In my years of professional game reviewing, there are certain words and phrases I honestly never believed I would use in a review. It’s not like I thought no game would “go there,” it just never occurred to me that my game review lexicon would have to include phrases like “golden jock strap,” or “chair made of blue breasts.” Call it a failure of imagination on my part, I guess.
For as clever and high-minded as it tries to be, the game is bogged down with some really, really immature design decisions.
If my neighbors were listening during my playthrough, they would have been treated to gems like “Does that thing coming out of the evil train look like a penis? (The answer is yes.) “Man, that guy’s golden thong keeps deflecting my sword.” (To be fair, it was a powerful crotch protector.) “No, no, no. You have to stare at her thighs, THEN her breasts.” (Yep.)
You could call Killer Is Dead ambitious, but ambition is no substitution for real vision. The artistic side of Killer Is Dead is always present in the stylized cel shading and unusual story but it relies on incomplete elements that, even when pieced together, just aren’t that interesting or coherent.
Zappa. Mondo Zappa.
Your journey into the disturbed psyche of Killer Is Dead mastermind Suda 51 is seen through the eyes of Mondo Zappa, an assassin wielding a katana blade and sporting a mechanical arm called “Musselback.” Mondo’s cyber arm also doubles as a secondary weapon capable of mimicking a blaster (the default), a rifle, a drill, and a freeze ray, and yet he has no memory as to how he received it.
Mondo is part of a group of state subsidized “executioners” that take contracts involving monsters known as “wires.” These wires are somehow connected to the moon. The nature of that connection, along with so many other things, is never really explained. After killing his target (the boss of each mission) Mondo utters his catchphrase, “killer is dead,” signifying that the killer he was sent to dispatch is, in fact, dead.
As you take Mondo through the roughly 10 hour game (including all the side missions), he confronts the possibly evil David, who now lives on the dark side of the moon… in a mansion that he stole while wearing a golden jockstrap and a crown for no reason that is ever made apparent. After running to the moon wearing only his stylish suit and a space helmet (again, don’t look for reason) Mondo fights David and begins to realize that the two are connected. Maybe.
The game presents itself like an exploitation film, merging the lurid ’60s-era spy mold that spawned from James Bond but lacked his class, with a sci-fi element. If it were a movie, it would be playing in grindhouse theaters and trying to appeal to a handful of people rather than the mainstream. Killer Is Dead doesn’t explain itself or apologize for wanting to be niche.
Misogyny in video games is nothing new, but this borders on ridiculous.
For that, you have to applaud Killer Is Dead’s approach. It’s courageous to offer a game with a weird story that is drenched in metaphors that explains very little, with over-saturated cel-shaded artwork that is refreshingly crisp and original.
The game is also a bit pretentious, and the metaphors just fail. As often as the story points are left open to interpretation, they just make you not care. Badly handled and poorly timed dialogue are just some of a host of deeper problems that are ingrained in the nature of the game itself. There are disparate parts that feel forced together, like the game thought it had a cool idea but never bothered to create connections in even its own mind to justify it. New elements are introduced that feel added rather than revealed. If there was a clear vision guiding the game, it failed to convey its goal.
Have sword, will wave it blindly until you connect
If you strip away the story and overriding style elements you are left with a button masher – and a subpar one that is badly in need of a target lock.
The combat pits you and your sword against waves of enemies, generally in a confined area – typically a small, dull-looking square at that. It’s built around counters, requiring precise button presses. Waiting for the proper moment to block and then strike back is made infinitely more difficult by a camera that doesn’t seem to care if you are even in the frame. You can adjust the camera with the right thumbstick, for all the good it does, but that’s extremely awkward when the combat is mapped to the face buttons.
The counter system means you always have a chance against enemies no matter your level, but the game doesn’t begin to show its promise until at least half of the powers are unlocked. Then it goes from bad to just meh.
Throughout the game you earn “moon ore” by defeating foes, which you then use to purchase upgrades. Some of those upgrades improve your character by granting faster dodging and easier special attacks, others give you new moves. You can also improve your secondary weapons, but they are weak to the point of being ineffectual, no matter how upgraded they become.
The 12 story-based missions are straightforward enough – see enemies, kill enemies throughout a series of linear areas – but beating a primary mission unlocks a handful of mini-games and side quests. These range from a timed run through a level filled with enemies to skills competitions that require you to do things in particular ways, like killing enemies with a specific attack or reaching a pre-set number of combos. Regardless of how leveled up you are, the difficulty is inconsistent and swings from mindlessly button-mashing your way to glory to Battletoads’ aneurism-causing speeder bike level.
When the gameplay works, it makes you momentarily forget some of Killer Is Dead‘s problems. Dueling a giant monster and patiently waiting for your moment to counter, then strike it down can leave you feeling like a bad ass. Then enemies charge in from multiple angles and everything goes to hell.
The combat becomes a brightly colored, cel-shaded blur as your health drops for reasons that aren’t always clear. All your cool dodges and counters are more a product of luck than skill, as a result. You move forward when you manage to hit the right button at the right time, purely by chance. If you do fall in combat, you can always use a “Mika ticket,” which leads me to the next “what the hell?” moment in Killer is Dead: the ungodly amount of misogyny on display.
A woman’s place is in the armory
Just… wow. Women aren’t just objectified; objectifying them becomes a mini-game. Think of Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball, but then take away anything good natured about it.
The most blatant example of this are “gigolo” missions that task you with seducing “beauties” by staring at their breasts and thighs when they aren’t looking. Get caught and you are treated to an animation of Mondo striking out, but fill up the pervy gauge without being seen and you can give them a gift. The right gift (or gifts) creates an opportunity for you to take them to bed. Afterwards, they give you a gift. This is the only way to earn the three secondary weapons that go along with your default blaster.
But it doesn’t end there. Your two female companions in the story are laughably stupid. One rocks a jumpsuit that apparently fits everywhere except the chest, and the other is every bad female anime high school character ever, all combined into one. For those who mercifully don’t get that reference, just imagine a 15-year-old girl with a piercingly high voice and running on a constant sugar high; one part sex fantasy and one part housemaid. This game was clearly not made for women.
Misogyny in video games is nothing new, but this borders on ridiculous. You can even unlock glasses that let you see the beauties’ underwear. For the lofty ambitions Killer Is Dead at least attempts to aim for with its story, as hit or miss as it might be, the immaturity and somewhat despicable characterization of women slams it down.
And I never even got around to describing the blind woman that floats around on her chair made of breasts, shooting lasers at you.
The weird and often metaphorical story is pretentious and hampered by low-brow sensibilities. It’s hard to sell a game on being deep when one of the level bosses looks like a penis. But even if you enjoy the story and presentation, the gameplay is flawed and the level layouts are deceptively dull. A flashy opening area is typically replaced by a generic, square area. The colors may change, but the design philosophy is consistent.
Killer Is Dead tries to deliver something original and unique, and for that it should get some credit. Sure, that uniqueness is inundated with misogyny, it’s offensive at times, and it is created on bland gameplay, but kudos for trying, I guess. There are some fun moments, but they are hidden under a pile of issues from the offensive to the technically flawed.
This game was reviewed on an Xbox 360 using a copy provided by Xseed Games.
- The presentation is unique
- The combat shows flashes of respectability
- The combat system needs a target lock
- The story is not as clever as it thinks it is
- Sweet Gods, the misogyny
(This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 3 using a copy provided by the publisher)