Killer is Dead
Killer is Dead is hard to love and easy to hate. It is undeniably bizarre, pretty much the norm for all of Grasshopper Manufacture’s previous titles. But unlike Suda’s finest works, Killer is Dead seems to be built on a flimsy and somewhat despicable foundation. Though the game tries desperately to exude the effortless cool its auteur is known for, the fiction winds up undermining what is an otherwise enjoyable action title.
Mondo Zappa is a clean-cut, well-dressed assassin, a company man through and through; he’s also an impenetrable asshole. It’s clear that Grasshopper wants us to see Mondo as a womanizer with a heart of gold, but his actions and non-mission diversions paint an entirely different picture. As Mondo’s mysterious past is unfurled throughout the story it’s exceedingly difficult to give a damn.
“Mondo’s supporting cast never establishes themselves”The rest of Mondo’s co-workers at the Bryan Execution Firm are an unfortunate string of poorly realized archetypes. His peers and clients each serve a narrow purpose, straddling some combination of comic relief, drama or titillation. None of their relationships, sexual or not, provide any real insight into the Mondo we’re meant to see. Unlike Dexter Morgan, a killer many of us love, Mondo’s supporting cast never establishes themselves as anything more than narrative filler, a means to Mondo’s objectionable ends.
Separated from its disappointing fiction, Killer is Dead is actually a surprisingly satisfying, albeit simple, melee action game. Mondo’s katana Gekkou is a formidable instrument of death, cutting through waves of enemies and collecting blood. The blood is then siphoned into Mondo’s mechanical arm Musselback, allowing him to use a quartet of arm-specific actions and a few special abilities.
At its simplest form combat follows a rather rote alternation between single button combos, dodges and guard breaks. Basic enemies provide absolutely no challenge but they serve as important appetizers to fill Mondo’s blood gauge and combo counter, granting him the tools to take down both smarter and larger foes with relative ease. Once a single ‘Blood Rose’ is filled in the gauge Mondo can perform near instantaneous executions on any non-armored enemy in the current arena. This ‘Blood Rush’ keeps combat fast and frenetic, allowing players to quickly dispatch potentially annoying enemies as they spawn and close distance instantaneously to retain combos.
Like the underrated PlayStation 2 iteration of Shinobi, Mondo’s sword becomes increasingly powerful as it racks up strings of kills. Once the combo counter has eclipsed 35 consecutive hits every killing blow that Gekkou deals can pass ‘Judgement’ on enemies, producing a series of stylish, over-the-top executions.
What makes the simplistic combat appealing is the overwhelming sense of power and style you feel throughout ordinary fights. It’s during these moments that Mondo feels like the slick, badass secret agent-type Suda intended. Blood sprays over strings of monochromatic executions, and the pressure to keep your combo continually climbing escalates. This sense of pressure is best exemplified during some of the side missions and in Scarlett’s challenges, which generally involve killing a lot of dudes in a short period of time. In order to get the best grade, or even finish, near flawless runs are oftentimes necessary.
Certainly the gameplay isn’t all roses. The camera has an unfortunate habit of obscuring enemies off-screen. Those same enemies will then of course attack you from off-screen, breaking up combos and serving as an occasional but totally infuriating interlude during combat. However, with a little bit of spatial awareness combined with a liberal use of Mondo’s Blood Rush, skilled players should be able to combat the ill-effects of the camera by tracking and subsequently killing off-screen enemies before they become a threat.
“These missions are as regrettable and as tasteless as they sound”Outside of the story and chapter specific side missions, a trio of women can be ‘romanced’ (read: ogled and then had sex with) via ‘Gigolo Missions’. These missions are as regrettable and as tasteless as they sound, providing a flimsy excuse to stare at shiny virtual women, and then bed them, without the worthless preamble of conversation. You steal glances at your prey’s clothed naughty bits as they gaze off into eternity, and once you’ve gotten your fill you’re allowed to give a gift, which nets hearts, and eventually, other rewards, including upgrades for Musselback.
Realistically the Gigolo Missions are somewhat innocuous, providing far more cheese and sleaze than explicit content. But the real problem is the depiction of the women and the overall implication, as they are clearly just notches to be added to Mondo’s belt. That goal could possibly work if the act of gaining their affection was treated with a little more decency, or if the choice to bed each lady was left to the player, thus shifting Mondo’s conscience to the player themselves, but X-ray glasses and desirable weapon upgrades remove any class or player agency from an already uncomfortable equation.
Over the course of its eccentric run Killer is Dead left me with a myriad of differing emotions. I took turns feeling exhilarated, uneasy, elated, frustrated, and finally, resigned. Grasshopper has made one of their more mechanically satisfying titles, but to enjoy it you have to put up with all of the other muck. You’ll have to choose whether Killer is Dead is the loveless romance for you.