[16 September 2013]
Suda51 only wrote Killer Is Dead, he didn’t direct it, but his fingerprints are still all over it. And that’s a very good thing because those fingerprints are the only things that make this game worth playing.
The protagonist, Mondo Zappa is the best thing about Killer is Dead. He is a dark, unromanticized version of James Bond, and the purest symbol of sex and violence in Suda51’s ensemble of weird heroes. Mondo lives purely for unromantic sex and unemotional violence, and unlike most of Suda’s characters, he’s actually able to attain both. The Killer 7 were all business and no pleasure. Travis Touchdown reveled in his violence but spent his whole game trying to get laid and never succeeded. Garcia “Fucking” Hosper ran around killing demons with his Johnson, but his existence was defined by perpetual violence so he didn’t have time for sex. Juliet Sterling was a scantily clad cheerleading zombie killer, but while she may dress sexy, the game was ultimately sexless. Mondo Zappa actually has sex, which is important, because it’s really the driving force behind everything in the game.
Mondo is good at violence, but he’s not very interested in it. He doesn’t love the action like Travis or Juliet. When it comes to killing, he’s all straight-faced and business-like about it. Some of the best gags in the game involve Mondo missing or interrupting the villains’ monologues because he really doesn’t care what they have to say about their plans, motivations, and goals. He was hired to kill them and that’s what he’ll do. Even when the fight becomes personal, he performs his violent acts through normal business channels, hiring himself to execute his nemesis.
So why go through all that effort of killing if he’s so bored of it? Because missions give you money, which you use to buy gifts, which you use to seduce “beauties,” who then give you guns or upgrade points to make you better at killing. That’s the gameplay loop of Killer is Dead. Execute a mission, get cash, do a woman, get upgrades, repeat. Nowhere is this more explicit than with Scarlett, a.k.a. “Mondo Girl 2,” the sexy supernatural nurse. She loves blood, and she doesn’t want physical gifts. Instead you seduce her by succeeding at various challenges. Kill X enemies within the time limit, get an X hit combo, survive for X seconds, and so on. Violence begets sex which begets violence, which begets sex. This is the loop all of Suda’s characters have been striving towards, but Mondo is the only one who’s achieved it.
There are moments when other characters will break the fourth wall to ask about the ethics of the violence, and Mondo always brushes them off. “It’s all for the sake of the game,” he says. The violence is a given, so no wonder he’s bored of it. The sex is something new, so no wonder he’s interested in it.
In that way, Killer is Dead represents a maturation of Suda51’s writing. Even if the Gigolo Missions revolve around objectifying women, the sex at the end isn’t just an adolescent punch line.
While all this makes for an interesting character, it also makes for a particularly poor story since Mondo deliberately impedes most efforts at exposition. There’s something about the moon, dark matter, princesses, cybernetics, and a unicorn (no, really). Suda51 games are always weird, but Mondo makes Killer is Dead uniquely, incomprehensibly weird. As such, the narrative exists more as a character study than as a story.
Since this is a game, the gameplay is also important, and in a weird, probably unintentional, probably poorly designed way, the gameplay reflects Mondo’s workmanlike approach to violence. The game gets a few combat basics right, but everything else is unnecessary.
The only moves that really matter are your basic attack and the Dodge Burst. For the latter, if you dodge to one side at the last second to avoid an attack, time stops and you get to mash the controller to unleash a flurry of attacks against your enemy. There are other special movies—a punch, a spinning attack, a gun counterattack—but you don’t really need them. It’s good then that the Dodge Burst feels good to pull off and looks so damn cool since you’ll be using it over and over again. It never gets old.
Then there’s your cybernetic arm that can transform into four guns, but only one is really useful in combat. Another one is mainly used for breaking through hidden walls and the occasional shielded enemy. The other two are practically useless.
The game has its share of technical issues as well. The lack of a lock-on button makes combat confusing and awkward, problems that are only exacerbated by the poor camera. It constantly zooms in too close to Mondo, obscuring your view of the battlefield, and every time you nudge it to a better angle, it resets itself a second later. Most of the damage that you receive throughout the game will likely come from off screen, from enemies you can’t see.
Thankfully, there are enough stylistic visual tricks to make combat acceptable. Again, the Dodge Burst is the one attack that feels natural to execute, and it looks damn cool. That and the slick, detailed, cel-shaded visuals make combat fun enough in the moment, but instantly forgettable. It helps that Killer is Dead isn’t very hard. You never really have to learn about guard breaks or combos. Just attack and try not to get attacked. In this way, the poor combat seems appropriate for Mondo. He’s not the type to use a full arsenal on his enemies. He’s not interested in anything that’ll prolong a fight. He goes straight for the jugular with as little flourish as possible. Attack and dodge is just his kind of style.
Killer is Dead is not a sequel, it’s an original game, but that doesn’t mean it’s a standalone product. Its plot is too confusing to stand on its own, and its thematic content is only interesting in relation to the rest of Suda’s catalog. Killer is Dead isn’t a good game or a bad game, but it’s definitely required playing for anyone wanting to understand Suda51.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/killer-is-dead/