Killer Is Dead is here, and it's officially strange, awkward, fun, bizarre and oddly erotic all at once.
Thanks to the marketing surrounding the title and its in-game portrayal of women, Killer Is Dead has earned a spot in the limelight for all the wrong reasons.
Is there a great game below that veil of controversy? Maybe. This title arrives thick with style and bravado, and Suda51 (its now cult famous creator) has a penchant for making weird stuff with the aim to shock and offend. Coupling those two points paints a good picture for those interested in picking this up.
Is it worth your money? Here we go.
Hack 'n Slash in its Simplest Form
Combat in Killer Is Dead is, for better or worse, simple. The game is easy to pick up and play because the combat is little more than dodge, block, parry and button mash. For gamers like me, this is fine. The combat sections in the title are never long enough that its straightforward button mashing gets boring.
For diehard fans of action games, though, Killer Is Dead is not a bastion of excellence. This is not Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden. Precision and timing rarely matter. In fact, the only time you'll even be remotely challenged during combat is when you're tasked with killing a boss or taking down a massive group of varied enemies. Even then, I use the word "challenge" loosely.
A word of warning: if you're a hardcore action game fan, crank this one all the way up to Hard. Even then, though, the challenge isn't too great.
The fighting mostly takes place on the Square and Circle buttons (or X and B, if you're on the Xbox 360). You'll hack away with the Square button, and dodge by pressing circle and tilting the analog stick away from your attacker. The dodge, if timed right, will open a window to slow down time in front of your opponent and let you hack away and deal massive damage.
The money you earn will translate into upgrades and combo unlocks, like most action games. These do little to improve or sophisticate combat, but do stave off sameness for the duration of the title.
Just spam buttons, folks. If you're looking for an action game packed with challenging combat, Killer Is Dead won't do the trick. It's simple and derivative. The good news? Enemy types, objectives, locale and insanity changes up so much that the simplicity never turns into pure boredom. Before you have a chance to get tired of mashing buttons, the game changes pace with a crazy cutscene, location switch or ridiculous set piece.
Dripping with Style
What Killer Is Dead absolutely nailed for me is style.
The game's distinct look comes off straight away in all of the images and assets released before its launch. Killer Is Dead is cel shaded, and it's been covered with grit and grain that gives it an extra edge of style to boot.
Grasshopper Manufacture was smart enough to spread this design over all sorts of interesting locations and characters. You'll fight horrific monsters in a house made of candy and sweets, you'll battle weird creatures on the moon, you'll fight a man obsessed with sound in an office building and you'll even tangle with a yakuza boss riding a tiger in the temples of Kyoto, Japan.
There's even a unicorn.
And that off-the-wall style and flair also seeps into the game's narrative. Killer Is Dead is about Mondo Zappa, a part time assassin/gigolo with an eye for love, a sword for killing and a robotic arm with all sorts of abilities. The storyline flips between nonsensical and straightforward throughout the campaign, though it never really flirts with greatness. Consider it the vessel for going to the moon and fighting a half-naked man with a crown.
The art here works really, really well. Some gamers and critics have complained about screen tearing. I played the game on my PlayStation 3. Screen tearing didn't happen much for me. I noticed it, but it was never obnoxious enough to tear me out of the moment or atmosphere.
Let's Talk About Sex
There's a mode in Killer Is Dead where Mondo does his best to ensnare a women for a night of intercourse. Doing so rewards players with unlockable upgrades and weapons. This mode has generated a lot of buzz and negativity for the game, though I don't necessarily think it had any real reason to be hated on so harshly.
It's called "Mondo girls," a pun on the James Bond flicks' "Bond Girls." But, we'll get to that in a second. First, let's talk about the mini-game.
Basically, you'll sit down at a bar, for instance, and start talking to a girl. When she's not looking, you focus the camera in on erogenous zones. Do that enough without getting caught and you'll fill up your "Guts" meter. Once you have enough guts, you'll give her a present. Do that enough and you'll "win her heart." That leads to a quick cutscene and sex.
Sure, it's perverse. It's also absolutely pointless. The mini-game itself is simplistic. It's boring. It never evolves beyond watching meters and staring at virtual cleavage.
Unfortunately for Suda51 and Grasshopper Manufacture, this mini-game's existence has become a sticking point for massive negativity in reviews. Surely, the creators meant for this mode to be nothing more than fanservice layered below cheesy humor. It objectifies women, yes, but it does so in a way that fits the game's setting and fiction.
Going after women like this in Killer Is Dead is just plain silly. Mondo breaks the fourth wall constantly during these scenes, and there's even a point where he gives players a thumbs up for scoring with a lady.
Goichi Suda was interviewed by EDGE back in January. They talked specifically about this mode in that piece. Here's a slice from it.
There's an ongoing debate regarding the depiction of women in games. You see that encouraging players to ogle women via X-ray specs will be controversial, right?
We try to create a world that doesn't really trace or depict what is considered 'real', but what I like to consider a 'hyper-real' world. And when you take examples in other pop-culture media… James Bond, especially, which is a big inspiration for Mondo girls – 'Mondo girl' is a play on the Japanese pronunciation of Bond girl, in fact. James Bond, after he does a mission, there's always going to be a Bond girl who will, in between, offer him a moment of relief and relaxation. So I'm depicting something similar here, and I feel that the implementation of it will give the players a kind of beat, a type of rest.
These mini-games are a reference to James Bond. And, speaking as someone who has seen a ton of Bond movies, the objectification of women comes with the referential territory.
Look, here's my point: I won't criticize a game for objectifying women in this way. There are two things to consider. First, this game was made by Japanese developers who have an entirely different perspective on gender equality and portrayal. We can't force Western standards on them and demand that they change their views. Second, I consider games art. To demean art for being "sexist" is ridiculous.
If you dig the style and don't mind button-mashing combat, Killer Is Dead is a fine purchase.
I enjoyed my time with Killer Is Dead. It doesn't stand as one of the best games of the year, but it is one that I don't regret playing.
It's heavily stylized, rocks a mediocre story, offers up action that might be far too simplistic and boasts a mode that's stirred up far too much controversy. In the end, though, this is just a better than average game that will provide around eight hours of entertainment.
If you dig the style and don't mind button-mashing combat, Killer Is Dead is a fine purchase. Perhaps it's not worth its $60 price tag, but even a marginal discount would push it towards buy-worthy territory. The screenshots, trailers and premise are a clear indication of what's in store here; if you're intrigued by them, you'll probably enjoy the game. I did.
We received a review copy of Killer Is Dead for the PlayStation 3 from the publisher. We played the title through on Normal (and sometimes Hard) difficulty before starting this review.