Killer is Dead preview: Mondo uncertainty

By Steve Watts, Jun 19, 2013 12:00pm PDT

Even among the most ardent fans of Goichi Suda (aka "Suda 51"), I don't think it would be controversial to say that he specializes in style. Most of his major releases are marked by high-concept ideas and identifiable art styles, but the mechanics don't always match the ambition. Killer is Dead certainly has its own splashy stylistic identity, but as usual, some hands-on time made it hard to tell if the game would keep up.

At E3, I played a brief demo before being shown a different area of the game as a demonstration. The nihilistic, high-tech world reminded me of Blade Runner, particularly by centering on the grisly job of "Executioners." The hero, Mondo Zappa, has his own cadre of fellow assassins in the Bryan Execution Firm, lending the story a brooding tone despite its attempts at playful banter. It's also difficult not to notice the striking art style, based on only a few solid fields of color for high contrast.

"We like to play around with cel-shading a lot, but for Killer is Dead I really wanted to have a unique look that people could identify by one screenshot," Suda told Shacknews, through a translator.

During my hands-on time, Mondo sported two primary weapons: a sword, and a cybernetic arm that transformed into a gun. The controls felt perfectly passable for these two functions, and I felt well-equipped to handle enemies. Grasshopper games tend to struggle with iteration, though, and that's one factor that a short demo can't inform. The ability to transform his cybernetic arm into a variety of weapons may help keep the experience fresh.

In a subsequent hands-off demo, I was shown an abbreviated version of one of the 13 episodes that will make up the game. The entire story is structured like a TV series, Suda told me, and this game is meant to resemble one season of a TV show. "It is self-contained in each episode, but there is an overarching plot that ties everything together," Suda said.

This particular episode, the seventh, focused on a member of the Yakuza, who seemingly hoped to die. After slicing through some lackeys, Mondo came face to face with the old man. This gave an opportunity to show some gameplay variety. The fight quickly transitioned between a chase scene with the man using his spirit-tiger as his mount, and a melee battle with a spirit-tiger grown out of a tattoo on the man's back. This gave the more experienced player controlling the demo a chance to show the combo system, which stacks up to level five for the hardest hits.

I was also shown the new "Gigolo" mode, which can be best described as a leering mini-game. You speak with a lady at a bar, taking advantage of every opportunity to stare at her breasts or hips during the conversation. She acts coy and coquettish throughout, responding to your advances with blushing and the occasional "oh stop" teasing.

I tend to give dumb humor a good bit of slack when it's done well. Bulletstorm and Saints Row come to mind. Maybe in the full game, the context will help shape my perceptions. During this demo, though, it was as if I was expected to giggle at the mere idea of looking at boobs, and the assumption that I was that childish made me more uncomfortable than amused. Hopefully whatever point Suda is trying to make with this sequence comes through more clearly in the finished product.

And so, I'm left back at the start in my expectations of Killer is Dead. My look at the game showed plenty of style, a few interesting ideas, and at least one questionable one. Grasshopper has struggled to make its disparate pieces congeal into a whole, and my concern is that may be happening again. Hopefully once I see the whole game and all of its connective tissue, it will all come together.

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