Killer Is Dead is unashamedly stupid. Executive producer Goichi Suda – better known by his nickname Suda51 – has made a living out of his bonkers plots and premises, but the latest product to drop off Grasshopper Manufacture’s production line takes the nonsense of No More Heroes and kits it out in a straitjacket. This is a release that barely blinks when you’re ordered to assassinate an extraterrestrial giant at the behest of an alien that closely resembles the colonel from KFC. Sadly, the relentless idiocy doesn’t make up for the title’s offensively average gameplay – if anything, it just gets in the way.
You play as Mondo Zappa, a pin-headed mercenary with a dapper dress sense and a robotic arm. As the James Bond-esque sword-for-hire, you work for an assassination agency named the Bryan Execution Firm, which is fronted by a portly cyborg and a semi-exposed starlet with Vishnu-style arms. Your role is to relieve the world – and the moon, of course – of the lunatics that inhabit it, ruthlessly removing the heads of marked antagonists one continent at a time. It sounds straightforward, until you realise that you’re up against a monarch dressed in a mankini, an audiophile with a stonier face than Steven Tyler, and a talking train. No, really.
The problem is that, outside of the admittedly outlandish premise, the actual moment-to-moment action is blander than a Bourbon biscuit. You run through static hallways, sapping the life bars of copy-and-paste combat fodder, wishing that something interesting would happen. The level design is more linear than the lines on a piece of ruled paper, and the game does nothing to make up for that in the way of interesting environments. Granted, there are some imaginative ideas in places – one stage is set inside an Alice in Wonderland-inspired Escher-esque estate – but the world is largely lifeless, with very few points of interest other than the most rudimentary of furnishings.
The combat is at least snappy, if not exactly revelatory. You have one main sword attack, which you can spam until you need to break an enemy’s guard with the triangle button. Meanwhile, you can dodge with circle, which when timed perfectly, will drain the colour from the screen and allow you to land a spate of strikes in a slow-motion sequence. Every successful blow that you make will augment your robotic arm with blood, which can then be spent on firepower in an over-the-shoulder third-person shooter viewpoint. You’ll unlock different cannon attachments as you progress, giving you slightly different options in battle. You can, for example, slow foes down with an icy photon blast, or break their shields with a Big Daddy-esque drill. It’s certainly functional, but it’s never going to get your tuxedo tie in a knot.
The game does try to inject some variety. Ranged riflemen will assume out-of-reach positions, forcing you to take potshots while you fend off more in-your-face foes. The ridiculously responsive controls make dashing around the battlefield while dealing with these different types of enemies an enjoyable experience, but there’s just not enough adversary diversity to keep things feeling fresh. You can upgrade your powers by gathering up the golden shards that grunts discard, but other than adding some new options to your arsenal – both offensively and defensively – these don’t really change the flow of the combat all that much. You’ll definitely want to be done with the campaign by the time that you reach the overpowered enemies in the final chapter.
Fortunately, this is not a particularly long adventure. It’ll take you less than seven hours to run through the campaign and the majority of the side-missions on the standard difficulty, though there are multiple tiers and online leaderboards to test your mettle. Side missions typically comprise more combat filler, but there are a few more creative objectives involving a motorcycle race and a battle for a Bonsai tree. Outside of these there are the infamous gigolo missions, which see you attempting to ogle a pretty companion from a first-person perspective without getting caught. Raising a heat metre allows you to present the unsuspecting dames with a gift, contributing to the ultimate goal of getting them between the sheets.
The distraction’s certainly not as vulgar as it’s been made out to be, but it’s interactively insipid, and adds absolutely nothing to the experience. Unless you enjoy staring at the cel-shaded clothing of a clumsily animated female companion, there’s really nothing to get excited about, and the X-ray glasses – which allow you to see directly through said garments – only add to the embarrassing nature of the mode. Needless to say, you won’t want to play these sections with someone looking over your shoulder – but you’ll have grimace through them at some point, if only to unlock the weapon upgrades that the missions are awkwardly attached to.
At least the art direction’s a little more palatable, with bright colours bringing life to the otherwise moody tone. There’s a touch of Sin City to some of the darker environments, which is accentuated by the title’s comic book shading and bold outlines. It’s artistically attractive, but letdown by the limitations of the Unreal Engine, which results in an unfortunate amount of pop-in, blurry textures, and, on occasion, some irritating frame-rate hiccups. None of these issues are noticeable enough to completely break the experience, but they further accentuate the low-budget nature of the overall production.
Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka’s diverse soundtrack at least offers the illusion of a more expensive endeavour, with audio experimenting with elements of soft rock and jazz. None of the themes necessarily stand out, but they add to the unusual nature of the world itself, and provide a suitable backdrop for the action. The voice acting is similarly solid in both English and Japanese, although the ear-shattering screeches of sidekick Mika will find you reaching for your remote control’s mute button faster than the first few notes of a One Direction song.
A slice or six short of a solid recommendation, Killer Is Dead shows that Suda51’s schtick is swiftly running out of steam. The title’s sharp art style and snazzy soundtrack will no doubt lure you in, but the schlocky story and garish gigolo missions will leave you swatting at the air in regret. This is not a bad game, it’s just a boring one – and we never thought that we’d say that about a release that sees you chasing a tiger on a motorcycle.