Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture
Publisher: Deep Silver
Killer Is Dead hits our retinas like a neon Picasso wrapped around the business end of a sledgehammer. No-one can accuse Goichi "Suda51" Suda of being anything less than a recklessly imaginative artist, and here he's painted what is quite possibly the most gorgeous ultraviolent brawler on the market. Exquisite cel-shaded visuals gel perfectly with insane themes and bizarre distractions, not limited to chasing a tiger-riding crime boss on a motorcycle and seducing nubile débutantes in 'Gigolo Missions.' While jazz music plays in the background. On the moon.
Sometimes, however, mediocre games can sneak past undercooked mechanics and half-baked ideas behind sensational visuals. I could certainly name one or two. It's all too easy for games to trick us into believing that retinal stimulation is the same as genuine innovation, so we were delighted to discover that we were given nearly a whole month to see past the stunning good looks.
Killer Is Dead is not one of those games. Suda51's latest effort harks back to the likes of Killer7 and No More Heroes, delivering both sensational style and undeniable substance.
The storyline and premise is pure Suda, right down to superbly-named protagonist Mondo Zappa. Oh yes. This handsome assassin wields a katana and bizarre cyborg arm to terminate his designated targets, working for a shady firm of hitmen and dining solely on soft-boiled eggs. Ably assisted by a bubbly schoolgirl assistant, startlingly provocative planewalking nurse, eight-armed killer and cigar smoking boss, Zappa gradually unravels a mystery that unfolds over a selection of episodic missions in increasingly bizarre situations. A conventional hotel quickly leads to a villa on the dark side of the moon for example, or the inside of Zappa's head. For starters. Killer Is Dead's futuristic world is more than happy to make no sense whatsoever, and gleefully catapults you into one ridiculous situation after another.
To Suda's credit, what initially feels like obnoxiously random silliness eventually coalesces into something resembling a compelling storyline, strong yet open to player interpretation. Better yet, the episodic structure feels like starring in your own anime box set.
We're not here for the story, though. We're not even really here for the visuals, which are so achingly beautiful that mere words can't do them justice. Just look at the screenshots. Look at them. Look at them and weep tears of joy knowing that something so wonderful can and does exist. Killer Is Dead doesn't just look shiny, rather it's loaded with style and undeniably a work of art rather than a product.
Ultimately we're here for tight well-balanced gameplay, and this is where Killer Is Dead succeeds where so many other pretty yet vapid games fail to deliver.
Brawler fans will be familiar with the premise: arena battles against squads of bruisers and ranged combatants - known here as 'Wires.' These corrupted cybernetic foes need to be dispatched in short order using your katana, with attacks and a few simple stick-waggling combos mapped to the X button. Sometimes you'll need to break through a block using a slam from your robotic right arm, courtesy of the Y button. It's stonkingly responsive and precise (despite an undeniably quirky camera that sometimes can't keep the action in frame), but somewhat simplistic on a basic level. Without the ability to jump and access any aerial combos whatsoever, Killer Is Dead could have been an utter disaster, but manages to grant players immediate access to an obscene amount of depth.
Defensive manoeuvres, for example, can be tailored to suit literally any situation. Holding down the block button makes Mondo deflect incoming strikes or bullets, and trigger a pleasingly physical counter smash or throw if timed to the millisecond. However, tapping B while holding a direction causes him to dash past attacks or relocate behind enemies, setting you up for the perfect riposte. If an evade dash is perfectly-timed, you'll even get to activate a super whizzo murder tornado (technically a 'Burst,' but mine is better, I think you'll agree). For unique skills to cover any potential eventuality, one button to worry about. Once you've learned some more of the trickier combos, such as dashing backwards while stabbing a foe's weakpoint, you'll come to appreciate just how versatile Killer Is Dead can be without compromising accessibility.
The 'Blood' system adds another layer of delicious strategic depth. This limited resource powers all of your secondary weapon attacks (ranging from a standard rapid-fire gun to a freeze ray, charge cannon and enormous drill), along with the ability to gradually heal yourself and enter a slow-motion mode granting instant-death attacks against regular or weakened enemies. You'll need to rely on all of these unique skills to survive, yet carefully ration their use to avoid running out of all-important blood, which can only be replenished by murdering Wires. The tricky balancing act can lead to some tense situations, but once again, Killer Is Dead manages to be deep, versatile, responsive and simultaneously easy to understand.
There's a case to be made that Killer Is Dead's gameplay sometimes doesn't reach the imaginative heights of its visuals. As an example, an early stage set in a geometry-defying candy house that would give M.C. Escher nightmares ends up being window dressing, prettying up a selection of small arena fights against some recycled bugs. A dream sequence ends up becoming a sluggish linear crawl, despite the arresting scenery that you can never explore. Side missions also vary in quality, with some standout timed battles accompanied by boring turret sections or dreary corridor crawls.
Luckily later levels provide much more varied and exciting technical challenges against an aggressive army of foes, with boss battles being a particularly entertaining highlight. Suda's mischievous spirit comes to the fore in these standout sections, whether you're fending off a Yakuza boss possessed by a spiritual tiger or fighting against a legion of phantasms from an enemy's viewpoint; watching them cast spells and lunge for you in first person. Once Killer Is Dead hits its stride, it locks you in for the duration, pulling you inexorably forward with both the strength of its gameplay and the twists and turns of the episodic storyline.
I'm delighted to report that Killer Is Dead presents decent raw value as well as quality and visual flair. Alongside the aforementioned side missions, you'll unlock a selection of challenges by finding a hidden sexy nurse throughout the levels (oh Suda), and gradually upgrade Mondo with new abilities and techniques. Packing plenty of story missions and all manner of extra diversions, Killer Is Dead certainly doesn't scrimp on substance.
Before we wrap things up, however, we have to tackle a thorny issue: those worrying 'Gigolo Missions.' New weapons are unlocked by seducing some attractive women from a first person perspective, controlling Mondo's head to steal glances at their breasts and crotch, and looking away if they cotton on. Once suitably aroused, you'll then give them gifts, which eventually leads to them blithely taking you to bed and awarding you with a token of their affection. And then you'll unlock X-Ray vision. Ugh. It's stupid, pointless titillation at its least inspired, with little in the way of interesting dialogue or character progression, and the fact that they're the only way of unlocking secondary weapons stops them from being an entirely optional distraction.
There's a potential can of worms here regarding Killer Is Dead's portrayal of female characters, which I'm going to sidestep in cowardly fashion by simply marking down the gigolo missions for being rubbish. Simplistic gameplay bogs down the experience in unnecessary, slow and simpering busywork that brings the slick action crashing to a halt. Plus, the sheer repugnance of being forced to interact with gameplay mechanics designed around looking at crotches until women decide to sleep with you is... actually, you know what? I am going to call out Killer Is Dead for being degrading after all. Not just to its cast, but mainly to its players.
When all is said and done, though, they're just an embarrassing footnote in an otherwise exceptional experience, and a game that puts Suda51 back on form as master of substance and style.
- Responsive combat nails sweet spot between deep, versatile and accessible
- Recklessly, gleefully unpredictable
- Effortlessly stylish and exquisitely beautiful
- Genuinely hateful 'Gigolo Missions' stymie progression, degrade players
- Some derivative gameplay sections; optional missions vary wildly in quality
- Camera sometimes doesn't frame the action properly
The Short Version: Slick, sharp and effortlessly stylish, Killer Is Dead is superb at what it does. Though soiled by noisome 'Gigolo' sections, this devastatingly attractive brawler is a must for genre and anime fans.