Saturday, June 28, 2014

Killer Is Dead

Ever since I played Lollipop Chainsaw in 2012, I’ve become a fan of Giochi Suda’s work. Since then I had sort of followed what he was up to, but I haven’t yet gone back and played any of his other well-known works, including Killer7 and the No More Heroes duology. When I heard about Killer Is Dead, I had planned on playing it, but after a while I forgot that it existed and moved on to other games (see the archive to the side). On a recent trip to Fry’s Electronics however, I noticed the Collector’s Edition of the game being sold for $20 and remembered that it was a Suda 51 game, so on a whim we bought it. After finishing up my playthrough of Gears of War: Judgment, I put the game in my PS3 and ended up spending a couple days with it. As I played, I read about how polarizing the game was on release, including the more scathing U.S. reviews compared to Japanese reviews, but I didn’t really let that affect my enjoyment of the game. When all is said and done, I think that Killer Is Dead is actually a pretty good game, though it has a couple issues here and there.

The story follows a 35-year-old executioner named Mondo Zappa who works for the Bryan Execution Firm, run by a cyborg named Bryan Roses. With a katana in his right hand and a cybernetic arm named Musselback replacing his left arm, Mondo is often commissioned to take down super-powered criminals who have committed otherworldly acts. As he engages in contracts, Mondo fights beings known as Wires who have come from the moon to wreak havoc on humanity. During one contract, where Mondo is tasked with rescuing a girl named Alice, he learns of a man named David who may be behind the assault of the Wires on earth. Coincidentally, his next contract is from a woman named Moon River, who tasks him with killing David. Mondo goes to the moon to confront the man, but unbeknownst to him, he is about to embark on a strange journey that reveals not only the kind of person he really is, but also uncovers the mysterious connection he may have to the moon, including the man named David.

Mondo Zappa with his left arm, Musselback, active.

At first the plot felt pretty strange, considering the rather offbeat nature of Goichi Suda to begin with, but once I played every mission, including Episode 51 from the Collector’s Edition, the pieces actually fell into place and the story made a decent amount of sense. Considering how others felt about the story, I don’t know if this is because I’m good at following complicated plots (ex. Inception, Memento) or if I’m used to offbeat storytelling and the weirdness, taken at face value, ends up forming a straight plot line in my mind (ex. FLCL, Adventure Time). Either way, the story isn’t all that hard to follow once you let it sink in and try not to think too hard about the logistics of going to the moon in penny-conscious moon gear (or none at all) or how a man can speak and yet only be heard when the recipient is wearing special headphones. There is certainly an overreaching arc that makes sense at the end, but each episode can also have its own self-contained plot that actually works in its own regard and presents Mondo with an interesting series of events that the player doesn’t necessarily need to keep track of later. In a weird way these disconnected plots actually made the story more realistic, since he’s an executioner-for-hire so of course he’s going to have to go through the mission regardless of what he’s going through outside of them.

No matter how you look at the story though, it won’t take you very long to see it all. The game is pretty short, running at about 7-15 hours depending on how you play it, which is one of the only things I’d really hold against the title. It would be great for there to have been more content in the form of extra missions or something else to add depth to the story. But seeing as I got this for $20, the complaint has less of a sting than it would have at full retail price.

Of course, you can extend the play time through the side missions. By completing certain story missions, you can unlock two side missions which take place in areas from that mission. There are twelve of these in all, each with their own unique challenges and objectives, such as grabbing bottles of wine and fighting your way to the exit or getting an elevator with a weight limit of two Wires to rise to the top of a building. Additionally, finding the nurse Scarlett in all of her hiding spots during each story mission will unlock special challenges that you can complete for a special reward. This reward turns out to be a version of the Gigolo missions present in the game.

Simply finding Scarlett during a mission is easily its own reward.

And this is where I need to create a new paragraph or two to address this specific mission type. Gigolo missions are unlocked by playing through the campaign, with a total of three you can unlock if you also include Episode 51. In these missions, Mondo meets up with one of the girls, Natalia, Koharu or Betty, and must woo them over with presents, which you can buy from the Gift Shop. To be able to offer a present, you have to maximize a certain meter, which increases by focusing on different areas of their bodies, with more you can look at when they’re not looking; they will also know when you are ogling them, so you can regain the mood by physically using the right analog stick to look away. Completing Scarlett trials to gain the Gigolo Glasses allows you to increase the meter even faster by being able to see each girl in their underwear as well as gain a bonus by simply staring into their eyes.

These missions have been pretty controversial with Western critics, partly because completing them at least once is the only way to obtain three of the sub-weapons for Musselback and that completing them multiple times leads to increasingly raunchy sex scenes (though not too explicit), as well as the fact that trophy info has the third completion being Mondo making the girls his prisoner in both body and soul. I can see why someone would consider these missions sexist, and I don’t disagree that they might be, but at the same time they’re mostly just kinda boring. Sure the game offers you interesting views of the women when you’re successful, but getting to see that requires nothing more than just looking at them and giving gifts, plus when you get the Gigolo Glasses you can just spam those to not only increase the meter, but know exactly what presents to give them. Not much else really happens and while the rewards may be worth it at first, subsequent tries aren’t because you don’t really get much out of the experience. The lack of challenge is part of the boredom, as well as the fact that they just aren’t that interesting to begin with. I highly doubt these missions will lead to Goichi Suda’s downfall, as some professionals have declared, but I think that if they were made more interesting to go through, they might have actually worked better for the game’s atmosphere.

The Gigolo Glasses make Gigolo missions too easy.

Moving on, the combat in this game is actually pretty fun. Sure, it’s nothing like Devil May Cry or Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, but still simple and fun to get into. With action buttons dedicated to attacking, guard breaking and dodging, the sword-play becomes a series of dodges and attacks, which are fun to string together, especially when the result is very sleek and, at times, majestic. It’s also very easy to switch over to Musselback, thanks to a simple aiming and shooting mechanic in place, as well as swap sub-weapons, as there is a dedicated button for that purpose. The ease of switching between swordplay and gunplay allows for the player to create impressive combos of differing styles and, though limited, still has the opportunity to look pretty stylish. That said, a couple things hold it back, the most notable being the lack of a lock-on function. When Mondo has enough blood to enter a special state and tear through opponents in one hit, it’s very easy to accidentally go toward the enemy with enough armor to protect them, which potentially leaves Mondo open to attacks or otherwise puts him in a bad position. The other grievance would be the camera, which is responsive but a little floaty and, during fights, can be pointed at an extremely awkward angle that makes it difficult to clearly see what you’re hitting. It takes some getting used to, but when you have to fight the camera more than the Wires, something’s a little wrong.

Visually, Killer Is Dead has some of the most impressive cel shading I’ve ever seen. The high contrast and shadow placement offer a very unique spectacle and helps the game stand out well from the competition. What helps are the unique character designs, such as the highly detailed Musselback or characters with references to Hindu mythology, as well as the art shift for the cutscenes that open some story chapters. The Wires are also pretty distinct, if at times hard to figure out where the head is, though the bright color schemes can help them be seen even in the darkest parts of the map. But while I like the cel shading, there were certain times, especially during Episode 51, where it looked like the top of the screen was a little bright, so I felt like adjusting the screen of the laptop to make it look better. But then I realized that I was playing on a TV rather than a laptop, so I couldn’t change it (not sure how much changing the gamma levels would have really helped anyway). Also, while western critics heavily mentioned screen tearing issues, I didn’t really notice anything wrong (and I don’t want to look for any).

Killer Is Dead is very visually striking.

The soundtrack, composed by Akira Yamaoka, is another aspect I would consider to be very well done. Rather than have one singular style, as with most action games, Killer Is Dead has a whole range, going from heavy metal to symphonic or blues. This helps create a rather unique experience and gives each stage its own unique feel due to the matching music. As for the voice acting, I would consider it overall to be just all right. I don’t really think anyone is bad, though there are definitely some cheesy lines and I can see how some characters might be a little annoying (though for some reason I liked how energetic Mondo’s assistant, Mika Takekawa, is). Maybe it could have been better, but for what it is it’s not too bad.

Would I recommend Killer Is Dead to anyone? Yes, at least to Suda 51 fans who by now know what to expect from one of his games. The story is offbeat but makes sense by the end, the combat is fun and the visuals are striking, though a floaty camera and boring Gigolo missions bog the experience down a bit. Those who are not familiar with the works of Goichi Suda are perhaps better off starting with one of his more classic games, such as Lollipop Chainsaw, before even considering Killer Is Dead as an option. For everyone else, the lowered price by now ($20 for the Collector’s Edition in my case) may provide some incentive to try it out on a whim. There may be more controversy among western critics compared to the more glowing Japanese critics, but really the only way to know if those feelings are overblown is to play it yourself.

Now I really want to try to play Killer7 and No More Heroes when I get the chance.

No comments:

Post a Comment