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Killer Is Dead - Review
Upon booting up Killer Is Dead the start menu appears with a guitar twang that'll be familiar to anyone that's played Hidetaka Suehiro's Deadly Premonition. That should give you some indication of the level of weirdness that goes on in Killer Is Dead. It's for the people that played Grasshopper Manufacture's previous game, Lollipop Chainsaw, and didn't find it strange enough.
As with Lollipop Chainsaw, Killer Is Dead is, at first glance, your typical third-person action game. Playing as dapper assassin Mondo Zappa, each level tasks you with taking out a particular target, resulting in an excuse for plenty of colourful boss battles and epic showdowns. Rather than force the player to rely on complex strings of combos, combat is fairly simple to begin with. Pressing X several times will have Mondo dive into an impressive flurry of katana swipes, making even the weakest players look like experts to begin with.
The combat does, however, have several elements that, when all brought together, make the combat more complex than it would initially seem. Evading attacks at the last moment will slow down time and allow Mondo to unleash a barrage of attacks on the unwitting enemy by mashing the attack button, whilst well-timed blocks enable you to launch an appropriate counter-attacks. Meanwhile you can shatter an enemies guard with a blow from "Musselback", Mondo's robotic left arm. Later on, Mondo's arm can be kitted out with several additional upgrades, enabling it to fire freezing bullets or morph into a gigantic drill. It's a solid fighting system and one that relies more on quick reflexes and correct timing than it does on remembering convoluted button combinations.
It does have its problems though, namely, the enemy designs. Not only are rank-and-file enemies, or "Wires" as they are called in the game, utterly dull to look at, they highlight one of the game's major flaws. Killer Is Dead was designed with the one-on-one fights in mind, everything else is ancillary and simply filler until the next boss comes along. Not only that, despite having a range of enemies to fight, they all end up working the exact same way: you'll go to town on them with your sword, maybe dodge an attack or two, and then they'll hunker down and block every attack you throw at them until you belt them with your robot fist, probably ending your attack/combo chain in the process. There's a hint of Batman: Arkham Asylum in the way that you build up your attack chain, with subsequent hits becoming stronger and faster, but Killer Is Dead's controls just aren't tight enough to provide the same rhythmic satisfaction that you get from Rocksteady's games.
In fact, pretty much all of the game's issues stem from the way that boss fights were prioritised above all else. Take the camera, which is perfectly fine when taking on one or two foes, but any more than that and it begins to become a hindrance. Its slow, floaty handling is useless when you have two guys belting you with pikes and batons in the back. Similarly, targeting the right enemy can become a pain when the screen begins to get cluttered. Some of the game's twelve episodes even forgo the filler, simply having an opening cutscene followed by a boss fight.
Having said that, at least most of the game's problems evaporate the moment your take on the end of level boss. With only one enemy to focus on, the camera becomes less of an issue and the game's emphasis on timing and precision are able to shine. From Yakuza bosses with sentient tattoos, to evil trains and giant aliens, it's clear that time and effort went into creating Killer Is Dead, it's certainly not a bad game, just an incredibly unbalanced one.
Rather admirably, the developers take their bizarre concept one step further and attempt to tie all these ludicrous encounters into a semblance of a story. Trying to work out Killer Is Dead's plot isn't worth it, since I doubt even the developers know what it's about. The game's cutscene's are surprisingly lengthy and a great deal of time is spent setting up each episode. At the beginning, you get the impression that the plot might pay off somehow, with its pulpy, Tarantino aesthetic and oddball characters play out almost like a wacky TV series. By the end however, it gives up and simply devolves into style over substance. If all it was there to do was string together the game's twelve episodes, why bother spending so much time on it?
There's some attempt at weird humour, and the game, out of the blue, breaks the fourth wall for no reason, several times in fact. In some contexts this could have been pretty funny; Metal Gear Solid has always played around with postmodern strangeness to great effect. Here though, we're meant to take references to various gaming clichés (one character remarks that he's the final boss) as funny jokes, despite the fact that there's been no set up.
Still, you can't help but be impressed at times with the level of absurdity that Grasshopper Manufacture are willing to pile into their game. References to Alice in Wonderland all the way to Thomas the Tank Engine are there. The problem though, is that the game lacks any structure. For all its attempts to be unique it's still a typical third-person action game that seems to be hiding its flaws behind a veil of oddity and strange humour. The jokes, level design and plot are all there simply to justify twelve boss fights of varying quality.
Unfortunately, the side content doesn't improve things. "Gigolo missions" are a kind of weird rudimentary dating-sim where Mondo is required to gawk at a woman's cleavage and legs while she isn't looking. The other side missions meanwhile are simply redressed levels from the main game with various objects to complete, such as clearing out so many enemies. Like the rest of the game, the end result is rather shallow and quickly becomes tedious.
Suda 51 isn't someone that's afraid of alienating certain groups of gamers. That's certainly not a bad thing. There's plenty to be enjoyed in Lollipop Chainsaw as well as Grasshopper Manufacture's earlier titles. With Killer Is Dead however, the idea seems unfinished and the game's fighting system is desperately in need of some polish. The ending, while making hardly a lick of sense, does seem to keep things open for a sequel. If so, Mondo Zappa will hopefully be able to redeem himself.
Killer Is Dead was released on August 30th for Xbox 360 and PS3.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version.