Killer Is Dead is the most recent game from auteur Goichi Suda (AKA Suda51), and on paper it would appear to be no different from his former creations.
So much so that beyond being a spiritual successor to the Marmite cult title Killer7, it could be considered a Suda51 Greatest Hits trip.
Whilst the core games made by Grasshopper Manufacture which bear the name Suda51 can rarely be referred to as outright successes in regards to sales, or even in terms of critical reception, there are still a number of reviewers who “get it”. This produces the mixed reviews that define his titles.
However in recent years the newer titles, those categorised as part of the loosely connected Punks Not Dead series, which started with the launch of No More Heroes, have been seen as “safer” titles. This is in comparison to the previous games which made up the loose timeline referred to as Kill the Past which included Killer7. This safeness was reflected in the review scores, there was less overarching criticism of key game play mechanics, but also no one could argue that the games had a special unique element which had made titles like Killer7 so special.
When Killer Is Dead was announced as the spiritual sequel to Killer7 many people were understandably excited. Yet the game that was created was not quite what people were expecting. Even though in terms of narrative themes Killer Is Dead does indeed continue the concept expressed in Kill the Past titles; that in order to progress the character must accept their past, and the primary means of doing so is to kill. Of course having such distinctions is confusing enough, and this is added to when one can consider No More Heroes to share similarities in its concept. Further confusion is added as Suda51 has in the past stated that Killer7 is not actually part of that original timeline, despite small call backs found within the game. But such confusion is not unexpected when dealing with anything associated with Suda51.
Why then did people have a problem with Killer Is Dead when it seemed like it was the epitome of a Suda51 game? One possibility is that despite all the hype of it being ‘from the mind of Suda51’, his role was not from a leading position that usually resides from the director’s chair. Rather his role was lead writer and executive producer. Meaning that his role is comparatively less than in previously titles, and as a result the game plays fairly different to past games because there is someone else directing how it plays and what goes in, aside from key story elements.
Highlighting this distinction is not made to discredit Hideyuki Shin who directed the game. If anything it is to sympathise with him as some people used this fact to criticise the game. The problem instead is how the game was promoted. Yes, the story and the setting came from the mind of Suda51, but it is not a Suda51 game. Therefore it is unreasonable to expect it to play just like one of his previous titles. Yet the hype that was created led people to believe otherwise, and for the Western market this is a crucial distinction as Suda51’s particular Japanese style has resonated whilst other offbeat Japanese titles have struggled.
No More Heroes was anticipated to do well in Japan, yet its depiction of otaku portrayed by its main character may have hit a little too close to home, as the game failed to generate substantial sales in the country. Yet the game did manage to find an audience in the West and was deemed a success by its Western publishers, which helped to spawn a direct sequel, a rare feat for Suda51 and Grasshopper Manufacture (although it must be noted that the PS3/360 HD remake did go onto relative success in Japan). Killer Is Dead provided a different situation, one in which it reviewed poorly in the West, but highly in Japan. Japanese gaming magazine Famitsu gave Killer Is Dead a platinum award praising the games atmosphere and artistic style, as well as praising the enjoyment one received playing the game. Although they did note the games difficulty but added that perseverance was highly rewarding.
Western reviewers on the other hand were highly critical, especially of both the movement and camera controls, the latter were referred to as being broken. In addition were complaints regarding lack of depth in both combat and overall game length. This is in complete contrast to Famitsu which praised the game’s additional content and challenge provided by combat. If one were to just read the text of the reviews with the name removed they would assume that two different games (of a similar genre) were being referred to.
What also irked many Western reviewers, but seemed to be a non-issue for Famitsu, were the inclusion of the gigolo missions and the overall portrayal of women in the game. This is a tricky issue as one plays the risk of sounding as though they are supporting misogyny when defending this element of the game. The portrayal of sexuality has come a long way, yet negative portrayals still exist. But Killer Is Dead has its own way of portraying women, which from a certain viewpoint is actually rather unique. Yes most of the female characters in the game are wearing varying degrees of somewhat questionable attire, but this is not unheard of regarding media pieces that come from Japan. There are key cultural differences in this regard, and this is reflected in the different publicity that was created for Japan in which famous cos-players wore the more risqué outfits as part of what appeared to be chat show type program about the content of the game. These videos were not translated so that they could be used for the Western market, although they are accessible for all on YouTube.
Yet there is a unique point that can be mentioned, which is in direct contrast to the statement made by Polygon: ‘every female character in the game exists to be rescued, killed, gawked at or f**ked for an in-game item’. For starters there is actually only one instance where a female character is directly rescued, which is at the start of the game and later via a separately explained situation she becomes Mondo’s assistant. Nit-picking aside the female characters are actually not beholden to the male main character of Mondo, who himself actually has to rely on the help of characters such as his assistant Mika to revive him. This is in addition to being assisted multiple times by Vivienne, who is also Mondo’s superior at the execution agency, and not once is she perceived as being weak or needing the help of her male associates for assistance.
Now the gigolo missions, the main instance of controversy. Ultimately they serve as nothing more than a means of obtaining the sub-weapons, and the visuals displayed during these “missions” are no more explicit than those present as part of the relationships in the Mass Effect series. Despite Mondo occasionally receiving gifts as part of these missions, it is important to remember that he is the gigolo and that it is his services that are being paid for, and not those of the women. Mondo is subservient to them, and not the other way around.
Yes this is a different view upon this feature of the game and people are likely to disagree, but it does provide an interesting alternative. One in which it can be viewed as an example of female empowerment, or maybe this is just wishful thinking for sexual equality. Although this does not mean that the missions are not an uncomfortable experience, hence the considerable criticism, but when it comes to a game in which Suda51 is involved maybe this is part of a wider satirical comment upon male sexuality? After all Suda51 has stated on many occasions that Mondo represents a darker re-imagining of Ian Fleming’s James Bond character, and the gigolo missions represent an alternative take on Bond’s notorious womanising activities.
Killer Is Dead is by no means a perfect game and whilst the controls might not be as tight as many expect from AAA games they are by no means broken like some critics have stated. It is wrong to call Killer Is Dead an experiment as there is nothing particularly new about the gameplay; and despite the off-the-wall story which includes a talking unicorn from the moon, this is not a bewitching concept for fans of Suda51 to take on board. What Killer Is Dead represents is a game made by people who wanted to make the kind of game they wanted to for the small but loyal group of people who enjoy this sort of gameplay and narrative.
In the West the AA game is essentially dead; there are either over-budget AAA games that have to sell big to be considered a success, or indie games which are made by just a few people and the game represents a make or break opportunity. In Japan there are still AA games which ironically now produce a unique experience, that being a video game that exists at being a video game.