Mondo Zappa, whose skinny frame and black suit make him look like the singer of an early 2000s indie band, is an assassin. His weapon of choice is a katana, but he also has a robot arm that shoots lasers. He works for a cyborg called Bryan, and each mission sees him hunting increasingly strange targets, including the King of the Moon. As you might have guessed, this is a Japanese game.
It's the creation of Goichi Suda, better known as Suda 51, whose previous projects include Killer7 and No More Heroes—excellent console action games that, sadly, never made their way to PC. As you might expect from a man with a number in his name, he's not your typical developer. His games are famous for their surreal visuals, slick action, bizarre stories, and musical influences.
Killer Is Dead has all of these things, but it feels like Suda is on autopilot. It's like he randomly flipped through his ideas notebook, indiscriminately tossing whatever caught his eye into the game. A woman turning into a lobster? Sure. Staring at boobs with X-ray specs to unlock weapons? Oh yeah. A level set on the Moon? Why the hell not. It's so self-consciously weird and tonally inconsistent that it actually becomes tiresome—especially since they're trying to tell an emotional story in the middle of it all.
But, really, it's all just an excuse to kill monsters. The katana forms the basis of the combat, which is more about timing and positioning than memorising strings of combos. You'll need to play with a controller to get the most out of it, though. There's only one attack button, but block just as an enemy lunges for you and you'll counter them—or you can dodge with a well-timed sidestep to hit them with a flurry of strikes. It's fast and nicely animated, but ultimately shallow. There's no meaningful depth or nuance to uncover, which is unfortunate in a game that's pretty much just a series of battles strung together with cutscenes.
The visual design in Killer Is Dead is brilliantly imaginative, but it's never more than window dressing. One level is like Hansel and Gretel's candy house crossed with an M.C. Escher drawing. Another sees you fighting in an ornate palace on the dark side of the Moon. Interesting settings in theory, but wasted on boxy, uninspiring levels made up of empty corridors and chambers.
When you're not fighting you're waiting for women to look away so you can catch an opportunistic glimpse of their boobs. This is Gigolo Mode, and it's terrible. Mondo sits at a bar with a woman, sneaking looks at her legs and cleavage to fill up a 'guts' meter. At a certain threshold he can hand over a gift—flowers, perfume, lingerie—and in return she'll upgrade his robot arm and sleep with him. It's bad not just because it's crass and exploitative, but because it's shit. I'd forgive a sniggering teenager for dreaming this up, but Suda is 46 years old . Luckily it's optional, but you will have to endure the tedium if you want to unlock all of Zappa's secondary weapons.
Graphics options are disappointingly limited, with only vague low, medium, and high settings to choose from. The game is also locked at 30fps by default, which is a disservice to those brilliant animations. It's worth editing the game files—instructions here —to force 60. It's a shame Suda's first game on PC is not only his weakest to date, but a lacklustre port as well.
I really wanted to love Killer Is Dead, but it didn't take me long to realise just how superficial it is. There's such a sharp contrast between the wildly imaginative art and the tepid game underneath. The dull, ponderous cutscenes and indulgent interactive dream sequences—which are almost as bad as the ones in the first Max Payne—only make matters worse. The combat, as limited as it is, is the best thing about it. There's an enjoyable rhythm to the battles, and I love the feeling of evading an attack at the last second and responding with a tornado of slashes. But that's about as much praise as I can muster.