The newest Grasshopper Manufacture action joint from the twisted mind of Japanese game design auteur SUDA 51 delivers on several different levels and reminds me why I seek out Japanese games in this age of Western game dominance. Killer Is Dead presents the surreal story of freshman assassin Mondo Zappa through twelve surreal chapters designed to be played one at a time but with an overall story arc woven throughout. Mondo wields a blood drinking katana with his right arm while his left arm has been replaced with a transforming bionic limb named Musselback. The main gameplay is combo heavy action, working Mondo through hordes of a “wires”, living robotic foot soldiers sent from the moon. Episodes conclude with a boss showdown that are typically the highlight of Grasshopper games and this game makes no exception. Rival assassins, yakuza bosses possessed with ghost tiger spirits, mutated giants, its all here and more with episodes taking the strange but delightful twists we’ve come to expect from the genre.
Grasshopper games have recently not had tons of depth to their combat and are often criticized for being more style than substance. Killer Is Dead breaks this recent trend with probably the most in depth combat system I’ve seen from this company. Mondo’s main attack is a katana slash that can be chained and expanded upon by leveling up and unlocking new attacks. Holding the left trigger will activate Musselback in one of its selected modes such as a drill arm or machine gun. Some levels require the machine gun to pick off faraway attackers, otherwise is pretty optional to use. Musselback requires blood though to operate which is gained from your katana attacks so a balance is needed to fight at maximum efficiency. Attacks build a running combo meter that will continue to build as long as Mondo avoids being damaged himself while stringing together combos on the enemy. At his disposal for avoid attacks is a guard, a dodge dash move, and a just guard that when timed with enemy attacks creates a stun opening to punish the would be attacker. The dodge dash when timed with enemy attacks will put Mondo in “Adrenaline Rush” where time is slowed and Mondo can spam slashes on his slowed enemies. While in this mode enemies can still attack but Mondo can dodge out of these to continue his rush or time his just guards to punish. The dodging and just guarding I found really satisfying, especially when facing a large group and getting your combo meter up high enough to enable assassination kills, flashy one hit kills that reward Mondo with experience or powerups.
Mondo can level right arm and left arm attacks as well as utility abilities including a heal that become invaluable in later levels. By the end of the game Mondo will have a full arsenal of attacks available to him, with each unlock making the game flashier and adding some depth to the gameplay. The upgrading can be activated in a sub menu at anytime but most of the time I found myself upgrading between episodes while spending time in the misson select hub. Clearing an episode will activate several side missions that are usually a riff on the main episode. They can be completed to gain money and provide short side challenges to the main story.
Why would you need money though? Well the side missions also include the Mondo Girls missions. These are short “date simulator” missions that are a parody of the Bond girl stereotype with the goal of Mondo seducing the girl and winning over her “body and soul” with presents he’s bought at the hub world gift shop. I found the missions goofy and innocent, I thought the best part about them was when a Mondo girl would call you in the middle of another episode to ask when your next date was or what was taking so long. These were some classic SUDA 51 mini game additions although they weren’t as fun as the mini games found in No More Heroes.
Finally I’d like to talk about the game’s style, probably its strongest point. The game is dripping with a dark inky cell shaded look that is striking and gorgeous to look at. During combat at times Mondo’s shadow will appear suspended behind him in kill pose while copious amounts of a splashy blood sprays across the screen. Every character is mysterious and over the top including the main antagonist, David, a self styled ruler of the moon who dresses like an Egyptian pharaoh. The humor
present in the recent Grasshopper games is lacking in this game, but its in place the game double downs on weirdness and surrealism with episodes taking place inside of dreams or on mansions on the dark side of the moon. The game was designed to be taken in an episode at a time, and for the most part I played a few episodes a day and let the game sit with me for awhile which I believe increased by enjoyment of the overall experience. The soundtrack is all over the place with quirky jazz trio jams to heavy metal rock. It’s good atmosphere building music although Lollipop Chainsaw still holds the best soundtrack title for a Grasshopper game.
If you’re an action fan or a Japanese noir fan or a fan of surrealism I’d give his game a go. It was a solid 10 hours with me playing some of the side missions and I plan on going back and trying a harder difficulty as well as unlocking some of the goodies such as costumes for Mondo and the Mondo Girls. It is my hope Grasshopper keeps getting to make games like these, at the end of the day the game is unique and fun, tells a new story with new characters and takes chances. I think they nailed it.