Thursday, April 24, 2014

Killer is Dead - Thoughts

[contains slight spoilers]

Killer is Dead is a title I really, really wanted to love. It features an engaging art style pulsating with strong colors, quirky Suda 51 characters jesting with a riddled tongue, and aims for more Killer7 than Chainsaw Lollipop. Hell there's a woman named Moon River in the game, a princess from the moon that commissions the main character for the price of a kiss! The outset appears promising enough but eccentricity couldn't outlast the nagging issues that plagued the title—by the end I had to admit I was disappointed with the outcome. But first, let me gush over the visuals.

Above is a screenshot from a playable part in the game. Granted this is an ability-specific moment that applies a unique filter, but I think it illustrates well what I revere about the aesthetic. Every big budget video game this (previous) generation aims for an easily understandable and readable interface, yet Killer is Dead champions color over convention. Objects and scenery are ruthlessly saturated with vivid hues that bleed over into blacks to maintain it's stylized atmosphere. Even with such beautiful games released in 2013 like Super Mario 3D WorldBioshock Infinite, and Battlefield 4, I still think this is the title that mesmerizes me the most. It showcases a certain look and madness that I feel only Grasshopper could make work with such adroit craftsmanship.

Combat on the other hand, is mostly serviceable. You can slice n' shoot but it's a far cry from something as potently complicated as Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden, only letting you string together a handful of combos. The action can also get far too hectic at times due to visual complexity, making it so you can't exactly tell who or what is winding up to strike you next. Holistically the mechanics belong more to a 3D beat-em-up rather than a character action game, especially since the game largely demands that you master evasion and little else, as dodging is (unfortunately) the single most useful ability in the game. Even the outlandish final boss fight, a feast for the eyes and ears containing the lunacy you'd expect from a Grasshopper title, becomes dodge->mash X->dodge->mash X etc., as the conventional means of attacking are more suicidal than viable.

And of course regarding gameplay there's the infamous dating segments, where you ogle and seduce women in order to gain additional firearms from them as presents. While being an obviously empty sexist activity (you treat your suitors as literal missions), they're absolutely vapid and boring to play. You just hold the left trigger to stare at their "goodies" and stop only when your voyeuristic gaze is caught, a five minute activity that should've been relegated to a thirty second minigame instead. While wholly optional, there's interesting and useful gun upgrades hidden behind these asinine portions of the game, which means you'll likely slog through them just to spice up basic combat. These gigolo missions felt like the designers were aiming for a parody of James Bond but wound up implementing something more akin to a MAD Magazine jape.

Visual fluidity and mediocre combat aside, the enigmatic plot was the feature presentation that drew me in. I'm a massive sucker for a continual use of metaphors and symbolism (like kidney stones, alcohol & Paul of Tarsus in Dear Esther), so having Earth's celestial pearl in the night sky be a pillar of the game's lore was a delight. Robotic monsters came from the moon, there's a muscular man clad in a gold thong ruling it, and a skeletal maestro yearns to fill it's rocky core with malice. Writing that sentence caused me to chuckle at just how utterly bizarre those scenarios are, but I truly enjoy when a game aims for something out of the ordinary rather than relying on thinly veiled tropes. There was something special about the moon and its relation to the main character, and I was determined to discover just what that was.

I failed though; what bubbles to the top of this confusing bog is miscellaneous and befuddling. Characters come and go, prior memories are explored and abandoned, and the game finishes flatly with a series of baffling, unexplained twists. Perhaps I had too high of hopes with Killer7 still in mind (this extensive exposition on GameFAQs is proof that Suda 51 can make something quite inspiring), and I will admit I was hoping for something more... fulfilling compared to previous Grasshopper titles. Yet the story remains just as pale and flat, being neither bombastic satire like No More Heroes nor a dopey B-movie action title like Shadows of the Damned. It's not completely devoid of meaning, but what meaning is there lacks proper context or explanation to emerge as "sophisticated" rather than "zany"; the game breaks the fourth wall three times for no reason, introduces a sentient locomotive and colossal alien just to be different, and has its characters exchanging odd quips over dutch angles for the sole purpose of "being cool".

Killer is Dead is by no means a bad game, but it's unfortunate that you've experienced the best the title has to offer just by looking at these screenshots (although it's worth a gander in motion too). I wish I enjoyed it more, as there were plenty of signs within the first couple of hours that it could be a personal favorite from 2013, but when I sit back and stare at its lunar metaphors ripe with misleading dialogue and strange nonsense, it feels more... crazy than it does brilliant.

Images obtained from:,,,

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