I'll admit, I bought in to the hype of Killer Is Dead. Just hearing the term "killer" and Suda51 again is enough to get me on board with whatever he's doing. This time though, I may have jumped the gun. Killer Is Dead is the latest from the wild imagination of Suda51, and it seems like some bits and pieces of that imagination needed to be reigned in this time. While he can make some of the most visually interesting characters, locales, and set pieces, and weave some of the wildest stories, they hinge on having a device that kind of keeps it all together, and it's got to be present within the game world itself, not left to internet speculation about the mythos and underpinnings of the story.
The Killer Is Dead story follows Mondo Zappa, an assassin working for a secret state institution called "Executioner Office." This cool and collected character exists in a world where assassinations and trips to the moon have become commonplace, though those who return lately don't seem quite the same as when they left, as evidenced by one of Mondo's early targets, a young girl named Alice. But it's "Moon River" and her request to have a man named David assassinated that really drives the story forward, for he has taken over the moon and her home.
David serves as the driving antagonist to this story, but by the end you'll be left with more questions than answers. Is the moon in control of this spread of evil? What is David's relationship with Mondo, and why does he know about his penchant for a good soft-boiled egg? How does he know Mondo's assistant Mika? A lot of these questions are very loosely answered, and by the end of the game I was turning to analysis of the story online to help fill in some of the gaps. The cast of characters is certainly one of the most interesting since Killer7, and outside of very direct characters like Bryan and Vivienne, Mondo's bosses, it's hard to get a read on most of the cast and what they mean to Mondo, like his unicorn buddy Takeru. While it was hilarious to see as he showed up out of nowhere to guide me through a forest, I was left dumbstruck by his presence. I can appreciate the ridiculousness of the situation, and, in some cases, those moments really saved the game for me.
One great aspect of the game: the soundtrack. Akira Yamaoka delivers on so many different genres here it makes me happy that he was able to get away from doing Silent Hill stuff in order to branch out more. The voice acting is also pretty spot on, with a number of great performances, and it's kind of funny to notice that the lip synching for the game is synched to the English dialog, as opposed the Japanese track. The dialog itself is translated fairly well, as expected of XSeed, although there are some lines that should have just outright said what needed to be said for the sake of the story, rather than leave things a cryptic mess. I understand why you'd want to leave things for the player to figure out, but this happens way too often in Killer Is Dead.
Another thing that's worth mentioning: those visuals. Killer Is Dead is visually stunning, and while it doesn't make up for the price of admission, it is a testament to the creative genius that resides at developer Grasshopper Manufacture. The cel-shading, mixed with the heavy use of shadow, creates a very unique look that most games simply can't touch. Though there is one thing about this game that holds it back: the tearing that occurs because of quick camera rotation. Because the camera doesn't like to be in a corner, and there are a lot of tight hallways, you'll be maneuvering the camera around -- a lot -- and you'll always see that tearing that occurs from a lack of v-sync. This kind of technical failing is inexcusable in the tail end of a console's life, and detracted from my personal enjoyment of the game.
Getting into the actual gameplay, there's a lot to like and a little to dislike about Killer Is Dead. About 95 percent of the experience is taking on assassination targets and completing odd jobs that come up after each case. A typical mission doesn't take more than a half hour to complete, which is another unfortunate aspect of this game; it's rather short, and there isn't much beyond the higher difficulties to encourage you to keep playing after completion. But when you're actually in a mission, the gameplay is pretty solid. Mondo is armed with his trusty katana, Gekkou, and he uses it to slice and dice up Wires, the standard enemy that is composed of malice from the moon. By defeating these seemingly endless waves of enemies, he can power up his sword, or the mechanical arm he's got grafted to his body, the Musselback, which uses the blood of his enemies to fire bullets. By expanding his skills with the Gekkou and Musselback, the gameplay gets pretty robust and satisfying, especially with the dodge mechanics in place that make you feel hardcore when you pull off a perfect dodge and slice up an enemy as a result of it.
The side missions, and hidden objectives certainly add a bit to the game, though a lot of them are cryptic and will probably require a little internet sleuthing to figure out. Case in point: I didn't think in the first stage that the hidden requirement would double the amount of time it takes to complete the stage. That outside-the-box thinking is welcome, but I wish it was a little more clear. The side missions range from mowing down Wires while on the back of Vivienne's motorcycle to picking up a toy train engine so that it can't be put into mass production and used to terrorize the world. The only thing this game was missing from the ludicrous files was actually suplexing a train, though I guess no one wants to take that crown away from Final Fantasy VI. All of these side missions will use previous level locations, so it's not like you'll be exploring anything out of the ordinary by doing them, but they will get you some of that almighty dollar, which is used to purchase gifts for the much ballyhooed Gigolo Missions.
We've known that these were in the game for a long time now, so I'm not going to feign shock and act like it's a grave injustice that they're present. Over the course of the game you'll receive calls from a few ladies who are interested in Mondo's company, being a "ladies' man" akin to the James Bond characters of old, and Mondo isn't one to let them down. So if they call, you can choose to spend time with them, and you'll need to bring gifts to sway and win their hearts. Before you give them gifts though, you'll need to attempt to sneak peeks at them while they aren't looking. It's creepy, it's tongue-in-cheek, and it's totally not necessary to finish the game. What you get out of it are some new weapons for the Musselback, or some hilarious results if you happen to fail. Of course if you don't want to invest money in these pervy side missions, you can use it to buy gems that will speed up the growth of your life and blood meters. Or you can buy Mika tickets which increases the number of times you can die in a stage, which come highly recommended early on, because while this game is somewhat easy, it can also be fairly punishing after missing a dodge or two, though you can get a skill that lets you regenerate health over time, so once you get that, death becomes kind of moot.
By the time I was finished with my first playthrough of Killer Is Dead, I was most certainly confused. The folks at Grasshopper have a really compelling world on their hands, and Suda51 is most definitely capable of delivering a quality game, so I don't get how this game wound up the way it did. It's got some enjoyable moments, but they're trapped in these weird pockets of technical failures and plot holes. The story is set up perfectly for a sequel, but I think that'll be a hard sell for people that potentially get burned by this one. It's hard to sum up how I feel about Killer Is Dead. On one hand, I really enjoyed the combat, the music, and the concepts behind it, but I'm flabbergasted by the execution flaws in the storytelling and technical failures. This is one of those games you'll be taking a risk on, so it might be better to wait for it to show up in the bargain bins, ala Killer7. Who knows, maybe we'll all have a change of heart on this one the same way a lot of people did for Killer7.