A killer runs through dark and rain soaked streets with Mondo Zappa in hot pursuit, easily blocking machinegun fire with his sword while moving ever closer to his target. These first steps in the assassin’s shoes found me anticipating some mix of Blade Runner’s future noir and Cowboy Bebop’s quirky episodic bounty hunting thrown together in a Suda51 blender, and a fair amount of drool ran down my chin over that idea.
Unfortunately, those first immersive moments quickly gave way to a game strangely eager to throw the player back out of this world, unfolding to reveal a game that feels more like a fan fiction written by the president of Grasshopper’s fan club, rather than the hands that created No More Heroes.
Players join Mondo just as he gains employment within a state sponsored executioner office, where people come with targets they’d like dealt with. While Mondo’s targets all share a loose connection to a dark energy running throughout the game (which is never really explained), it’s unclear what qualifies a person for execution—maybe you can have your neighbor killed for playing music too loud; I just don’t know.
The office is run by Bryan and Vivienne, with Mondo bringing along his bubbly schoolgirl assistant Mika for good measure. There’s an immediate attempt to establish a level of comfort with this grouping, with episodic assassination missions that find characters spouting recurring concerns with familiar attitudes. And I very much wanted to fall into that world, but the invitation to do so is never really extended, instead acting as if the player should both “get” and care about these characters simply because they exist. Some small attempt is made to draw a connection between one target and Brian, but otherwise these might as well be four strangers completely devoid of motivation, aside from moving the game forward toward a conclusion that players are equally expected to simply accept because it exists.
It’s a very strange state of affairs. I kept waiting for more, for the connections of No More Heroes’ contentious, subtle, complicated and rather lovely relationship between Travis and Sylvia. But there’s none of that here. These characters never really express personalities that explain where they are coming from or where they are headed—everyone is just doing their job. By the time the game rushes to draw fuddled connections linking them together, there’s zero reason for the player to care, given the lack of incentive to invest any feelings toward them.
But this is a Grasshopper game, so maybe there’s something clever being said in all this, aided by a few lines referring to the idea that this is a videogame, with players expecting certain things from a Suda 51 title. I encourage you to dig for that meaning, though I really don’t think you’ll find it. Killer is Dead rushes to create a weak plot stringing together the space for a random array of missions that offer no substance to snack on when the ride is over.
The truly confusing bit is that the game still provides ample cinematic sequences that could serve such a task, but instead opt to create a space for slowly delivered lines and snippets of conversations that act as if we should all know far more than we do. The pervasive cinematic breaks actually tear the player away from the few enjoyable moments of action, slicing through missions like a hot knife intent on cutting the player further and further away from investing in the events unfolding.
The game will confront you with a Yakuza boss who summons a tiger from his tattoo and then suddenly throws you into a twenty second motorcycle chase before tossing you back on foot, breaking all of that up further with the load times needed to do so and cinematic sequences offering more chances for dialogue that might mean something if we knew anything at all about these characters. And I really want to stress that this is not meant to leave you imagining the quirky opponents of No More Heroes that offered cryptic words worth reading into. Those have been replaced here with a series of bosses that simply bend to the needs of the game rather than dominating and changing the space with their own attitudes.
You can ride Killer is Dead’s blue unicorn around in circles looking for some significance, but it isn’t for lack of a code book to understand what’s going on here. It’s just weak writing carrying you to a final confrontation against a villain that you slash through just to be done with the experience. If there is a deeper joke at work here, I’m afraid it’s at the player’s expense.
But here’s a twist—Grasshopper is getting better at the bits of combat leading toward these bosses.
Each strike of Mondo’s sword builds a combo gauge that persists so long as Mondo doesn’t take damage. And the game offers an evasive move as well as a block to aid that cause. Aside from some well-animated moments of Mondo throwing back an attacker, the right timing can also find Mondo slipping to the side and tasking the player with hammering the attack button to gain bonus strikes. As your combos reach a threshold, Mondo’s attack speed will increase. Keeping the combo meter at max will additionally allow Mondo to deal final judgment finishing blows to enemies, offering players four techniques for a final move that will reward players with one of four key items. It’s a simple and straightforward system that gives one hell of an invitation to players to dodge and counter rather than simply mashing and taking a little bit of damage as par for the course.
Mondo has a fair amount of meters to keep an eye on, with his health signified by a series of diamonds, which increase as he gains health gems from fighting. Mondo also has a blood meter represented by roses, which fuels his gun arm and is also used for adrenaline burst moves that cleave larger enemies in two, and play a big part in finishing bosses. This also means that you can’t just go off on a fun run with the gun arm, or “musselback” all the time because you won’t readily have the means to finish a boss at the right moment. Enemies with defensive shielding can be dealt with via a punch button, though it’s entirely more efficient to evasive roll behind them and get down to business.
Moon shards gathered from enemies and a few breakable items give Mondo points used to upgrade his abilities, and even here the game shows a baffling lack of imagination. There’s a few additional strike moves to unlock, but the handful of upgrades seem like abilities you should have from the outset, like swinging your sword in a circular defensive move. Aside from upgrading the musselback and adding regenerating health, I stopped paying attention to this small distraction early on. There are three additional modes for the musselback, freeze ray, drill, and charge cannon, which seems to match up with the predictability of everything else going on here just dandy.
I suppose the entertaining thing about the combo system is that the game offers a host of challenge missions, both from bonus tasks unlocked by completing story missions and from finding nurse Scarlett hidden throughout stages, who then adds more challenge tasks to her own selectable stage. Ensuring that combat isn’t always fun however, I often found myself losing sight of Mondo temporally throughout claustrophobic set pieces that really haven’t evolved since No More Heroes released back in 2007, which is a hell of a long time to raise the bar even slightly for environmental designs.
You may have heard about Killer is Dead’s other draw, Gigolo missions, during which Mondo will hit a bar and take a seat alongside a few select ladies in a pickup mini-game. While Mondo and his potential date are drinking, there are two gauges to keep an eye on—a guts gauge represented by a head and another gauge that looks somewhat like a penis.
The guts gauge will fill red in increments as you stare at a girl, faster if you stare at her chest and crotch, and even faster still if you use the gigolo glasses to see through her outer clothing to her underwear. If she catches you staring, the penis looking gauge will drain until you stop staring, and if it drains all the way you fail the mission. If you manage to fill the guts gauge, you are then able to offer presents, and repeat the process until you fill another gauge with hearts to win the girls affection. If successfully seduced with gifts, the girl goes home with Mondo and initially unlocks the previously mentioned added modes for his gun. It’s an experience that comes off as tedious and several shades of creepy, and more than anything suggests that Killer is Dead is a creature of marketing gimmicks rather than a real game.
It’s a shitty state of affairs, because the elements are here for a better game, for a noir classic building on what Grasshopper has already accomplished. But all that can be found is a checklist of things you might expect from a Grasshopper game, and a weak showing of that to boot. I can report that the game is competent, but that only seems like a compliment if it were the first game Grasshopper had ever released.
Ultimately, Killer is Dead is simply a hurriedly cobbled together release that clearly could have been more with time and attention. It’s a huge missed opportunity, and if it represents the future of Grasshopper releases, then it gives me absolutely no joy to suggest that maybe punk is dead, kids.
Food for Thought:
1. Even with Akira Yamaoka on board, Killer is Dead’s soundtrack seems as confused about creating an identity unique to the experience as I remain regarding what exactly said experience is, and that’s really disappointing.
2. There are twelve primary mission stages, three of which take place in dream states, which just seems superbly short. I ran through the main game missions in just a little more than a single afternoon.
3. Even the menu systems lack imagination, with bland mission select screens and a gift shop that looks like it came straight from a 16-bit RPG.