Killer is Dead [Review]
September 5, 2013
I wasn’t sure what to expect of Killer is Dead when it finally arrived. News about the game had pretty much drowned under the talk about its Gigolo Mode, but I trust Suda51 to do what’s right. Not entirely, but the man does know how to make a solid action game with great sound and bizarre personality. He’s done it again with this game, too, creating something that I instantly started replaying as soon as I’d finished skipping the credits. While the Gigolo mode does make me facepalm, the rest of the game built around it oozes style, and the game shows the skills Suda51 has built up from years of experience creating action games.
Before you can talk about anything about this game, you have to address the Gigolo Mode. There are stages in the game where you take in-game characters on dates, but they are strange, creepy dates where you never respond to anything the woman says. Your job in these sections is to leer at her lady parts for as long as possible when the woman isn’t looking right at you, building up a meter that, when full, will allow you to give the woman a present. Give her enough presents that she likes and she will go back to your houseboat. To break it down, if you look at a woman’s chest long enough you can give her a pack of gum, and then she may go sleep with you. And you live in a houseboat. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh, shake my head, or get mad about it. Shaking my head felt most appropriate, though, so good job, Suad51?
These sequences are beyond strange for multiple reasons. For starters, having the woman talk to you while you never, ever say anything back was just bizarre. Would it have killed the developers to put in some dialogue from Mondo (your character) to make it seem like a normal, non-terrifying date was happening? Also, there’s the troubling idea that a woman will sleep with you in exchange for enough prizes, turning adult dating into this absurd Price is Right style game show where “A NEW CAR!” ensures certain sexual privileges when Bob Barker goes home. Finally, it’s turning leering at women’s body parts into a game, which is also weird but a lot less weird than pawing at vulnerable women and having them enjoy it. It felt more stupid than genuinely offensive for me, although I can see how people would be bothered by it.
It seemed like the game was going to make those missions optional, as you don’t have to even look at them in order to beat the game. The problem is that you can only unlock extra side weapons for yourself by playing a handful of those missions, so unless you want to get stuck with your basic cannon for the whole game, you have to do a few of them. I managed to unlock the best weapon after playing through four of them, and then I never looked back. These weapons aren’t all that necessary if all you want to do is beat the game once, but if you’re going for high-difficulty play-throughs you’ll need this stuff. I laughed the entire time because I couldn’t believe this stuff was part of an action game, though, so I did enjoy them to an extent. As to whether they were going for laughter with these missions, that’s anyone’s guess.
This isn’t a bad, porn-inspired dating sim, though. It’s an action game, so let’s get to the cutting of faces. The combo system in Killer is Dead isn’t all that intricate, having you play with a single weapon, the katana, for the entire game. You can do a stunning punch with your robotic arm (that I hardly used), but other than that it’s your only melee option, and there aren’t that many moves with it. You have fewer attacks with this sword than Dante had with even a single weapon from DmC: Devil May Cry. Even then, I barely deviated from just pounding the basic attack over and over again. X, X, X, X and so on until everyone was dead.
Sound boring? It would have been without the game having a neat countering system. Enemies flash red when they’re about to attack you, and a quick flick of your block button will stop their attack. Who cares, right? Well, if you hold off just a little bit into their attack, hitting the button just before the attack lands, you’ll do a quick hit and then stun the enemy. If you can wait even longer, blocking as the attack lands, you will freeze time and get to slash at the enemy at high speed for three or four seconds, tearing through tons of its health. This careful dance is what makes the game interesting, as you’ll be doing your basic attacks and suddenly see something coming up behind you with its weapon ready. Switch to your block button in mid-attack and you’ll stop yourself from taking damage, counter the enemy (often until they’re dead), and then resume your attacks without ever stopping. Remember how I always say I like games that reward constant aggression?
This also brings the combo system into things. It counts up how many hits you do like any old combo counter, but it adds five hits every time you successfully counter-block an enemy, and goes up like crazy when you’re slashing at frozen monsters. With the right upgrades, your sword will also get more powerful the higher your combo meter goes, and once it goes past thirty hits you can do finisher moves on enemies to make them drop health or the various experience types in the game (Health and Blood meters, the later of which fuels your guns and special attacks, level up independently). This means that once you really get going, you’ll just be flying from enemy to enemy, cutting them to shreds while blocking enemies that your character isn’t even facing. Blood and prizes will be shooting everywhere as the game adopts various colors and filters, turning combat into this gorgeous array of violence and color. When it really gets going, it is absolutely amazing.
The block function also lets you do a short dodge to one side if that’s what you’re used to, but the dodge really doesn’t take you that far out of the way. It can be pretty annoying if you’re used to a more God of War style roll where you can move far out of danger, and breaking yourself of the habit of using it that way is aggravating at first. There are also some attacks from larger creatures and bosses that don’t appear to have any window where you can block-counter them, and the dodge function didn’t feel like it was enough to get me out of the way. It forced me to snipe at them, taking a cautious approach when in a game that had never been about caution previously. It’s an annoying, but infrequent, problem.
Ranged attacks have been added to deal with that, but they feel a little lame. Like the guns in Shadows of the Damned, they all sound like spitballs and lack any visual sense of impact. I never much used them because of it, and the basic gun, even at its highest level, does lousy damage. The canon you unlock from Gigolo Mode is much better, but I rarely felt that I needed a ranged option enough to bother with the guns; running up to the enemies whenever it was possible to do that instead. I suppose someone could have fun with the firearms if they wanted, but I couldn’t. Still, variety, right?
But why do I want to put the pointy end of my sword into the other man? What’s my motivation? Well, after beating it once, I can safely say that I’m not entirely sure. The game has a pretty strange storyline in it — one that involves the powers of the dark side of the moon, but it never really comes out and explains itself. The various killers you have to fight all seem to be pulled together at random, and you really don’t know what you’re going to have to fight next. It makes the game feel like it would be better suited as an episodic downloadable release for how different one level can be to the next, but it all ties together by doling out more things about Mondo’s past, and how it’s affecting the present, in every stage. Why do you have a robot arm, anyway?
The result was a game that kept me off-guard and asking questions the whole time, even when it was over. The game ends with many questions unanswered, actually leaving me with some stuff to think about when it was all over. It skirts very close to being filled with generic anime nonsense, though, as if it were being vague for vagueness’ sake. Even so, it managed to create this mystique around the moon and why it was granting powers to people that I was comfortable not knowing everything about when the game ended. Really, what explanation could they have given about the moon that wouldn’t have sounded stupid and campy? It was a remarkably restrained decision to be vague about some of the game’s plot elements, especially considering this is a game where you sleep with women so you can get better robot arms.
None of the stuff I liked about this game would have been anywhere near as good without the cell-shaded look. The use of color and shadow, the intense reds and whites being played off each other, and just the gorgeous moments of light and dark make the game look beautiful. I am a huge fan of cell-shaded games, finding them so rich in color compared to everything else on the market that I fall in love instantly. Coloring the madness of Killer is Dead in this way gave the game some incredible shots, making it feel like it was designed for screenshots and desktop backgrounds. Some of the images surrounding the execution of the bosses, such as assisting the tiger boss while he committed seppuku (ritual suicide) in front of a screen-sized full moon, are just breathtaking.
The drag about some of the cell-shading is that many background objects had this weird, washed out look at times. I may love cell shading, but the crap tends to give me headaches from being too hard on the eyes. It didn’t in this game, but those washed out colors on backgrounds objects came pretty close. It makes it hard to make out some things, and I naturally squinted even while looking at those places in passing. It’s a nasty side effect to the cell shading, and while it looks very good when the developers specifically put a lot of thought into a scene, it can be downright ugly in the course of regular gameplay.
I wanted the game to be the complete package, but the music really wasn’t anything special. I feel like Akira Yamanoaka (main sound guy for Silent Hill) isn’t working to his full potential here, for whatever reason. I loved the last work of his that I heard in Shadows of the Damned, but many of the songs here seem ambient and lifeless compared to his early work. There’s none of the game’s style or personality in the pieces, and the few more powerful tracks just feel like generic rock. The sound effects aren’t impressive, either, so the sound really was a letdown in the game. Average, average, average.
I still can’t stop playing the game itself, though. It lets you keep all of the stuff you’ve unlocked, carrying it forward while trying to get the highest rankings on each stage so I can unlock other cool things. With its simple combat, I should have gotten sick of it, but the careful balance of defense and aggression kept me going nonstop until the game was over, and then I dove right back in again. Placing that system in a game that looks this beautiful in combat just makes it a must-buy, even if it does have the dumbest dating simulation that I’ve ever seen.
On an unrelated note, anyone want a pack of gum?
Out Of 5
Killer Is Dead
The cell-shaded look is fantastic, really helping specific scenes and general combat look great. There are some incredible scenes in this game that come from its art style, and I'd be happy to freeze the game just to look at them for a while. The look does cause some problems in the backgrounds during the movements of general play, though.
Lifeless. It's the elevator music of video games in most places, and the sound design doesn't do anything impressive to make up for it.
Despite the swordplay being simple, there really is quite a bit you can do , and it's all relatively easy to execute. It takes some time to realize how useless the dodge function is, and not being able to use it against unavoidable attacks in an effective way is annoying.
Combat is elegant but simple, and I looked forward to every fight. Watching enemies and picking the perfect moment to block to maintain your combo is pretty addictive, and was enough to get me through the game. It keeps challenging you to be perfect in every fight. Gigolo Mode is pretty stupid, but it is functional and not especially hard. It's also optional if you don't want to do it at all.
I played this game straight, from waking up until going to bed, for two days until I finished it. The last game I did that for was Bioshock. The combat and insane storyline made this game beyond fun to play, and as soon as I'm done writing I intend to go back to it. If you like action games about swordplay, it's hard to put down.