Grasshopper Manufacture's CEO, Goichi Suda, has made a name for himself with surreal settings and offbeat protagonists. Travis Touchdown joined a league of assassins after winning a beam katana through an online auction (No More Heroes); Garcia Hotspur braved the extents of Hell to rescue his girlfriend alongside a shapeshifting handgun (Shadows of the Damned); and star cheerleader Juliet disemboweled trans-dimensional zombies with help from her boyfriend’s severed head (Lollipop Chainsaw). The point is, Grasshopper fans expect unconventional, except Killer is Dead is weird for weird’s sake. Beneath the cel-shaded madness and violent executions lies a narrative so absurd it's insulting. And if the story does not offend, the gigolo missions will – topped off by a presentation so slapdash it tears apart at the seams.
The game’s hero, Mondo Zappa, is an assassin of monsters that defy classification, tormented by a past he can barely recall. In that sense, he and I are a lot alike. Try as I might to parse out the story’s facts amid the cryptic symbolism, I was left scratching my scalp raw in confusion. Demonic “Wires” were once human – now tortured and twisted by the moon’s malevolence. Why? How? The developers refuse to explain. Meanwhile, a talking unicorn, a mansion in space, and a villain dressed like Xerxes from Zack Snyder’s 300 establish a new supernatural frontier Grasshopper is unlikely to top anytime soon.
Killer is Dead may be the most eccentric game in existence, but the key plot details are just segments of a larger unexplained puzzle … I think. What is the moon’s power? Who's the lady in Mondo's dreams? Why does he break the fourth wall? Even Mondo's acquisition of his robotic left arm seems clear one moment, only for the developers to do away with that explanation immediately. Killer is Dead cannot keep itself focused long enough to spit out a coherent sentence. Suspension of disbelief is a requirement, as is your ability to accept things at face value. The ending baffled me more than BioShock Infinite – I had zero answers as to who, or what, the characters were. I expected closure.
Mika's sole job is to annoy players with her high-pitched whining.
Not to be outdone by the weird factor, optional gigolo missions capture the degrading perversion synonymous with other Grasshopper works. When Mondo is not hewing apart demons in dojos, music towers, or his dreams, he ogles women in attempts to sleep with them. And because it’s a video game, it works! Mondo must stare at a woman’s breasts and crotch once she breaks eye contact. If he gets caught, the girl storms off; but if he gains enough "guts" without her noticing, Mondo can give his date gifts, win her heart, and take her to bed. I use “date” lightly. Even for someone fairly neutral on the whole sexism and misogyny debates, each woman’s incessant pleading – almost begging for Mondo to have his way with their bodies – creeped me out. Killer is Dead is not a game you want family, friends, or significant others to walk in on.
When Mondo's not working his way up the sexual deviant leaderboards, Killer is Dead controls like a typical third-person action experience. Players undertake contracts from a host of unsettling clients, most of them dead. One mission transports Mondo to the moon, another to his nightmares. One mission occurs on a cursed locomotive, another in a house crossed with Alice in Wonderland and M.C. Escher drawings – hallucinogenic and unfathomable. These locations contain identical enemies in need of slaying. Part man, part machine, Mondo's choice execution tools are a katana and cybernetic left arm. While tame by Suda standards, the gameplay never devolves into a button-hammering mashfest like Devil May Cry. There lies a real rhythm to the combat that players should master.
Blocking keeps combos alive, evading briefly slows time, and drawing blood raises Mondo’s attack speed. Contrary to the gigolo missions, the swordplay is a game of grace and poise, a constant feedback loop of observing aggressors' patterns and countering appropriately. Mondo’s momentum builds rapidly, culminating in a fatal tango as he dances around enemies and splits them in two. Combos also lead to instant kills at the cost of blood – the same resource that powers Mondo’s arm cannon and manual health regeneration. Evading is for more than just style points, too. The bosses have no qualms leaving Mondo a well-dressed smear.
The gigolo missions are not entirely optional. Only by sleeping with women will Mondo unlock new subweapons for his arm.
Bosses absorb beatings until the rule of three takes over and they become momentarily vulnerable – a defect in a game so visually creative, further exacerbated by other gameplay hindrances. Enemies damage Mondo when standing behind them. The camera resists any attempts to keep the action centered in confined quarters. Wires slip through Mondo's strikes, grabbing him in aggravating headlocks. Fleeing area-of-effect attacks is nearly impossible, as Mondo dodges sideways instead of dashing backwards.
Many of the side missions revisit the same campaign locations as well, and some hinge on broken. In Weight Limit, Mondo must raise an elevator to the top floor as enemies weigh it down. It's not enough that hostiles respawn so damn fast, not enough that the elevator actually descends with more than three people on it. Did Grasshopper test this quest? I spent 30 minutes magicking demons into red mist, but I never made progress. I could never kill the minimum number of Wires before the elevator started plummeting back to ground level, even by shaving off bits of their health and executing them all at once.
Graphically, the screen tears, the frames per second barely keep above 20, and Mondo seldom navigates environments without adhering to some piece of geometry – his inability to walk up stairs without sliding off is about the only consistency in Killer is Dead. Okay, not quite. The glitches sting, because the visuals remain the one rock-solid piece in this cel-shaded quarry. Killer is Dead is an explicit comic book, with streaks of gore accentuating every clean slice of Mondo's sword as he dissects enemies alive. Dodging attacks also saturates the world in red, black, and white, similar to MadWorld or Dante’s Devil Trigger in DmC.
It's important to keep up appearances when executing corrupt creatures.
The more games Grasshopper releases, the more I believe Shadows of the Damned’s praise was a fluke. If Suda’s entire project history held a family reunion, Killer is Dead would be the insane relative, sitting in a lawn chair in a corner of the yard, wearing a tin foil hat and babbling about dismembering demons, trips to the moon, and courting potentially underage women. Suda fans will find some redeemable features in Killer is Dead … maybe. But for the majority of players, the terrible script leaves plot holes wide enough to drive an evil steam engine through, and shallow attempts at intimacy obscure every gameplay strength. Another one-night stand I wish I could forget, I guess.
Publisher: XSEED Games
Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture
Release Date: August 27, 2013
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign)
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3