The Job... Killer Is Dead.
Killer Is Dead (KID) has style, of that there is no doubt. Developed by Grasshopper Manufactures and overseen by Suda 51 as executive producer, the game is brimming with grace and charm. A pseudo-cyberpunk adventure romp, effectively contained within combat arenas, KID is an exciting and violent gore-fest that grips from start to finish.
Played out in episodes, the plot follows Mondo Zappa (considering the moon references throughout, a reference to Frank Zappa and his daughter Moon Unit?) in a series of episodes as he travels the world working as a sword-for-hire for the Bryan Execution Firm, effectively a military agency tasked with eliminating dangerous criminals around the world. These episodes are anchored around lunar activity, including a base on the far side of the moon, from which the 'wires', enemies without minds, originate. It's a Suda 51 game; what were you expecting?
The main episodes involve a target, normally characterised during the beginning cut-scene, who must be hunted down. Situated in different countries, these missions take the form of linear hacks through generally in-door locations until Mondo finds the target and dispatches them. For what is effectively a formulaic slashathon, KID rarely becomes boring. Missions are surprisingly varied within this template, and the combat is such that even the tamest of assignments is a joy.
In addition to these episodes are a variety of side-missions that can be completed to earn money and points for Mondo. Bug missions are basic hunting assignments, while others include collection missions (find object, escape) and manning turrets to protect beautiful ladies. Ah, the ladies. In the bizarrest game mode (arguably one of the bizzarest I've ever played) called 'Mondo's Girls' you help the robot armed charm machine get himself a girl by looking at them until you catch the right angle and fall in love. You then give them a present and they give you a gun or some other harbinger of death. Using 'Gigolo Vision,' you build up your confidence by staring at the 'beauty' when she is not looking. You do lose points by staring at her breasts, but only if she catches you. I'm not sure I agree with the idea, and it doesn't really fit with the rest of the game's premise, but you do receive a dollar if you fail in Mondo's pursuit; if I had a dollar for every time I failed to chat up a woman I could probably afford to be a jet-setting assassin too.
If steak is the meat in a laboured meat and drink metaphor, then combat is undoubtedly the steak of Killer Is Dead's Sunday grill. Very easy to grasp but far harder to master, the combat in KID is a master-class of high octane, skillful chaos. On the Xbox 360, a basic sword slash is on X, heavy attacks on Y, while LT pulls out Mondo's arm-gun. B serves as a dodge button, with well timed evasions rewarded with the opportunity to counter. Mondo, like any good sci-fi assassin, needs blood to energise his sword to its maximum potential; pressing RT uses blood in special, spectacular moves to finish enemies or cause considerable damage. Simple in theory, but in practice these combinations result in an orgy of bloody combat which plays out almost poetically; I daresay it quite easily betters the combat of Bayonetta and Lollipop Chainsaw, Killer Is Dead's main rivals in bat-shit insanity. Combat is frenetic, sometimes difficult, but always pulsatingly fun; even when Mondo is smashed around the arena, KID is still accessible enough to feel that, with a bit more skill, you can beat the hardest of enemies. For the most part this is true, and it is to the developer's credit that KID is as accessible yet deep as it is.
Each of these abilities can be upgraded using points Mondo collects during his one-man genocides, but these are nothing to write home about. Beyond slightly stronger attacks, better health rewards and faster movement, the upgrades are surprisingly unimaginative for a game that grabs your imagination and kicks it in the balls. Likewise, beyond the main episodes the side-missions act as distractions for the completionist (the entire game is score-based) rather than anything worthy of your time. This is a shame, for the jazzy, noire-esque atmosphere that is built in the main game deserves greater exploration than it receives.
Talking of Jazz, the sound-track to KID is outstanding. It helps build the mood, free-forming and flitting between styles as the game fits. It works very well, and helps to anchor the graphical style into its 'too-cool-for-school' mould. KID is undoubtedly a stunning piece of work; think No More Heroes mixed with Sin City and you're getting close. The artwork oozes class, with outlandish characters, grotesque enemies and slick effects which make KID a dazzling work-out for the eyes. More, however, could have been done with the arenas and outdoor areas; most are plain, uniform affairs, which when shown in tandem with the sumptuous combat animations appear to be a bizarre design choice. The voice-acting is surprisingly good, except for an unbelievably annoying girl called Mika, who shrieks along to what for the most part is a decent script; one wishes for a Ring-like scenario where she crawls through the TV so you can actually kick her in the head.
Killer is Dead is one of those rare games where the style is met by gameplay which really compliments the different elements. An outlandish thriller with fantastic combat and an eye for the fantastical, if anything it is only let down by a lack of ambition; ambition to push the game further, to utilise its universe and really develop the fantastical episodes of the main missions. The noire atmosphere is excellently maintained, menacing and cool, while the combat is an absolute joy. Although challenging on normal difficulty, higher difficulties are near narcissistic. Although there are activities outside the main game, they are for the most part superficial and offer little real reward for the discerning gamer. This is a shame, because for the most part Killer Is Dead is an absolute riot.
This review is based on a copy of Killer Is Dead for the X360, provided by the publisher.