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PLATFORM: XBox 360, PS3 (reviewed)
ESRB RATING: M
DEVELOPER: Grasshopper Manufacture
Killer Is Dead, like everything with Suda 51’s mark on it, is special. Which meaning of the term varies moment to moment. Like David Lynch, in style more than quality, he tells rather traditional tales, but tales that operate in a sort of fuzzy, dream logic state where symbolism and mood take precedence over cohesion and structure. At their best, they’re endlessly fascinating, with piles to chew on and interpret and piece together days after the game has been beaten. At their worst, you get Gigolo Missions. But oh, you bet your ass we’ll get to that.
The fascinating part of Killer Is Dead seems to come from examining our hero: a stoic, work-a-day, sword expert for hire with a cyborg arm named Mondo Zappa. Mondo is, for all intents and purposes, a perpetually bored government assassin who takes all the joy in his job as a government clerk, for whom the job, getting laid, and soft boiled eggs are all that matter. Lather, rinse, repeat. He also is quite pointedly worried about whether his actions, or the actions of others, are making the game interesting enough. It’s a fool’s worry, however. Killer Is Dead never sticks with one aesthetic long enough for anyone to get bored. But nevertheless, he worries.
The gameplay is the only part where there’s any sort of solid, grounded comparisons. It’s a decent hack and slasher at its heart of hearts, playing like a much less stiff No More Heroes. The controls can sometimes get a little clunky. You collect some variations on Mondo’s arm cannon that you’ll never ever need to use. Powerups come in the form of life vials, crystals, which are used to purchase upgrades, or blood, which can be used for energy, for a flashy, graphic novel black-and-white, one-hit kill, or, after purchasing the upgrade, to heal up. Combos pretty much involve spamming X/Square, unless they’re blocking, then you use a button to break their guard. Dodging at a specific time also unlocks a frenzied 20-hit slash that reduces most enemies to mozzarella. QTEs are kept to a blessed minimum, primarily at the very end to perform the coup de grace. It’s got cheap hits, and whether your counters activate or not tends to turn into sheer blind luck, but for a game that most involves spamming one button until collectibles pop out, it’s surprisingly addictive.
The story is where things go off to wackyland and back. The major missions of the game involve Mondo being sent off by his employer, a guy who looks like Cowboy Bebop‘s Jet Black got hooked on HGH, on random, disconnected missions to assassinate specific targets. The targets range from the relatively small and intimate–tracking down a vampire kidnapper in the first stage, or facing off against a transformed Yakuza honcho–to the completely fucknuts insane–being trapped in an MC Escher interpretation of Alice in Wonderland, being hired to take down a 100-foot mutant scientist, or flying to the moon to steal it back from its new, 300 Xerxes-esque owner–and everything in between. The motivations are laid out partially by the cutscenes; some in-engine, others using the same delightful paper-doll-cutout animation from Shadows of the Damned. The full story, however, is laid out in detail in the loading screens for new episodes, and flash for a scant moment. Again, dream logic takes over. They’re on screen just long enough to get a feel, a glimpse, just like everything as it pertains to tone in this game. At scattered moments, it feels like a Jungian interpretation of a Bond film, or anime, or a horror movie. The dialogue seems stilted, inhuman. The story, combined with the druggy stylistic haze of an aesthetic, feels like a half-formed waking dream of a video game. Akira Yamaoka reaches from all corners of his musical prowess to deliver an eclectic, scattershot, but amazing piece of score work, ranging from cool, groovy jazz, to dissonant ambiance, and yes, there’s plenty of stuff hearkening back to his Silent Hill material and it’s right at home here. Somewhere in between is Mondo’s own actual dreams, focused around a moonlit riverbank, where he is constantly confronted by the memory of his mother making him eggs, and watching her die. Who fucking knows what that even means.
Combined, these elements would have the makings of a trippy, but unique title, worth a rental, or a bargain bin must-buy.
And then the Gigolo missions open up.
The gist is this: On Mondo’s downtime, there’s three women who you can visit, and go on dates. And by dates, we mean, Mondo gets “Guts” points for ogling their tits/legs while they’re not looking until he can give them a present, and if the present is to their liking, they give up the literal and colloquial goods, during which the screen whites out, and Mondo makes a noise that means he either came like an atom bomb, or he just found out Lois Lane is dead and flew away to turn back time, I can’t tell which. Meanwhile, the girls either moan, or inanely chatter about what a good time they’re having. The gifts themselves can be purchased from the in-game shop, although one of the girls, a stereotypical slutty nurse brandishing a giant syringe, can only be wooed by completing challenge stages. Eventually, winning the challenges wins you a pair of special glasses, allowing you to see the other women in their underwear while these missions occur. Even giving Suda the benefit of the doubt that he has a point with this–closest as I can figure, he’s making some half-baked commentary on the Bond girl trope, while simultaneously parodying all those awful Japanese dating sims that country pumps out by the dozens–because none of the subtext is played tight enough to make it count, these missions, while optional, just come off as–and I’m being rather conservative here–fucking gross. The player isn’t necessarily forced to play Male Gaze: The Video Game, and you can get through the campaign without ever needing to access them, thank merciful Jesus, but its inclusion definitely drops an otherwise okay game down a notch that it actually went there.
If you’re willing to just run with the rest of it, let the abstract just wash over you, it’s at least a fascinating ride. Or at least one that lets you skip the ride and cut straight to the action. If you’re paying attention, it may have some sort of connotation about the sacrifice of the artist, being forced to create, and entertain and titillate, but without any true passion or desire, hence the constant focus on the moon, and its ongoing mood, which might be a metaphor for Suda’s wistful, but waning passions for his medium.
Or he might just really, REALLY need to get laid.
Whichever the case, your mileage may vary on how much you’re willing to suffer him trying to figure it out for a decent week’s worth of passable action.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars