Back in mid-2012, Killer is Dead was announced as Grasshopper’s latest high profile title. It was finally revealed via a trailer in early 2013 as being among XSEED’s newest titles to be published in North America. With our current console generation coming slowly to a close, this made it Grasshopper’s possible last title of this generation, among many, including: No More Heroes 1 and 2, Shadows of the Damned, Lollipop Chainsaw, and even Fatal Frame 4 (Also known as Zero: Tsukihami no Kamen in Japan) which they co-developed. The footage dazzled the audience, impressing many on account of Killer is Dead running on the (now considered dated) Unreal 3 engine and looking quite beautiful with its creative use of cel-shading and color palette. Anticipation among the hardcore crowd was running high, on account of the genre slowly becoming more and more irrelevant in our current marketplace. While not exactly being a Suda51 game, he was a part of its development, especially in the writing department. So how does it stack up compared to other Grasshopper titles this generation?
In the near future, where technology has advanced far beyond our current standard with space tourism and cybernetics, you fill the role of Mondo Zappa, an executioner who works by contract for Bryan Execution Firm. The firm is run by an old veteran in the trade, Bryan Roses, along with another executioner named Vivienne Squall as his superior, and Mika Takekawa acting as his personal assistant. Mondo is for the most part a cold, apathetic, ruthless womanizer; in short, a darker interpretation of James Bond as Suda intended. The jobs – according to his twisted sense of morality – give him an excuse to kill, for a price of course. Though at times he does show a kinder side along with an honorable streak. I found him to be a very well done, often unlikable, character with traits that fit with the overall context of the story.
The supporting cast have their quirks that make them interesting, along with the antagonists of each chapter being much different than the last, giving us a good, fresh cast. They don’t get nearly as much screen time as they should, though, with some being underdeveloped, or just non-existent to the plot until much later. Most of the back stories for characters are given through tidbits and not anything substantial. This is a shame since this is a trait that a lot of Grasshopper’s titles seem to share. They continue to develop games with such unique characters, but then bite the dust to develop the main character, or just get pushed to the sidelines when their purpose is used up. The plot and writing is your usual Suda51 affair with use of foreshadowing in visuals, storytelling with a morbid yet serious tone, a dab of parodying itself with many movie and game cliches, and even a fourth wall breaking joke thrown in. Most of the 12 chapters act like small self-contained stories dealing with the power of the moon (which is a recurring theme in the game), recollection of Mondo’s past, and the main antagonist David. The narrative is unique with the way it uses its chapters together with various plot elements, which all add up to the climax like puzzle pieces. The foreshadowing is for the most part decently well done. The game surprisingly has quite a bit of cutscenes for an action game, some being quite lengthy. To some, they can be a pace beaker, but I found them enjoyable with Suda’s twisted sense of humor.
However, speaking of the writing and cutscenes – the sequence of events can also be lost to many, as it can be incomprehensible in later levels up to the climax of the game. Events raise more questions than they give answers to, leaving the story on an ending that feels like a sequel hook, even if that wasn’t intended. The actual twist can be seen coming a mile away, and it’s neither clever or original, especially if you played Grasshopper’s previous titles. In many ways, it’s very similar to Killer 7 in this regard, both as a visual medium and in terms of the script; so if you weren’t a fan of that game’s narrative, this might not be your cup of tea either.
Under its visage, it is at its core a third person action game. Each mission will follow Mondo mowing down enemies with his trusty katana Gekkou, and very much like No More Heroes, Killer is Dead has what seems like a simplistic combat system. But underneath that exterior lies something a little deeper. When it comes to the katana’s attack, it’s all mapped to a single button, with a simple 4-5 hit combo at the beginning. You can soon unlock more attacks to improve your arsenal, including a directional input to send enemies flying, and more moves are added with unlocking limiters to the katana, making it easier to build up the combo meter. You can also pull off a few neat tricks as your counter moves, a few after unlocking them, like for example just guarding. If timed correctly, guarding can knock back your enemy or stun them, after which you can then promptly use your prosthetic arm to smash multiple targets away or in the air. And when you dodge just in the nick of time, the game gives you a prompt to go at the target with blinding speed and a flurry of attacks, even going as far as being able to finish them off in one go.
While the katana will always be your main weapon, when it comes to Mondo’s prosthetic arm, Musselback, it comes with multiple functions. It can be used to bash enemies’ guard with multiple taps or charge when held down. It acts as an arm cannon, which at first acts as a standard canon that can give some nice headshots on weaker enemies and other gun wielding foes. You also can get a drill to break walls, a freeze canon, and an energy cannon that can blast chunks of large enemies’ health with ease. Weapons, including the adrenaline rush ability and health regen, eat up blood, so it’s a sort of risk system that makes you think before you act.
Musselback also acts as a human hand to allow you to bypass security panels. Think like an all-purpose Swiss army knife, but with your arm. Zany and ridiculous, it is what you come to expect with Grasshopper and it’s great. As you go through the game, it has a lite RPG experience system as you gain moon crystals to buy upgrades, rose stones that increase your blood gauge, and health crystals that increase your health capacity for damage taken from the destructible environment or enemies. With the game being centered around execution, there is one ability fitting the theme: the “Final Judgement”, which allows you to finish off an enemy with a special animation. It is achieved after gaining a 35 or more hit combo, at which time the game prompts you with with four options: three being the above mentioned and health bolts. So it’s a good incentive to players to keep combos going to not only improve your rating at the end of a mission, but even reward players.
What holds the combat back, and can even be very problematic, is the camera and no proper lock-on. The lack of lock-on really inconveniences the player when more and more enemies are on screen and players want to attack a specific enemy; but without one, the attacks become a lot more limited. As I said before, you only have one directional input attack. The rest is only to enhance your dodging capabilities and weaponry power. So while the combat is fun and engaging, even No More Heroes benefited from a simplistic combat system. There is a soft lock-on, but it barely works as it should. It’s not enough to ruin said combat, but it can make even Scarlett’s challenges harder for the wrong reasons. Then we have the camera, which at times is in a fixed position or not too much of a bother in more open environments. But in tight spaces or closed in areas, it becomes a fight for survival with the camera control. At times, it zooms in on Mondo, and this happens in the worst times possible, like when you’re boxed into small fighting areas and enemies respawn. Though you won’t be seeing that when concentrating on larger enemies, meaning they can take a cheap shot from behind when you least expect it, which makes for some frustrating moments.
Most levels, besides being aesthetically pleasing, are condensed linear pathways from point A to point B, though some get creative on how you go about doing so. For example, one of the first levels pays homage to Alice In Wonderland with a simple suburban house being turned into a twisted fantasy, where you have to find gifts to give to the supposed house owner, or clear out a room of bugs to unlock a path to the boss room. Another example is a large Japanese-styled garden where you have to collect scrolls in order to unlock the gate to the boss, with each scroll in the hands of Wires in ninja attire.
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