Killer Is Dead review: blunt instrument

Game Info
Platform PS3, 360, Win
Publisher Xseed Games
Developer Grasshopper Manufacture
Release Date N/A

Killer Is Dead pushes the boundaries farther than Grasshopper Manufacture ever has before.

While Grasshopper Manufacture's previous games have been divisive releases with minimal commercial success, they all possessed a certain kind of bizarre, tonal self-assurance. Grasshopper figurehead Suda51 has served as a sort of exploitation auteur, liberally borrowing ideas and aesthetics from genre film, comics and other games to make some of the more memorable Japanese games in recent memory.

Now Grasshopper is back with Killer Is Dead, bringing with it another mysterious assassin and a strange cast of characters and villains. But the charm and energy of previous Grasshopper games is gone, supplanted by a lethargy and choppiness that plagues Killer Is Dead from start to finish — and a misogynistic mean streak a mile long makes it memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Killer Is Dead is memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Killer Is Dead is primarily a third-person beat-em-up, the now-standard mix of light and heavy attacks and simple combos. Grasshopper Manufacture has also thrown in a lightly developed shooting mechanic using Mondo's bio-mechanical arm. There are other minor deviations from the standard action game script — you collect blood in your sword, which you can use to power your arm's techno-magic abilities or to heal yourself. Early on, this shows some promise — the suggestion there might be a trade-off between ranged attacks and longer life, at least. But like just about everything in Killer Is Dead, it proves to be underdeveloped, and later, broken.

It's difficult to understate how shoddily assembled every piece of Killer Is Dead feels, with the exception of a soundtrack by Akira Yamaoka that is evocative and slick and also completely out of place. The game is a litany of every crappy video game issue of the last several years (or even a decade or two): The camera is horrendous, "sticking" on enemies and blocking the view of the game at the worst possible time; the screen tears in multiple places almost all the time, including the frequent moments when Mondo is running from one place to another with no fanfare or challenge to impede him.

This could easily be seen as nitpicking for those who haven't played it, so let me be clear: As often as not, Killer Is Dead can't display a coherent image on the screen. There are other basic technical issues, the worst among them being poor collision detection in the environment that led to embarrassing moments of spastic behavior trying to walk on to bridges or catwalks or, well, the ground. It's easy to get stuck on scenery mid-fight, which can lead to a semi-serious pounding later on.

Little of this matters in the face of what I assume were more deliberate design decisions. Killer Is Dead falls into the worst traps of both more technically minded, mechanically sophisticated third-person combat titles and mindless beat-em-ups.

Once you learn a few combos, it can be easy to work over the basic enemies in Killer Is Dead. This was fun at first — there's a particular kind of feedback loop and reward to locking in and controlling an arena with dodges, attacks and counters. But it stops yielding that sense of accomplishment when it becomes completely predictable and all danger vanishes.

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On the other side, Killer Is Dead introduces mini-bosses and common enemies who withstand every attack, forcing an extended game of peek-a-boo as you wait for them to become vulnerable. This slams the brakes on the only thing Killer Is Dead ever has going for it: a driving, blood-fueled sense of katana momentum — momentum that shatters against Killer Is Dead's bosses.

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My encounters with Killer Is Dead's end-stage challenges tossed aside any sense of finesse or strategy, devolving into wars of attrition that didn't feel like a triumph or test of skill. They were more often frustrating due to cheap hits, or boring due to the same attack patterns over and over and the same three-stage-transformation structure. Both mission objectives and bosses frequently fall prey to the same issue of unclear weaknesses or goals.

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I don't know how many person-hours went into Killer Is Dead. I can't say if it's lazy, exactly. But it is a collection of staggeringly poor clichés executed with seemingly little care or consideration. Playing it establishes this immediately, but watching the disaster of a story unfold punched me in the face with it. Killer Is Dead's story meanders over nearly as much running time as actual gameplay, colliding with almost every anime and manga trope you could think of. I won't spoil them here, but if you made a drinking game out of it, you'd be dead.

But the final insult, the aspect that takes Killer Is Dead from the annals of poorly executed late-generation action games to something truly awful, is the rampant sexism and objectification throughout.

The most disturbing examples of this happen between story missions. As you progress, you unlock the "option" to play Gigolo scenarios, where you seduce women by literally leering at them for as long as possible while they're not looking. After working up enough nerve, you give them presents to win their "heart." If you get caught staring too much, you'll get slapped in the face and have to try again.

I say "have to" because Killer Is Dead locks a number of sub-weapons for your mechanical arm behind the manipulated affections of the women in the gigolo missions, relegating it to what is apparently the most intrusive form of peacocking ever conceived by aspiring pickup artists. I suppose you could beat Killer Is Dead without these spoils of douchebaggery, but it would make an otherwise dull action game even more boring.

The whole thing is crass, exploitative and gross — the women you're picking up desperately hound you multiple times per mission to let you know it's time to play the minigame again, and if you do it enough times, you're awarded achievements for making them "your prisoner body and soul." Killer Is Dead is deeply misogynistic — even stepping outside of the overwhelming ick-factor of the gigolo aspects, every female character in the game exists to be rescued, killed, gawked at or f**ked for an in-game item.

... every female character in the game exists to be rescued, killed, gawked at or f**ked for an in-game item.
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Wrap Up:

Killer Is Dead marks a low point for Grasshopper Manufacture

Killer Is Dead would almost work as a parody of some of the worst elements of the last 20 years of video games, were it not so dead serious — and pathetically incompetent. Grasshopper Manufacture has made a name for bucking and subverting conventions and traditional ideas of good taste, but they've never made a game this mean-spirited, or deeply mechanically flawed.

Killer Is Dead was reviewed using a retail Xbox 360 copy provided by Xseed Games. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

About Polygon's Reviews
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