Review: Killer is Dead

It’s a big risk to make a weird product in the video game industry. While the indie movement has given rise to gems like Hotline Miami, mainstream studios tend to be afraid to step out of the box. For every Catherine, there’s twenty generic military shooters. For every Saints Row IV, there’s twenty racing games. Thankfully, however, Japanese studios tend to revel in the avant-garde, continually releasing oddball games that have no equal in their ability to deviate from the norm. Unfortunately, we rarely get to experience these stateside, but when one comes, it’s cause for celebration. Killer is Dead is not only an uncommon opportunity to peer inside the Japanese game world, but also one of the strangest games ever created — and this is from the guy who made a game about a cheerleader fighting off hordes of zombies.

Killer is Dead stars an executioner named Mondo Zappa who has recently become a major cog at Bryan’s Executioner Office. The Executioner Office is the country’s first line of defense, banked on tax dollars and serving the state. Well, in theory at least, as most of its clients are individual citizens who come to the firm with a unique problem. There’s the man with a giant spider monster terrorizing his house, a musician who had her ears stolen and a woman in crisis from the dark side of the moon just to name a few. There’s never a job the office doesn’t take, and while Mondo is sent out on the bulk of them, he has assistance in the form of Bryan, Vivienne and Mika. Vivienne is a femme fatale with a dozen arms that shoot out of her back and fire guns (something randomly revealed halfway through the game), Bryan is the head of the operation who is one cybernetic implant away from becoming a robot and Mika is a young runaway that Mondo takes in because she’s good at making soft-boiled eggs. All the characters in the game are interesting, from the major players to the bit ones, with Bryan a standout outside of the protagonist. His cryptic messages and nonchalance helps elevate the surrealism of the situations.

I’d go deeper into the plot, but find that difficult for two reasons: it would spoil the fun of unraveling the story and it’s incredibly abstract and difficult to put into words. Killer is Dead has a narrative that plops you into the middle of a mysterious world playing as a character you know little about. It takes place in the distant future as evidenced by Mondo’s cybernetic arm and the moon being inhabited. Indeed, the cover art is not just for show and the moon plays a significant part in the game. As the plot progresses, more is revealed about the characters and just what the hell is happening, rewarding those who stick with it and attempt to piece it all together. Tonally, the game is reminiscent of the recent Nicolas Winding Refn film, Only God Forgives, due in part to the narrative, visual flair and surrealism of practically every situation. Unlike that film, however, there’s giant killer monsters.

Matching the idiosyncrasy of the plot are the bizarre level designs. There’s a stage reminiscent of an M.C. Escher painting as imagined by Lewis Carroll, complete with stairs on the walls, and one that takes place in a thousand-story building. This is a game that literally goes straight to the moon within the first few hours, so except anything and everything. The unique setting of areas helps the game from feeling repetitive, although they aren’t always the most inspired, with more indoor corridors than I would have liked. The boss designs are some of the strangest in recent memories, rivaling even the Slurm Queen in DmC. It’s be a crime to spoil them all, but know there’s a mummy musician and an attractive young woman who randomly has spider legs burst out of her back and turns into a horrifying creature.

The gameplay is that of a hack and slash and somewhat reminiscent of Devil May Cry. Mondo’s main weapon is his beloved katana, Gekkou, which absorbs blood and boosts his fighting ability. Blood can be used for multiple things, the most notable being the “Adrenaline Burst.” An enemy can be cut in half (usually right down the middle) upon being stunned, destroying them in one hit. The most important use of blood is to grant the ability to harness the power of Mondo’s cybernetic left arm, which is called the “Musselback.” Multiple (some unlockable) sub-weapons can be loaded into the Musselback, including the Bullet Shot, Freeze Shooter and Drill. The Bullet Shot is basically a gun and can be charged for more damage, the Freeze Shooter fires frozen bullets to slow enemies down and the Drill is a giant drill. The Bullet Shot is the most practical out of the three, although each has its own advantage.

Most of the time, however, expect to be hacking and slashing. Most of the action happens by the way of the square button, which creates lighting quick combos. Holding down the same button does a circular “Moon Slash,” while hitting triangle breaks guard. On the defensive side of things, holding circle brings Mondo into a guard, while tapping it makes him dodge. If an attack is successfully dodged, it brings up a prompt to counter-attack, which allows the enemy to be sliced and diced in slow-motion. While it’s a wholly satisfying combat system, it does feel a bit outdated after the smoothness of both DmC and Metal Gear Rising. DmC balanced multiple weapons and moves with ease, while Metal Gear Rising allowed for enemies to be cut up into almost literally millions of pieces. After experiencing those games, it’s hard to get that sense of “outrageousness” in combat the developers seemed to strive for.

Perhaps the most shocking feature about the game is that of the “Gigolo Missions,” which is surprising in a game that has a character sprout legs out of her back and crawl around the ceiling. These are mini-games that can be completed in-between missions, with the ultimate goal being to seduce a woman for pleasure and weapons. Every mission has Mondo approach an attractive woman and begin suducing her by holding LT for “Gigolo Vision” and sneaking a peak of her private areas when she’s not looking. You can look at her face too, but as the tutorial states, “staring at her face won’t increase your Guts, go for the sexy shots!” Mondo can restore the mood by looking in her eyes, however, which is necessary as she’ll ditch you if it cools off enough. Once you’ve gained enough guts by staring at her, you give her presents until she falls in love with you and gives you a weapon. It’s hard to predict how people will react to this mode, and I’m not touching that with a ten foot poll, but it’s surprisingly entertaining and all in good fun.

Closing Comments:

Killer is Dead is not everybody’s cup of tea. It’s avant-garde, darkly humorous, hyper-violent and different from most every game out there. It’s like the weirdness of Killer 7, Lollipop Chainsaw, Anarchy Reigns and Catherine rolled into one game, but narratively removed from anything that’s come before it. Many will simply not understand what it’s trying to accomplish, but those that do will revel in its capriciousness and be rewarded by an engrossing story that borders on poignancy at times. Yes, the Gigolo Missions are exploitative (and unabashedly entertaining), but it’s all in service of creating a sense of inflated sensuality to bolster the surrealism of the situations. Those who enjoyed Grasshopper’s previous work or are tired of repeatedly being spoon-fed the same game should check out Killer is Dead before it’s rightfully put on “most underrated game” lists in several years by the same people who criticize it now.
 Version Reviewed: PS3