Off to one side of the South Hall at E3, there was a menagerie. It felt so incongruous with the rest of the show that it might still be going on, stuck in some Star Trekkian time loop of always existing. The lights overheard are, like, on and shining down to so boldly illuminate the floor and its various treasures (others might call it “trash”). People are milling about with no particular goal in mind and seem content with just being somewhere that isn’t a zoo of swag bags and Payday 2 masks. I mean, at least there weren’t Oswald the Lucky Rabbit hats everywhere this year.
I guess it’s not surprising given that this is where the bar is. Stop by and buy, open, and guzzle a beer before you rush off to play more games. But this is an area even beyond the mini corporate booths, a tiny region of sweaty handshakes and cotton blazers where only true industry folk wander. This is where they’ve put the Indiecade booth, which is heartwarmingly bustling, and a confused-looking SiriusXM table, which is depressing. But out here beyond the wild also is the Xseed booth where, along with a slew of RPGs, you’ll find Suda 51’s newest game.
Killer is Dead is an upcoming action game from Grasshopper Manufacture, Goichi Suda’s studio and the devs behind Lollipop Chainsaw and Shadows of the Damned. In it, you play as a fellow named Mondo Zappa—following Suda’s grand tradition of absolutely amazing protagonist names like Travis Touchdown and Garcia “Fucking” Hotspur—who is an executioner under the employ of the Bryan Execution Firm. You’ll fight off criminals, assassins, cyborgs, and weird floating eyeballs with your sword and your cybernetic left arm as you travel the world and discover love.
The first thing to notice, as is common among Suda games, is the art style, and it’s definitely worth noting here. There is a spectrum of color at work here, but imagine that the middle was ripped out and replaced with contrast. It’s a deep palette but its range has been stretched out to the point of delirium. Whereas No More Heroes had a lack of gradients, it feels like Killer is Dead simply has a lack of color while still managing to paint a complete picture. It’s a really interesting look. I dig it.
Next are the controls, which is very much action-oriented. A button is dedicated to slicing, another is for your gun arm, one for switching between the four modes of said arm, and one more for dodging. You’ll notice there is no jump button, so dealing with aerial enemies often came down to running away to kite them down or using a gun mode to shoot them down. But this simplicity also opens up an intriguing avenue for combos. Instead of being based purely on button inputs, you’re also trying to level up a meter in the corner. As it gets higher (up to level five), you begin to pull of more powerful combos, but get hit or take too long and that meter resets. So in the interest of being an efficient executioner, it’s best to stick and move with skill.
And that’s where I probably found most of the fun to be had in the demo. Fighting itself is not terribly complex (I often found myself just mashing the two attack buttons with a blatant disregard for what they were doing), but the dodge button adds a necessary and important wrinkle. It can move you out of danger at a moment’s notice, but it also functions as a parry button, so depending on the timing, you’ll either dodge, initiate a mash-the-X-button counter attack, or get hit for being too slow. It made me really feel like some sort of hyper ninja in an anime, slicing and dicing (and shooting) while darting and stopping between enemies like a god damn hummingbird. And once you fill up your blood meter, you can enter blood mode and go all monochromatic psycho on them fools.
It was, however, a fairly short demo as it was a condensed version of a single episode (the finished game will be 13 episodes and this was just part of the seventh). This barely gave me enough time to get an idea of what it was like playing the game, but it didn’t tell me how it planned on keeping it fresh. Trying to keep my meter up for better combos certainly added import to my actions and switching between the standard, freeze, drill, and laser modes of my gun arm kept distance fighting varied, but monotony in the mechanics of Suda games is always a concern. I’m not saying there is or isn’t, but I did eventually grow weary of mashing the two attack buttons.
Not all of Killer is Dead seems to be about fighting, though. Or at least not in this form. For some of my hands-on time, I was to wander around and look for scrolls to shoot. Doing so would trigger a miniboss, sure, but for a bit, at least, I wasn’t just cutting things up with my sword. And then in a hands-off segment, Zappa was chasing/being chased by a guy on a spirit tiger before having to fight both said man and spectral feline.
This could be the conceit of Suda’s episodic structure of the game, where each one has a special thing to engage with. Each episode narratively is self-contained, which would make it pretty neat if the gameplay also had discrete chunks of unique snowflake-ism. But who knows. Killer is Dead looks great, has an interesting premise, and contains some fantastic ideas, but the final execution remains to be seen. That is often where Suda games tend to stumble, so we’ll see.
Look for Killer is Dead on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on August 27, 2013.