So, Suda51, we meet again. After last year’s excellent Lollipop Chainsaw, the man known to his mum as Goichi Suda has produced a hyper-stylised action game centred on the antics of one awesomely-named Mondo Zappa, who’s job is primarily to kill things. Welcome to Killer Is Dead.
The most striking thing about Killer Is Dead are its visuals. It looks like someone animated a copy of Adobe Illustrator. Everything is made of solid blocks of colour and hard vector lines. It’s reminiscent of earlier Suda51 titles, including Killer 7 and No More Heroes.
In fact, a lot about Killer Is Dead is reminiscent of No More Heroes. Both games involve a sword-wielding main character with girl troubles, both games have a nebulous organisation with unclear motives driving things along, and both games involve missions to assassinate key people in order to progress. The difference here is that you’re not trying to become an elite assassin. No, Mondo Zappa’s mission is to rid the world of “wires” who are people who’s souls have been consumed by the moon… or something.
Once you get past the trippy visuals, the missions are pretty straightforward. Sure, you might be fighting through an impossible mansion on the dark side of the moon or a twisted dollhouse or whatever, but it’s always easy to figure out where to go, and the overall mission length is pretty short. The meat of the missions are the boss battles at the end, which tend to take up as much time as the stage itself.
These battles are imaginative and require a good amount of skill to get past. Don’t be surprised if you have to restart one a couple of times just to learn the mechanics in play. You do get the option of reviving when you die, but this is limited, and involves a bizarre minigame in which your assistant— hyper-genki girl Mika— bashes your chest until your heartbeat reaches 100.
Weirdly, though, once you look past the stylish graphics and fast-paced gameplay, Killer Is Dead feels, well, conventional. Even the out-and-out insanity of Lollipop Chainsaw seems to have taken a back seat here, for a more sombre mood. To me, this is the game’s biggest downfall. Sure, it gets crazy sometimes, but then it goes back to being normal.
Of course, normal still means it’s a pretty good game, but this is Suda51. He doesn’t do normal. Lollipop Chainsaw may have been flawed in some areas, but it was still compelling because it constantly threw crazy stuff at you, and you always wanted to see just how much more insane it would get (the answer, by the way, was “way, way more”.)
Each level has a particular rhythm that doesn’t really change through the game, and while there are some genuine mix-ups here and there (a boss battle viewed through the eyes of the boss, for example) they often end up being more trouble than they’re worth.
There’s something more troubling to me about Killer Is Dead than its perceived normality, however. There’s a series of optional side-missions referred to as “gigolo” missions. These missions involve— and I wish I was making this up— ogling an attractive woman in order to build “guts”. After hitting a particular threshold you can offer her a gift, which fills a heart meter that, when full, “wins the heart” of the woman, and she and Mondo retire to a room. If you get caught ogling, a mood meter falls and you have to try and refill it.
This is every bit as creepy as it sounds, and I was genuinely uncomfortable playing these side-missions. Now, I don’t want to go all social justice wonk here, but even Dead Or Alive XTreme Beach Volleyball— a game who’s sole reason for existing is to ogle attractive young women— didn’t make me this uncomfortable (okay, truth be told, I love the DoAX games, but that’s another story).
I think what makes it feel so awful is the fact that you get the biggest points for— and again, I wish I was making this up— looking at the woman’s chest or crotch while she is looking away. Doing so is the fastest way to fill your “guts” meter, but if she catches you she gets narky and you have to look away to refill the “mood” meter.
While these gigolo missions are optional, they reward you with significant upgrades that become very useful through the game, so you will be at a disadvantage if you skip them, too. I’m sure that it can be argued that the whole idea is a critique on the objectification of female characters in society and especially video games by reducing them to little more than objects to be scanned for points, but I think that’s reading a little too much into the whole thing.
Compare this to Lollipop Chainsaw, a game that does overtly sexualise its main character, but which gives her enough depth and, surprisingly, intelligence that you never felt she was just there to provide eye candy. Juliet Starling was an actual character, and while its unlikely that Lollipop Chainsaw will ever be held up as a shining example of feminism in video games, it, at least, understands that women are people too.
So then, Killer Is Dead is a visually outstanding game that falls apart as soon as you start looking beyond that. The combat is competent but not especially interesting, the story isn’t all that great and the side-missions cast you as the creepiest of pick-up artists. While I’d normally recommend Suda51’s games solely because they’re always doing something different to everyone else, I think you can safely skip over Killer Is Dead.
Imaginative boss fights
Creepy gigolo missions are massively offputting
Feels conventional by Suda51 standards