“Killer is dead…”
These three words, whispered across the airwaves before the latest victim’s head has even stopped rolling on the tarmac, indicate that another violent criminal is no more, and that once again, consummate professional killer, Mondo Zappa, has successfully completed his contract.
It’s fair to say that the world of Grasshopper Manufacturer’s Killer is Dead is far from stereotypical. It straddles the jagged fence between Shadow of the Damned’s grotesque underworld and No More Heroes’ dark near-future, with more than a smattering of demon-infested Manga, circa the mid-nineties, staining its striking, cel-shaded visuals. It’s a world where twisted murderers are hunted to their deaths by cybernetically-enhanced Executioners beholden only to the State, and monsters – both human and otherwise – are slain without compassion.
Coming from the mind of Creative Director Suda 51, the (possibly insane) fellow behind Lollipop Chainsaw, Killer 7 and Shadows of the Damned, Killer is Dead was always going to be, well, weird – and it certainly hasn’t disappointed. An episodic 3rd Person action game, it sees you taking on the role of super smooth assassin Mondo to hunt down ruthless killers with extreme prejudice. The preview code I played through was deliberately ambiguous, revealing little of the overall story and presenting only snippets of several seemingly-random episodes as well as one of the much-discussed “Gigolo Missions”, which we’ll come to shortly. But first of all: the gameplay.
It might be daft to say that Killer is Dead is Suda 51 through and through, given how greatly each of his games differ from one another, but there’s something quintessentially mental about Mondo’s tale that screams Grasshopper Manufacture. It might not even be unfair to say that Killer is Dead is an acquired taste – and some will find it repulsive, maybe even sickening, at times.
There are said to be thirteen episodes in total, and I got my hands on bite-sized chunks of five of them, as well as a bonus mission that involved fighting my way through a big pile of enemies to reach a Bonsai tree. I’m not sure why, or if it even matters, but it was frenetic and a lot of fun. Combat is prevalent, and while none of Mondo’s skills were available to unlock or upgrade, there was a decent selection to skim through, hinting at a fairly malleable experience in the final game.
Combat is predominantly melee-based, as Mondo slices through several variants of cyborg enemies known as Wires with his “beloved” katana. Combo fighting is all handled by the Square button, but the varying enemy types, evasion manoeuvres and execution moves stop it becoming a button-masher. Upon death, enemies drop several types of pick-up: synapses and energy cores to recover health and blood, respectively; blue diamonds that increase your “health level” to permanently grant you more HP; and Blood Roses, which increase the amount of blood Mondo’s katana can absorb (which fuels the special moves performed by his cybernetic left arm). After smashing an enemy to a pulp with a successful combo, you can choose your method of execution to match which pick-ups you need most and get a small boost to your choice. It almost reminds me of a simplified version of Remember Me’s Combo Lab.
Hitting the evade button (Circle) at the right time allows a devastating counter attack, and larger enemies can be obliterated by slapping the right trigger at a very precise moment. In the preview, Mondo’s left arm could transform into a cannon to deal ranged damage, but a scan of the skills menu reveals other weapon options, such as a giant drill. Nice.
The level design is predictably unpredictable, one mission in particular involving the hunting of a grotesque monster through a bizarre, constantly shifting house. Accompanied on most outings by his teeth-shatteringly annoying assistant, Mika (like a character from a Final Fantasy game that was rejected for being too squeaky), Mondo deals with mutated beasts, fellow Executioners and hulking cyborgs with the same deadpan, straight-laced attitude throughout. He looks like a schoolteacher, but kills with a disturbing ease.
Outside the combat-based episodes, I got to try out a Gigolo Mission, charmingly entitled “Mondo’s Girls: Strong, Hot-Headed Girl”. It seemed a stark contrast to the rest of the game for two reasons: 1) it is slow-paced, unexciting and non-violent; and 2) it has no discernible reason for existing outside of crude titillation and an apparent desire to pander to a particularly horrible subgroup.
During the Gigolo Mission, you sit opposite a beautiful woman in a bar, and must earn “Guts” by sneaking a peek at her exposed flesh when she’s not looking. Breasts and thighs seem to score well, which should tell you everything you need to know here. When she’s particularly distracted, hitting R2 puts on the “Gigolo Glasses”, revealing her underwear via X-Ray vision and giving you a telepathic glimpse of which gift will help get her into bed.
I’m not easily shocked, and I’m certainly rarely appalled, but something about the Gigolo Mission seemed disturbingly “off”. Granted, I understand little of the intended narrative even after playing through the disjointed preview several times, but the Gigolo Mission seems to have no necessity beyond pointlessly and shamelessly sexualising an otherwise unique and well-considered dystopian gameworld. It actually made me uncomfortable to play through. The fact that fellow Executioner Vivienne seems to spend every moment with her jacket opened just enough to expose her cleavage will be enough to annoy some, without the creepy perversity of the Gigolo Missions.
So, then, my time with Killer is Dead left me somewhat conflicted. On one hand, it’s an often-manic but hugely enjoyable action game with a fantastic art style and some of the most satisfying and cathartic combat I’ve seen in a while; the protagonist is interesting, and the supporting cast (aside Mika) is well voiced, if a little clichéd.
But I know almost nothing about the story, or even if there’s a primary villain (teasingly – and confusingly – several of the “clients” who come to the Bryan Execution Firm to hire Mondo are already dead), and the Gigolo Missions seem worryingly out of place and sleazy. Obviously the finished game will provide some answers, but in the meantime I can say with confidence that fans of Suda 51’s previous works will lap this up, while the vast majority of gamers will likely experience the same internal conflict as I did.
Although I didn’t get much of a feel for the themes and plot of Killer is Dead, the overall package appears to be solid, and it’s unlikely that the actual story will affect your enjoyment of the game’s graceful, gore-drenched, oddly therapeutic action. However, I won’t be surprised if the narrative takes Mondo Zappa – and us – to some very dark places.