The direction a video game can take is something that never ceases to amaze me. Of course as a player I may have an inkling as to what will be bestowed upon me in an experience given the particular genre of a title or the hype that surrounds the development studio. Yet even then, I still find myself amazed from time to time as to how a game is put together, what sort of narrative direction it has, and how all of that ties together to present a unique, or at the very least fun, gameplay experience.
For the last fourteen years Grasshopper Manufacture has been at the top of the list when it comes to developers who like to do weird stuff that isn’t exactly the norm, either when it comes to the stories that are presented or what sort of tone the gameplay has. Perhaps it has become their gimmick to be wild and in a way “rebellious” to what the industry at hand expects, though with Killer Is Dead the vibe is one that is complex, engaging and is easily one of the most enjoyable games the studio has ever put out.
Grasshopper Manufacture is known to be a studio that’s a bit weird, if eccentric, in what it likes to do. After all, such a thing has become the main focus of the company given how its Founder/CEO/creative genius Suda 51 isn’t exactly your typical game dev in towing the company line all the time or succumbing to whatever trend is popular in the hopes of generating a massive hit. The general DNA of Grasshopper as a studio is more than apparent in Killer Is Dead since its simply weird at times and has shades of the complex brilliance that was presented in the cult classic that is Killer7.
Set in the distant future, Killer Is Dead follows Mondo Zappa, a mysterious figure whose left arm is entirely cybernetic. Recently joining the ranks of the state backed Execution Office, Mondo’s job is plain and simple: he’s an assassin whose primary task is to destroy the targets that are given to him, either for a high price or a mere kiss from a beautiful woman. Of course seeing as how this is a game from GhM things aren’t exactly what they seem, both because of Mondo’s past, the nightmares he’s haunted by, and for the sheer fact that people are becoming possessed by a mysterious powering emanating from the Moon of all places.
Longtime fans of Grasshopper Manufacture may know what to expect in a sense when it comes to Killer Is Dead, but the game does manage to not be too predictable by being consistently weird or overly goofy. Overall the tone of the game is one that seems as if Suda and his team were going full-out David Lynch in offering a strange story that can’t easily be plotted along a chart in a precise manner, but the core narrative doesn’t necessarily suffer from being too hard to decipher.
Elements of the game, such as the mysterious organic/cybernetic enemies that Mondo faces who simply go by the name Wires, aren’t really explained at all since there aren’t any audio or text logs strewn about the game in which the player can learn more about the backstory and general lore of the universe. Even then, I did find myself fascinated by the general direction of Killer Is Dead since it ultimately boils down to a simple case of good vs. evil and a man (Mondo) who is trying not to succumb to the darkness that awaits him.
Almost coming across as if this was Grasshopper’s attempt at presenting an intricate story with a simple premise that’s appealing (somewhat akin to Christopher Nolan’s Inception), the story in Killer Is Dead does succeed, vagueness and all, since the characters are appealing and are exceptionally well-written. Far more serious than the pop and T&A laden adventure that was Lollipop Chainsaw, Killer Is Dead strikes a good balance between having a few moments of goofy levity, often coming in the form of Mondo’s assistant Mika, amidst the dead serious action that occurs and the cunning verbal and physical battles that are engaged involving the mysterious David (played by Liam O’Brian).
A cutscene featuring Mondo and David
The interactions between Mondo and David were easily a highlight for me not just because of the brilliant acting from both performers, but because it reminded me of the friendly yet underlying tense banter that was had between Harman Smith and Kun Lan in Killer 7; the dialog is sharp and whenever these two men meet it’s clear that some major stuff is about to go down.
The narrative of Killer Is Dead is enhanced in a way by the visual direction that Grasshopper took with the game. Exuding the slightly graphic novel approach found in Killer 7, there’s almost a sense of near constant style within each frame of Killer Is Dead, whether it be from seeing a spray of blood come out of a Wire, Mondo strike a badass pose/stance prior to finishing an execution, or the framing of a shot to highlight a certain moment.
There are a few quibbles to be had in Killer Is Dead since it’s not a graphical showstopper and is prone to a few technical issues such as screentearing and small texture loading. But those small technical occurrences don’t bring down the game at all since the art direction and design of the Wires, which range from those inspired by Samurai or look like giant mechanical bulls of doom, is what help makes the game so striking.
I for one was rather surprised to see just how intricate some of the character designs within Killer Is Dead were since they each have a different vibe that almost seems as if it’s serving a dual purpose – it’s supposed to look cool but it’s also supposed to immediately evoke something rather than quickly be forgotten about. Such a thing is rather apparent in the character Moon River, a mysterious woman that Mondo meets, who in a slightly ironic yet clever GhM style twist looks like a near doppelganger of British actress Audrey Hepburn. Captivating in her beauty, thus making her even more alluring, Moon River is just one of the many visual facets of the game which once again show that when the time calls for it that Grasshopper Manufacture can produce some stunning visuals even if it not’s running at a jaw-dropping inducing high poly count.
Fans of GhM have always known that creating engaging narratives has always been a strong point of the studio whereas creating the actual gameplay has been a bit touchy to say the least. In the case of Killer Is Dead, Grasshopper hasn’t followed in the steps of Lollipop Chainsaw by presenting a slightly stilted combat system in which it’s never quite possible to get into the rhythm of things. Instead, they’ve given us a series of katana wielding action that’s more than adequate to be entertaining, even if it’s not as deep as other games on the market.
I don’t know why an assassin would use a katana as their primary tool of death, but who cares about logic since it simply looks cool. Armed with a long katana as his primary weapon, slicing down various form of Wires as Mondo goes from stage to stage is rather easy, efficient, and fun throughout the course of the story campaign. With one primary attack button (Square on the PS3), and a melee based guard attack move (Triangle on PS3), the core combat system in KiD is rather simple, as is usually the case with GhM games. Though things aren’t shallow in a sense as I could not only upgrade Mondo’s combat abilities to allow for charged attacks or guard break moves that would send enemies flying, but there are also a few special tricks present as well.
Besides using his left cybernetic arm as a long-ranged weapon to shoot down enemies, Mondo can also engage in several special finishing attacks such as the Adrenaline Burst and Final Judgment. Both maneuvers thankfully live up to their rather foreboding names since Adrenaline Burst allowed me to focus my attention on one enemy to slice it in half for a grand finisher that’s of course high on the flashy visuals and spilling of blood.
Final Judgment on the other hand is tied to the combo system of attacking enemies. By reaching the max combo counter, I was able to finish an enemy by pressing an action button (either Square, Triangle, Cross, or Circle) when prompted to allow Mondo to finish an enemy off, either by grabbing it and swinging it around, doing a rather vicious strike to its midsection, or slicing its neck.
Both the Adrenaline Burst and Final Judgment moves bring some complexity to the combat since it made me want to be as lethal as I could be since I would earn more rewards in the end. In general the combat itself may not be as deep as other games such as those from Platinum Games since the core structure of it is rather simple in its execution of katana strikes and because there aren’t any additional weapons to utilize, thus I couldn’t start a combo string and do a weapon switch to make things that more crazy.
With some well-designed enemy battles that thankfully don’t feel too much like fodder nor do they bring the momentum of the levels down by appearing every minute, the approach Grasshopper took in regards to the combat in KiD is ultimately successful since it’s still easy to approach yet has more to do than in other efforts such as No More Heroes. Of course some of the “classic” GhM jankiness is still in place through a dodge system that’s a bit iffy at times and sub-weapons (such as Mondo’s Drill Arm) which feel slightly unresponsive at times and don’t wholly make the combat that more robust due to not being fluid to engage.
The inclusion of various sub-weapons Mondo can use may sound normal in a sense, though it is tied to a rather odd inclusion of the game: Gigolo Mode. By now a few of you may have either heard the ire some have raised concerning the mode, but if you haven’t then you’re in for a doozy that’s almost classic on the GhM pervy scale.
Presented as an optional quest that can be undertaken in-between missions, along with others that are combat challenges, the Gigolo Mode revolves around Mondo trying to pick a woman up at a bar. Yup, when he’s not slaying deadly enemies Mondo likes to sit back, have a drink, and woo a lady.
The main point of Gigolo Mode is to basically ogle the various parts of a woman when she’s not looking, resulting a slight orgasmic sound upon achieving the goal. By presenting a gift to the lady, which needs to be bought prior to starting the mission, you can further win them over and ultimately “close the deal”. By now it may sound like Gigolo Mode is entirely sexist in what it offers, and to be honest I really can’t defend it that much. In some ways it does live up to the overly goofy stance that Suda 51 and GhM has taken in recent years, along with essentially playing up the slightly “pervy” vibe certain elements of modern Japanese culture, but it does feel rather dumb in the end.
What does make the Gigolo Mode worth doing, and being slightly frustrating at the same time, is that it’s the only way to unlock new sub-weapons such as the Drill Arm. Yes, by proving Mondo’s skills as a ladies man it’s possible to unlock new weapons that while not extremely pivotal to passing certain obstacles in the game, they do make things easier and simply add a slight burst of variety into the proceedings.
I guess by tying the unlocking of weapons into a separate mission/mode GhM did something different, but the Gigolo Mode really isn’t that much fun aside from the initial chuckle that’s to be had in the first minute or so. Again, I’m not terribly offended that GhM included such a thing as I’m not ready to grab my pitchfork just yet, but all together I think the game would’ve been better off leaving the mode out since it somewhat clashes with the vibe of the core narrative.
Other than some slight design imperfections, Killer Is Dead is rather fun in what it provides and shines the most when it comes to the boss battles that are presented. Somewhat reminiscent of No More Heroes by being the main focus of each chapter, the battles I partook in ranged from fighting grotesque monsters, Yakuza bosses imbued with cosmic tiger powers, and giant (literally) entities that shoot laser beams out of their eyes. Varied in their presentation and the battle tactics that need to be utilized, the boss battles never become tiresome nor do they immediately over shine the traditional combat that’s to be had, as was the case in the almost grinding and slightly tedious bouts that were had in No More Heroes.
Imaginative, daring, mysterious, and engaging, Killer is Dead is an example of Grasshopper Manufacturing going back to their roots and being on top of their game. Doing a good job at balancing a storyline that’s serious and extremely vague in the mysteries that are presented, all while adding a joke or two when the moment calls for it, the overall tone of the narrative will likely please those that enjoyed Killer 7 since it shares some of the same themes – sans commentary on politics and the appearance of mute gimps.
The rather profound twist at the end may leave you hanging given what it implies, but overall Killer Is Dead is a well-balanced game since it pays attention to both the style of the world, the blood filled gameplay, and the intricate battle between the forces of good and evil.
Far from being a copy or mere iteration of No More Heroes, Killer Is Dead shows that while Grasshopper Manufacture may have a few dips in quality once in a while, the studio still has the creative juice left to make for memorable experiences that are unlike anything else.
A review copy of this game was provided by the publisher