Killer is Dead on Arrival
Games graced by the hand of Goichi "Suda51" Suda respond to a highly specialized calling. Killer7's evocative style, Shadow's of The Damned's midnight carnival atmosphere and Lollipop Chainsaw's macabre wit have come to define Suda51 and his team at Grasshopper Manufacture as gaming's closest analog to grindhouse cinema. These haven't been especially great games, mind you, but serviceable gameplay is usually a sympathetic companion to indelible style; they're memorable, if nothing else.
Killer is Dead, the latest title from Grasshopper Manufacture and Kadokawa Games, seems to recognize this beloved sentiment in the same way Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead and The Boondock Saints tried to understand Pulp Fiction. On paper, everything's there that made Pulp Fiction cool, but in practice it little of it was arranged correctly. Improperly emulating your heroes results in something that borders between facsimile and parody - and when neither of those are the intended outcome then you've got a pretty big problem on your hands. Killer is Dead, by comparison, is a pretty big problem. It feels like a parody of Suda's earlier work - only here it feels like Suda's ripping himself off rather than some third party entity.
Take Killer is Dead's art direction as an example. In the screens below and virtually any trailer you can find, the game looks positively magical. Dramatic shading, serene environments, and positively badass looking characters suggest another masterpiece from Grasshopper’s art team, perhaps picking up the baton left by Killer7 almost a decade earlier. In practice, however, the screen tears itself to pieces, the camera is no one's friend, and the action is so chaotic it's difficult to make any sense out of what's going on. There are indeed some beautiful scenes, but they're rendered inept through the remainder of Killer is Dead's sapped presentation.
The best thing that I can say about the narrative is that it almost reaches coherence. You're Mondo Zappa, an executioner employed by the Bryan Execution Firm. As best I can tell that means you get to use your cyborg arm and katana prowess to annihilate hoards of Wires (enemy fodder) at various locations on the way to executing that particular location's boss. In Killer is Dead you go to the dark side of the moon to infiltrate a mansion and take out one of your marks. You also get to go to some bizarre Alice in Wonderland dollhouse and bust up incredible insects. The game reaches a legitimate highpoint when you have to battle a sentient train engine with a considerable case of depression and cut out its eyes because nothing in this game makes any sense. I can actually appreciate some of this insane wackiness, I loved Asura's Wrath to pieces, but nothing in Killer is Dead builds toward a logical endpoint. It's just there without concern for identifiable structure or integrity.
Mondo strives to the emulate the suave demeanor of James Bond coupled with the exceptional swordplay of Beatrix Kiddo, and while the latter kind of works it becomes increasingly clear no one on the writing team understands James Bond. This is most visible in Killer is Dead's infamous Gigolo Mode, a collection of optional sequences where Mondo tries to pick up a girl at a bar. This is done by directing Mondo’s gaze at woman's breasts and crotch before she catches said gaze and starts to get nervous. If done enough times Mondo gets to give her a gift, and if she likes enough of his gifts she will sleep with Mondo. If that happens Mondo scores a sub-weapon, such as a drill hand or a freeze gun. This is generally disgusting.
Gigolo missions are the kind of stuff that gets videogames on cable news networks with talking heads giving the industry grief. Worst of all, Gigolo mode isn't a great addition to Killer is Dead. It's meant to serve as a pallet cleanser between action heavy missions and challenges, but it's mechanically boring and the context doesn't do it any favors. As is the theme for Killer is Dead, it's like someone had a great idea for a concept but couldn't find a way to translate it to an engaging mechanic.
Killer is Dead's lack of execution also carries over to its heart and soul; combat. On one hand it seems to have all the ingredients for a competent character-action game. Quick sword slashes and an off-kilter punch suffice as traditional light and heavy attacks while a firearm makes for a bit of range. Killer is Dead's signature combat mechanic is lifted wholesale from Bayonetta, meaning if Mondo dodges at the just the right moment, time will stop and he'll be able to get a few quick slashes in. All of this is the in the name of building your combo counter, which results in optional executions that can add to Mondo's currency, Blood (mana), or health. Killer is Dead also has the usual assortment of unlockable upgrades, though I didn't find many of them to be particularly effective.
Very little of Killer is Dead's combat is interesting beyond a surface level. Transforming the screen to monochromatic red and black after a successful dodge looks cool, but its absent of mechanical satisfaction; you just mash the attack button for fifteen or so hits before it reverts back to normal. Worse, I seemed to have the same success rate from dodging around randomly as I did actually trying to dodge my enemies. With bosses or more armored foes, it became a game of attacking until they started to block, then holding block myself, and letting them do their attack before I ultimately returned fire. Even my gun was more of a random thing I'd try occasionally rather than a symbiotic combo instrument. It leads to a suspicion that Killer is Dead was more a product of assembly than genuine inspiration, as if someone had all the parts ready without wondering if the car would last the full trip. Like the visual package, it looks nice but there isn’t much there.
I've played and loved several problematic games that crawled their way to a certified cult classic. In addition to Suda51's library of work, Kenka Bancho: Badass Rumble, Anarchy Reigns, Tokyo Jungle, and El Shaddai represent modern Japanese gaming's lovable quirks and affable misgivings. All of those games exhibit a visible signature of authenticity, a stamp that implies both quality and, at the very least, consistency. They have problems, but they're owned and covered by more endearing facets of their design. Killer is Dead, on the other hand, is a vague assemblage of either ideas borrowed from others or, worse, going back to the well of past work. It functions, the art is occasionally nice, and it has shades of greater ideas, but beyond that I can't find a reason to spend full price on exploring its deterioration.
There was a time when Suda’s active rejection of traditional structure or narrative provided his work with a certain sense of punk credibility, a badge of authenticity earned almost exclusively through his games. Now, with actively independent titles like Gone Home and Papers, Please soundly rejecting ideas of traditional game design, Suda’s style is has shifted from admirably counter-culture to juvenilely irresponsible. It’s old, man.