Killer Is Dead Review – Steam Engines are a Man’s Romance

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In Killer Is Dead you can kill Thomas the Tank Engine by cutting out his eyes. No matter what else I have to say about the game going forward, I want to start with that. If I ruled the world, Most Grotesque Mutilation or Murder of a Beloved Children’s Television Icon would have its own award at the Game Developer’s Conference. I’d love this to replace tacked on multiplayer. I want to live in a world where I read words like, “I kicked Caillou in his freakishly bald 4 year old head, launching him off of the 3rd story balcony into a kiddie pool filled with razor blades, broken glass, and used needles. It was pure Hollywood”. Why can’t I live in a world like this?

Killer Is Dead is the latest game from Grasshopper Manufacture and its rock star front man Goichi “Suda 51” Suda. Suda 51 has a reputation for combining fundamental gameplay with impenetrable narratives. In Killer is Dead, we have a third person action game featuring various elements from much of his previous work. There’s the swordplay from No More Heroes, the gunplay of Shadows of the Dammed, and the aesthetic of Killer 7. There are even shades of Michigan: Report from Hell in the game’s Gigolo Mode.

Yeah, when the game’s protagonist isn’t committing mass murder, he works as a male prostitute who is paid in upgrades for his robot arm gun, and his magic rocks. If you played Suda 51’s games in the past there is a serious danger that that last bit doesn’t seem as odd as it probably should. There’s a possibility with each new game that the careful balance will be disrupted and style will conclusively over take substance. Fortunately, while many elements of previous games are revisited in Killer Is Dead, there is a level of refinement here that we haven’t seen before.

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Most of the game is about killing things in amusing and really cathartic fashions.  You have two weapons at your disposal. There’s your katana, which is your primary means of attack, and your gun arm, which is used to attack at a distance, but can also be fitted with different upgrades to augment its function.  You attack with your sword by mashing a single button. You can also block and dive out of the way of enemy attacks. It doesn’t sound very complex and it isn’t, but as you attack enemies you build up a combo counter with each successive hit.

As it gets higher, your movement and attack speed are increased dramatically. If you block an attack just before it hits, you will counter attack, the single strike will count as 5. Similarly, if you dodge an enemy attack in the last instant you can parry the enemy attack and mash to glory as you rapidly build your combo. If an enemy attempts to block you to interrupt your combo, you can hull off and punch them in the face with your big robot gun arm thing.

If you manage to get the counter high enough, you can execute your enemies in one of 4 ways by tapping one of the four face buttons on your controller as you land the final blow. The button you press will determine which power up your defeated enemy will drop in copious amounts.  Collecting these power ups helps you to gain points to unlock new abilities, and permanent increases to your health as well as your blood gauge. Your blood gauge is used to fire your gun arm and is filled by cutting your enemies with your blade.  Coming from this, it is not enough to just hit them. You must draw blood. This is important because there is the occasional enemy type that will not bleed. Okay, so perhaps it’s a bit complex, but it won’t feel that way after a bit.

The combat system is all about getting a groove down. You learn to time you blocks and parries for maximum effect, and you hack and slash until everything around you has been cut into artistically pleasing scarlet ribbons. There are no complex inputs to remember, it’s all about timing and reacting to your enemies. There is no area of effect or large sweeping attacks. Everything you dish out is focused on whatever happens to be standing in front of you. What you need to keep in mind is that other enemies will crowd you and attack from all sides, so maintaining your momentum is about balancing your aggression to take on all comers.

A single hit is all it takes to end your combo and reset your speed to its default state. Since so much of combat is about quickly building and maintaining your combo, this relies on your ability to guard and parry incoming attacks just before they connect. You need to put yourself in the line of fire and put your combo on the line to succeed. The tension this creates just feels really intoxicating. You’re constantly pressing forward trying to push that counter higher and higher and the hunger for more is perfectly married to the games themes and the protagonist’s personality.

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You play as Mondo Zappa, an Executioner who works for The State. Whatever image that conjures for you drop it and imagine something for like Social Services except instead of providing financial aid for the poor, they kill people. The agency is apparently underfunded, in spite of operating internationally and being able to fund repeated trips to the surface of the moon, so Mondo moonlights as a gigolo. He also has a high school girl he found on the street for an assistant. He arrived at his current vocation after being delivered to their offices unconscious on the back of the unicorn.

He has amnesia, lives on a boat in the middle of the ocean, and he eats soft boiled eggs exclusively.  That’s just about everything I can tell you for certain about what is actually going on in the game. Regardless of whatever you might have heard, Mondo doesn’t hunt criminals. He fights the people and inanimate objects that have been somehow contaminated by the dark side of the moon and its self-declared leader David. The actual moon princess or whatever is living with Mondo, because you know, whatever.

Every time anyone speaks in the game, they tend to do so with absolute authority, as if whatever they are talking about is the most obvious thing in the world. The problem here is – it never is. People will repeatedly respond to Mondo by mocking him for really having no idea what is going on. People will also openly talk about the game itself and offer the fact that they are characters in a video game as their motivation for plot driving actions. The entire thing has a fever dream like quality.

Things will happen that make no sense without any kind of foreshadowing. For example, at one point a woman, after looking upon the head of a man she asked the agency to kill, turns into a bird and flies right out the fucking window. Immediately after this, everyone stands around and has a good laugh about it like it’s something that happens all the time.

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The game takes place across a series of episodes structured quite a bit like a television program. Most episodes are standalone stories that do not function to drive the plot. What they do provide is an excuse to take you to a variety of locations and introduce wildly different gameplay mechanics. You’ll be in an American suburb in one story and chasing a Yakuza boss riding a giant tiger, while fighting off ninjas in another.  By embracing episodic pacing they free themselves from linear storytelling and can create some great set pieces without making the already opaque narrative feel disjointed.

It sounds a bit like a cop-out, but given the huge number of games that feature a paper thin plot that serves only to connect cool set pieces, I’d really like to see more of this. Imagine a Resident Evil 7, God of War, or Devil May Cry where each chapter was replaced by a more or less self-contained story. There are also mission that unlocks as you clear episodes that allows you to revisit old areas with new layouts and challenges, some of which are completely different from anything else you’ll see anywhere else in the game. This is in addition to further arena style challenges that are unlocked by finding a well-endowed nurse with a giant pink needle hidden inside of episodes.

The only really weak part of the game was the Gigolo missions. There are only two girls. You take them on dates and shower them with gifts you can buy with the money you make during missions. You play these sections in first person and use the analog stick and shoulder button to look around. In order to work up the guts to give them things you need to stare at their bodies without them noticing. You get a bonus for making eye contact with them just before they notice you staring. If they catch you, you need to quickly look away in order to restore the mood.

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If you ruin the mood entirely, or run out of gifts before they decide to take you home with them, they get upset, and you fail the mission. The idea is there, but the execution is not. Once you’ve played through these missions once, you’ve pretty much seen all there is to see. Each girl says about three things, and they will say them often. I once had one of the girls say the word fascinating over and over again for three minutes.

I want to go on record as saying that unlike a lot of people, I didn’t find these sections offensive. Mondo is a psychopath who kills for money. If I’m okay with playing as a blood thirsty murderer, I’m okay with a perverse little mini game where I try to look at cleavage without anyone noticing. I just wish it was anywhere near as fun as the rest of the game. As it is, the whole thing makes up the difference between a perfect game and an almost perfect game.

Killer Is Dead is a weird and wonderfully creative game about hyper violence. Even if you’re not really a fan of Suda 51’s storytelling this is by far his most playable endeavor. Fans of artist like David Fith, or MTV’s 90’s animation like The Maxx and The Head also will not want to miss this. The game clocked in about 16 hours, and upon clearing it on normal difficulty, I unlocked the ability to play the stages in any order. This also unlocked a new very hard difficulty and a host of other unlockable costumes that change how the game is played. There’s certainly a lot of value here. The game stands out as one of best Suda has put out in a while.

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