That Killer Is Dead’s Gigolo missions should generate such pre-release furore will likely be a source of amusement for a provocateur like Goichi Suda. Not least because he considers them little more than palate cleansers, relaxing changes of tempo from the blitzkrieg combat of the game’s main missions. The objective in these sections is to win women over with presents, raising protagonist Mondo Zappa’s blood pressure by turning his gaze from face to chest and below, while ensuring you’re not caught looking where you shouldn’t. Eventually, you’ll bestow them with a gift, and if it’s to their liking, you’ll take them home.
The natural reaction is to roll your eyes and clack your tongue, but this seedy aside seems more silly and misguided than genuinely objectionable. It’s unrealistic to the point of ridiculousness: success is greeted with a casual thumbs-up to camera, while there’s a bizarre roar when the two get down to business. It’s entirely at odds with the treatment of the rest of the female cast: three of the game’s most important characters are women and none is overtly sexualised. Ultimately, it’s a half-baked extra that can be ignored unless you’re desperate for upgrades to Mondo’s gun – and besides, you’re better off fully upgrading the basic shot type you begin with. The game may well have been better without it, but one suspects Suda is under pressure to cater to an audience that may not have bought Lollipop Chainsaw for its raucous invention and subversive humour. Tellingly, you can play these missions with one hand free.
Whatever your stance on the Gigolo missions, they give the game a marketable hook when otherwise its publisher might struggle to find one. Killer Is Dead is peppered with all of Suda’s usual idiosyncrasies, and therein lies the problem. Characters break the fourth wall, often undercutting the narrative tension; there’s dramatic use of an unlikely piece of music (here it’s the fourth movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony); cutscenes feature plenty of dreamlike imagery and rather heavy-handed symbolism. But these Suda staples are beginning to feel tired, as if its creator’s fecund brain is beginning to run on autopilot. If you’ve not played any of his games, you may be dazzled by some of the stranger turns the plot takes. But if you have, then a chase between a motorbike and a tiger feels oddly familiar, while a depressed demonic locomotive barely raises an eyebrow.
Still, it marks a welcome return to darker thematic territory after the schlocky horror shows of Lollipop Chainsaw and Shadows Of The Damned. Despite the odd wisecrack, Mondo Zappa is a serious-minded protagonist, and as his unknown past gradually comes to light, you’ll see why. The narrative is unsettling, partly thanks to some violent, hallucinatory imagery and a typically unhinged score from Akira Yamaoka, a man who could make an episode of Peppa Pig sound sinister. It trades in dreams, buried secrets and the unreliability of memory, and while the structure of the game makes it one of Suda’s more episodic plots, it comes to a satisfyingly bleak close. And if one of its biggest revelations is hardly a new concept for a Suda game, the other, happily, is a genuine surprise.
It’s not the only one. Killer Is Dead has Grasshopper’s most satisfying combat since No More Heroes, compensating for the lack of physical sensation with more varied and flexible systems. Mondo’s katana attacks connect with weighty force, partly thanks to some explosive sound effects and the rumble feedback that gives your palms a ferocious buffeting. Don’t expect the depth of a Bayonetta or the daring invention of Metal Gear Rising’s parry mechanic, however: combat here prioritises dodges and counters. Indeed, the later you take evasive action the better, as a filter bathes the action in red and you mash the X button to launch a flurry of rapid blows. The variety of enemies, meanwhile, ensures you’ll use Mondo’s entire range of light, heavy and charged attacks, a moveset that steadily expands when you spend gems dropped by defeated enemies. Again, none of these ideas is particularly new, but there’s an arresting rhythm and flow to the action, and given how many games in this genre are blighted by camera woes it’s a pleasant surprise to discover that Killer Is Dead’s is mostly problem-free.
Though avoiding attacks is crucial, with enemies ruthlessly punishing mistakes, aggression is also encouraged. Successive blows build up Mondo’s blood meter, powering Musselback, a mechanical arm cannon and drill. It’s a useful solution to gun-wielding foes, and can also peck away at the health bars of hardier enemies, assuming you can create sufficient distance. QTE finishers are used with uncommon restraint, reserved only for the most extensive combos. It’s challenging enough on Normal difficulty that you’ll die a fair few times, though the money you earn from commissions can be spent summoning Mondo’s unbearably shrill assistant to perform CPR.
Even taking deaths and restarts into consideration, the dozen missions are over in around seven hours; fewer if you don’t bother with the sidequests, which vary greatly in quality. Though it doesn’t outstay its welcome, the final act sees the plot hurtle towards a climax that arrives too soon. It’s a shame the outrage about those Gigolo missions will overshadow everything Killer Is Dead does right, but in truth, it might otherwise be soon forgotten. With Suda we’ve come to expect the unexpected, but the most disappointing thing about Killer Is Dead is that the unexpected has become predictable. By adhering too rigidly to its creator’s esoteric template, it gives us pretty much exactly what we were anticipating.
Killer Is Dead is released on August 30 for Xbox 360 and PS3. 360 version tested.