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Killer is Dead Review

Posted by Cha Holland On Friday 20 September 2013Comments Off

Available on 360 and PS3 l Published by Deep Silver l Developed by Grasshopper Manufacture l Classified MA15+ l Supports 1 player

REVIEW IN BRIEF > I feel burnt out on nostalgic and backwards-facing game design, but Killer Is Dead forces me to make an exception. It’s firmly linked to the past, with most creativity coming from reshuffling well known game elements rather than introducing anything new. It’s still a bit choppy, like trying to fit a jigsaw together while dreaming, but somehow that works for it.

REVIEW IN FULL > Grasshopper Manufacture makes games with a glorious mix of clever and shallow aspects, and sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which. I’m a thoughtful fan and read a lot into things – frankly, if Suda51 poured a glass of water I’d assume he was making a subtle statement about the nature of liquid and its role in society but I can appreciate superficiality too. Killer is Dead has a difficult time finding a balance between frivolity and meaning, but I never tire of watching that tightrope walk.

… Killer is Dead feels like a love letter to its pop culture references, Grasshopper’s back catalogue, and video games in general.

Mondo Zappa is an assassin working for a government-sponsored agency. He’s a darker, science fiction James Bond, if James Bond went around slicing up monsters with a katana and a cybernetic arm. The story is disjointed, with dream logic and an episodic structure obscuring some of the broader sense of why Mondo is hacking and slashing his way towards his final nemesis. There are enough pieces to slot together but it might take time to develop a coherent sense of the setting.

The action isn’t particularly deep or varied but it manages to be enjoyable. There’s a good sense of speed and agility, and it’s satisfying to dodge at just the right moment and follow up with a series of quick slashes. There are also stronger charge attacks and guard-breaking abilities, as well as cyber arm attachments like the gun or drill.  Building long combos without taking damage produces brutal finishers and a choice of reward items for purchasing new abilities, or increasing the health or blood gauge.  Blood is used to power abilities such as shooting, healing or decapitation moves.

Killer Is Dead throws around familiar, even generic elements. There are turret sections, a boss who splits into multiple clones, and a giant enemy with laser beam eyes that require dodging from pillar to pillar. The protagonist even has amnesia; it’s like all the video game staples are lining up in a row to be counted. This trend is at its weakest when bluntly punching through the fourth wall, but in general Killer is Dead feels like a love letter to its pop culture references, Grasshopper’s back catalogue, and video games in general.  It’s the most sincere form of derivative, and it’s easy to get swept along.

It’s celebratory but not cheerful, with bloody violence illustrated in high-contrast cell shading with heavy use of shadows and dramatic camera angles. The story can be interpreted in multiple ways, but includes aspects of painful memories and inner darkness. It’s too over-the-top to carry much emotional weight but this isn’t exactly a feel-good power fantasy. As Mondo makes his killing blow there’s always a slight sense of melancholy. Death is the natural conclusion to a job, but not exactly a pleasure.

Mondo seems determined to hide his self-doubts and prove his manhood.

Mondo is supposedly suave and popular, with several attractive women waiting on him, but the seduction side-missions reveal Bond-style desirability as a farce. At first glance Mondo might seem like the opposite of No More Heroes’ lonely otaku Travis Touchdown, but both are amateurish around women. Mondo nervously sneaks peeks at his date’s cleavage and underwear, gathering enough courage to give gifts in lieu of more substantial communication.  There is no relationship progression aside from sex itself, which seems like two people who don’t know any other way to connect.

I think the gigolo missions were supposed to be cute, instead of the gross and ridiculous vibe they actually achieve. I’m not going to defend this, but I also think some of the clumsiness is deliberate and part of a broader theme of awkward masculinity that persists throughout the game. Mondo seems determined to hide his self-doubts and prove his manhood. He wants to impress and play the hero, especially for female clients. He’s presenting himself as a calm and effective executioner, but underneath his head is full of unicorns and soft boiled eggs.  Mondo frequently brushes his hair back as a dramatic gesture, but it could also be read as a nervous habit.

Killer Is Dead could have achieved much more, but it’s still a quirky and enthusiastic spectacle. Exploring masculinity is well-worn territory for games, but the cracks showing through the surface make Killer Is Dead one of the more interesting recent examples. Action heroes are allowed to be anguished or have anger management issues, but usually not fundamental insecurities. Beneath the absurdity there’s a hint of something more honest and grounded, and that seems worth latching onto.

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