Wednesday, November 13, 2013
Xbox 360 review: Killer is Dead
A government agent who operates as a sword-for-hire to various clients, Mondo Zappa is a man largely shrouded in mystery from the outset of Killer is Dead. From the earliest missions, it is made clear that he is the successor to his bureau’s former top man, but it isn’t long before the story pans out to make way for the larger picture. After a few missions that allow players to become accommodated with the control scheme and highly-fluid, smooth-as-hell gameplay style of Killer is Dead, Mondo makes a visit to the moon where he briefly clashes with a man named David. David apparently usurped command of the dark side of the moon from a woman named Moon River, and though he bests Mondo during their first meeting, he remains present throughout the remainder of the game, influencing the beasts and machines Mondo will square off against in locations like technologically marvelous skyscrapers, steam train cars, and even within Mondo’s own dreams.
Killer is Dead’s artistic style is heavily influenced by a previous Suda51 hit, Killer7. Killer is Dead is hyper cel-shaded to the point where people and objects obscured by shadows appear as completely black with little more than a vague outline defining them, allowing Mondo’s red eyes or David’s golden robes to glow and clash distinctly. Killer is Dead may run on the Unreal Engine, but its graphical direction prevents the technology from looking as obviously aged as it did in Lollipop Chainsaw. In fact, Killer is Dead is both one of the most visually loaded and visually impressive titles of 2013.
The story is more single-minded in its focus than other Grasshopper Manufacture titles. While Mondo and his allies will take on all manner of assassination gigs across the globe, David’s influence remains a constant pillar that reminds players of their ultimate endgame goal. The pacing during the game’s first half is a tad slow, but it never feels sluggish. Rather, it allots time to emphasize the themes and symbolism in Killer is Dead, which include a great number of traditional Japanese folklore elements, the moon, the Earth, and the sun as astral energies, the reliance people have on blood, and the contrast of technology and humanity, to name but a few. As with No More Heroes and Black Knight Sword, there is a decent amount of information relevant to the overarching story that is not explicitly stated, but can still be pieced together with hints dropped by NPCs and symbols associated with some of the characters. It takes around ten hours to reach the finale on a normal difficulty setting, and the payoff is incredible.
In truth, Mondo Zappa is practically a complete inversion of NMH’s Travis Touchdown. Both characters break the fourth wall from time to time, though Mondo is significantly less talkative and carries himself with a professional demeanor. While Travis bumbled through all of his romantic pursuits, Mondo has multiple women swooning over him, and can win their affection in gigolo missions where he presents them with presents in order to fill up an affection meter. These sections, though optional, must be completed at least a couple of times in order to acquire the freeze shooter and drill subweapons. The affection meter will increase more rapidly if Mondo ogles the bodies of these ladies instead of their faces, but if they catch Mondo’s vision straying south, their own meter - which gauges how impressed they are with the suave assassin - will dwindle. These gigolo missions are incredibly simple in design, and while they are not terribly challenging, they feel clunky, as if they were stapled on to the experience late in development. Suda51 games are known for frequently incorporating a high degree of sexuality in character designs as well as their interactions, but the gigolo missions are flat out lazy – there’s no meaningful end result, other than receiving the basic subweapon, and certainly no reason to return to the gigolo missions later on, as the freeze shooter and drill can be upgraded with ore at any time from the pause screen just like Mondo’s healing factor, katana attacks, guard break, and so on.
Whereas both No More Heroes titles played largely as action games with adventure elements worked into the overworld of Santa Destroy and portions of the combat-heavy levels, Killer is Dead plays as pure an action experience as Devil May Cry or Bayonetta. Mondo can chain combos by slashing his katana, performing a guard break with his mechanical arm, or simply keep the meter active by firing his cannon attachment at foes. The more damage Mondo inflicts on enemies, the more blood he is rewarded, which can be used as cannon ammunition, ‘adrenaline rush’ insta-kills on weak or heavily wounded Wires, and even to replenish his health. Finishing off enemies after the combo meter has exceeded thirty consecutive hits will result in a brief freeze-frame for each enemy slain, offering players free choice of one of four rewards – those being blood, ore (used to upgrade Mondo’s stats and weapon capabilities), wire synapses (which restore Mondo’s physical health), or health gems (which increase his health bar).
Speaking of upgrades, Killer is Dead does well to prevent the game from becoming too easy too quickly. The cheapest upgrades push some basic improvements to Mondo’s offensive capabilities, while the one that require the most ore will allow him to automatically heal at a gradual pace over time or remove the limiter on his katana, allowing combo chains to be achieved more easily. Rarely do these upgrades improve his overall strength or defensive capabilities, however. To improve Mondo’s health or blood meters, one must gather the relevant replenishing items within each level, rewarding players who do a little bit of exploring.
The game’s dodge mechanic is forgiving to just the right degree – if an enemy lunges toward Mondo, there should be ample time for players to press the right button and then counter said foe, and any mistakes after the first hour’s learning curve are on the player exclusively. The game does well to keep the camera at an angle that will provide an ideal view of the action and other nearby foes, though it is quick and easy enough to adjust while in the heat of battle. Also, the more combos Mondo has chained together, the faster he will move and attack, and the game accounts for this wild and loose progression by having him automatically block enemy fire or simply not taking damage that would upset the combo chain once it has gone upwards of fifty or so.
The variety in level design is flat-out brilliant. Though some levels may be completed more quickly than others, all of the main game missions feel as though they have seen plenty of time and care from the development team. Little additions like a piano staircase that has a different note associated with each individual step and added puzzle elements that open secret rooms go a long way in rounding out the experience. Outside of the main game, players can revisit portions of previously completed levels in order to try their hand at various challenges, some of which put Mondo in the sidecar of Vivienne’s motorcycle or behind a turret, while others simply ask that he slay a certain number of enemies within a set time limit. The most difficult challenge missions come from Scarlett, a nurse who can be found hidden within each of the main game missions. Tracking her down time and time again will unlock more challenges, and the criteria Scarlett lays out for Mondo certainly yield the biggest monetary rewards.
Travis Willingham, Johnny Yong Bosch, Tara Platt, and others lend their talents to the cast, and while Patrick Seitz’s soft-spoken and professional demeanor are performed very well, Liam O’Brien steals the show in every scene where villain David appears. Akira Yamaoka (of Silent Hill fame) adds a highly-creative blend of industrial, classical, and techno tunes to the mix. While Mondo and David are wonderfully inventive characters that beautifully contrast each other, the supporting characters are largely hit-or-miss with regards to their complexity and importance to the plot. Vivienne Squall does little more than remind everyone in the bureau that they need to be paid a hefty sum for each job, Mika’s annoying and childlike behavior gets old incredibly fast, while cyborg boss Brian provides some comic relief. The villains, though given notably less screen time than Mondo’s allies, are by and large quite memorable, both with regards to the visual representations and their attitudes/personalities.
Suda51 fans looking for a more goofy, bizarre romp in the vein of No More Heroes or Lollipop Chainsaw may find themselves a bit disappointed. Killer is Dead is no doubt a strange game, and very much a one-of-a-kind action experience, though it pushes a more serious story that is, at times, as dark in tone as the excessively-saturated cel-shaded shadows. It might not be a particularly long game, and it definitely has some oddities and pitfalls outside of the core gameplay. But for those looking to experience a curious culmination of Japanese folklore, cosmic mythos, and the smoothest gameplay Grasshopper Manufacture has delivered yet, Killer is Dead is an excellent choice.
My rating: 9 (out of 10)