Killer Is Dead review: Drunk on the moon

I invariably recommend games made by Grasshopper Manufacture to friends, not necessarily because I enjoyed them, but because Goichi Suda's studio produces games that have to be tried. Grasshopper's approach to design can be nonchalant bordering on reckless, and leaves me as secure of their games' quality as I am watching a drunk at a dartboard. Much like someone's who had too many, their games can be hilarious, frivolous, profound, outrageous, offensive, and at their worst downright loathsome, but when it comes down to it I want to be there when they're around - even if it means taking a dart to the eye.

For better or worse, Killer Is Dead is certainly a Grasshopper game, and for the most part it's closer to bullseye than head wound, although it's an absolute shame its one real gash is so very profuse. But then, the good thing about recommending games to friends is that you can tell them which bits to avoid.

Killer Is Dead continues Grasshopper's recent trend of third-person assassin games, combining spectacle with fast-paced sword combat. Its core, however, lies nearer to the dark surrealism of sleeper hit Killer 7 than the wacky commentary of No More Heroes.

Certainly Killer Is Dead's protagonist, Mondo Zappa, a 30-something who works for a tax-funded assassination firm, is no Travis Touchdown. Barring the red eyes and sharp suit – and the giant mechanical arm, of course – Zappa is kind of normal. He has the everyman quality of Daniel Craig's Bond; well dressed, well groomed, well loved, but low-key beneath the facade. Zappa doesn't have much to say, and when he does speak, it's prosaic; he and the geeky, narcissistic Touchdown wouldn't get along.

Similar to No More Heroes 2, episodes are selected from an overworld map, and trace through an enemy-filled area before ending in an extravagant boss fight. Much like old Bond films, a dash of exposition preludes Zappa finding himself in some exotic location, fighting off baddies and saving the day. In the bizarre near future of Killer Is Dead, those exotic locations include an Alice in Wonderland-style house plagued by a huge wall-crawling spider thing, and the dark side of the moon, ruled by a man clad only in very revealing golden coils and a matching crown.

Killer is Dead review

The combat, however, is more refined than Grasshopper's previous efforts of similar vein. The hack and-slash swordplay is still centered around battering the attack button while being mindful of when to block and dodge, and special moves and combos remain sparse, but as the game progresses the fights feel rewarding and even challenging – at least on harder difficulties.

Well timed dodges elicit Adrenalin Rush, a mode in which the cel-shaded graphics are swamped in red and black as time slows down to a halt, allowing Zappa to mash swipes and slashes, all as a wonderful choral note rises in the background – very satisfying. Dodges also help Zappa maintain runs of hits without taking damage, and as these build up he collects power that can then be used to re-trigger Andrenalin Rush, except in this instance Zappa just rushes through opponents, exchanging power for brutal one-hit kills.

Killer Is Dead is no DmC or God of War, but its basic systems are more neatly implemented than previous Grasshopper fare. The combat accommodates both flair and speed, and the action around Zappa is not as overwhelming as it looks. It's things like camera angles, the duration of enemy cues, the subtle variations across enemies, the feel of Zappa's dodge, and the careful integration of available upgrades that make me feel like I'm in control of the chaos. The fit is right, and belies combat more limited than it feels - but it's still limited, and it's missing the spark that would take it another level. That spark should've been Zappa's sub-weapon, his cyborg arm.

The mechanical arm sounds great, able to twist into three types of gun and a drill, but in practice it's superfluous. The laser gun is a bit too much of a win button, the drill too clumsy, and the normal gun only useful for the few aerial or faraway opponents. It's only the ice gun, which temporarily slows down enemies, that feels like it integrates well with the rest of the combat. A missed opportunity, given the combat's strength without it.

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As for the plot, it centers mainly around Zappa and his backstory, which seems related to the strange goings on emanating from the dark side of the moon, now apparently a tourist location of sorts. Grasshopper can't resist falling back on trademark silliness, most annoyingly with tacky fourth-wall-breaking and references to gamers' wants from action games. Other times it is stronger, like Zappa's deadpan delivery of, "There's no oxygen. Why aren't I dead? Interesting..."

Killer Is Dead is best when it finds a common link between the macabre of assassination and the intrigue of modern Bond films. Zappa wears the suit and gets the girls, but his soul is shrouded in the past, not to mention the job. When he raises his sword to assassinate, the game asks me to hold R1; a narrator says, "Killer is dead," and the scene shifts. One victim's ruby red lips curl into a smile of evil delight as the shadow of Zappa's raised sword looms above, her face lighted in blue as the backdrop behind her becomes consumed in bloody red. R1 is released, and the murder is done.

It's sublime imagery like that, or the moment when the perspective suddenly shifts to the enemy I'm trying to kill, that makes me want to think more on what Killer Is Dead is about. Those moments are maybe not as frequent as I'd prefer, and maybe not as standout as the more experimental No More Heroes games, but the solid combat and considered direction ensures the game's unusual combination of Bond and anime-like bizarre stays enjoyable throughout – mostly.

Killer is Dead review

Head wound time: the 'Gigolo' missions. These are side quests in which Zappa can bed one of his Mondo girls – a play on Bond girls – which he does through tactical leering; the idea is to stare at each Mondo girl's naughty bits while she's not looking. This raises your guts – represented as blood going to Zappa's head – and when that's high enough, you can give the girl a present. Do this enough times and you'll woo the lady into the bedroom, after which she'll give you a present in return.

If the mode is designed to make me feel like a sexist creep, mission accomplished. Like the horribly unwieldy and lifeless overworld of No More Heroes, whatever point being made here (or not) is far from worth it.

The mode is optional, although the ice and laser sub-weapon guns are unlocked by the opening two rounds of the first Gigolo encounter. My recommendation – since we're friends – is do those two rounds, then don't touch the mode again. The campaign's sexuality is edgy enough, its cliched, exaggerated female characters at least feeling more in line with the Bond theme.

As much as the Gigolo mode detracts from Killer Is Dead, like much of Grasshopper's fare there's something to be enjoyed underneath the dirt, and at least this time it's optional. Put that to one side if you can, and Killer Is Dead is a return to form. Its combat is neat if still a bit limited, and its dark direction and weird narrative a bit tainted by self-indulgence, but this is still a Grasshopper grindhouse romp worth most of its issues. The danger, I guess, will always be one drink too many.

This review is based on a retail copy of the PS3 version of KIller Is Dead, provided by Deep Silver.

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