For the uninitiated, the names Garcia Hotspur, Juliet Starling, and Travis Touchdown might sound like members of the latest pop group … or they might just be porn stars. Either way, they all have one person in common: Goichi Suda, a.k.a. “Suda 51.” The inventive game designer has a knack for coming up with great main characters, and Killer is Dead (out now for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3) is no exception.
Co-developed by Kadokawa Games and Suda’s Grasshopper Manufacture, Killer is Dead borrows almost everything that Suda 51 games are known for — slick presentation, bloody combat, bizarre humor — and packages it in a third-person action game that has you hacking and slashing your way to the moon and back. You play as Mondo Zappa, a suave hero who wears a skinny tie and fights with a katana and an arm that can transform into different guns.
Between Mondo, the Executioner Office he works for (think Ghostbusters meets The X-Files), and the targets they hunt down, Killer is Dead is weird, stylish, and, when the jokes work, funny. But it’s also inconsistent, confusing, and a little disturbing.
What you’ll like
The flow of combat
Mondo’s fighting skills are modest in comparison to other heroes like Dante (Devil May Cry) or Kratos (God of War), but what he lacks in quantity he more than makes up for in quality. It all starts with his sword, which feels satisfying from the moment he swings the blade to the moment it slices through his enemies. In reality, you’re just mashing one button while dodging or blocking incoming attacks with another — a simple setup — but the immediacy and impact of the blade (along with its fantastic sound effects) never gets old.
A lot of Mondo’s moves (like dashing or side-stepping) focus on controlling the distance between him and his foes, so each battle is a cerebral dance of giving and taking: Lose too much ground, and you’re out of range, but close-in too tight and the enemies will box you in. Killer is Dead experiments with this idea of spacing when it comes to level design as well. Large, rectangular arenas provide plenty of square feet to move around while smaller areas, like narrow hallways, force you to consolidate and be economic with your attacks.
Moves like Guard Burst and Adrenaline Burst, which makes you quickly hone in on one specific enemy and deliver deadly strikes, adds another layer of complexity. After I finished Killer is Dead, all I wanted to do was to keep fighting. Since that wasn’t possible outside of restarting story missions, I resorted to playing a bunch of its challenge modes — which I rarely touch in action games — to scratch that itch.
Its monster-of-the-week vibe
The ultimate goal in Killer is Dead is to eliminate your assigned targets, encounters which usually take the form of a traditional boss fight. The twist is that these guys and gals all have some sort of supernatural power (like transforming into giant spiders or demonic musicians), so each battle plays out in a slightly different way. The bosses and the stories behind them were my favorite parts of each chapter because each successive creature was either bigger or meaner than the last.
What you won’t like
I’m not sure if it’s because of the English translation or the original Japanese script, but Killer is Dead seems confused about what it’s trying to accomplish. Sometimes, it tells a stylish action-adventure story with aliens and monsters. At other times, it’s parodying that genre when characters crack jokes that break the fourth wall — during one encounter with a target, Mondo mentions that they should move to a wider space because that’s where boss fights usually happen. But almost all the time, the story is just confusing, and nothing embodies this quite like the talking unicorn, a recurring character who, like certain plot points, appears and disappears without any explanation.
Killer is Dead even throws in a last-minute revelation that surprises everyone in the Executioner Office, but it introduces the idea so poorly that I wasn’t sure why it was so significant. From that point on, events move so fast that Killer is Dead has no time to address any lingering questions and instead adds more and more to the pile.
The Mondo Girls
“Mondo Girls” is the term given to the women — Natalia, Koharu, Scarlett, and Betty — in the first-person Gigolo Missions. You have to win them over so they can give you gameplay-changing rewards, like new weapons for Mondo’s mechanical arm. Except for Scarlett (who has a list of combat challenges for you to complete), the process is always the same: Build up a Guts meter by ogling at them when they’re not looking and then give them presents until they’re happy. You can make the process go faster when you get the Gigolo Glasses, X-ray specs that let you look underneath their clothes and tell you what kind of presents they like.
Yeah, it’s kind of creepy.
While Gigolo Missions fit in with Killer is Dead’s over-the-top tone, they doesn’t make much sense in terms of character development. Mondo is a cyberpunk Casanova that can supposedly sweet-talk his way to women’s hearts, so why aren’t there any dialogue options or a conversation system? The women just blankly stare at you and give you compliments out of thin air — beyond your sneaky stares, you have no say whatsoever. It gets weirder and weirder, especially once you visit them enough to trigger the (non-nude) sex scenes when Mondo takes them home for the night.
Beyond the creepiness factor, some of the women are annoying. They’ll call you while you’re fighting or when you’re talking to another girl, saying that they miss you or want you or that they’re angry that you haven’t seen each other in a while. This just seems so out of place when you’re busy trying to save the world.
It doesn’t always run smooth
On the technical side of things, screen tearing is a prevalent problem throughout Killer is Dead. It’s not a deal-breaker by any means, but its hard not to notice it. You’ll also see short but plentiful loading screens (and this is after a hefty 4GB mandatory install on the PlayStation 3 version).
I’m torn. On one hand, Killer is Dead is an unusual adventure with better-than-average fighting mechanics and a mostly likable cast. But it falls short nearly everywhere else. The story is incomprehensible about half-way through, the Gigolo Missions just come off as being crass and tacked-on, and the extra challenges can only keep your attention for so long. I still think it’s worth playing, but only if you pay much less than the $60 price tag.
Killer is Dead is out now for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. The publisher provided GamesBeat with a PS3 retail copy for the purpose of this review.