Step into the shoes of a technicolour killer.
Whenever Goichi Suda is working on a new title, the whole process is very much an event. You know whatever he churns out is going to be pants-on-head insane, yet wildly imaginative and a ton of fun to play. While this wasn’t necessarily the case with Lollipop Chainsaw, his previous works such as No More Heroes and Killer7 have been praised for their uncouth nature, being designed by a group of people unafraid to think outside the box. Whilst Suda’s latest by the name of Killer Is Dead is a little more faithful towards modern game design practices, his penchant for all things mental remains intact.
Killer Is Dead puts you in the role of assassin and part-time gigolo Mondo Zappa. Ironically, that’s about the only part of the plot that makes sense.
Billed as the spiritual successor to 2005’s Killer7, Killer Is Dead puts you in the role of assassin and part-time gigolo Mondo Zappa. Ironically, that’s about the only part of the plot that makes sense. The story continues Suda’s tradition of not giving a crap in regards to structure. You’ll never know where exactly the plot will take you next, as most of the game’s stages have little relation to one another outside of the common selection of enemies and objectives. This is far from a bad thing, however; this unpredictability serves the game well, and instills a sense of wonder at what crazy scenarios could possibly be next. On the downside, the story seems far too eager to wrap itself up, and concludes rather abruptly in the last couple of chapters. Aside from this, the story’s nonsensical and over-the-top nature make Killer Is Dead a hell of a ride from start to finish.
One complaint I do have is with the game’s supporting characters, who are either obnoxious, uninteresting, or a mixture of both. Mondo’s sidekick Mika, in particular, plays up the high-pitched, senpai-grovelling stereotype like it’s going out of fashion. Each and every line of dialogue she spoke made me want to mute the game, out of fear she’d pipe up again with even more ear destroying nonsense.
Stereo or Mondo?
As Mondo Zappa, each stage has you slashing your way through enemies, known as the Wires, with most culminating in a lengthy boss fight. Mondo’s two main means of attack are his katana and his robotic arm, known as the Musselback. With his katana, Mondo can slash away at his enemies by mashing the Square button, and break their guards with Triangle. The Musselback is rather interesting in that it can change into four different forms on the fly, all of varying effectiveness. One form fires rose-shaped bullets in a machine gun fashion, whilst another turns Mondo’s arm into a giant drill. Being able to switch between forms at any time is rather satisfying, and using the Musselback’s multiple forms to take advantage of certain enemies can be impressively efficient.
Perhaps the most satisfying element of combat is the combo system. Racking up a combo of at least 30 hits allows Mondo to finish his opponents with one of four special moves. Depending on which you pick will reward you with either boosts to your max health or blood levels, Moon Crystals that can be spent on upgrades, or a substantial health pickup. Being able to successfully chain these finishing moves, whilst racking up your combo and not taking a hit really is a sight to behold. While it is hard to consistently reach this level of skill on a regular basis, the reward is a sight of pure ecstasy.
Arguably the best part of Killer Is Dead’s missions are the boss fights. Here, Suda and his team have created some truly twisted abominations that are a ton of fun to fight.
As was the case in Killer7, Mondo relies on blood to power his weapons and grow stronger. Using the Musselback’s functions consumes blood that can be obtained by defeating enemies and collecting pickups, or by finding the elusive Scarlett, a sultry nurse who will tank your blood gauge. Blood can also be used to stylishly finish off an opponent low on health, or can be absorbed by Mondo to recover some health. Blood has a lot of uses in Killer Is Dead, and its large involvement with the gameplay provides some much-needed depth to what could have admittedly been a bland combat system without it. In addition to blood, Mondo can also collect Moon Crystals which can be spent on various upgrades which include new moves for his sword, improved Musselback functionality, and other additional benefits. Unfortunately, the upgrade system is slightly lacking in scope, only containing three categories of no more than five upgrade types each. Also, whilst they definitely do make Mondo into a more powerful killing machine, they certainly don’t feel that way; feedback from your moves and upgrades stay the same throughout the game, no matter how many points you pump into them.
Arguably the best part of Killer Is Dead’s missions are the boss fights. Here, Suda and his team have created some truly twisted abominations that are a ton of fun to fight. As with Lollipop Chainsaw before it, each boss feels unique and all have multiple forms, forcing you to change up your strategy on a consistent basis. This also brings to light another of Killer Is Dead’s strongpoints: it’s not an easy game by any stretch of the imagination. Well, obviously it is on Easy mode, but any higher than that will truly put your Mondo skills to the test. When you do eventually die (it probably won’t take long, trust me) you are given the option to have the annoying Mika revive you at the cost of (sigh) a Mika ticket. Failing that, checkpoints are at least plentiful, avoiding unnecessary frustration. In regards to the boss fights, they have a trial and error nature akin to that of games like Dark Souls and God Hand. Learning their moves is essential to victory, and the feeling of satisfaction when you’ve finally overcome each challenge is incredible.
Given the compelling, often satisfying nature of the combat, it’s sad that Suda is still employing his infamous gameplay padding here, too. In No More Heroes, we dealt with laborious side missions to save up for assassination contracts. In Lollipop Chainsaw, we contested against boring, gimmicky minigames thrown in, seemingly at random, between the real meat of the experience. Now, in Killer Is Dead, you have to woo incredibly beautiful women, luring them in with gifts in an attempt to get them to sleep with you. Doesn’t sound that bad? Well, no. Admittedly it doesn’t, and it isn’t…the first couple of times. It turns out that Mondo likes to break up his murdering antics with a spot of male prostitution. These “Mondo Girls” minigames are incredibly reminiscent of the hostess sidequests in the Yakuza series, except nowhere near as deep or as charming. How it works is Mondo has to get the blood rushing to his head by using his special Mondo Vision to look at the lady’s sexy parts. Once enough blood has filled the meter in the bottom left, Mondo can present the woman a gift in an effort to win her affection.
Admittedly, it’s downright hilarious seeing Mondo thrust a comically large, gift-wrapped present in the girls’ face. Doing this a few times will win her heart and you’ll both hit the bed for some good old-fashioned bump n’ grind. However, if the girl catches you looking at her breasts too much, she’ll call off the date. While this minigame is funny, and slightly enjoyable in its strangeness the first few times, the whole thing grows old fast, and just feels out of place in the world of the game. Having each girl call you up while on a mission, desperately reminding you to visit them doesn’t really help their characters, either. Also, you have to buy the gifts from the Gift Shop menu, and the items in there acutely soar in price the more you buy them, so have fun with that.
Perhaps Killer Is Dead’s biggest offense, though, is its length. Clocking in at around five to six hours, the campaign is a woefully short affair, with most levels being embarrassingly linear. Some stages open up for some exploration, but these sections are few and far between, not to mention incredibly brief. As mentioned, the story seems far too eager to wrap itself up in a disappointing final act that’s literally one of the earlier stages repeated with new enemy spawns. That’s the very definition of lazy. There are a lot of side challenge missions to test your skill in, but most of them are simple kill rooms that grade you on how fast you completed them; there’s little variation here and it won’t take you too long to work through them. Online leaderboards are in place that can help encourage repeated playthroughs, but it’s hard to return once you’ve seen everything that Killer Is Dead has to offer, which honestly isn’t much.
For all its shortcomings, Killer Is Dead certainly redeems itself in the presentation department. Employing a cel-shaded art style similar to Killer7 and No More Heroes, Killer Is Dead looks absolutely stunning. Levels are bright, colourful, and above all well designed. The soundtrack also shines with an eclectic mix of genres including rock, metal, techno, drum and bass, and dubstep. It’s also worth mentioning that load times are lightning fast, meaning that any breaks between the action are brief.
Killer Is Dead has a ton of problems, but it’s far from a bad game. It successfully captures what makes Grasshopper Manufacture developed games so unique, and Goichi Suda himself has another creation he should be proud of. Still, the off-kilter nature of the game, high level of difficulty and the fact that it’s just not all that long mean that the game is for a very specific audience. Thankfully, it’s that same audience that has remained loyal to Suda since he first burst onto the scene. Killer Is Dead is certainly flawed, but it gets certain elements so right it’s hard to hate it. While I can’t immediately recommend it at full retail price, those of you who crave Suda’s mental creations needn’t pass up his latest offering.
A review copy was provided courtesy of Deep Silver. The game was reviewed on PlayStation 3.
Killer Is Dead adds to Suda51’s tradition of making games like no else. While it certainly has its flaws, as well as pointless minigames and pathetic side characters, the overall journey is a satisfying one despite its annoyingly short length.