This is the weirdest, most difficult review I’ve ever written. Where do I even start? Killer is Dead is the latest from oddball rock star developer Suda 51, known for cult-hit flashy action games like Killer7, No More Heroes, and Lollipop Chainsaw. All I can say now that I’m through Killer is Dead is: Mr. 51…we need to talk.
I’m having such a tough time reviewing this game because I had such a wildly varied experience with it. I’m the very definition of ambivalent. I think all critics of all opinions can agree that there are many different faces to the game, and it’s hard to synthesize them all into a single whole. So I’ll start with any game’s heart and soul (in my opinion), the core mechanics. You control a lanky, very anime assassin in a cel-shaded world, slashing and blasting your way through levels filled with enemies to reach your mark, a boss fight. The action is rapid, stylish, and nuanced but understandable. Combat leans toward the swift, swinging swordwork only a katana can provide, with necessary change-ups provided by the protagonist’s cybernetic left arm. Predictably, this prosthesis is a transformer, able to change into various guns, heavy melee weapons, or just throw an honest-to-goodness old fashioned guard-breaking haymaker.
Man, the combat in this game is so sweet. Tim Rogers’s essay on “sticky friction” really stuck with me, and I will insist I would eat up a game that stripped out all other elements – say, just throw wire frames on the screen against gray-walled environments – and merely delivered straight-up Killer is Dead combat. As is, combat is very fast, explosive, punchy and stop-and-go. When you’re in the zone, it feels like that speed-up-slow-down sequence from 300. It manages an interesting, flowing balance between button-mashing, razor sharp block/dodge timing to set up counters, and enemy types demanding different applications of your arsenal. There aren’t a ton of different enemies, but there are enough to present fresh challenges in every level, especially when thrown at you in new combinations.
I’m not going to say it’s perfect, but it’s close enough for me to love. I had some camera issues, especially in tight quarters. When attempting to dodge with a backstep, it picked up my directional lunge much better when the camera was behind Mondo rather than to his side. Boss battles are a constant whirlwind of activity. Pauses in which to collect your thoughts or reset your tactics are few and preciously far between, but that’s not a bad thing. I started to feel like the colorful, counter-and-combo animation was getting stale, but you can unlock other counter options which freshen the mechanic up.
The styling goes hand-in-hand with the action. Cel-shading has a lot of haters, but I love the choice for this game. I’ll concede it covers with cartoony flash some graphics deficiencies – the environments don’t have near the level of detail as other games striving for a more “realistic” look. One of my personal favorite things ever is Japanese design of American characters. Stoic, wiry, suit-and-tie-wearing protagonist Mondo Zappa (?) is deliberately established as a Yankee, although his general archetype leans toward characters that are usually Japanese. Mondo isn’t much of a talker, unless he’s trying to out-witticism his mark, like a badass is obligated to do. Oh, the dialogue is B-movie hilarity at its best, it has to be intentional. He couldn’t crack his smile if his life depended on it, and his sunglasses only exit to reveal, when he removes them, that his irises are f*cking red, you guys. And when he goes to bars, he enters a mini-game in which the player must ogle a chick’s boobs and crotch.
I was playing a balls-to-the-wall action game and now I’m…having to control Mondo’s gaze as an anime female says things like “Fascinating,” and “You’re making me blush,” (despite the fact that exactly zero dialogue is coming from him, written or spoken), trying to steal looks at her cleavage and skirt when she’s not looking…
Jesus Tapdancing Christ. What the balls just happened? So now we take a deep breath and get into what makes Killer is Dead controversial.
Teasing apart all of this weirdness would be an essay unto itself, so I’m not going to get into more than necessary for review of this game. Let me state up front: I am no feminist champion. When I say Killer is Dead‘s bizarro take on sexuality is f*cked up, I’m not white knighting it. I will state for the record that some of the biggest laughs I had playing this game were when my friends were watching me do these Gigolo Missions (yes, they’re called that). However, upon discussion, one of my friends put his finger on it best – we weren’t laughing at a joke the game was trying to make, we were laughing because of how uncomfortable it was.
When I drill down to the core of my problem with Killer is Dead‘s sexuality, it’s that the game doesn’t seem to be trying to make a joke with it, like other discomfort-based humor does. It’s just doing it. It’s having you fight through your own facepalms (“you” the player’s, not Mondo’s) ogle this vapid chick just because. It literally says “ogle” in load screen game tips, to try to coach you on doing it better. I might feel differently if a joke were attempted. I believe anything and everything should be the subject of humor, it’s perhaps humanity’s best mechanism for understanding and coping. That doesn’t mean I think every joke is defensible, you need to do it right. But there isn’t even a joke here. Out of nowhere, you’re forced to creep on women in a mini-game that rewards you with a brief “romantic” cinematic. Yay, you get to see Mondo not smiling and wearing a suit as a cel-shaded anime chick gets down to her lingerie and purrs something stupid before a fade-to-white. Oh, and you get a weapon upgrade. So you got that going for you.
Other games like to sexualize for humor’s sake. Duke Nukem Forever is wall to wall sexuality and objectification to make jokes about the industry’s infatuation with hyper-masculine protagonists. Bayonetta joked about cockteasing, and Lollipop Chainsaw joked about superfluous sexuality used for its own sake. All these games are symptomatic of media’s weird relationship with women and sexuality, and it’s particularly acute with video games. But at least they were trying to do or say something funny or satirical with it. Killer is Dead doesn’t even have that slim justification.
The ogling mini-game isn’t even much of a game. Oh yeah, I did them. They make them easy because, I assume, they want you to see the lingerie. You’ll find more depth in “dating sims” on Newgrounds. The hell of it is there are other mini-games that are good! And fun! Man a gun turret to defend an innocent from waves of enemies! Ride on a motorcycle while slashing and ramming enemies and blocking incoming fire! These mini-games totally fit the rest of the game’s tone. This boob-ogling doesn’t. Why is it there?. Some sort of wink-wink, nudge-nudge from the developers? “Chicks, guys. Amirite? Look at that.” Someone thought this was okay. This game is so aggressive with its objectification that I get the idea Suda 51 and others would call me a pussy if I told them Killer is Dead overdid it.
It’s a shame that I have to dwell on the downsides, because I want it to be known that this game has great upside as well. In terms of a pure action game, it’s one of the best available for console download (although I maintain the $50 price tag is at least $10 too steep). I’m not saying the industry needs to get rid of boobs, or sexuality. I love boobs. LOVE THEM. I don’t want them gone from games. I’m rating the game a 6 because I think the cool combat has to ultimately outweigh the stupid eye-banging for review purposes, but I can’t ignore the broader cultural context. If there’s anything that Killer is Dead demonstrates, it’s that I’m running out of laughs for this juvenile horse shit, and sexuality done wrong can drag down an otherwise stellar game.
This review is based on a review copy of the Xbox 360 version of Killer is Dead, developed by Grasshopper Manufacture, published by XSEED Games.