Killer is Dead Review
There are times when you wish a game’s captivating style would automatically translate to quality and success. Grasshopper Manufacture has always delivered a singular, compelling style. Lollipop Chainsaw was distinctly tongue-in-cheek with plenty of over-the-top action and humor, while Shadows of the Damned adopted a similar tone, only with a much darker, otherworldly theme superimposed over that quirky backdrop. You know this team made Killer is Dead; their signature is on every slice, every line of dialogue, and every carefully aimed camera shot. Problem is, the game isn’t any good.
Visually, the team tried a different artistic style. It appears to be an aggressive, highly creative cel-shading that results in an interesting presentation. At first glance, the colors appear muted and understated for the sake of the artistic approach. But then you see some brightly – and crazily – designed levels, along with meticulously crafted and appropriately freakish foes. The blood effects are just out of control. Due to the niche nature of the graphics, most players will either fully connect with the visual flourish, or they’ll really dislike it. I found it somewhat disconcerting but I appreciated the effort.
Those who are familiar with hardcore Japanese productions such as this won’t be surprised at the audio. There are heavy-hitting metal tracks mixed with electro undertones, and the voice performances are purposely exaggerated. Considering the production, this works. But not everyone will like it; for instance, many might find Mika absolutely insufferable. I have to admit, her childish ranting, while common in the world of Japanese culture and anime, really grated. Mondo is too one-dimensional, as are most of the actors. Only the special effects really stand out, which means you’ll be craving a return to action when watching one of the many cut-scenes.
As you might infer from the title, Killer is Dead is loaded with action. Mondo Zappa is a killer of killers, an assassin who hunts predators. He’s armed with a katana and a special high-tech left arm, which is essentially a sci-fi long-range weapon. With his speed and power, Mondo is well prepared. However, this isn’t about one dude running around slashing a million enemies with reckless abandon. What he must face is often demonic in nature, and you’ll notice a twisted creepiness the minute you start. Sure, Mondo is basically superhuman but then again, he needs to be. The darkness is very real and the supernatural beings aren’t playing nice.
The story has plenty of promise and given that awfully intriguing visual style, you’re immediately interested. It’s creepy, dark, and oddly thrilling. In many ways, it reminds me of the film “Sin City,” only with a lot more horribly deranged monsters. This is why I said you’ll immediately recognize this as a Grasshopper production. It has all the earmarks of that talented team, and the foundation is rock solid. …but then you start to move and fight, and that’s when a palpable sense of disappointment sets in. You tell yourself— “Okay, I can deal with it; it’s just a little loose and I’ll get used to it.” But try as you might, you never really do.
It’s just so crippling. The movement is too fast and loose, so you don’t feel as if you’re in full control. This is a serious issue, especially when playing a game that requires a mastery of fast-action concepts. Then you toss in a wild camera that’s even looser than the base control, and you get a gameplay mechanic that is, sadly, the polar opposite of “stable.” With a gentle hand, you can deal with these drawbacks. Still, you get tired of battling such mechanical issues within the first hour and eventually, you realize the adventure is a chore. Nobody likes a chore. Gaming is about entertainment; it’s what you do to relax after your daily chores.
Again, the ideas are perfectly sound. You attack and chain strikes together with the Square button, and you can block, dodge, and use your fancy gun arm. The latter requires blood to operate, so you have to slash through quite a few foes before that long-range weapon becomes effective. But switching to the third-person aiming feels clumsy and awkward, and you’re vulnerable when in the process of aiming. After a while, you start to loathe the thought of using it and unfortunately, you have to use that gun during many boss fights. The camera, which swings crazily about, gets too close, and never seems to encompass all enemies, is just a colossal pain.
The enemies range from stupid to challenging, and there’s a definite penalty for death. When you run out of free resurrections thanks to Mika, you won’t be able to pick up exactly where you left off, which certainly increases the difficulty. Action aficionados might appreciate this and even embrace it, but not when they feel as if their deaths are cheap. My definition of a “cheap” death in gaming is one that isn’t really your fault. You died, not due to a lack of a skill or a mistake, but due to a clear design flaw. In this case, you’ll die a lot due to control that is mediocre at best, and a camera that never seems to cooperate. It's so erratic that you feel like giving up.
Unlocking new abilities and mastering the intricacies of the fast, furious melee combat is fun. That much is true. I liked being rewarded for successfully dealing with a bunch of pesky enemies, or when I took down a boss that – by the way – could result in nightmares for those who balk at horrific imagery. And as I said, I liked the story because it clearly has multiple levels, and progression is sorta like peeling an onion. Unfortunately, the writing isn’t very good and the dialogue is even worse. Japanese developers have fallen way behind in these categories over the past generation, and it takes me right out of the experience.
It’s just plain disappointing. All the pieces necessary for a great action game are here: Visceral, highly stylized presentation, solid level and enemy design, a deep, robust combat mechanic, etc. But it’s all lost beneath the glaring shortcomings. Some of them I’ve sadly come to expect from Japanese productions these days, but I did not expect to encounter the control issues. Kadokawa has usually done a good job with movement and camera, but it’s just a mess here. Factor in the clichéd characters and a plot that suffers from poor dialogue and unfortunately, you’re left with a game that feels more boring and frustrating than entertaining.
Killer is Dead has a lot going for it. The foundation is there. But the positives are mired beneath a poor gameplay mechanic that makes even simple control a chore. The story isn’t allowed to shine due to simplistic writing and stereotypical characters, the difficulty can be very erratic, and too many deaths feel cheap and unfair. There’s a very big difference between a polished, well-constructed challenge, and a game you have to battle every step of the way. The only battle we should face is the virtual combat; trying to overlook the obvious drawbacks is just plain tiring. It’s too bad because this one could’ve been a definite gem.
The Good: Great style and presentation. Promising, multilayered story. Learning and upgrading new skills is appropriately satisfying. Decent level design.
The Bad: Visual palette isn’t for everyone. Plot goes unfulfilled due to mediocre writing. Terribly loose control and a wild camera. One-dimensional characters. Too many cheap deaths.
The Ugly: “It’s not good when the control is uglier than any freakish monstrosity you fight.”
9/3/2013 Ben Dutka