Platforms: Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture Publisher: Deep Silver Genre: Action/Hack & Slash Platform Played: PlayStation 3
Killer is Dead is one of the most unique experiences of 2013. That doesn’t necessarily mean it is a good one though. Developed by Grasshopper Manufacture and written by the acclaimed Suda 51, Killer is Dead is a game set in a non-to-distant future. We control an assassin named Mondo Zappa, working for an execution company where he must complete assassination contracts. In this futuristic world, the ability to travel to the moon has become common-place, and cybernetic human enhancements exist. Mondo possesses one of these cybernetic advancements, in the form of a cyborg-like arm, which can be used to shoot or injure his enemies in many ways.
Killer is Dead provides one of the biggest head scratching narratives I have ever experienced, one that constantly left my mouth ajar at the absurd insanity I was witnessing on screen. Killer is Dead features 12 linear main missions, which will usually involve infiltrating an area to kill a target. However, the narrative involving these missions feels like an attempt to throw as much nonsense-induced story-telling at the player as possible. You will experience a talking unicorn, a strange obsession with soft-boiled eggs, and many more insane moments. The reason this narrative fails completely is due to the lack of over-arching story. When there is a main plot reveal in Killer is Dead, the narrative starts to get interesting… that is until the game ended less than an hour later. Each mission feels like its own separate story that merely buffers the games existence until the main plot finally is revealed.
During Killer is Dead’s main story, I found myself unable to understand the tone it was aiming for. There are times when the story felt like a completely insane comedy, after which it would suddenly turn very dark. It struggles to find a true voice, as to how the player should be feeling. For example: when a character you know is in grave trouble, the game decides to cut to a “Stand-By” screen that harkens to Looney Tunes episodes. It is moments like this that left me unable to invest in the experience, simply because I had no idea what Suda 51 was presenting me. Insane stories are fine, but they have to know what they are telling the player. If the writer behind the game is unable to convey the emotions he wants the player to experience, then the game loses its way. Killer is Dead suffers from this problem greatly.
Aside from the main narrative, players can participate in challenges that are unlocked by finding a hidden nurse during missions. These challenges test the players’ combat abilities with standard objectives such as killing certain enemy types, surviving for a certain amount of time, and more. There are also side missions which take place on re-skinned areas from the campaign. These can range from finding an item, defending points in the environment, or even shooting waves of enemies with a mini gun. All these objectives alongside the main missions can be completed in about 6-8 hours, which is fairly disappointing. There are no online component aside from an online leaderboard, tallying your scores throughout the campaign, which made it a struggle to find ways to spend more time with Killer is Dead. There are harder difficulties, costumes to unlock, and upgrades to max-out, but these are fairly bland reasons to continue playing.
Visually, Killer is Dead can be quite artistic when you decide to stand and take in your surroundings, as the main narrative will have Mondo exploring castles on the moon, a train hurtling through a snowy Russia, a scientific laboratory, and more. The visuals stand out due to the unique cell-shaded art style. However, once the game is in motion, these visuals lose their flare. These visuals actually caused a decent amount of the game to have a fairly dark colour emphasis, meaning some piece of the environment, character features, and more were actually quite a strain to see clearly. These dark issues actually provided me with a headache during a handful of missions, as my eyes strained to deal with the visual style. This is certainly not a problem for everyone, but due to wearing glasses, this was an issue that appeared several times.
Killer is Dead offers basic combat mechanics, as players use Mondo’s weapon of choice: his trusty katana. Combat is centered around attacking, dodging, and breaking through enemies’ guard to chain combos and be an efficient killer. Though it lacks depth, it is easy to become a masterful swordsman and achieving great satisfactory when chaining high combos. Killer is Dead focuses on making you feel like a badass, rather than trying to rely on difficult combat mechanics, which may turn off players looking for an in-depth fighting system. You could technically make your way through the campaign simply by mashing the attack button, but combining your abilities is where the satisfaction lies.
Players will encounter a range of different enemy types called Wires, who are cyborg enhanced ninjas bearing weapons and combat skills. These range from smaller lightweight enemies, to hulking behemoth types, and even floating eyeball enemies that require using Mondo’s cybernetic arm to shoot them from the sky. The crown jewel of combat is encountered during the multitude of unique boss fights during the campaign, ranging from a possessed train, a giant enemy towering above the world, and many more. These boss fights are a pleasurable experience, allowing you to truly test your skills as an executioner, providing great challenge and some memorable encounters. Almost every episode ends in one of these fun battles, highlighting the episode’s conclusion.
The simple combat mechanics in Killer is Dead may not be for everyone, but aside from that, the main issue is the camera. Many third person action titles have failed at providing a strong camera during hectic battles, and Killer is Dead can be added to that list. The camera feels sluggish and can easily lose you during these frantic battles, meaning you will be left button-mashing in a desperate attempt to stay alive and to struggle finding Mondo’s location. The camera was also a big issue during some of the brilliant boss fights. These enemies have an extensive array of attacks and agility, meaning that you can easily lose track of Mondo and your enemies, making you easy prey for the enemies’ attacks. It is a shame, because the combat can be quite enjoyable, but as you continue to progress, the quantity of enemies on-screen increases, and so do the issues with the camera.
Mondo has access to a range of upgrades which affect his cybernetic arm, adding new abilities during combat, and new skills which can allow Mondo to sacrifice his blood to heal his health bar. Your blood meter powers your cybernetic arm. Once you blood meter is empty, your arm’s shooting abilities crawl to a snail pace, making it almost completely useless. These upgrades can be purchased using Crystals that are found within objects, or left once an enemy has been defeated. Players can also increase Mondo’s health and blood meters by collecting certain items. The upgrade system incentivises exploration through the linear levels, as destroying every object in sight means you will have increased skills and abilities overall. I found this system quite rewarding, as you constantly see your hard work defeating enemies pay off as these features increase.
Aside from the previously mentioned activities, Killer is Dead also features a handful of Gigolo Missions. Suda described these missions would work in a similar fashion to James Bond charming women at a bar, but these missions instead come off extremely crass and unnecessary. These missions have Mondo “1 on 1” with a female character, as you must perve on their body without them realising it. If you get spotted, she will slap you and the mission will end. However, if you succeed to ogle her body, your excitement meter rises allowing you to give her gifts. How are you meant to know what gift they want? With see-through glasses that make the women appear in their underwear and read their mind on what present they are seeking of course.
These scenes are quite uncomfortable, and felt completely out of place. The bonds formed with these women never amount to anything, aside from a quick scene of the two characters making out before it insinuates off-screen love-making. In comparison, Mass Effect has showcased mature ways to incorporate emotions, love, and bonding between characters, whereas Killer is Dead takes the industry many steps back with these absurd missions. These women will also randomly call you during the campaign, interrupting you as you explore with weird insinuations. As an action game fan, I wanted to enjoy the combat on offer, yet continuously had to reminded of these tacky gigolo missions. They don’t represent James Bond in any way, and feel like pandering to an audience who wants to see half-nude women on screen.
Killer is Dead provides a convoluted narrative that is scattered with confusing moments, as it struggles to find a balance between emotional and comedic instances, leaving me with a muddled mindset when the credits rolled.
Though there are some potentially good ideas littered throughout Killer is Dead, it mostly feels like an experience that has been thrown together. Almost each positive thing finds itself held back by another one of the game’s flaws, which is disappointing to say the least.
Killer is Dead is a sub-par action game leaning on tacky pandering to become memorable. The action genre is loaded with quality titles, and Killer is Dead struggles to establish itself amongst the very best.
+ Memorable boss fights
+ Combat is easy to master
– Tacky Gigolo missions
– Confusing narrative
– Poor camera
– Short experience