Auteur game designers are inevitably repeatedly held to the standards and quirks of their previous works. Suda 51 as a designer is as divisive as they come, known for making some of the most bizarrely compelling games of recent years, despite their technical shortcomings. Killer is Dead mixes and matches various conceptual ideas and gameplay mechanics that have been prevalent in all of Suda’s recent titles, creating a title that is just as scatterbrained as we have come to expect from him.
Mondo Zappa is an assassin with a bionic left arm working for a government-funded organisation, taking on hits for different clients. This is easily the most difficult and impenetrable story that Suda has produced since Killer7, initially featuring a more sombre atmosphere than his more recent work. Characters speak cryptically and the game’s episodic nature doesn’t allow for a satisfying overarching storyline for the first few chapters. Mondo, despite his name, is a more straight-faced character in comparison to the likes of Travis Touchdown and Garcia Hotspur, as while fighting demonic and extraterrestrial beings struggles with surreal dreams of his childhood and fails to remember how he lost his left arm. Despite being quite slow to begin the narrative does free up a lot more in the latter stages of the game getting funnier and even weirder as it spirals to a conclusion, even if afterwards it will all probably sail over your head anyway although the final moments do leave room for a potential sequel.
Broken up into an episodic format the main campaign follows a similar pattern to that found in both No More Heroes and Lollipop Chainsaw. Generally Mondo will be transported to the location of his target where he will need to fight through waves of enemies while progressing through the level before making contact with his target. Most levels are very linear, simply requiring the player to push forward towards the boss without much need for exploration beyond a few areas where specific objects need to be collected from enemy corpses in order to unlock a door. Although most of the twelve episodes last between twenty and forty minutes, a couple of dream sequences which mainly consist of watching surreal cutscenes and participating in pretty strange boss-like encounters.
Mondo’s main weapon of choice is a katana that absorbs the blood of slain enemies, which he can then use to perform more powerful attacks, restore health or utilise his bionic arm’s projectile abilities. The basic slash move is what players will spend most of their attacking time mashing away on and the sleek animations do make combat satisfying. Knowing when to get out of danger is more important as, despite the game being relatively easy, it only takes a few mistakes for Mondo to get killed in action. Dodging out of the way at the right moment will initiate a counter move in which the player can get many strikes in on an opponent. The bionic arm acts as a side weapon with several modes including a gun that deals out chip damage, a drill to destroy enemy shields and a freezing blast. Overall the combat has a nice flow to it and although it isn’t as complex as many other action games remains a lot of fun throughout the campaign, even if it does get a little repetitive.
Along with blood, players collect shards from fallen enemies that can be spent on various upgrades and skills. Some moves prove a lot more useful than others, such as the Counter Shot skill that lets Mondo perform an instant headshot on an enemy from whose gunfire he has successfully dodged out of the way. The bionic arm’s bullets can be powered up, making flying enemies much easier to deal with and it’s possible to unlock slowly regenerating health for players who are perhaps a little more on the careless side. If a player does die they have a limited amount of retries in which Mika, Mondo’s annoying assistant, will rush on over and revive him, or they can choose to simply restart from the last checkpoint. Beyond racing in to revive Mondo, Mika doesn’t really serve any other gameplay function and only really appears in cutscenes.
Boss battles that end each section do occasionally feel a little anti-climactic after slicing your way through hordes of enemies to face them. They certainly aren’t the flat-out highlight of the game in the way that those of No More Heroes were, generally lacking the strong personalities or unique arenas presented there. For battles with humans of similar size to Mondo the actual combat mechanics are essentially the same as when dealing with regular enemies but with the player needing to pay more attention to when they are about to retaliate as they can cause some serious damage if allowed to chain moves together.
In between missions the player will be transported back to the office, which is basically a global view showing where the next mission is and any side missions that can be taken on. There’s also a shop in which players can purchase extra Mika tickets to revive Mondo, or gifts that can be given to one of Mondo’s dates. Upon completing the game players can select any story mission as well as the extra missions and challenges, keeping the upgrades acquired throughout and with the option of taking on a more challenging ‘very hard’ mode.
Side missions are unlocked upon completing a particular chapter and place you back inside that level. The tasks involved in these missions are usually more mundane in scope compared to the story missions, ranging from hunting bugs, manning a turret to fend off waves of enemies or collecting a bonsai for a Yakuza boss. While not vastly different in terms of gameplay from the core campaign it does somewhat make up for the brevity of the main story.
Hidden in each level is a nurse known as Scarlett, who upon first encountering her will set up a challenge arena in which players can test their skills in combat. Challenges range from managing to perform a high hitting combo or defeating only set types of enemies in an arena and do provide a more unconventional challenge when compared to the core story mode.
A set of side missions that could raise some eyebrows are ones in which Mondo goes out drinking to pick up women. By having a sly peek at their chest and crotch while they are distracted, Mondo will eventually gain the courage to offer a gift to the lady whether it be flowers, moon shards or perfume. This process is then repeated until the target, as they are referred to in the mission brief, is satisfied with their gift and invites Mondo back to her place for presumably fun times and then afterwards will offer a gift in return, usually a sub weapon enhancement for the bionic arm. While the mode is definitely ill-thought out as there isn’t even any interesting dialogue to be had here, it never really truly offends as the whole scenario is so ludicrous it simply becomes tedious to play through.
Featuring cel-shaded visuals reminiscent of those found in Killer7 the game does look incredibly stylish, although it’s clearly lacking the technical fidelity of larger budget titles. Even so, the art direction impresses consistently with the variety of different environments from Japanese temples to the Moon, each having a distinct although overall cohesive atmosphere. However the game features a lot of technical issues that crop up quite frequently. Screen-tearing is abundant throughout the game and can be incredibly distracting when simply traversing from one area to another. During combat the camera can become incredibly unwieldy, often zooming into extremely unhelpful close-ups. While not usually a problem thanks to the intentional lack of detail there are also some minor instances of texture pop-in as is quite common with Unreal Engine titles.
Akira Yamaoka’s score is as atmospheric as we’ve come to expect from the Silent Hill composer, featuring a diverse range of musical styles in keeping with the sudden shifts in tone of the story. Sound effects are similarly well handled and during combat do emphasise the weight of the action taking place, and ambient effects are terrifically eery. Both English and Japanese vocal options are available for players depending on their preference. As has been the case with many of Grasshopper’s previous games the localisation and English voice acting has been handled extremely well.
Killer is Dead isn’t a game for everyone, much like any other Suda51 or Grasshopper title. The visual style, surreal story and odd sense of humour that runs through the entirety of the game make it more than worth playing through for fans of the Japanese developer, although those who have been left unimpressed with his previous output probably aren’t going to find this to their liking.