the artistry and psychology of gaming


Killer is Dead

Killer is Dead

Review in Brief
Game: A third-person hack-and-slash action game set in a dystopian alternate reality.
Good: Nothing. Literally nothing.
Bad: Meaninglessly esoteric; mindless, immature sexualization; non-functional graphical style; generic and outdated gameplay; no gameplay scaffolding or instruction; several simple, amateurish mistakes.
Verdict: An amateurish, immature, esoteric mess.
Rating: 3/10
Recommendation: Avoid at all costs.

“I have literally nothing good to say about this game.”

Generally, I like Suda 51, the auteur game designer behind the classic Killer7 and other notable games like No More Heroes and Lollipop Chainsaw. Generally his games share the same strengths and weaknesses: all of them are a little lacking in the gameplay department, all of them are a few notches past edgy in their content, and all of them have a deeper, more nuanced meaning than the majority of the community gives them credit for. Killer7 was intended to provide stylized, arthouse, niche appeal to test the boundaries of what video games were capable of being. No More Heroes was simultaneously a parody of the video game industry and a parody of Otaku culture, executing both very nicely for those willing to delve into those themes. Even Lollipop Chainsaw had a brilliant underlying subversion of the commonly-presented gender roles in video games hiding somewhere amongst its miniskirts and ditzy catchphrases. Suda 51 games generally tend to be an edgy outer shell disguising a profound deeper concept, classic cases of not judging books by their covers.

Killer is Dead is like the outer shell from every other Suda 51 game, but without anything underlying it. Perhaps it simply flew over my head, but the game lacks any of the strong hallmarks of Suda 51’s other work, while exacerbating the drawbacks even further. It takes the traditional strange, edgy content and blows it to the point of meaningless esotericism and mindless grotesqueness. Whereas past games have leaned gently on the latter side of the line between sexy and trashy, Killer is Dead treats that line like the 30-yard-line on its touchdown run toward outright smut. While strong gameplay has never been a hallmark of these games, it usually is at least serviceable; Killer is Dead‘s gameplay is just bad. Even with its weaknesses, Suda 51’s games are usually at least polished and consistent, but Killer is Dead makes some mistakes so basic you would think this was the company’s first release. Most importantly, though, most games from this group have a deeper hidden meaning; Killer is Dead is so vague and abstract that any meaning, if there even was meaning to be had, stands no choice of landing with the player.

I don’t have anything good to say about Killer is Dead. Every single element, from its gameplay to its plot (if it even really has a plot) to its characters to its visual style to its themes to its content, not only failed to appeal to me, but was downright unappealing. The game shouldn’t be recommended to anyone, least of all Suda 51 fans who will be even more let down by the game’s failure to meet their expectations.

The Game
In Killer is Dead, you take the role of Mondo Zappa, a recently promoted executioner. In this futuristic dystopia, a secretive government agency employees executioners as killers for hire, paid to take out enemies around the world by the individuals who want them out of the way. Through the game, you take on enemies from every corner of the world and beyond in service of mysterious clients, learning a bit about Mondo’s own past as you go along.

In terms of gameplay, Killer is Dead is something of a hack-and-slash brawler. You are armed primarily with a sword that can be used to deflect most attacks. You attack with the sword and with a small selection of available combos that you can buy during the game. Your left arm is also a transformable weapon that runs on ‘blood’, essentially the game’s ‘MP’ that you get from slaying enemies. The arm is mostly used as a gun, its capacity limited by the amount of ‘blood’ you have available. The levels are mostly structured as series of fights across linear pathways culminating in a boss fight. Levels themselves are chosen from a globe that has icons for each of the game’s missions. In addition to the main missions, there are side missions just for making money, and there are “Gigolo” missions. Gigolo missions involve you seducing one of four women by giving her presents and checking her out, and in return you receive weapons upgrades.

The Good
Nothing. Literally nothing. I have nothing good to say about this game. At times, I was tempted to write that at least the game was humorously bad instead of just awfully bad, but that’s only true for the first portion of the game anyway. By the second half of the game, the game just becomes frustrating, repetitive, mindless, and ridiculous. It has literally not a single good quality, and the only reason why it earns a 3 instead of a 1 or 2 is that it technically is still playable; I reserve scores as low as 2 for games that are literally unplayable. Killer Is Dead is technically playable, but there’s absolutely no reason to do so.

The Bad
Killer is Dead is bad in so many different ways that it is almost difficult to talk about them all. Some of the criticisms I apply to other games apply strongly here, too, but there’s no point in going into them because the game is so awful anyway. Nitpicking would be like pointing out that the curtains don’t match the upholstery in a dilapidated, foreclosed home.

Meaninglessly Esoteric
The word ‘esoteric’, if you’re unaware, means something that is only likely to be understood by a select few individuals. The connotation of the word is that it describes something that is intentionally designed to only be understood by a few individuals. Abstract, vague, or intentionally confusing games, stories, etc. are best described as ‘esoteric’. While the word is often used as a criticism, it is not inherently bad, so long as there is actual meat underlying its esotericism. It can be useful to make things esoteric as a way of disguising and enhancing their real value. Allegories are commonly somewhat intentionally esoteric in order to have meaning without coming across too heavy-handed. If people were immediately aware, for instance, of the biblical symbolism of The Matrix, it likely would not be nearly as appreciated as it is. To some, the symbolism adds to the product, while it also does not distract from it for those who do not appreciate such devices.

Many of Suda 51’s games can be described as somewhat esoteric. Both No More Heroes and Lollipop Chainsaw had somewhat deeper hidden meanings that not everyone quite understood. Both were, in some ways, parodies of common cultural conventions, yet explicitly parodying that content would come across more as a humorous mockery than an insightful deconstruction. The esotericism of these games enhances their quality because there is an actual underlying theme for those who would choose to delve far enough to discover it. Those that missed the deeper meaning largely dismissed these games as ultraviolent garbage (for the former) or oversexualized smut (for the latter), but in both cases, there was meat underlying the games that those dismissals missed.

The problem with Killer is Dead is that it is structured to be highly esoteric, yet unlike those other games, there does not seem to be any underlying meat to the vague, abstract plots, settings, and characters. You move from mission to mission, each individually presented in excessively bizarre fashion with little explanation given for the rather absurdity developments, with little to no overall narrative behind the game. The individual missions are presented in such a way that echoes or alludes to the existence of some underlying themes or messages, yet there are no such messages to be found. The interviews and promotions included with the game allude only to the protagonist’s desire to protect the innocent and a couple other throwaway thematic elements, with no more compelling underlying deeper meaning.

The result is a clear example of why ‘esoteric’ is so often considered a criticism. The game is confusing, haphazard, abstract, vague, and directionless, with no higher goal in sight. It is structured such that it feels like there is something you must be missing, yet there is no such deeper meaning to the game’s ridiculous scenes. I would call the premise itself absurd, but the game is so abstract and poorly-explained that it barely even has a premise in the first place. That, in many ways, is the hallmark of an esoteric game: you are thrown into a world with little background, setting, or exposition and expected to suspend your thirst for these criteria in order to understand the game’s deeper meaning. When games have a deeper meaning, this can work, but Killer is Dead simply does not have the payoff to justify such meaningless esotericism.

Mindlessly Grotesque and Trashy
Many of Suda 51’s games in the past have been dismissed for clearly offensive content. No More Heroes is an ultra-violent game, to the point where it becomes comical rather than shocking. The iconic image of Lollipop Chainsaw is that of a ditzy cheerleader in a short skirt, yielding the game’s perceived overtly sexual nature. Killer7 is one of the most psychologically mature and violent games ever released, both criticized and praised by many for pushing the envelope of video game content.

Killer is Dead picks up the envelope that those games pushed and attempts to push it even further, but ultimately loses the meaning behind those games’ efforts. Those games weren’t violent, sexual, or grotesque simply for the sake of being violent, sexual, and grotesque; there was meaning behind that content. They executed that content delicately as well, although some might laugh at me saying so. In No More Heroes, for example, the game’s ultra-violence was done in such an overblown, stylized manner that it ended up being more comical than shocking. Killer is Dead lacks that kind of self-awareness and delicateness, and instead is entirely brash, unrelenting, and ultimately mindless.

Killer is Dead doesn’t take the ultra-violent route that the other games take (it’s violent, but doesn’t hold a candle to No More Heroes), but it more than makes up for it with its sexual and grotesque content. I’ll talk at length about the sexual content, but let me start with the grotesque content. Killer is Dead features some very grotesque scenes, such as a woman’s body being deformed and transformed into a monster while retaining several of her body parts and subsequently flinging bugs with her face on them at the player. It’s a horrifying scene, but it’s horrifying simply through its shock value. To use an analogy, this is more akin to the Dead Space approach to fright than the Silent Hill approach. The momentary visual image is horrifying, but it is only horrifying in the moment rather than as a result of a slow, methodical build. The latter kind of horrifying is the type of artistic achievement that actually sticks with the player; Killer is Dead opts only for the cheaper visual horrors. But enough about that, on to the sexual content that everyone else wants to talk about.

The game’s Gigolo mode has received significant press already, but its negative impact cannot be understated. The Gigolo minigame, as referenced above, involves the main character trying to seduce women. First, he meets them and has to build up his “guts” by leering at their cleavage and legs (and their face, sometimes). Then, once he is sufficiently confident, he gives them a gift. If he is successful, he “wins their heart” and is treated to a scene. Initially the scene is mild, but revisiting the girls and playing it again yields more sexual scenes. Ultimately, each girl will strip to their underwear and have sex with him, with needlessly gratuitous shots of them bouncing up and down or back and forth. Then, in the end, they give him a weapon upgrade as a thank you. Throughout the game, he can do this with four different girls, and can even buy different lingerie for them to put on.

I don’t have any idea what the developers were trying to accomplish with this minigame. Some say it is a parody of Japanese dating simulators, but if that is the case, it fails to be a parody in that it doesn’t actually parody these types of games, but rather just references them. There is no mockery, satire, or thoughtful deconstruction of such dating games, but rather the game just has an instance of a simplistic version of one. The scenes themselves are overtly sexist, implying that women need only some thoughtful glances and cheap gifts to woo them out of their skirts. The entire minigame sequence is so poorly integrated into the game that it becomes merely a worthless distraction; it isn’t even knitted into the fabric of the game, but rather is a completely separate sidequest with no impact whatsoever besides giving weapon upgrades for the main game.

It might sound silly to criticize a Suda 51 game for being overly sexual. Looking at the content of Lollipop Chainsaw and its purchasable bikinis and No More Heroes‘ scantily clad pro- and antagonists, Killer is Dead might seem like simply the next logical step. There is an extremely significant difference, however, between the sexual content in those games and that in Killer is Dead. First of all, characters in those previous games were strongly characterized. There’s nothing wrong with portraying a female character as sexual and enticing; what’s wrong is when the character’s sole value to the game is their sexuality. Killer is Dead treats these female characters as nothing more than sexy eye candy; they’re barely even given names, their dialogue consists of little more than flirty banter, and their only involvement in the game is in sequences specifically intended to get them naked. Second, the sexy female characters in previous games by the developer were empowered, strong, and independent. There was no insinuation that all women are a certain way, but rather those individual characters intentionally chose to dress and act certain ways. This goes back to the characterization element: being sexual made sense to those characters. In Killer is Dead, no justification or characterization is given to why these girls are apparently very promiscuous. Their character is defined by their promiscuity rather than their character justifying their promiscuity.

The entire quest is simply gratuitous and meaningless. It serves no purpose but to add sex appeal to the game, but it does so in the cheapest way possible. I’d never suggest that games should never attempt to have sex appeal, but it is entirely possible to do it with maturity, subtlety, and delicacy. Ultimately as well, games are only truly appealing when they implement sex appeal in this way. Suda 51’s previous games implemented sex appeal in this way. Games like Grand Theft Auto that include far more nudity than Killer is Dead still manage to pull it off because the sexual content makes sense in context; it isn’t simply stapled on to provide sex appeal, it’s actually within the fabric of the game and its universe. Killer is Dead simply falls completely flat, and ends up being a major knock against the game as a whole. The sidequests are barely even optional as the weapon upgrades are important to the main quest, so there isn’t even the silver lining that you don’t have to play the missions at all.

Non-functional Graphic Style
Killer is Dead has a unique graphical style built on cel-shading rather than on photo-realistic graphics. It plays interesting tricks with the shadows in most scenes, casting them to lend some mystery and almost a noir feel to the more dialogue-heavy portions of the game. It’s one of the elements of the game that has garnered what little praise Killer is Dead has gotten elsewhere in the reviewing community. I admit, it’s a little interesting during the cutscenes, and likely would have added a decent quality to the game if the cutscenes were actually worth watching.

The problem, though, is that the cel-shading visual styles if completely non-functional when it comes to actually, you know, playing the game. During play, the cel-shading structure can make it extremely difficult to discern enemies and your own character from the background of the area. During one section where a bug-like enemy is crawling around what I remember to be a stained glass ceiling, picking out the enemies was as difficult as trying to actually catch a mosquito in real life because of how completely the enemies blend into the background. In another area, navigating simply around a shed in one level was difficult because the shadows disguised where the building intersected the ground. The art style was clearly chosen for artistic reasons, but form should always follow function. The art style makes the game difficult to play in many places.

Entirely Generic and Outdated Gameplay
Typically, Suda 51 games tend to always lack in gameplay. Their appeal is in other areas while the gameplay is somewhat phoned-in, oftentimes generic, and sometimes even outdated. No More Heroes, Lollipop Chainsaw, and now Killer is Dead all have very similar gameplay: a sword, a button to swing, a rudimentary notion of combos, and blocking and dodging. Killer is Dead adds on to this by making the main character’s left arm a customizable weapon, but the customizations are as generic as the game is otherwise: a gun, a freezing gun, a big melee attack, and a cannon. They don’t adjust the gameplay in any kind of meaningful way. During gameplay, you kill enemies and pick up the sparkling items they leave behind to restore your health, ‘blood’, or add money to your bank account for buying gifts for the ladies or buying new abilities (measured in two different currencies).

The overall game structure is just as generic as the minute-to-minute combat gameplay. There is a main map from which you can select missions: the main missions, the Gigolo missions, and some filler side missions that only serve to give you areas to level up your stats. Once you select a main mission, typically you are presented with effectively a long corridor of enemies before eventually reaching the boss at the end. In some missions, there is no long corridor at all, and you jump almost immediately to the boss at the end. It’s more basic than Super Mario Bros. 3‘s world map, let alone anything relevant in the past 20 years. The entire game’s gameplay is generic and outdated, like most Suda 51 games, but in the case of Killer is Dead, there is no extra incentive or strength to justify the genericness.

Slow, Repetitive, Frustrating Gameplay
Part of the way that genericness manifests is that the game is highly repetitive, often frustrating, and overall very slow. The repetition is readily apparent: nearly every main storyline mission is the same jaunt through a linear pathway where different arrangements of enemies will pop out and attack. There is no thought or flow to when, where, and why these enemies pop out, but rather they clearly just jump out because you walked over the next checkpoint that prompts them to pop out. There’s no intrigue or puzzle to the level design, either; the most advance puzzle design in the game is to shoot all the marked items in a room to unlock a door. Overall, it’s all clearly demonstrative of wildly lazy level design, as if the developers did not want to include levels at all but could not warrant charging the game’s price for a 4-hour series of random boss fights.

Repetitive level design can still be fun, but in the case of Killer is Dead, it certainly isn’t. At best, the enemies are mundane; they are not challenging and no thrill is gathered from defeating them, but at least they aren’t frustrating. Fighting these enemies depends too much on the block-and-dodge mechanic, but that’s part for the course in many action games nowadays. At worst, though, the enemies can just be highly frustrating. There are enemies that aim at you from afar with paralyzing knockback attacks with little recourse to the player except to take those enemies out first. There are enemies that are not difficult to defeat, but that have so much health that it still takes an inordinate amount of time to knock them out. None of the enemies are especially challenging or interesting, they just run along the spectrum from boring to frustrating. To put it differently: it never feels like you need to play better, it just feels like the game’s best approaches are still rather frustrating. Add in the critiques I’ll level on the camera in a bit and you have the recipe for quite a worthless gameplay experience.

Ultimately, though, my biggest knock on the gameplay of the game is that it’s very slow. The cutscenes drag on and on between missions with relatively few contributions, and even the cutscenes within missions can drag a bit. Oftentimes there are long distances to walk between battles, especially on some of the more obtuse missions, and I would venture to guess that less than a third of the time you spend playing the main sequence to Killer is Dead is actually spent on playing the game. So, only a third of the time is spent on the game’s gameplay, and even that third is predominantly either repetitive or frustrating; it’s probably pretty clear that I consider the gameplay of Killer is Dead to be a notable failure.

Non-Existent Gameplay Scaffolding or Training
This is getting a little bit to the level of detailed critique that Killer is Dead doesn’t really deserve, but this point is still significant enough that it would be a major knock against the game even if the other problems were fixed. Killer is Dead has basically no training for how to play it built into the game. Combos that you can execute are presented on screen on time merely as the proper sequence of buttons. They are often comprised of directions that are not immediately clear, such as an up and down arrow side by side – does that mean you can press either up or down, or that you must press up and then down? They are also often not presented at the time when the combination can be used, leaving the player in the dark about when and how different combos ought to be used.

The problem here reflects a common bad design in the gaming industry. From psychological research, we know that there is a significant difference between declarative memory and procedural memory; that is, describing an action and performing an action are qualitatively very different tasks, demanding different parts of the brain and different types of practice. Presenting the player with the combo in a visual image on the screen is fine for teaching them the combo declaratively, but being able to restate the combo is useless once you’re actually in combat. In combat, you need to be able to access a procedural memory of that combo, which requires practice, yet Killer is Dead does not give you any chance to practice new combos until you actually need to have already learned them. Good games accomplish this by following up a new combo or attack with a specific enemy or scenario in which the player can try out that new combo or attack and learn how to trigger it, how it works, and when it ought to be used. Infamous is great about this, and even the original Assassin’s Creed had a good area to practice moves without risk of death and with scenarios specifically designed to incite those moves. Killer is Dead lacks these, and as a result, the player ends up relying far too much on the basic set of combinations.

The same kind of lack of information is present elsewhere in the game as well. The game involves lots of mechanics, including health, blood, money, ‘moon stones’, gifts, guts, and scores at the end of each level. The explanations given for all these are given in such early, throwaway fashion that the player has little context with which to understand these things. Ultimately the player is left more to discover the mechanics behind these different constructs rather than being informed of them. Even now, I’m still not sure about how the blood meter is managed, how scores at the end of each level are derived, or how health and blood upgrades work.

Simple, Amateurish Mistakes
On top of all those other flaws, Killer is Dead is bad at the most basic levels as well. It makes a series of basic, amateur mistakes that would not even be excusable for a first-time game developer, let alone with the track record and experience of Grasshopper Manufacture.

For starters, the game’s camera is absolutely awful. There is no lock-on mode, which some people say is because the game is driven by one-vs.-many crowd-combat: that is no excuse, however, since such a camera would certainly be optional. There are enough fights in the game with only one enemy, or with enemies clustered together, to warrant such a camera. Moreover, even the lack of such a camera wouldn’t be so problematic if the camera wasn’t so haphazard anyway. When approaching the edge of an area, for example, the camera seems to without fail rotate to look at the character facing the wall, even though there is never any reason why that angle would be useful. In combat, you must constantly move the camera because it never moves the way you need it to on its own.

But that’s not the camera’s entire problem; it even goes so far as to actively work against you in some fights. There is one fight against an enemy in a relatively large area, and if your health gets low, a prudent strategy is to run around avoiding his attacks until your health regenerates a bit. While doing so, you might want to keep the camera pointed at the enemy, or you might want to keep the camera focused on where you’re running. Either way, however, you’re actively moving the camera. In this fight, the game will still try to reposition and move the camera based on where it thinks it ought to point. To make that clear: while you’re moving the camera, the game moves the camera in a different direction. The game’s camera control should never override the player’s camera control.

A similar issue related to the camera comes when aiming the gun weapons. The gun takes the place of Mondo’s left arm, and when aiming, he holds up his left arm. During this, the character covers the entire left fourth of the screen. That on its own is annoying, but not problematic; the problem is that the game has no way to switch which shoulder you’re looking over. What that means is that unless an enemy is on the right side of your field of vision, there is no way to aim at it. There is no reason to ever hide behind an item on the right side of the battlefield because there is no way to aim around it. In the game world, it suggests that Mondo is incapable of turning his head to the left. The game has the most rudimentary cover system built in as well, although it literally just allows you to duck: you cannot move while ducking, you cannot hide behind anything, you cannot aim while ducking, you can just lower your head.

The HUD (head’s up display, health meters and such), is terribly intrusive. For some reason the health bar was determined to be a sequence of green gems that burn out as you can injured, and as you gain more health, more gems appear. With lots of health, the gems take up a non-trivial portion of the screen. The blood meter is below it, well within the relevant field of view of the game. In the bottom are the icons designating which support weapon is equipped, and that display is unnecessarily enormous, too. Meanwhile, the top right and bottom left corners of the screen are unused. The result is that there is lots of HUD information where the screen needs to be clear, yet the screen is clear where HUD information could be. It’s like the display was solely designed with the art in mind rather than with the function, similar to the graphical style as a whole. The same can also be said of the visualization of low health; as with many games, when the player gets low on health, the borders of the screen turn red. In this case, that effect is three times too strong, and at low health, it can actually make it even more difficult to see what is going on. This is less problematic for games that have quickly regenerating health, but that is not the case for Killer is Dead, meaning that when one’s health gets low it becomes nearly impossible to continue fighting because nothing on the battlefield is visible anymore.

But without a doubt, the laziest, most amateurish element of Killer is Dead are the pace-destroying loading screens. Placement of loading screens is a delicate process; excellent games find ways to make loading emergent so it never delays the player, while other games use a loading screen only at the beginning of large areas in order to avoid interrupting the tension. Killer is Dead has loading screens absolutely everywhere. There are loading screens in the middle of cutscenes, loading screens in the middle of battles, and loading screens between battles and cutscenes. On multiple occasions, you land the final blow in a big battle, and you’re immediately greeted with a loading screen. It completely destroys the tension of the scene. It’s as if a commercial break was inserted between, “No, I am…” and “…your father” in Empire Strikes Back. It’s lazy, it’s detrimental, and it’s downright inexcusable.

The Verdict
Whenever you’re dealing with an “auteur” game designer like Suda 51, there is a constant question as to whether there is intentional design behind the seemingly random and confusing presentation and story, or if he is simply throwing up random ideas in order to give the illusion of deeper meaning even when none is present. Killer is Dead certainly seems to fall down on the latter side. The content is obtuse, esoteric, and ultimately seems completely meaningless; there is no deeper story, thoughtful satire, or insightful deconstruction to be found. On top of that lack of deeper meaning, the actual content of the game is mindlessly offensive; I would never suggest that representations of sexual situations in games are inherently unnecessary, and in fact when executed properly, they can take games to a whole new literary level. In Killer is Dead, though, this kind of content is simply gratuitous and immature.

But all of those faults would not stop the game from being fun to play. It’s not, though. The game is completely generic, with everything from the combat system to the upgrade system to the level select system copied from dozens of other games released over the past couple decades; in fact, it is the likely the most typical way to design a game ever, with no thoughtful reimagination placed on top of the generic foundation. The graphical style, while interestingly artistic at times, makes gameplay a chore, and just further exacerbates the frustrating and repetitive combat missions leading through a parade of linear levels. The game makes no attempt to actually teach the player how to play or give them a chance to practice, instead subscribing to the old, outdated notion that players need to teach themselves. Most of all, though, the game just makes dumb, amateurish mistakes: its camera design is awful, its HUD is overly intrusive, and its load screens break any semblance of tension of intrigue the game had otherwise. Overall, the game is an amateurish, immature mess.

My Recommendation
Avoid at all costs.

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