I hate it when consumers claim that an artist, film maker, or game developer must have been on drugs when they made their product. I feel that it dismisses the creator’s creativity, and I think that it’s sad that people consider it to go hand in hand with drugs or alcohol. Exposing my hypocrisy for a moment, when I first played a Suda 51 game, and later pursued some of his other games, I did liken the experience to my first trip—even the marketing department at Grasshopper Manufacturers labeled Shadows of the Damned as a “Suda 51 trip.” And while Grasshopper’s games aren’t known for being technically brilliant masterpieces, the aesthetics, bizarre characters and stories created a mind-blowing trip that’s uncommon for video games, which generally made up for sub-par gameplay. But as with all trips, they never quite live up to the first, and not even the beautiful graphics can hide how normal Killer Is Dead really is.
Killer Is Dead sets up a nice framework for a game that could be another interesting game from Grasshopper Manufacturers. The game is a return-to-form, so to speak, to the studios’ assassin-themed games. Mondo Zappa is the latest killer in Grasshopper’s payroll, armed with a katana, mechanical gun arm and professional disposition. To Mondo, killing is nothing more than his job, which is supported by government funding and individual clients. Afterwards, he picks up a multitude of women known as “Mondo Girls,” which adds to the James Bond vibe. So as Grasshopper’s marketing department puts it, Killer Is Dead boils down to killing bad guys and making love—“love and kill.”
All of the villains have their own stakeouts in this futuristic city, and most of the sites are truly something to behold. Killer Is Dead looks like the earlier concept trailer originally shown off in No More Heroes. The cell shading is a unique look that blends vibrant colors with a noticeable shade of darkness, matching the game’s serious tone with a pinch of silliness. Environments are so grand that it fits into a cartoon, which is fitting considering almost all of the villains are megalomaniacs bent on destroying the city or taking over the world. Some of sites include something straight out of Alice and Wonderland, a lavish palace on the moon, an impossibly tall tower, and a moving evil train that was once loved by all.
Even more cool effects are shown off during the game’s combat. Blood flows like water, and it looks more like canvas paint effects than actual gore. Sometimes, Mondo will get lucky with his counters, and what follows is a visual style that mixes cross shading found in pen art. And of course, some of the fights come with outlandish scenes that are uncommon in Grasshopper Manufacturer’s games. Composer Akira Yamaoka completes the weave with an eclectic soundtrack, which blends jazz, rock, and even baroque with more modern practices such as electronic and dubstep. Combined with the futuristic setting and deep shading, Killer Is Dead creates a cyberpunk world that seems like yet another fascinatingly bizarre world by Suda 51.
But the cool effects don’t hide the underdeveloped aspects of Killer Is Dead—the framework is there, but it’s all bones. The beautiful world is essentially a linear set of corridors, each coming with its own set of enemies. For the most part you go to a room, defeat the bad guys, and move on–kind of like a beat em’ up. Again, it’s uncommon for a Grasshopper Manufacturer game, but it detracts from the uniqueness of each level. There’s some room for exploration, which you can unlock certain doors or break boxes to find Scarlet, a sexy nurse who has a ginormous syringe, which gives Mondo the blood he needs to operate his mechanical arm, Musselback. Finding Scarlet also unlocks challenges; however, it’s not difficult to locate her.
Combat is simple, and is a blend of No More Heroes, Shadows of the Damned and Lollipop Chainsaw. All of the katana attacks are performed at the press of the square button. Occasionally you’ll have to break people’s guard by pressing the triangle button. They also borrow the combo system from Lollipop Chainsaw to help make the combat simple yet satisfying. The idea behind the combat is to rack up a high amount of uninterrupted combos. Once you land forty or so combos without being interrupted, the game pauses to give you four types of execution styles. They all accomplish the same thing: execution; so, it’s completely up to your discretion.
While there are some button combos, you can only view them in the office, or HUB, and not while in a mission—so unless you wanted to repeatedly return to the office, you’re stuck just mashing square for the most part. Occasionally you’ll have opportunities to use your gun, which seems to be influenced from Shadows of the Damned. As you kill enemies, you absorb their blood, which you can use to heal yourself, or as ammunition for their gun—which adds a bit of much needed strategy. Later on, players will be able to find other sub weapons such as a drill or a freeze ray.
It all sets up a framework for a system that’s simple and accessible; however, it never reaches the line that makes it addicting. The general strategy, for both bosses and grunts, is to dodge or block the attack, and counter. There’s other moves such as Just Guard, and countering when the enemy turns red; however, it exists mostly as a way to improve your score. The enemies, on normal difficulty, don’t really give you a reason to use them. This makes the more outlandish fights seem bland. Killer Is Dead to creating an experience about improving your score, but the repetition keeps it from reaching that line between simple and addicting.
To break up the repetition, Grasshopper included a few challenges; however, they mostly consist of the same thing as the missions, and it gives you a chance to earn extra coin. The main side quest, which is the “love” part of Killer Is Dead, is the sure-to-be infamous gigolo missions. This is obviously the most difficult part of the review to address, as on one hand it’s not above Grasshopper to include something like this; and to their fans, they might find the concept funny. On the other hand, some players may take offense and rightfully so. Basically, it consists of taking girls out who hire Mondo. The mode takes place in first person, in which Mondo makes eye contact. But as supposedly suave as Mondo is, even he has to work up the “guts” to give his date a present to win her heart. How do you earn guts, you might ask? By staring at her breasts as she looks away, of course! And if you complete the Scarlet challenges, she presents you the x-ray glasses, which tells you which type of present each girl prefers, and, of course, easier access to view her breasts.
Regardless of how players might feel about the gigolo missions, and I do expect there to be a few articles on the internet, I can safely say that from a gameplay standpoint, it’s not that fun. Girls incessantly repeat one or two phrases over and over again, and the whole system is incredibly simple. They’re wooden personalities, and there’s not much to love. I can also say that this is one game that you will not want to play in the living room with potential roommates and family members walking in.
So the game features many of the similar faults found in Grasshopper’s other games, but at least the story should be bizarrely fascinating, right? Well, that’s not necessarily the case this time. The story becomes confusing near the end, which is again not uncommon, but this time there’s nothing in the scenario that pulls me into the world. The story is set up episodically, and all of it is focused solely on the job, pushing the characters behind the curtain. Some characters, like Moon River, are introduced, not used until I’ve long forgotten about her, and then suddenly return, leaving me little reason to care.
Other characters like Mondo’s companions are given brief hints of interesting moments, but it never expands beyond that. There also aren’t any mind melting events—plenty of weird stuff, but it almost feels like Grasshopper is just marking a checklist. Even the bosses are hit and miss. Some are as cool as a evil steam engine that could, but then there’s just a samurai warrior with the spirit of a tiger. Even the typical smacktalk is weak in Killer Is Dead. Finally, the game can’t decide to be completely serious or ridiculous. Its humor is not as consistent as in No More Heroes or Lollipop Chainsaw. By the end I felt no will to replay it to try and get another glimpse at the hidden implications that Grasshopper might have left.
Killer Is Dead is not a bad game. Like most of Grasshopper’s games, it has a decent framework that usually gets pushed aside for outlandish story moments and cool aesthetics. But this time, the outlandish moments are few, and the excellent art direction can’t hide how average Killer Is Dead’s gameplay really is. If Grasshopper can expand some of these moments, then hopefully the next game will provide a stronger hit.
This review was based on a digital copy of Killer Is Dead for the PlayStation 3 provided by XSeed.