I generally consider myself a fan of the works of the eccentric developer Goichi Suda, AKA Suda 51, and his game company Grasshopper Manufacture. Known for games that are utterly surreal and bizarre, their body of work is comprised of such games as Killer7, both No More Heroes titles, and Lollipop Chainsaw, all of which I enjoyed. I do think the company has made some missteps, such as last year’s clunky platformer Black Knight Sword, but I tend to look forward to their latest products.
Because of this, I don’t take any pleasure in saying that Killer is Dead, their latest work, simply isn’t very good. The general gameplay, while showing competence, lacks the charm and fun of their previous work, and the window dressing, coming in the form of off-the-wall story, dialog, and graphical presentation, suffers from the same problem. Much like Grasshopper’s 2011 title, Shadows of the Damned, I feel that the game suffers from overly monotonous gameplay and an overall bland and unappealing style, and fails both when compared to many of their previous titles and when analyzed on its own.
In terms of both plot structure and graphical presentation, the game feels somewhere in between Killer7 and No More Heroes. Players take on the role of Mondo Zappa, an expert assassin working for a mysterious agency overseen by a cyborg named Brian and a multiarmed woman named Vivienne. The story is generally episodic in nature, comprised of a series of linear levels where players track down and execute specified targets. There is an overarching plot that mainly concerns Mondo’s past, but the majority of the game is an ongoing line of standalone stories.
A big problem here is a lack of interesting characters. The voice acting is fine, but there doesn’t feel like there’s much for them to do. Conversations tend to meander, and Mondo himself is never a particularly interesting or memorable protagonist, instead being cold to a fault. I also found myself incredibly annoyed by his hyperactive sidekick Mika, who seems to exist both as a gameplay mechanic (you can purchase tickets that enable her to resuscitate Mondo when he’s killed instead of starting over from a checkpoint) and as an overly hyperactive failed attempt at a cutesy comic relief character.
Grasshopper’s trademark weirdness and surreal presentation are definitely here in full force, with trippy dream sequences, conversations that break the fourth wall (early on, Mondo denies the opportunity to join a villain because he feels that would defy what players of the game expect), and story developments that are just plain bizarre. And yet, without a plot as compelling as Killer7 or as comical as No More Heroes, Killer is Dead straddles a middle ground that never really clicks.
Another problem with the presentation is the fact that the game as a whole just looks kind of ugly, mainly due to its off-putting shading technique. Again, this feels like a compromise between Killer7, which had intentionally flat textures, and No More Heroes, which offered more detail but added a cel-shading filter on top of everything. This is hard to describe without showing certain parts in motion, but the fact that certain parts look detailed and others look flat is off-putting when the two are combined, and there are certain parts where it feels like the colors bleed together, and it’s difficult to get a good look at both the characters and the environments.
The actual gameplay, comprised almost entirely of combat, is also similar to No More Heroes, with third-person fighting that is primarily hack-and-slash based with Mondo’s sword. The wrench thrown into what is otherwise a pretty standard fighting system is Mondo’s cybernetic arm, which can be filled with blood energy dropped by defeated enemies and used to fire various projectiles. Holding down one of the left triggers switches things to a third-person shooting mode akin to a much simpler Gears of War sans the cover system, and instead of just controlling the camera, players can aim and fire Mondo’s weapons with precision during it.
Everything here is functional, but it doesn’t feel very polished or particularly engaging. It doesn’t help that when it comes to enemy drones, the game recycles the same types fairly often. I will say, however, that the boss battles offer more unique combat, and are probably my personal highlight of the game. It’s also a nice touch that the game enables players to switch between its three difficulty levels at any point in between levels, which means that those who struggle with a particular point can be given a slight advantage if they so desire.
Besides the base combat, enemies drop items that can be used to increase both Mondo’s health and the amount of blood he can hold, along with experience that can grant him new abilities. Cash payments are also awarded at the end of each level, which can then be used to purchase such items as Mika’s aforementioned tickets, as well as such romantic things as flowers and jewelry, which are used in what may be the game’s strangest component: The Gigolo missions.
These optional side activities consist of Mondo interacting with a random pretty girl, with the player seeing a first-person perspective from his view and controlling where he looks. The basic idea is to properly time points to press a trigger button and zoom in on a part of the girl’s body, be it their face, their legs, or yes, their chest. Doing this gradually fills up a meter, which when filled, enables Mondo to give one of his purchased items to the girl as a gift and fill up another meter, with the process restarting afterward. Once the second meter is filled up, the girl rewards Mondo with a various powerup.
These scenes never actually get explicit (the girls stay fully clothed, and you never see what happens afterwards), but they’re still not exactly the type of thing you’ll feel entirely comfortable having other people see you play. Previous Grasshopper titles certainly had their share of physical fan service, but they were less in-your-face compared to this. It doesn’t help that the actual gameplay for these sections is pretty boring overall, and I was left pining for the random side jobs you could play in both No More Heroes games.
I really wish I had enjoyed Killer is Dead more than I ultimately did, which isn’t a whole lot. It’s not broken or glitchy, and the developer’s trademark weirdness is compelling at points, but the overall experience simply isn’t very enjoyable. I still am interested in seeing what Suda and company put out next, but I’m personally going to consider this one a bit of a misstep, and wish them better luck in the future.
This review is based on the PlayStation 3 version, which was provided to us for review purposes.