Killer Is Dead gains total self-awareness by its fourth mission. The protagonist, a katana-slinging, suit-wearing, demon-fighting assassin named Mondo, receives an offer from an enemy. “Why don’t we join forces?” suggests David, an ostentatious super-villain who rocks a golden codpiece and intends world domination. Mondo refuses, on account of the “tons of complaints from gamers” he’ll get if he agrees.
“Isn’t this supposed to be an action game?” Mondo quips, all but winking at the camera. Then, just in case the anvil hadn’t broken every vertebrae quite yet, Mondo reiterates: “It’s all for the sake of the game.”
Get it? These two men are characters in a videogame. What’s more, everyone in this game knows they’re in a videogame. They also seem to know they’re not in a very good videogame, because everyone seems very depressed. Cut-scenes and conversations take four times longer than necessary, what with all of the pauses, repetitions, tired one-liners, unexpected screams and dramatic stares. Mondo in particular spends most of the game looking as uncomfortable as I feel when I try to maneuver him around his broken world.
The world Mondo lives in is falling apart. Oh, not the fictional world—the literal videogame world. The Xbox 360 version of Killer Is Dead clips, skips and stutters; the camera struggles to keep up with Mondo’s katana slashes; long loading screens softened by smooth jazz interrupt key narrative moments. The game’s graphics look striking so long as Mondo stands still; as soon as he moves, it’s all downhill.
Mondo’s combat style reminds me in part of Lollipop Chainsaw, another recent title by Goichi Suda (a.k.a. Suda51), but it’s even more similar to the original Kingdom Hearts games—except Kingdom Hearts made more mechanical and thematic sense (which is saying something). Killer Is Dead revolves almost entirely around dodging and pressing the “X” button; as the game goes on, you unlock more simple combos and secondary fire, but not much. The simple pattern of dodging and attacking over and over lacks the flash of Kingdom Hearts and the smoothness of Batman: Arkham Asylum; in other words, this has been done before elsewhere, but much better.
Suda51 games tend to emphasize style over substance. Unfortunately, this game lacks both style and substance. The stuttering graphics and repetitive combat happen to be surrounded by an unfunny, badly written narrative. Suda-fronted games have gotten progressively less clever over time, and Killer Is Dead is another notch on that steadily declining graph. How often can videogame jokes about videogames still feel fresh? It’s hard to say which element of the game is the most disappointing, but the terrible pacing, incomprehensible plot, and stilted, unfunny dialogue may well take the cake.
Confession: this game still managed to make me laugh out loud, in parts. Killer Is Dead fails so thoroughly that, at times, it crosses over from “bad” into “so bad it’s good”, especially with a friend or two in tow. It’s easier to enjoy jokes this bad if a friend is there to laugh along and trade the controller back and forth so that the combat feels less boring. Playing Killer Is Dead by myself made me feel depressed, but with a friend, it felt bearable.
I’m not sure Suda realizes that he’s lost his edge, or that jokes about being in a videogame just aren’t that funny anymore. I’m also not sure he realizes that the anime tropes he’s mimicking (or … parodying? Who knows?) went out of fashion even in actual anime back in the ‘90s, maybe earlier.
Killer Is Dead might work as a partial parody of the Devil May Cry series, in which an over-the-top bad-ass fights monsters alongside improbably busty colleagues, but that’s a comparison that Killer Is Dead just can’t afford. I spent most of the game wishing I was playing Devil May Cry instead, rather than laughing at this potential lampoon. Plus, Devil May Cry is already trying to be over-the-top and comedic; what more can a parody of it hope to do?
I’m also not sure whether Suda wants Killer Is Dead to be a parody of any other existing demon-fighting game, or whether he wants it to stand on its own. I think the real answer is that he just doesn’t care. The game’s themes reminded me of fan-fiction I wrote in seventh grade: cobbled-together tropes inspired by Cowboy Bebop and Pokemon, plus terrible, unrealistic “sexy” scenes that only someone with no sexual experience could invent.
Killer Is Dead’s now-notorious “gigolo” mini-games fit that description to a T. These missions involve Mondo staring at women while a small icon of his head fills with blood (get it?). After he’s got enough blood going, he gives the woman presents to warm her up; if she likes them, they sleep together. I’ve decided to invent my own interpretation of these scenes, based solely on the fact that they’re titled “gigolo” missions. Bear with me.
Every one of the “gigolo” missions ends in Mondo receiving a weapon or in-game perk; he even gets a literal receipt with a stipulated cash pay-out from the girl. These scenes are structured just like other missions in the game: Mondo performs a task and he gets paid, complete with a receipt. So, in addition to his freelance assassin work, Mondo is a part-time male prostitute.
Multiple women keep calling Mondo throughout the game to schedule “gigolo” calls. Maybe he’s sneaking looks at their crotches and boobs in an effort to talk himself into doing the deed later that night. He never seems interested in any of these women, and if he lays it on too thick, they cut him off by slapping him and leaving the scene. He does give these women gifts, but these interactions are so stagey that they seem planned.
Like all of the other jokes in Killer Is Dead, however, these “gigolo” missions are only funny if you’re able to laugh at this game (I’m pretty sure my interpretation of Mondo being a prostitute is not accurate). You definitely won’t be laughing with the game, because although the characters occasionally speak in the cadence of a joke, the words they’re saying never make much sense, and these scenes are downright embarrassing.
I’ll give Killer Is Dead this much: The game isn’t pretending to be something it’s not. Killer Is Dead knows it’s a videogame, and its characters know it, too. Killer Is Dead even seems to know that it is a stupid videogame. So, unlike the underhanded sexism of most mainstream titles, Killer Is Dead wears its huge boobs on its sleeve, and doesn’t even try to apologize. It’s as though Suda has passed the point of no return and has literally no other ideas beyond boobs and people staring at each other. Well, at least it’s straight-forward.
Every character in Killer Is Dead acts like an object, including Mondo; everyone is a mercenary with a utilitarian mission to complete. No one in this game is likeable, but also, no one in this game even feels like a human being, so it’s hard to feel too sorry for anybody. People make deals with one another based on money and based on their own bodies. Mondo has a cyberpunk arm, after all, and several other characters have replaced parts of their bodies; Mondo sells his body and his services, and later in the game when a female client can’t pay for her mission, Mondo asks her to sell him her body (she can pay him with “a kiss”). These themes are unsettling, but they fit into what little we know about this world, which is a place where people have compromised their humanity and everything revolves around trading bodies and money, back and forth. After all, like Mondo says, “it’s all for the sake of the game.”
If Suda had actually embraced the darkness of his own game’s themes, perhaps he’d have the next Devil May Cry on his hands. Instead he’s determined to keep trying to be funny. Too bad he hasn’t managed to recreate his earlier successes and instead keeps throwing parody concepts at the wall, hoping one of them sticks. It’s okay, Suda. The guys who made Scary Movie fell down the same over-sexed, unfunny parody rabbit-hole, too. I hope you can climb out, but you’ve got a long way to go from here.
Maddy Myers writes the biweekly Hyper Mode column for Paste Magazine. Her work has also appeared in the Boston Phoenix, Kill Screen and at the Border House. She also blogs at her personal website Metroidpolitan and tweets @samusclone.