Say what you want about Suda51 games – they’re undoubtedly distinctive. Killer Is Dead justifies the Japanese developer’s legendary status – it is, at times, a masterfully creative and refreshing action game – but it doesn’t succeed in a lot of what it attempts and thus much of its artistry is wasted.
The latest project from Grasshopper (the studio behind the likes of Lollipop Chainsaw and Sine Mora), Killer Is Dead sees you take control of Mondo – a cyborg assassin who dispatches of targets for cash rewards. Despite lead writer Suda’s attempts however, the game’s story doesn’t really break free of this relatively simple setup. The Japanese industry veteran made bold claims of the game’s supposedly deep and complex narrative pre-release, calling Killer Is Dead “a personal story”, but the reality is that this title simply doesn’t succeed in this department and the overall experience suffers for it.
Despite an excessive use of cut-scenes and dialogue, Killer Is Dead‘s plot is both non-sensical and, considering this is a game written by Suda51, relatively dull. This certainly isn’t helped by some diabolical voice work, with protagonist Mondo presenting himself almost as unlikable as his excruciatingly annoying female assistant Vivienne. Poor writing is a common occurrence to this day in videogames, but the fact that Killer Is Dead wastes so much time confined to cut-scenes means that it has to be criticised appropriately. The occasional stab for self-aware humour could have been a saving grace, but even this is poorly executed on the off-occasion it’s utilised.
These drawbacks only make me sadder to announce that Killer Is Dead is one of the most visually outstanding games I’ve ever experienced. The title’s superb, vibrant art-style – which rivals the likes of Okami and Ni No Kuni for sheer beauty – almost feels wasted thanks to the game’s dire narrative. Grasshopper create a genuinely exciting, exuberant world for you to explore which if supplemented by any kind of decent storyline could have been very special indeed.
With all that off my chest, I can now report that Killer Is Dead does indeed have a saving grace – it’s frantic, immensely enjoyable gameplay. The game may suffer from a slow start, but once Mondo’s in-depth combat capabilities reveal themselves Grasshopper’s latest becomes a delightfully fun action romp.
Each of the game’s levels transport Mondo to a new location rife with enemies to do battle with, and the combat system on offer here is rock solid. Countering, dodging and blocking must all be used in unison as you progress, with the conventional button-mashing shortcomings of the fighting games being avoided all together to create some truly engaging gameplay.
Best of all are the boss fights, which require special tactics to be thought of on the fly. Whilst I was occasionally frustrated by the odd quick-time event deciding whether I defeated a target (the outcome of an important battle should not be dictated by how fast I can press the square button), mission finales are certainly a highlight. They combine Killer Is Dead‘s two strong suits – visuals and gameplay – to brilliant effect and will be the sections that ultimately win you over as a consumer.
Killer Is Dead equally shines in its unlockable challenge modes, which strip out narrative all together in favour of all-out action. Some more variety would be nice, but these bonus levels add content to a weighty (if not huge) core single-player portion to give you some value for money.
Ultimately, Killer Is Dead finishes up as a good game which could have been a career-defining release for both Suda51 and his studio Grasshopper. Play it because it’s delightfully pretty and action-packed, but be prepared for some boring cut-scenes as well. It has both style and substance – but a lack of strong narrative in modern videogames has become unforgivable you can’t ignore something a developer tries so hard to shove in your face.
Considering the title’s lack of coverage this will surely go down as a surprise hit of the year, and I’d go as far to predict Killer Is Dead will gather something of a cult-following a few years down the line. As far as I’m concerned, however, it’s a game that simply doesn’t quite deliver on what it tries to be.