There’s an ungodly amount of strange stuff in Killer Is Dead, the latest title from the warped mind of the talented yet niche Japanese auteur, Suda 51. Demonic trains will be battled, unicorns will appear out of thin air rescuing people, beautiful women will be interactively and creepily ogled, but most of all you’ll just be scratching your head in confusion for eight or so hours in this this cel-shaded Anime inspired hack and slash adventure.
Killer Is Dead follows Mondo Zappa, an elite assassin geared with a Japanese katana that absorbs blood in one arm, and a biomechanical other arm that lets you shoot lasers and bullets. He is accompanied by a few other oddball characters including his cybernetically engineered boss Bryan, erotically dressed yet dangerous partner Vivienne, and assistant Mika whom doesn’t really work for the agency but was found astray and taken in by Mondo.
Collectively they accept jobs and assassinate various powerful demonic beings in a mission per baddie layout. This shifts the story away from anything central or formulaic but rather a character study of Mondo as an assassin with limited memories. Killer Is Dead is anything but straightforward or commercialized however, instead opting for one incredibly abstract direction that rarely explains its core dilemma, even when it pops up randomly towards the end. There is rarely any rhyme or reason to the game’s structure or overarching plot which again literally involves dreams where unicorns save people from death. It’s definitely crazy but dare I say too crazy? There’s just no coherent direction or anything worth investing into, and ultimately nothing ever makes sense.
If the story has one saving grace it is a psychedelic and hallucinogenic musical score from Suda 51′s recent collaborator Akira Yamoaka of Silent Hill fame. It may not be his most groundbreaking work but it successfully compliments the wackiness transpiring on screen.
Even the individual self-contained missions themselves are vividly trippy with one contract directly paying tribute to Alice In Wonderland. Other contracts like a Japanese warrior merged with a tiger are just so bizarre that they can only come from Suda’s demented mind. Boss fights in general are the game’s strongest area both in aesthetic design and execution often containing multiple phases and sprawling locales including the moon. The final fight in particular is epic in scope and even blasts the blood and adrenaline rush pumping New World Overture (which can actually be heard in the embedded trailer below).
There are minor gripes I have with two boss battles though which are worth mentioning. After draining each boss’s health you are prompted to execute them with R1 and Square, but during the final phase of the phantom train boss that prompt doesn’t appear unless you’re standing in a specific spot during a specific animation from the boss. It unnecessarily took me around 15 minutes and two deaths just to finish off a boss I had already beaten. Perhaps moreso frustrating though, in another boss fight you are prompted to tap the Square button in a sword clash, except you have to absolutely hammer on the button at a speed some gamers may not be capable of. If I had to equate the difficulty to something I would argue it’s nearly as tough as surviving Ocelot’s torturing in Metal Gear Solid. Barring these two mishaps however the boss battles are exceptional.
When you’re not clashing your way through the well thought out boss battles, you voyage through linear and quick areas of varied locales including mansions, futuristic factory buildings, dream sequences on the moon, Japanese villages, and more. Simply walking through the beautifully colorful and detailed cel-shaded environments is enjoyable and all but what’s an action game without things to kill?
Killer Is Dead offers around four basic enemy types titled Wires that are essentially cyborgish heaps of scrap metal that bleed. They range from human sized to giant and round ogre resembling behemoths of destruction. With each new locale they also receive relevant cosmetic lifts too in an admirable attempt to keep combat varied as you slice and dice through them.
There is an attack button with guard break and dodge buttons that can all be integrated together to perform flashy moves. For example, a successful dodge as an enemy swings will prompt you with pressing Square to unleash a flurry of strikes. Keeping your combo going strong allows you to start executing enemies in selective ways to receive various item pickups. And finally, as you wreck enemies there is a gauge that fills which allows you to willingly enter a state of adrenaline rush where you can instantly execute enemies or use you biomechanical arm to shoot things (although this is mostly reserved for the generic floating balls of metal that spew their laser eye at you).
In theory it all sounds relatively complex and fun but sadly boils down to basic and repetitive button mashing. I know Suda’s previous games weren’t exactly complex either but at least Lollipop Chainsaw had a jump button and high/low attack functions. The combat here is initially fun and flashy but by the halfway mark (of an already relatively short game) you’ve already seen everything and begin fighting on mental autopilot. Exhaustion sets in leaving you sticking around solely for the trippy premise and bosses.
Outside of the primary missions are an additional set of optional mission titled Gigolo missions drawn from the fact that Mondo is inspired by James Bond. Suda 51 compared these segments to Bond seductively getting any girl he sets his sights on, except last I checked James Bond puts forth more effort than staring at a girl’s private parts and buying them flowers. That’s not a wisecrack either, I’m dead serious. The game tasks you with moving the camera discreetly all over their funny business at opportune times to fill an adrenaline gauge which then lets you gift items to the girls. If you do that enough they then decide to go home with you for some off screen antics.
It’s weirdly perverted and adds nothing to the gameplay. There’s no suave or intelligence to, just lowbrow shenanigans which is a shame because a key marketed theme of the game is “Kill And Love”. There’s no loving here though resulting in failed ambitions and a sleazy outlet to immaturely stare at women for five minutes between missions. You do get some weapon modifications for your biomechanical arm but awkward means don’t justify the underwhelming means.
Killer Is Dead may be only eight hours but it’s definitely packed with reasons to replay it including a mission scoring system, a plethora of combat challenges, harder difficulties, alternate costumes with their own unique effects, leaderboards, and a load of character upgrades that you cannot max out in one playthrough. Whether it’s all worthwhile or not will vary between who enjoys the game and who doesn’t but I give credit for attempting to extend the life of the experience.
This is unfortunately hands down Suda 51”s weakest game to date of an otherwise strong bunch that includes different yet similarly loony experiences (Shadows of the Damned, Killer 7, Lollipop Chainsaw). The story is abstract in a frustrating way that lacks direction or purpose and is just Suda 51 throwing too many ideas out there without any cohesion. The gameplay is also repetitive and unsatisfactory. Despite everything though it’s a trippy experience with imaginative aesthetic design, creative bosses, and is ultimately a game worth playing for Suda 51 fans. Just don’t go in expecting his best work
Killer Is Dead is now available in NA, UK, and Japan.
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This article was first posted on August 31, 2013