Suda 51), is known for implementing over-the-top, unorthodox and stylistic approaches to gameplay. Suda has been trying to appeal to the otaku of the world throughout his titles, and Killer is Dead is no exception. With such an elaborate library of No More Heroes 1-2, Killer7 and Lollipop Chainsaw behind him, Suda is no stranger to the strange and unusual. Is Killer Suda's newest cult classic? Or should it just be dead?
I went into Killer is Dead with extremely high hopes, I really did. But it seems that Killer is Dead simply isn't a good game; and it's weird just for the sake of being weird. There are no Silent Hill 2 symbolisms to be found, despite how bizarre the occurrences are throughout its story. Nevertheless, when playing games, many times we have to leave believably and logic at the door and simply play. This dreamscape interpretation of Suda could have worked if I were to overlook one huge, important factor: it doesn't play well at all.
You play as Mondo Zappa, an assassin (who saw that coming?), who works for an assassin's agency. In the future, the moon is easily traversible (with only a helmet being the only necessity to survive, which disappears entirely after the first cutscene), and cybernetic implants are commonplace. Mondo has a robotic arm which can transform into various types of weaponry (such as a blaster which looks too similar to Trigun's Angel Arm to overlook), to help him dispatch any criminals his agency needs him to terminate. There are your usual bunch of characters as well: a burly African American man with a deep voice who gives the orders, a blond woman in a bra who encourages Mondo and helps/sexually teases him throughout his ventures (who looks like Eva from Metal Gear Solid 3), and ditsy secretary with a high-pitched voice. While Killer is Dead tries to promote irregularity and uniqueness, its brings nothing I haven't seen before from the cliché side of Suda's anime influences (except for the robotic implants and 16 arms).
Killer is Dead builds upon Grasshopper's previous works with cel-shared graphics, evolving the artstyle used with No More Heroes. These cel-shaded visuals are remiscent of Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 where shadows are a heavy focus. The result is both beautiful, and ugly at the same time. The blood and slowdown effects used in the midst of Mondo's killings exhibit a distinct advancement of cel-shading technology.
Unfortunately, there are numerous graphical letdowns as well. Many of the levels are bland and empty, with extremely few items Mondo can actually interact with during his assassinations. Screen-tearing is, at times, frequent, which vastly takes away from Killer's distinct visuals. With both No More Heroes titles, bland levels were expected due to the Wii's capabilities and how much they attempted to redline the system. For the Xbox 360, I was not expecting graphical lag mid-fight and sporadic screen-tearing while exploring. While its use of shadows was impressive, the color black was used so frequently throughout Killer that a subtle, but noticeable, blue hue was used to differentiate between shades. For every moment Killer looked beautiful, there were repetitive and bland hallways where I would fight the same exact enemy models over and over again. Based on capabilities of the current generation's technology, I consider most of Killer is Dead substandard.
For a hack and slash, Killer is Dead hardly brings any new concepts to the table. Weak attacks are continuously spammed, strong attacks are meant to break defenses and last-second dodges are rewarded with special attacks. Gone are Travis Touchdown's trademark wrestling moves and head-popping/coin-spilling decapitations, instead are repeated light attack combos. Holding the analog stick in a direction while attacking throws in some variance, but its hardly noticeable. Watching two minutes of gameplay on Youtube pretty much summarizes 95% of my experiences with Killer is Dead; it gets old quite fast. Furthermore, Heroes' open-world sandbox is gone, forcing you to undertake missions from a world/mission map.
For a guy with a gun-arm, the shooting mechanics of Killer are horrible. Switching from hacking and slashing to over-the-shoulder shooting in midst of combat is a deal-breaker and breaks the pacing of the action. There should have been an option to shoot enemies seamless in-between combos a la Devil May Cry. I found myself using the cybernetic arm only when I absolutely had to.
I must take particular note of Killer's vulgar dating service. New weapons and cybernetic implants are unlocked via Mondo's only other activity besides hacking and slashing -- trying to pick up women. While this isn't surprising coming from the makers of Chainsaw Lollipop, the method in which this happens is one of the most disparaging and overtly-sexist things I have ever experienced with a controller in my hand.
"Gigolo" missions involve Mondo meeting women in random places and he must win them over in order for him to take them home. Mondo must build up guts by avoiding eye contact and starring at the woman's breasts and legs when she is not looking. After putting on your Gigolo glasses, you are able to look through the woman's clothes and get rewarded by looking at her bra and panties (again while she isn't looking!). During this time you find out what the woman likes and must present them with a gift in order to win her over and take her home. Sex in video games is perfectly fine to me, but this mini-game (which you must repeatedly do in order to unlock more weapons), was highly disturbing and will undoubtedly spark controversy.
Right now it seems that Suda 51 has been working in accordance to a bell curve, where Killer7 was decent, No More Heroes was good, No More Heroes 2 was great, Shadows of the Damned was good, Lollipop Chainsaw was alright, and Killer is Dead is at the bottom-end. Without their style and over-the-top zaniness, nearly all of these titles would have been considered below average; and Killer is Dead exhibits this concept the most.
Killer gets points for its flair and use of cel-shaded graphics, but in terms of gameplay, it is simply the worst title Suda 51 has helmed in the past decade. For every one good thing I can say about Killer is Dead, I can name two or three broken aspects to it, with many of these broken aspects being essential parts at building a decent game (e.g. great cel-shaded graphics -- numerous instances of screen tearing and repetitive, bland and empty levels). Also, there isn't much else to do in Killer is Dead except hack, slash, and try to bag women. At least with No More Heroes, there was a sandbox-city to explore and mediocre jobs to do when you weren't trying to kill someone. In Killer is Dead, the only thing to do when the killing is at a standstill is eye-rape a woman when she isn't looking, so you can have sex with her afterwards.
I really wanted to like this game, but I just could not. Honestly, Killer was one of my most anticipated titles of the summer. The only reason why Killer is Dead did not score any lower was due to Suda's trademark style and roaming imagination. Unfortunately these things blend into beautiful incoherence atop a horribly basic combat system. Tossed into this unique mix is one of the most disturbing mini-games ever created. Suda 51 might be obsessed with assassins offing each other and presenting anime-inspired kookiness, but Killer is Dead seems rather uninspired at its core, and hardly measures up to any of his recent work.
This review is based on a retail copy of Killer is Dead for the Xbox 360. Killer is Dead is also available on the PlayStation 3.