Sunday, September 29, 2013

Killer Is Dead - Review

Killer Is Dead, the latest game released by the developers at Grasshopper Studios, headed by auteur game-designer Goichi Suda (Suda51), is finally upon us. For those unfamiliar with Suda51 titles (Killer 7, No More Heroes), they are essentially madness, blending elements of grindhouse-films and action-anime elements packaged into a spacey outline of symbolism and "throwback" to the several inspirations incorporated within. That said, for all of the inspiring and downright cool in Suda51 titles, there has been a consistent complaint in regards to the gameplay of these titles, being too basic and too attached to scripted linearity; Killer Is Dead (K.I.D), unfortunately, retains these same complaints, but the overall content of the title carries it above these limitations enough to warrant attention.
K.I.D is an episodic action-game following the jobs and dreams of its assassin-protagonist, Mondo Zappa. What begins with the sword-wielding, bionic-armed man being hired at an "Execution" firm rapidly grows into a complex sci-fi/fantasy amnesiac story involving the moon and its violent creations that serve as the game's enemies called "Wires." Each of the missions deal with a person or creation directly related to Wires and the violent energy of the moon, but how exactly these varied missions relate to each other and Mondo is the overall mystery woven throughout the game's twelve missions. Beyond a bizarre scene with a teal unicorn the story of K.I.D is surprisingly coherent for a Suda51 script, and while it will probably leave most gamers with more questions than answers it will do so not with a tone of frustration but curiosity and wonder. Still, it will probably not be in the overall story that will envelop gamers but in the individual episodes that tie everything together, which features some resoundingly dark and inspired creations from that of a sorrowfully demonic Thomas the Tank Engine through an Alice in Wonderland level layered delightfully with surrealist macabre.
But it's gameplay that is most important to a video game, and here K.I.D both succeeds and does not. Essentially, K.I.D is a Hack n'Slash action game that is sprinkled with variety that enhances, but does not expand on, the core gameplay. Equipped with a sword and an arm-cannon, K.I.D's primary focus is on swordplay with projectiles being reserved for a few limited enemy types and the occassional boss that demands its usage. The melee combat does not expand beyond the four face-buttons, which has two melee attacks (one for damage, the other for breaking an enemy's guard), one for blocking/parry, and one for dodge. While simple, every action works exceedingly well, and retains either the speed or sensation of a high-intensity anime-like battle. Whether rapidly slicing enemies with your sword, pounding them with your fists, or narrowly parrying an enemies attack, everything happens in a fluent, high-speed manner that accentuates the overall focus of how K.I.D plays out, which is essentially a blitzkreig through the levels until the boss fight.
There's nothing 'wrong' with K.I.D's gameplay and linear level structure, but it's too simple to compliment the overall game design. The single-player, which is twelve missions and a slew of additional side-quests and challenge missions, will average about eight hours to see and do it all on the Normal difficulty setting. But the content of the game, which has two higher difficulty settings and a wide assortment of collectibles and rankings to master, can easily push over thirty hours. This is great for replay-value, but whether or not it's going to be worthwhile is where the gameplay and level-structure becomes a hindrance. As the real "meat" of K.I.D is in replaying levels and achieving higher ranks, it doesn't take long before the simplistic gameplay and linearity become repetitive and boring. On the first run, seeing the levels and bosses is exciting, and the thrill of Mondo's high-speed combat is downright slick, but once you take on those same levels again for a third or fourth time without there being anything different from the first time you did is where the contrast occurs. There aren't any meaningful combos to be had in K.I.D, and upgrades mostly just increase the strength of your attack; how you play through the game the first time, which is mashing the square button with the occasional dodge and parry, is exactly how you'll play in subsequent playthroughs. While the first time through the game will be fun and interesting, it is also brief; whether or not K.I.D will offer a reasonable amount of content before becoming dull is dependent on each gamer, but I would say that far more will yawn and be done with this title than those who are propelled to experience the whole of the game as it is designed.
Additional elements of K.I.D to consider are the art-direction and Gigolo missions. The art-style of K.I.D is a unique blend of heavily shaded water-colors that bleed across the environments. The colors are vibrant and lively; at times it seems almost as if they move, a feature that highly accentuates the bizarre world that Mondo inhabits. While none of the environments will make you pause and admire, the unique blends and vibrancy of the colors are equally inspiring, and truly deserve some credit for making the typical linear design of hallways and large rooms strangely meaningful and enticing.
Gigolo missions, on the other hand, are essentially two sidequests available throughout the game that offer a way for Mondo to receive new projectile weapons. They're a rather bizarre addition, because in them Mondo does not fight mechanical martians but instead sits down with a lady and attempts to seduce her. This is done by an equally crazy design that has Mondo ogling the women to build up desire/confidence and then giving the women presents and gifts so that they'll fall in love with and/or sleep with him. Simply reading this may make K.I.D seem like an immature and crass title, but I can assure you this is not the case; the theme of Killer Is Dead is the overall baseness of Mondo as a hero. As an amnesiac, the way Mondo has put his uncertain life together is by becoming a "manly man," and so the women that Mondo wants are not akin to the overall gender-stereotypes that plague videogames, but are instead sexual women, women who are blunt with their materialistic wants from the men that they are interested in. It's unfortunate though that many gamers are going to entirely miss this core theme of K.I.D and assume these Gigolo missions are sexist; they are just quirky mini-games used to break up the combat of K.I.D and offer something that is equally unique as it is significant to developing and revealing the overall character that Mondo really is.

Overall I think Killer Is Dead is a very solid videogame that unfortunately retains the negative staples consistently found in Suda51 games. As a big fan of Suda51 games for their creativity and anime-style gameplay I am not bothered by the simplicity and linearity of these titles, but all the same there are plenty who are. If you found titles like Lollipop Chainsaw or No More Heroes too simple and brief than there is no reason that K.I.D is going to be received any differently. For all the creative fun that is packaged within K.I.D, the truth is that, as a videogame, it is making the very same mistakes that really shouldn't be made anymore inside of an Action title. Worse is that this is coming from the same development crew whose videogames have consistently been rated in the "Average" and "Mediocre" spectrum solely because of the two complaints of linearity and simplistic gameplay; the fact that K.I.D still wears these complaints is beyond confusing; it's just lazy. No less, K.I.D will continue the trend of Suda51 games being a cult-based phenomenon, and not the title that will make these excessively inspiring and unique games more appreciated and admired by everyone.