I love Suda 51 games. Well I did until “Lollipop Chainsaw”, anyway (My review for which is here: http://www.whatson.uk.com/blog/2012/07/lollipop-chainsaw-review/ and I also placed it in my worst games of 2012 list in the number 2 slot)- “Killer 7”, both “No More Heroes” games and “Shadows of the Damned” are all worth a look for different reasons, particularly “Killer 7”, which needs to be played if only to see it for yourself. When “…chainsaw” hit, I thought it was a pretty clear sign that Suda (thought of as an “Auteur” game director known for his utterly bizarre works) had fallen into a niche and was happy to put out games with dull, boring content as long as they were quirky. I initially avoided “Killer is Dead”, but eventually decided to give Suda another chance- after all, his other games were good. The reviews for the game I’ve seen at time of writing describe it as being a confusing, misogynistic mess with unrefined combat, and I do agree with them in some ways. This could well have been a return to form for Suda, but as it stands it’s merely a step in the right direction. He’s getting back on track, but he has a few hurdles to clear.
Apparently the concluding part in a loose “Assassins” trilogy along with “Killer 7” and “No More Heroes”, “Killer is Dead” is something of a cross between the two. You are Mondo Zappa- an “Executioner” (basically a state-sponsored hitman) who takes jobs in a similar way to a Private Eye- people turn up at his office, present a target to him and his bosses, and he then goes to kill them. There’s an interwoven narrative about some tragic incident in Mondo’s backstory, but it’s pretty poorly handled- nothing’s really explained very well, and it turns out to be really important and culminates in an anti-climactic boss fight that rips off “Asura’s Wrath”. Seriously- two people have a fight on the moon to a remixed version of Dvorak’s “New World Symphony, 4th Movement”. It’s not nearly as cool as it was in “Asura’s Wrath” though. For Suda, this is a pretty restrained plot. There are no references to 8-bit video games, no dick jokes, no shady political intrigue. That last one is a shame because I like the idea of a sharp-suited, state-sanctioned assassin- the detached nature of his personality juxtaposing all the murder. He even wears glasses that at anything other than close proximity hide his eyes. They could have done more with it, is what I’m saying. Mondo’s pretty cool in a less aggressive “Dan Smith” kind of way- polite, detached and taking all of his contracts seriously, but he doesn’t have a great deal of depth. His assistant Mika is all over the place, cheerily shouting and bouncing around like a child with A.D.D (which I genuinely wouldn’t rule out- not after Juliet Starling’s younger sister), which quickly gets very annoying. I have no idea if she’s being played for laughs, but I wouldn’t put it past them. His partner/boss Vivienne barely shows up and is bland when she does, and the head of the firm “Bryan” has his moments (including a particularly strange conversation with Mondo about how “Railways are a MAN’s passion.”) but doesn’t add much to the overall plot. The game often assumes you’ve filled in the gaps already and that you know what’s going on, which most likely isn’t the case given that things aren’t very well explained. Whereas “Killer 7” was confusing in that there were so many different things going on and so many styles, ideas and references all mixed in together, “Killer is Dead” is confusing at times because the narrative is sparse and abstract. It’s not a bad plot overall, but I wanted more depth, particularly in Mondo’s backstory; the grand reveal for which was weak and out of left field. The game also has a few instances of fourth wall breaking, which comes across as forced and pointless- it’s not being used for anything really, it’s just Mondo saying “I can’t join up with you- this is an action game and not fighting you would disappoint the player”. That kind of thing.
The gameplay is also a mixed bag, but definitely enjoyable. Mondo’s main weapon is a katana- one button controls this with surprisingly few moves (think “No More Heroes”), another button makes Mondo punch with his robot arm (he has a robot arm) which is a block breaker, and said arm can also be used as a gun. The move set is very sparse, but killing enemies with a mixture of Katana, robo-punch and arm cannon is rather satisfying. Like “No More Heroes”, it revolves around you making your way through an area killing goons before finally arriving at the boss. Said bosses aren’t particularly interesting or dynamic, and beating them takes little skill- dodge their attacks and wail on them with the katana. There are a couple of interesting bosses (one being a tall swordsman with a tattoo of a tiger on his back that comes to life and attacks you), but they lack the variety of “No More Heroes” colourful roster. The game’s also too easy on normal difficulty- there’s a skill you can buy that enables you to use blood (used as both ammunition for the arm gun and to power one-hit kill attacks on most normal enemies) to regain health, and once you level it up fully you can regain all your health with a very small amount of blood, which is in plentiful supply. Strangely, the majority of pickups you find are actually ones that upgrade your maximum health and blood, rather than ones that refill it. You can also have up to ten revives in the form of Mika appearing when Mondo dies and hammering at his chest while you tap the square button. Sometimes this doesn’t work though, and I’m not sure why. It may well be the developers attempting to counteract the game being too easy. If that’s the case it’s very poor design indeed. There are certainly better hack and slash games on the market (“DmC Devil may Cry” for example) but I definitely had fun with this one.
Of course there’s one other major thing I have to talk about- the crippling elephant in the room that takes the game from “a return to form” down to “back on the right track but with hurdles to clear” and hits it in the head a few times with a wrench just to make sure. That is of course “Gigolo Mode”. This is a set of optional missions in which Mondo sits next to a series of attractive women and attempts to endear himself to them by staring at their chest and crotch when they’re not looking, and either looking away or staring at their faces when they are. You can also use X-Ray glasses to look at their underwear (again without them knowing) and you have to give them presents when a meter is full (which you fill by staring at them) in order to make them like you enough to sleep with you I guess (it’s never explicitly said). Succeeding gets you different functions for your gun arm. I am not making any of this shit up. There is genuinely a mini-game where you endear yourself to women by staring at their boobs. Everyone involved with the game deserves every last piece of flak they take for this- it’s creepy, weird and just generally wrong. It’s not the childish and idiotic approach to sex that “Ride to Hell: Retribution” has (trust me, I’ll be getting around to that one soon) or the horrible, misogynistic approach to women in general of “Duke Nukem Forever”, but it’s still really bad. I genuinely have no idea how this managed to be in the final product. You’d think someone, at least one person, would look at it and say “look, that’s a bit much.” Gigolo mode really brings the game down, and I hate the fact that it’s in there.
Overall, “Killer is Dead” is a sign that Suda’s back on the right track, albeit shakily. The story, combat and tone are all better than “Lollipop Chainsaw”, the graphics are excellent (a lot of dark, muted cel-shading) and it’s just a better game overall. Having said that, the story on its own merits isn’t great and the combat’s repetitive, but if you like Suda 51 and/or hack and slash in general, this might be worth your time. Having said that, I have nothing but scorn for Gigolo mode, which drags the game down, and no matter what merits the game has it should forever more have Gigolo mode hanging there like an asterisk- “Oh, “Killer is Dead”. Isn’t that the game where you stare at women’s chests without them looking?”.
By James Lambert
Oh, in regards to the title: before starting a mission Mondo will take off his glasses, run his hand through his hair and say “The Job: KILLER IS DEAD.” (hence the title of the review). I’ve narrowed this down to two meanings: “Killer is dead” as in: consider it done, and “My ultimate goal and endgame for this job is that the killer I’m after will be dead”. He also says it just before killing each boss character.