Review: Killer Is Dead (*** stars) Part 1 – Story

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Killer Is Dead, at least in my view, remains a difficult case for the purposes of review. On one level, this game will inevitably polarize its potential audiences for a few distinct reasons. For one, Suda51’s active involvement in the game’s presentation and story (if not game mechanics) might turn players off. His smash-up of grindhouse sensibilities with nuanced (and vague) symbolism that often functions as social commentary probably offends one audience or another, and he steps on the toes of many a Westerner’s pet peeves. Sometimes, the game which runs the whole engine falters under the desire to “do thing differently” without really developing the core feedback loops; No More Heroes, for example, descends into a depressingly repetitive rhythm of exciting combat and oddjobs in the form of terrible minigames. Suda51 advocates will point out that this repetition is intentional…but what is, and is not, intentional? Can the game be good even if it forces you to do mundane tasks before exciting missions? Honestly, intent is always a difficult artistic vehicle, and that’s no more true than in Killer Is Dead.

In this game, with a delightfully Engrish title, we play as Mondo Zappa, an assassin for hire who works for the Bryan Execution Agency. Mondo woke up with a bionic arm which absorbs Dark Matter, a substance from the moon which corrupts those who come in contact with it. Mondo finds out that he’s good at killing people (though this is not told to us through the game), and to fulfill his primary wants and needs, he takes a job with Bryan’s firm. Interestingly, Mondo does not seem to give a care why he can absorb Dark Matter; rather, his only desires in life consist of eating delicious hard-boiled eggs and bedding wealthy socialites. His job as an assassin comes as a function of his repetoire of skills in order to achieve those goals.

Mondo Zappa typifies the more likely possibility of a “James Bond” style character in a real world. Such a person would only be able to sustain his base desires under the constant threat of death, and there would not be much more to desire or want. The life of a hired assassins suffers from a psychological, relational difference to other human beings; while others exemplify life, you take it. That seemingly disassociated lifestyle is, really, at the heart of what Killer Is Dead wants to say…even if it goes on a very game-like, roundabout way to say it. The Gigolo Missions, which were a point of offense for most people, exemplify the simplicity of Mondo’s life, given their simple mechanics and (appropriately) simple rewards. You give gifts, the only thing you can buy with money in this game for any reasonable price, and the women give you sex. They are all cardboard cutouts of sexy anime ladies, and that’s all really Mondo would care to hear about; the game is Mondo’s story from his perspective, which is why these elements come to the fore.

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I’m still sorta surprised at how tame they are, really.

Unfortunately, Mondo has chosen to ignore any memories of his past before the time when he suddenly obtained a bionic arm, and this proves a terrible mistake. The world of Killer Is Dead, though first masquerading as a strictly film noir setup, suddenly and violently devolves into something much more chaotic. A sort of magic pervades this world, and Mondo’s past proves to have a part in the arrival of Dark Matter and the evil creatures called Wires that it creates. To say much more would spoil the whole experience; suffice to say that the story must be uncovered and discovered, rather than fed to the player in the straightforward manner. We are just as blind as the protagonist, and it is only with some thought that we can begin to understand what, exactly, happened throughout the game.

It is, as I like to call it, the story of an idiotic hedonist who doesn’t care for the world around him. That willful ignorance puts everyone in danger, and eventually leads to a host of unexpected consequences. Base desires alone can’t account for the full experience experiences, and if Killer Is Dead has anything to say about that, it’s certainly in asking a person to broaden their horizons beyond the simple pleasures, even if it leads to hardships. Unfortunately, some people will never move beyond that point, and this is sad indeed! I liken it to the story of the rich man and Lazarus, in that some will never be convinced of the real truths even when confronted with all the evidence in the world; some people just need faith, to look beyond themselves, but will never be able to reach that marker:

19 “Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day. 20 And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, 21 and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. 22 Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and *saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. 24 And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.’25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 And [a]besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’ 27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, that you send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham *said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 But he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ 31 But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’”

(Note: I wish to avoid spoilers, since I think this game needs to be experienced rather than read about, so I encourage you to read this article and this one only after beating the game. Trust me, it’s worth it).

So yes, the story is very interesting, I grant it that much. But did it come at the expense of the actual game, like in the usual Grasshopper Manufacture product?

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.