I have never played a Goichi Suda game. It's not that I have anything against the man, it's just that his games and I have never quite met up. I almost picked up No More Heroes and Fatal Frame IV for the Wii, but other titles were higher up on my list. Killer is Dead wasn't even on my radar until USgamer received a review copy. So, I'm coming into this whole "Suda 51 joint" thing with a set of fresh eyes.
This is not the best first experience.
Killer is Dead is clearly the product of a singular creative mind. Even though I'm not familiar with the tropes found in Suda's work, I get the feeling that his fans would be comfortable here. The art is heavily stylized. Let's call it pop noir: an emphasis on simple figures in deep shadow, offset by bright neon colors. It's not the best looking game in the world, but Grasshopper Manufacturer does a good job with its tools.
But the art is where the good stops. I don't hate Killer is Dead, but I feel it commits a far worse sin: I simply find it boring.
The characters, led by executioner and protagonist Mondo Zappa, are mostly one-dimensional. They exist to spout silly dialogue in between each level. As you progress further into the game, Suda drops hints and bits about Mondo's background, but the only real motivating desire I ever got from Mondo was his love of women. At no point did I ever connect with Mondo or his cast; at best they were tolerable, at worse they are insulting. The clients and villains fare better: they have clear motivations and often feature interesting designs. My driving motivation to continue playing the game was to see each of the clients, but frankly I could've gotten everything I needed from a wiki and YouTube.
If you strip away the story, you're left with a game that isn't fun. It's an action game in the style of Devil May Cry, but it brings nothing new to the table and screws up some of the meal that was already there. Combat is a bit slow and laborious. You can actually unlock a speed-up for Mondo's sword skills, but it's like Turbo mode in Street Fighter games: that should be how the game is all the time. Killer is Dead takes a refined formula and gets it wrong.
Killer is Dead's action breaks down into three moves: slash, dodge, guard break. You'll rinse and repeat those same basic ideas for the rest of the game. It adds execution moves for some visual flourish, but it won't surprise you if you played this type of game before. Mondo's robotic arm makes up the other half of combat by providing a long-distance shooting mechanic, but it feels completely disconnected from the swordplay. In the end, other games have made this style of game work while putting their own spin on it. Devil May Cry did it better. Bayonetta did it better. Metal Gear Rising did it better. Ninja Theory's DmC did it better.
The missions in Killer is Dead alternate between the hack-n-slash variety and what the game calls "gigolo missions." The aim of these missions is to ogle different ladies without them realizing you're staring. Stare into her eyes - or her breasts and crotch - while she's not looking to raise your guts meter. When your guts are full, you offer the lady a gift and hopes she likes it. Repeat until you've filled up her hearts and she offers you a romantic rendezvous. Completing these missions nets Mondo new weapons.
These missions are pretty sexist, but it's not like Killer is Dead treats the rest of its women any better. Annoying schoolgirl, random witch nurse, and biker lady all feature as little depth as Mondo, but with skimpier clothing. In fact, you can unlock more revealing clothing options for two of those characters (see above)! Huzzah, progress!
Even moving beyond the presentation of the gigolo missions, the missions are flat-out boring. Catherine showed how you can do something like this correctly. We're not looking at super-refined, interesting, or even challenging gameplay here. It's simply there to check off some "look how crazy we are" list.
This is the primary problem with the game's presentation and plot. It's schizophrenic and barely coherent. Across the twelve primary missions, you'll bounce from Alice in Wonderland, to an office building, to floating mind islands, to an old style Japanese estate. There's little connecting all this together and since Mondo is a cipher, little reason to care why it's all happening. Mondo's on a mansion on the moon? Why? Because!
The prevailing feeling I get from the Killer is Dead is that Suda 51 has made it as an auteur, so there's no one to step in and say "no, that's not a good idea." Strong art isn't made from having no restrictions, it's made from finding interesting ways around them. This game is Suda's ideas thrown on a canvas every which way; if there was any cutting of ideas, I'd be surprised.
If Suda is attempting to parody the game industry - the game's fourth wall breaks seem to point to this idea - it's the laziest form of parody. It's doing something dumb and then saying "hey, guys, look at this dumb thing." There's no art or insight in that. The line between parody and playing it straight should never be so slight, and your aim should not be to parody by reproducing the original whole cloth.
I'm down with crazy. I've enjoyed things like Twin Peaks and Mawaru Penguindrum. Crazy is fine, but you need to give me a hook. Killer is Dead has no hook for me. A great story and characters could get me through boring gameplay. I've been there before. Great gameplay could get me through a crap story. But, Killer is Dead offers me neither. It's not even bad enough to hate.
Here's where I should probably drop some pun summing up the game while referring to the "Killer is Dead" title, but I've already wasted too much of my time on the entire affair. Unless you're a hardcore Suda 51 fan, you should avoid it.
The Nitty Gritty
- Visuals: Grasshopper has pulled off some stylish art here, but the whole thing could use a bit more polish.
- Music: Jazzy riffs get you in the mood for some light noir, but the rest of the game's soundtrack is completely forgettable.
- Interface: It's a straightforward UI. Suda's craziness does not extend to to the menus, though there's a nice bit of transition in your home office.
- Lasting Appeal: The whole game can be polished off in ten hours. After that, the only replay value is in challenges and trying to get the highest grade in each level.