2013 is a bumper year for action brawlers. Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, DmC: Devil May Cry, The Wonderful 101, God of War: Ascension, Anarchy Reigns. In any other annum, Killer is Dead would have a free run at the throne, but with Raiden, Wonder Red, Kratos and Dante all putting in a good shout at the top, Mondo Zappa and his crew of executioners have a much harder claim to make.
It’s almost a shame to lump Killer is Dead so rudely into this stable of A-listers but this really is one of Grasshopper Manufacture’s most conventional titles to date. Control man with sword and gun arm, use sword and gun arm to carve through progressively tougher foes in sealed arenas, fight big bosses, potentially save the day.
Oh sure, Shadows of the Damned traipsed down a well worn path, but that felt like an adrenaline-led, Gothically purile twist on the Resident Evil 4 template. Shadows was frequently derivative, but it had unique encounters and moments in equal measure. Other Grasshopper games have often been more daring, finding curious notches within established genres in attempts to interest and beguile. Killer 7 mixed on-rails action with Resident Evil-like puzzles and exploration, while No More Heroes questioned the purpose of a sandbox while delivering a combat system based on reading opponents’ stances, and featured one of gaming’s most endearing protagonists to boot.
Killer is Dead has a combat system that feels derivative of Platinum Games’ designs and sets itself in stages that rarely sparkle. While it’s narrative and artistic ideas are still suitably outlandish, the game just feels that little bit less unique, and its world a little less fleshed-out, when compared to previous Grasshopper titles.
I’m not suggesting for one second that Killer is Dead is a bad game, it’s just that it’s largely only an “alright” one. Indeed, Killer is Dead would be far better received were it not for the frequent sense of deja-vu that pervades its typical gameplay structure, and this emotion is only heightened because the game has been released in the wake of such strong alternatives.
But where are my manners? Surely you want to know the premise. Ok. You play as Mondo Zappa, a recent hire of the Bryan Execution Agency. It’s your job to accept hits from clients that require you to “execute” questionable individuals in society. Then there’s this bit, early on, where you’re on the moon fighting a gold-plated space gimp. Oh, and the moon is the source of the world’s dispensable army of bad-guys – wires – and pretty much the cause of most of its evils. Specifically, the dark side of the moon. Uh-huh… Oh, and Mondo’s assistant Mika is really annoying. If it seems confusing, well, it is a bit.
The levels each tell an individual story. The scenario’s start odd, with the first proper level taking a lake full of inspiration from Lewis Carroll, and they only proceed to retain and foster that level of quirkiness. What is unfortunate about Killer is Dead is that its baddies and lead characters are never quite as appealing or interesting as Goichi Suda’s best work. It is an interesting tale, but I certainly had more fun with Travis Touchdown.
The narrative is also delivered in a rather lacklustre fashion. One example sees the game busting through the fourth wall, early on, for absolutely no reason. Smarter games build up to these moments, or sustain that sort of awareness throughout. Suda 51 has been at the helm for a few of these better games, so to see such amateur implementation of the concept here is disappointing. It doesn’t help that Mondo is a bit dry, and a bit of a womaniser.
Speaking of which – I’ll get to the meat of the gameplay in a bit, I promise – I feel a need to address the game’s Gigolo missions. These “stages” are set in first person and require you to eyeball a lady’s sensitive parts when she’s not looking, in order to fill Mondo’s “guts” meter, before handing them a present to increase their heart meter at the bottom of the screen. Fill the heart meter to win the girl. It’s like some sort of perverse Punch Out!!
It’s the concept that I find repulsive. The game suggests that Mondo is incapable of giving a girl a present unless he’s stared at her boobs for long enough. What’s more disconcerting is that you have to complete these missions in order to unlock Mondo’s sub-weapons, so you won’t want to ignore them as the rewards certainly enhance the core combat. There is a bit of a guilt trip that comes into play during missions after you “seduce” a girl, but to me they alone can’t excuse the fact that the mechanics of the levels are downright vulgar.
Anyway, these stages aside, the majority of your time in Killer is Dead is spent carving up enemies, and that is done in a very traditional hack and slash way. Your sword can be swung with one button, another input is dedicated to breaking an opponent’s guard, and a third button is for blocking and dodging. Shoulder buttons take on the duties of aiming and firing your sub-weapon, alongside a healing surge and a powerful, blood-consuming dash attack. Yep, blood. As you slice away with Mondo’s katana you absorb blood to fill a meter. This meter can then be spent on techniques such as your sub-weapons and insanely powerful sword assaults.
The real crux of the combat, however, is the dodge and block. Nail these at the precise moment an enemy attacks and you’ll be able to launch into a huge counter flurry. As you upgrade Mondo you’ll be able to counter all sorts, including enemy snipers, with a well timed dodge. As you build up a combo counter your sword swings begin to look fancier, too, enhancing the feeling of satisfaction that comes from stringing together a long, uninterrupted combo.
If this combat sounds similar to Metal Gear Rising Revengeance then that’s no surprise. The focus is incredibly familiar, forcing you to get aggressive and react to enemy attacks, rewarding reactions with constant counter opportunities. Mondo’s capabilities are certainly a match for Raiden’s, with attacks flowing fast and parries launching with remarkable speed and precision. Indeed, while Killer is Dead retains Grasshopper’s trademark artistic flair (the anime cel-shading here is downright gorgeous) and oddball presentation, its mechanics are remarkably tight and satisfying, more-so than the studio’s usual fare. It all comes together to create a genuinely appealing action game.
It’s unfortunate then that while its core is strong, the extrinsic factors aren’t as varied as its peers. Killer is Dead does well in terms of initial appeal, but as you start to peel back the layers and tackle new enemies it’s clear that the gameplay has no greater intent, bar a few cheeky concepts with explosive foes and some shooting. Most “different” enemies struggle to feel distinct, and none really push your abilities much further than a simple bit of dodge, parry and slice. Perhaps it’s the fault of the game for only featuring one core weapon, but the combat begins to fall into monotonous rhythms fairly quickly. Satisfying monotonous rhythms, but monotonous rhythms all the same.
VERDICT: Killer is Dead is a fun and incredibly solid action game released in a year when it had to be exemplary. Taking cues from its contemporaries, particularly Metal Gear Rising Revengeance, Grasshopper’s hack and slash tale of moon power and misogyny is an entertaining diversion, particularly narratively and artistically, but its gameplay unfortunately lacks the inventiveness or ingenuity to see it mature into a truly timeless action game.
GOOD. A game that scores 7/10 is worthy of note, but unworthy of fanfare. It does many things well, but only a few of them incredibly well and, despite a handful of good qualities, fresh ideas and solid mechanics, it fails to overwhelm.