For those out of the loop, Goichi Suda (known as Suda 51) is a Japanese designer, writer, director, as well as the CEO of Grasshopper Manufacture, who has had a heavy hand in games like Killer7, No More Heroes, Shadows of the Damned, Liberation Maiden, and most recently, Killer is Dead. Suda is very much known for a surreal sense of style and humor that is equally goofy and morbid, and Killer is Dead is no exception. It has the obtuse story and style of Killer7, the shooting mechanics of Shadows of the Damned, the slashing combat and humor of No More Heroes, and in addition, a continuing level of quality occasionally rough around the edges.
Killer is Dead follows Mondo Zappa, the executioner arm of a contract firm who kills dangerous criminals and assassins from around the world. His left hand wields a sword, while his right arm is a cybernetic limb that transforms into weapons like guns and drills. That’s the basic premise that the game, but the rest of the plot is composed of a series of darkly humorous sequences that involve concepts like Mondo’s past and a man who claims ownership of the moon. Though I could follow some of the story, much of the plot is so discombobulating that most normal people (of which I include myself) will likely miss almost all of the finer points. While I do knock the game for its mostly confusing nature, many of the twelve story missions Mondo takes part in are so standalone that you can at least appreciate the funny writing and the events that take place. One of my favorite missions involves Mondo taking on a killer train named Tommy while Mondo and his co-workers have an overarching conversation about why men are so passionate about trains.
The gameplay of Killer is Dead is very much that of an action game. At its core, you hack-and-slash enemies with your katana, move on, and kill more enemies with your sword. And like Deadpool, the traditional slashing and parrying gameplay is combined with third-person shooting mechanics. Through completion of side-missions, you can unlock a few other weapons like a freeze-gun and a drill, but all of these sub weapons are given the same level of control. What gives it a small twist, though, is that instead of ammo or fuel, your sub weapons are powered by the blood obtained from slaughtered enemies. Furthermore, there are also super moves that Mondo can trigger by having enough in his blood meter, which offer satisfying executions for both regular enemies and bosses. Generally however, Killer is Dead is a standard action game with fast-paced and well-executed combat you’ve seen before (though it does have a bit more flavor than the incredibly vanilla Deadpool). It controls well enough and feels good enough, but it’s also slightly hampered by camera controls that occasionally work against you.
And as you likely expect, spoils obtained from killing enemies can be used to upgrade your health, blood meter, and abilities. This is all fun enough, but the special abilities you earn have the ability to make the game incredibly easy. If you want, by the half-way point, you can gain the ability to overpower your gun to the point of requiring far less combat than you would otherwise, and you can also gain the ability to quickly replenish all of your health for a minimal amount of blood. On top of that, if you do die in Killer is Dead, you can buy cheap revives from the in-game store that bring you back to life with full health up to ten times during the course of a given 20-30 minute story chapter. It’s a brisk game and generally fun enough, but the romp turns quite easy fairly fast on Normal. Thankfully, you can change difficulty at nearly any point in the game, but it’s certainly nowhere close to hard like the average Platinum game.
At their core, most Suda 51 games are generally like this: standard, well-polished action games with a bit of jank featuring corridor combat — eventually leading up to incredible boss fights. As with No More Heroes that came before it, the best part of Killer is Dead are the boss fights that act as the meat of the game and the reward for dealing with enemy waves. The context of which they’re introduced isn’t always clear, but fighting an 8-foot Yakuza leader, a giant who stole the earth, and my favorite, a killer train, are spectacles to behold and filled to the brim with immense personality. Most importantly, they are really fun to fight, too.
Outside of the standard missions found in the story, the game carries several side activities to partake in as well. Most of these are fighting enemies against a clock or under certain circumstances for money to buy extra lives, experience points, or gifts for Mondo’s lady friends in the other side activity, Gigolo missions. In these, Mondo tries to seduce ladies by staring at them inappropriately while they’re not looking before flourishing them with the aforementioned gifts. It’s required to earn sub weapons for Mondo, but it’s not very fun, complicated, or well-designed enough to do more than the three-or-so times you really need to do it. If you are like me, you’ll probably try everything once, get bored with it, and quickly resume the compact 6 hour story mode.
And, for those of you coming to a Suda 51 title for the style, you will definitely not be disappointed. The combat is filled with just as much blood as a fan of his would expect, and the art style is impressively creative with appropriately dreary cell shading. The music is forgettable and the graphics unimpressive technically (there is also some mean pop-in at times despite the game being about moving from place-to-place), but the game certainly looks interesting, which is more than one can say for most action games coming out nowadays.
Killer is Dead is, in most ways, a perfect expression of the talents of Suda 51. It may have some technical issues and a substantial level of poorly implemented side content, but the gameplay is fun, the writing is funny, and it carries a level of personality unprecedented in many video games today (Japanese or otherwise). Yes, the combat isn’t that original, and yes, the game is short, but seeing a game with a clear vision and a personality is just refreshing enough to overlook some of its lesser flaws.
PS3 review code provided by XSEED. Killer is Dead is now available on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.