You have to be a certain type of gamer to fully appreciate the works of Goichi Suda, (i.e. Suda 51) and his studio Grasshopper Manufacture. Ever since Killer7, perhaps his most critically polarizing title he’s ever made, he’s been one of the most difficult gaming personalities to pigeonhole. Even my opinions of the auteur producer have bordered on the methodically insane to outright avant-garde nihilism.
On the surface for those familiar with Suda’s work Killer is Dead is exactly what you’d expect; a surreal world populated with slick visuals, glorified violence, and humor that’s absurd yet charming all the same. All of this unfolds as you take the role of Mondo Zappa, a sharply-dressed 30-something, cybernetic arm-wielding assassin who’s pretty low-key behind the suave persona.
Realistically Mondo is surprisingly average compared to everything else going on in the game. In fact he’s merely a cog for the executioner’s department, a tax-funded agency that serves as the “country’s” first line of defense or an assassin-for-hire firm that specializes in unique cases and eliminating targets around the globe. All the clientele have problems such as a artist whose neighbor is a child-devouring spider mutant, exploring a mansion on the dark side of the moon for a beautiful woman in crisis, or literally recapturing a stolen item by a giant head. Even his workplace associates come straight out of left field. Vivienne for instance just happens to have a dozen arms that spring out of her back and fire pistols.
Going into detail about the plot is nearly impossible because within the first two hours of playing you’ve already been through a playhouse that looks like was inspired by M.C. Escher’s Relativity print and on the moon and back again, it’s a distinct and cerebral form of film noir storytelling where nothing is truly revealed or explained – or at the very least able to piece together early on, despite the game’s linear approach.
The surrealist narrative and settings are enough to alienate the majority but the core mechanics are grounded well within third-person action fundamentals. Similar to No More Heroes the hack-and-slash gameplay and necessary blocking and dodging moments are handled well, and on a basic level the combat feels more polished during chaotic duels. Abilities like Adrenaline Rush, which slows down time for an opportunity to really button mash into your enemies with your prized katana (lovingly known to Zappa as the Gekkou), to other context-sensitive skill such as Adrenaline Burst do an equally effective job of cutting down anything with gruesome flair. Slicing down enemies is also vital to power your cybernetic arm (a.k.a. the Musselback) since you need their blood to do so. This essentially makes your left hand your secondary weapon that transforms into a gun, drill, or freeze shooter, there are other sub-weapons that can be unlocked but they’re optional upgrades.
Admittedly, this part of the gameplay is one of the lower points of Killer is Dead as alternating between your primary and secondary weapons can be a cumbersome chore. Fortunately, most of the real action is regulated to the sword.
One of the most controversial parts of the game (if that’s possible) are the Gigolo Missions, which are mini-games that can be played between the main missions. The objective is pretty simple; attempt to hit on and seduce one of the four ‘Mondo’ girls in a bar by sneaking a peek at them while they’re not looking and raising your Guts (confidence). Keeping the mood intimate, leering at the right time with your “Gigolo Vision”, and giving her presents until she finally leaves the bar with you is all a part of this game. And the romance doesn’t end there when you visit your ‘girls’, they’ll start calling at the most inopportune times during missions but you do eventually get to take them home for the night (hint, hint). It’s fairly easy to how people can be offended (or at least pretend to be) by the pretext of this mode, but they’re a moderately entertaining distraction and hardly that raunchy to be honest. They don’t add much depth to the game but it doesn’t hurt try your luck with the Mondo ladies at least once.
From the stark visuals to the nonchalantly schizophrenic plot Killer is Dead will be a familiar experience for all Suda51 and Grasshopper Manufacture fans, especially those close to Killer7. And just like that polarizing gem the game will undoubtedly struggle to find an audience outside the cult-like fanbase of the director’s previous efforts. The gameplay isn’t that innovative and character development is sacrificed for a darker, vaguely sensual, and nightmarish underworld. This is simply a game that that’s too abstract for most to embrace, even those who consider themselves open-minded. But then again that’s probably where its magic truly lays.