When Killer is Dead was released on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 last year, it made waves for its striking art style and controversial gigolo side missions, but PC gamers didn’t want to sit idly by while they missed out on Suda 51’s latest surreal experience. Thus, Deep Silver and Kadokawa Games have teamed up to bring the sword swinging hack and slasher to Steam at an affordable, and very reasonable price. With even more refined visuals, keyboard and mouse controls, and a new difficulty mode, considering this is a new territory for the developer, they seem to have made out very well, all things considered.
Killer is Dead stars an executioner named Mondo Zappa who has recently become a major cog at Bryan’s Executioner Office. The Executioner Office is the country’s first line of defense, banked on tax dollars and serving the state. Well, in theory at least, as most of its clients are individual citizens who come to the firm with a unique problem. There’s the man with a giant spider monster terrorizing his house, a musician who had her ears stolen and a woman in crisis from the dark side of the moon just to name a few. There’s never a job the office doesn’t take, and while Mondo is sent out on the bulk of them, he has assistance in the form of Bryan, Vivienne and Mika. Vivienne is a femme fatale with a dozen arms that shoot out of her back and fire guns (something randomly revealed halfway through the game), Bryan is the head of the operation who is one cybernetic implant away from becoming a robot and Mika is a young runaway that Mondo takes in because she’s good at making soft-boiled eggs. All the characters in the game are interesting, from the major players to the bit ones, with Bryan a standout outside of the protagonist. His cryptic messages and nonchalance helps elevate the surrealism of the situations.
I’d go deeper into the plot, but find that difficult for two reasons: it would spoil the fun of unraveling the story and it’s incredibly abstract and difficult to put into words. Killer is Dead has a narrative that plops you into the middle of a mysterious world playing as a character you know little about. It takes place in the distant future as evidenced by Mondo’s cybernetic arm and the moon being inhabited. Indeed, the cover art is not just for show and the moon plays a significant part in the game. As the plot progresses, more is revealed about the characters and just what the hell is happening, rewarding those who stick with it and attempt to piece it all together. Tonally, the game is reminiscent of the recent Nicolas Winding Refn film, Only God Forgives, due in part to the narrative, visual flair and surrealism of practically every situation. Unlike that film, however, there’s giant killer monsters.
Matching the idiosyncrasy of the plot are the bizarre level designs. There’s a stage reminiscent of an M.C. Escher painting as imagined by Lewis Carroll, complete with stairs on the walls, and one that takes place in a thousand-story building. This is a game that literally goes straight to the moon within the first few hours, so except anything and everything. The unique setting of areas helps the game from feeling repetitive, although they aren’t always the most inspired, with more indoor corridors than I would have liked. The boss designs are some of the strangest in recent memories, rivaling even the Slurm Queen in DmC. It’s be a crime to spoil them all, but know there’s a mummy musician and an attractive young woman who randomly has spider legs burst out of her back and turns into a horrifying creature.
The gameplay is that of a hack and slash and somewhat reminiscent of Devil May Cry. Mondo’s main weapon is his beloved katana, Gekkou, which absorbs blood and boosts his fighting ability. Blood can be used for multiple things, the most notable being the “Adrenaline Burst.” An enemy can be cut in half (usually right down the middle) upon being stunned, destroying them in one hit. The most important use of blood is to grant the ability to harness the power of Mondo’s cybernetic left arm, which is called the “Musselback.” Multiple (some unlockable) sub-weapons can be loaded into the Musselback, including the Bullet Shot, Freeze Shooter and Drill. The Bullet Shot is basically a gun and can be charged for more damage, the Freeze Shooter fires frozen bullets to slow enemies down and the Drill is a giant drill. The Bullet Shot is the most practical out of the three, although each has its own advantage.
Most of the time, however, expect to be hacking and slashing. Most of the action happens by the way of the square button, which creates lighting quick combos. Holding down the same button does a circular “Moon Slash,” while hitting triangle breaks guard. On the defensive side of things, holding circle brings Mondo into a guard, while tapping it makes him dodge. If an attack is successfully dodged, it brings up a prompt to counter-attack, which allows the enemy to be sliced and diced in slow-motion. While it’s a wholly satisfying combat system, it does feel a bit outdated after the smoothness of both DmC and Metal Gear Rising. DmC balanced multiple weapons and moves with ease, while Metal Gear Rising allowed for enemies to be cut up into almost literally millions of pieces. After experiencing those games, it’s hard to get that sense of “outrageousness” in combat the developers seemed to strive for.
Perhaps the most shocking feature about the game is that of the “Gigolo Missions,” which is surprising in a game that has a character sprout legs out of her back and crawl around the ceiling. These are mini-games that can be completed in-between missions, with the ultimate goal being to seduce a woman for pleasure and weapons. Every mission has Mondo approach an attractive woman and begin seducing her the “Gigolo Vision” and sneaking a peak of her private areas when she’s not looking. You can look at her face too, but as the tutorial states, “staring at her face won’t increase your Guts, go for the sexy shots!” Mondo can restore the mood by looking in her eyes, however, which is necessary as she’ll ditch you if it cools off enough. Once you’ve gained enough guts by staring at her, you give her presents until she falls in love with you and gives you a weapon. It’s hard to predict how people will react to this mode, and I’m not touching that with a ten foot poll, but it’s surprisingly entertaining and all in good fun.
It’s surprising Killer is Dead has received a PC port, especially considering we’ve only seen one other game from Grasshopper Manufacture breech the open ended barrier. Unfortunately, Nightmare Edition is a little below expectations. There’s a lack of options when it comes to visuals as it’s summed up in a single quality meter ranging from high to low. That’s not the concerning matter – it’s actually more stunning a nine month old console port of this caliber had any graphical selections at all – but it’s the five supported resolutions and limited frame rate that’s worrisome. It’s only disappointing because the game actually supports more than 30fps and any resolution possible, but to unlock these, players will have to go into ini file and manually change the settings themselves. Besides that, though, the Killer is Dead really shines on PC, showcasing the studio’s beautiful artwork.
Another important aspect to any port is the transition to a new set of controls and Killer is Dead is actually better than expected, utilizing the mouse perfectly and positioning most of the actions in the same general area on the keyboard. It still recognizes a gamepad if players wish to use one, but this has been greatly optimized for the new platform. On the downside, there’s no key mapping, so if you don’t like how things are set up, you’re out of luck. In addition, there’s a new difficulty mode properly titled “Nightmare” that challenges the player by only allowing them to defeat enemies with Adrenaline Bursts, Dodge Bursts and headshots.
Killer is Dead is not everybody’s cup of tea. It’s avant-garde, darkly humorous, hyper-violent and different from most every game out there. It’s like the weirdness of Killer 7, Lollipop Chainsaw, Anarchy Reigns and Catherine rolled into one game, but narratively removed from anything that’s come before it. Out of the box, the Nightmare Edition is a baffling package. The unlocked frame rate and additional render resolutions are not something any gamer should have to go looking for in the project files, but once you get past that, you will be treated to an unreal experience. It helps that the controls to keyboard and mouse have transitioned perfectly, and the greater visual fidelity only helps to increase the magic that takes place on screen. It may be confusing and an outright crazy adventure, but it’s one that will have gamers readily engaged.
Version Reviewed: PC