Killer is Dead
Publisher: XSeed Games
Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture
Release Date: 8/27/2013
In a soldier’s stance, I aimed my hand
At the mongrel dogs who teach
Fearing not that I’d become my enemy
In the instant that I preach
My pathway led by confusion boats
Mutiny from stern to bow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now
Suda 51, the mind behind such games as Lollipop Chainsaw and No More Heroes, is back and this time he is set to make a James Bond style game. Well, except that James Bond is part vampire, has a Mega Man arm, and is taking orders from an off model Cyborg from Teen Titans.
And he has to kill an Alice in Wonderland analogue.
And he has to battle an evil Russian Thomas the Tank Engine.
Let’s just say that Suda 51 games aren’t getting any less strange.
Our protagonist is named Mondo Zappa, a name which is actually less silly than those chosen for Frank Zappa’s children. Mondo is gaunt, wears glasses, dresses like a Reservoir Dog, and subsists on a diet of soft boiled eggs made by his live-in . . .
I’m sorry I don’t watch much anime. Is there a name for those girls who wear short plaid skirts, demonstrate monstrous stupidity, and are always jumping and screaming?
Anyways, Mr. Zappa works for a government agency run by the ersatz Cyborg and a half-to-mostly nekkid blonde Englishwoman who drives a motorcycle and occasionally has 16 arms. Zappa is tasked with completing missions given to him by clients around the world and occasionally from the moon, and is paid by the state to complete these things despite most of these missions having nothing to do with any federal need, practicality, or desirability. Sometimes the missions are in Mondo’s dreams. Other times they are in somebody else’s dreams. He still gets a check from the dream missions, though. Mondo’s first client turns into a ghost after the mission is completed. Another turns into a blue bird and flies away.
Basically, I cannot describe the goings-on of this game without my brain turning to liquid and dripping out of my ears. The story’s eccentricities would be much easier to unpack, or at least swallow, if the game had some sort of binding internal logic, consistency of tone, or interesting characters. Instead what we get is all over the goddamned map. Certain scenes are played straight despite having a magical unicorn. Other scenes are standard video game fare, but the characters break the fourth wall and address that they are in a game. At times the game wants to be super deep and dramatic about life, death, sex and the human condition. But then you have to upgrade your robot arm by completing a series of missions wherein you stare at a woman’s crotch without getting caught in order to give her presents in the hopes that she will sleep with you.
Listen, I LIKE WEIRD. But this game seems like the kid that is just acting weird to get attention. Killer is Dead is afraid of being normal for a few seconds because it is afraid of how utterly unremarkable and mediocre it is. Without addressing the fourth wall, this boss battle is just another in a series of bland dodge and button mash boss battles. Without this magic unicorn saving a cybernetic James Bond, what we are left with is another reactionary video game protagonist suffering from selective amnesia.
There is a level that takes place in a mansion on the moon, but without the cut-scenes it isn’t any different from any other mansion or any other mission. The enemies are the same, the gravity is the same, and there is no way of knowing that this takes place off the Earth.
There is an Alice in Wonderland level where some stairs lead to nowhere and furniture is on the ceiling. But that’s about it. It lacks creativity. It plays like a cheap R-rated ripoff of something from Super Mario Galaxy. The big twist is that Alice was infected by something on the moon and now she turns into a giant spider. Because of REASONS.
The side characters aren’t particularly interesting. In lieu of character development, the Cyborg boss is constantly lighting cigars from his robot arm and drinking from a rock glass. In lieu of a backstory, the Englishwoman is given a motorcycle.
And Mondo Zappa is no Travis Touchdown. Travis is an idiotic, perverted, loser but is lovable because he seems to understand that he is an idiotic, perverted, loser. Mondo is a loose collection of ideas that don’t really work together. The first time he uses his robot arm to brush back his hair and says his catchphrase of “killer is dead,” I laughed at the absurdity of the situation. The second time, I wondered if I was supposed to take this seriously. By the third time, I no longer cared if I was supposed to take any of this as seriously as it was presented. By the fourth time, I wanted to punch Mondo in his stupid face.
His hair doesn’t even move! That is some lazy animation right there. I appreciate murky cel-shading as much as the next guy, but at least animate the trademark motion of the hero.
The game is weird without being clever about it. Once you get past its eccentricities, the story is “the one bad guy is causing most of these problems, and he is also the protagonist’s brother.”
Oh, spoilers. Sorry. The bad guy is the hero’s brother: groundbreaking.
In terms of gameplay, Killer is Dead can be quite fun. It’s got a simple, arcade beat ‘em up feel to it. It is ridiculously linear both in the fact that you can’t play mission five before mission four and that in the episodes themselves the next room doesn’t open until you clear the current room of enemies. If you feel nostalgic about video games from 20 years ago, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Most of the fights amount to smashing the square button into dust in order to unleash ridiculously long combos and occasionally pressing circle to dodge. You can even buy what amounts to tokens to revive your character at the moment you get killed. Basically it amounts to a bloodier version of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game except that you sometimes move up, down, and left and the quarter slot only works for Leonardo.
In the year 2013, I would expect more for an action game: branching pathways, some meaningful character customization, open world elements, options to use stealth in lieu of brute force, multiplayer or co-op options, etc. etc. There was a lot more to do in No More Heroes, and that felt limited in its world…five and a half years ago. No More Heroes 2 solved these complaints by saying “screw you guys” and taking away most of the sandbox-y elements. Killer is Dead feels like even more of a regression.
(Killer is Dead is not a sequel to No More Heroes but I feel it is acceptable to compare games with the same developers featuring magical sword wielding assassins who ride on motorcycles, break the fourth wall and behave like the power fantasies of 12 year olds.)
If the game were just a series of mindless battles, I might like it better. But like so many modern games, Killer is Dead doesn’t really want you to play it.
Let me explain.
Killer is Dead is separated into episodes. In the first episode, you watch a cut scene, slowly walk down a long alley where no buttons do anything, watch a cut scene, hold down the right trigger, let it go, and watch a cut scene.
In the second episode, you watch a cut scene, watch another cut scene, then watch a cut scene, then fight bad guys for about thirty seconds, then watch a cut scene, then mash the square button for about four seconds, then watch another cut scene involving two characters you can’t control.
You don’t actually start doing anything until the third episode. Even then, most episodes are overrun with cut scene, load screen, cut scene, load screen, all to serve a story that isn’t particularly interesting. None of the characters are relatable, I’m not sure who is fighting whom for what reason, and I’m don’t what any of them want. (This is apart from the Englishwoman, who just wants money. This is presumably for motorcycle parts and eight new pairs of leather gloves. )
There are optional side missions that can give you more blood, money, blood money, experience and such to upgrade your character. For the most part these lay exactly like the regular game, in the same environments with slightly different objectives. There aren’t particularly rewarding in any particular meaning of that term.
The only side missions that play differently are the Mondo’s Girls missions.
All right. Video games are art. As such, they contain no actual sex or violence; instead it is the artistic depiction of sex and violence. The only truly violent video games are games like Mario Kart and Mario Party because they cause controllers to get thrown at heads. So, I’m fine with arms getting chopped off or panties getting stared at because nobody is really getting hurt.
That being said, neither sex comes out looking too good in these awful Mondo’s Girl’s missions.
Here’s how they work. You have a scene with a girl from Mondo’s POV. There is a mood meter, a blood brain meter thing and a heart meter. You can move your head, and use the trigger to control something known as gigolo vision.
Okay, so the object of these missions is to get the women to go home with you. But you cannot do that until the heart meter is full. And you fill that up by giving the women presents that you buy from Killer is Dead‘s gift shop. The presents range from gum to things like perfume and necklaces. They cost thousands of dollars, and are more expensive every time you buy them.
You generally have to give the lady three presents before they agree to do the horizontal bop, because, you know, WOMEN.
But you cannot just give them presents. You cannot talk to them or anything like that. In order to give them presents you have to fill up the blood to the brain meter. That is filled up by using your gigolo vision while staring at their pink parts, which I always thought made the blood go away from the brain. I am not a doctor, though.
Now, you got to wait until the women are looking away to stare at their naughty bits or else it will spoil the mood. If the mood meter goes all the way down, you might end up getting slapped or getting a lap full of hot tea instead of a lap full of hottie.
See what I did there.
You can repair the mood by using your gigolo vision on their face and pretending to be a decent human being for a few seconds at a time.
If you manage to fill up the heart meter, you are rewarded with a cut scene. Each time you defeat the woman in coital combat, you are treated to a longer cut scene. These things range from a thumbs up as you leave the bar together to a full on Waking Life version of a USA “Silk Stalkings” let’s-keep-our-underwear-on sex scene.
So there you have it: women are shallow and men are perverts. I should also say that I have been with the same woman for fifteen years, so I am absolutely terrible at these mini-games. I am not very skilled at ogling. It is as though I learned nothing from watching Def Jam’s How to be a Player when I was 19.
At first, I thought these Mondo’s Girls missions were satire. In a sense they are satirizing the notion of Bond girls. But you cannot make a satire of porn without it becoming porn.
Come to think of it, when I first started playing this game I thought a lot of it was satirizing bad video game tropes. I thought that everything was wacky with juvenile notions of relationships and conflict because there was a twist. I was convinced that it was going to be revealed that Mondo was really a twelve year old boy; that the dream missions were closer to reality and the “real” missions were all dreams. The name of the game is KID, how clever! But the more I play and the more I read, the more I realized that we weren’t playing through Mondo’s juvenile power fantasy, but through Suda 51’s. And even were my twist revealed there is that problem again: it is hard for something to satirize bad video games without becoming a bad videogame itself.
While Killer is Dead has its charms and a lot of moments of fun, the game is ultimately not good.
Short Attention Span Summary
Nothing about this game is firing on all cylinders. Occasionally it can be funny or witty, but more often it is confounding and most of the time it is just there. It’s fun, for a little while, if you like mindless, button-mashing beat ‘em ups, but not $50 fun. All in all, it manages to do nothing as well as No More Heroes did nearly six years ago.