Suda51 was well known for creating surreal, bizarre games that stood out from the crowd. Games like Killer 7 weren't always good, but they were distinctive. Recently, he's taken to presenting, so titles like Shadows of the Damned and Lollipop Chainsaw tout Suda on the staff as a creative director or writer. At first blush, Killer is Dead seems like it might be Suda51 getting back in the saddle, but that's not the case. Killer is Dead, directed by Hideyuki Shin, is a clear example of what happens when someone tries to make Killer 7 without the care that made the title stand out despite its flaws.
Killer is Dead follows Mondo Zappa, a member of the secret government organization is known as the Executioner's Office, which consists of half FBI and half bounty hunters. It exists to kill monsters who threaten the safety of the world. Mondo is its prime assassin, and he's armed with a magical katana and a robot arm. He also has a nasty case of amnesia when it comes to his past. When he encounters a mysterious woman named Moon River, Mondo comes face-to-face with his long-repressed past. It's a surreal game with a simple plot, and perhaps that is where the trouble starts.
The biggest problem is that the title lacks energy. On paper, each event is jam-packed with excitement. You fight a duel with a mad king on the surface of the moon, you attempt to stop a demon-possessed Thomas the Tank Engine from leveling Moscow, and you take on a Yakuza whose tattoos become living beings that fight for him. Each is the basis for a thrilling and exciting adventure, but unfortunately, each ends up feeling rather mundane. In previous games like Killer 7 or No More Heroes, each surreal encounter felt like it was bursting with excitement. In this title, there's a sense of rote necessity, almost like the developers felt obligated to include bizarre encounters because that's what a Suda51 game does.
The underlying plot also suffers because of this. It's simultaneously incredibly convoluted and incredibly simple. The presentation is bizarre, haunting and enigmatic, with foreshadowing occurring right up to the end of the game. Mondo doesn't have a lot of charisma or personality, and his backstory is pretty boring by Suda51 standards. The main villain, David, has a little more going on but vanishes from the plot for most of the game. There's a ton of symbolism and half-presented pieces of information, but it almost starts to feel generic, and that's something weird to say about a game that tries its hardest to blend Lynchian (wiki page) surrealism with over-the-top action. The product feels manufactured — similar to comparing a McDonald's hamburger to the real thing.
Your sword, Gekkou, is a magical katana that feeds on blood, and this manifests in two ways. The longer you have an unbroken combo string, the faster your attack becomes, until you're a whirlwind of death and destruction. If you keep a combo string going for a long time, you unlock the ability to perform judgment kills, which involve selecting one of the four face buttons to perform an execution. You earn extra money or life-restoring items. You attack with the Square button, and Triangle breaks an enemy's blocking move. Early on, you have to tap the button multiple times, but you quickly unlock the ability to just hold down the button instead.
The second blood-related ability is your blood meter. You gain blood by killing enemies and performing combos, and you can use it to perform an instant-kill attack on a single enemy, or you can use it to regenerate health once you get an upgrade. Finally, it serves as a fuel source for the game's subweapons. Your character has a transforming cyborg arm that changes into a variety of guns or a drill, and it needs blood as fuel. Aside from the default machine gun, the subweapons are unusable without blood. The freeze gun claims to be useful against fast-moving enemies, but there are very few situations to use it when you can just avoid attacks. The charge shot does damage, but it's not enough to bother with it. The drill is useful for opening secret doors, but that's about it. Only the default machine gun is useful, but even then, it's feast or famine because it's either overpowered or useless.
You have two methods of defense: block and dodge, and they're both bound to the same button. Press it while not moving, and you'll block. Press it while moving, and you'll dodge. Both have a better version that activates if you press them just before you're hit. The perfect block stuns the enemy, and the perfect dodge is an evolution of the Darkstep from No More Heroes. If you dodge the attack, the screen changes colors, and you can do a Blood Rush on the enemy who attacked you. Chaining these actions is the key to succeeding at combat in Killer is Dead, and you'll get a high score to boot. If you don't care about your score, you don't need to do either of these, as the regular block is durable against all but the strongest attacks.
Combat is straightforward and perhaps overly simple. There's no reason to do anything but mash, dodge, and occasionally use an instant-kill attack. This becomes more apparent as Mondo gets more powerful. It's easy to get the highest ranking on a stage, and the only difficult part is avoiding cheap damage. It can be satisfying to burn through groups of enemies as a buzzsaw of death, but that excitement wears off quickly. Games like Arkham City have done a better job implementing that sort of combat system. There's also not much in the way of challenge. Health and regeneration is so plentiful that I never saw the "Game Over" screen, and even if I had, I had a bunch of "Mika Tickets" to instantly revive me.
The boss fights are short, simple and forgettable. I must stress that the boss fights should be memorable. You're fighting a demon record executive on the top floor of his 1,000-story office building that is exploding around you, a dream demon who constantly changes shapes, and a giant who rampages through Area 51. They have simple patterns and boring attacks, and they rarely engage you in the fight. If you manage to get a good Blood Rush combo going, you can wipe them out in a few moments. No More Heroes managed to take a similarly simplistic combat system and make the boss fights exciting, so there's no excuse for it here.
The level design is some of the worst I've seen. Each level is basically a series of nearly identical corridors where you fight nearly identical enemies and occasionally press a switch to open the door. The most interesting area is a garden where you hunt down five ninjas, and that's only interesting because it's a reprieve from the mindless tedium of the stages. It's possible to get lost in a level because every area looks nearly identical. Fortunately, there's only one direction to go, so you won't be lost for long.
The game is rather short. There are only a handful of main story missions, and each is about 20 minutes long. You can burn through the story in four hours, most of which is taken up by long-winded cut scenes. It repeats areas on multiple occasions, either by returning to earlier levels or visiting them in a dream. There's a series of optional missions, but they're mostly minigames. They're fine as diversions, but the main game is weak enough that you won't be motivated to do these missions. The rewards are lackluster, so bonus costumes and extra items are about the best you can expect.
There's a secondary minigame, and even if the other problems don't turn you off the game, this might. You can't buy subweapons. You have to earn them by dating "beauties" in the gigolo missions. In Killer is Dead, dating involves spending all your time trying to ogle a woman while she isn't looking. The game goes into first-person view, and you control the camera. The goal is to fill up your guts meter, which you do by staring at … well, let's just say that if you'd get slapped for staring like a creep at any part of a woman, you'll earn points for doing it here. You just have to wait until she's looking away. Earn enough points, and you can give her a present. Give her the correct present enough times in a row, and you unlock a steamy scene. There isn't any guessing involved in the presents because you get a pair of gigolo glasses that tell you which gift she wants. They also serve as X-ray glasses, for some reason.
The kindest thing I can say about this minigame is that it's optional since most of the subweapons are worthless. If you want to unlock everything in the game, you'll need to get the drill to open special doors. Ironic sleaze is a part of many violent and groundhousey games, but in this case, it doesn't even have the benefits of irony. It isn't just creepy, it's kind of sad and pathetic, and unlike Travis Touchdown, there's no indication that I'm supposed to feel that way.
Killer is Dead is a rather ugly game, although much of that seems to be intentional. It uses a very similar cel-shaded art style to Killer 7, with an emphasis on shadows that don't always exist where shadows should. This can look really good in the cut scenes, and several times, they pull off some jaw-dropping stuff, but it looks pretty bad in the action scenes. The free DLC "Level 51" is a remarkably ugly stage, as it tries to drape an entire level in shadow and ends up hurting your eyes.
The voice acting is passable but unexceptional. Mondo never manages to inject much personality into his voice acting, and the rest of the characters are lackluster. The music is much the same. There are one or two solid tracks, but most of it is pretty dull.
There are countless strange games that become more than the sum of their parts. Deadly Premonition and El Shaddai are flawed games that draw you in with surreal charm, despite their weaknesses. Killer is Dead is their polar opposite, as it's a technically competent, if unexceptional, game that struggles to cover its mediocrity. It's clean and polished, but it lacks heart. There's a game here, and it isn't terrible, but every attempt to make it anything more falls flat. Killer is Dead is playable, but it commits a far worse sin than being awkward or glitchy. It takes the fantastic and makes it boring.
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