Saturday, May 31, 2014

Game Review - Killer is Dead (Xbox 360, 2013)

I fear that Suda 51 may be transitioning from gaming's Stanley Kubrick to its M. Night Shyamalan.

For years, Suda 51 has written and directed some of the most bizarre but satisfying games on the market.  Each game is clearly marked with his characteristic strangeness, but buried beneath their eclectic appearance has usually been an intriguing story worth exploring.

His previous Xbox offering, Black Knight Sword, broke that trend by having (what I found to be) a nearly unintelligible plot.  It was like he was trying too hard to be weird for weird's sake, drifting uncomfortably towards Shyamalan's legacy of focusing more on the gimmick than overall quality.

Killer is Dead has similar flaws.  Set in a futuristic world of cybernetic enhancements and moon colonies, Killer is Dead follows the exploits of Mondo, a government-contracted assassin. While the premise is promising, it turns out to be a series of mostly disjointed episodes and random events.

There is an overarching storyline, but it's also uncomfortably random.  The characters aren't interesting, their conflicts have no depth, and the whole thing seems like a flimsy excuse for an orgy of violence and pointless sexualization.  While the twelve-year-old in me was pretty excited by that prospect, the plot as a whole is awfully disappointing because none of the gratuitous content served any discernible purpose.  Unless you're looking for titillation, there's not much worth seeing in this story.

In fact, Killer is Dead was the first of Suda 51's games that took effort for me to complete.  About halfway through the 9-hour storyline, I was bored with it, wishing the various cutscenes would end so I could get back to gameplay.

But while it's the best part of the game by far, the gameplay is only mildly entertaining at best.  Essentially a third-person action game, Killer is Dead doesn't do much beyond the simplest of mechanics.  You'll run through the 12 main episodes and handful of side missions slaughtering everything in your path.

In general, the combat reduces to a balance between dodging, blocking, and slashing furiously with your sword.  There are a few upgradable skills, though almost all of them just change the flow of that basic three-point strategy without adding new options (by, for example, increasing your attack speed if you maintain a hit streak).

You also have access to four secondary weapons, which adds a little bit of diversity.  Three of the four are guns of various types (the fourth being a giant drill), but aside from very specific circumstances, I only found the default rapid-fire ranged weapon effective - proper use of the others tended just to make me more vulnerable to counterattacks, so they seemed like bad tactical options.

Speaking of counterattacks, your most powerful enemy is often the camera.  As is usually the case with this sort of game, you'll regularly fight off a number of enemies or fast bosses.  Intelligent camera angles and the ability to make quick, precise adjustments are therefore very important, but I found myself frustrated by the camera pretty often.  Enemies would get behind me or the screen would be covered with unnecessary flourishes obscuring my view, making some fights seem difficult for the wrong reasons.  It was definitely a pain.

And that's basically the whole game.  Run through several stages and complete a bunch of fights using the same strategies so you can progress the nonsensical plot.  It's far from compelling...

To be fair, I am oversimplfying a bit.  The initial stages of the game are pretty fun; it's only tiring when the repetitive nature of the gameplay becomes apparent somewhere around halfway through.  There are also a number of unlockable challenges and advanced difficulty modes, each of which can be quite challenging at times, even with the relatively simple combat system.  There are redeeming qualities, but they're really nothing special - it's just a moderately fun 4-6 hours before the tedium sets in.

Oh, it's also worth noting that Killer is Dead is the first game I've ever played that effectively implemented a second-person camera during one of the boss fights, where you see the game from your enemy's perspective while still controlling the protagonist.  It's another gimmick, but it's still kinda cool to see.

In the end, I can't really recommend Killer is Dead to anyone but the most hardcore fans of Suda 51 or third-person hack-and-slash gameplay, and even those people may be disappointed.  It's not worthless by any stretch, but it doesn't come anywhere near the legacy Suda 51 seemed to be building a few years ago.

And that's probably the worst part.

My Rating: 3/10 - bad.

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