By Tracey McGarrigan
Set in an era of extreme technological advancement where space travel and human body augmentations are everyday occurrences, there is still little known about the mysterious Dark Side of the Moon. Battered by craters, the permanently turned away lunar hemisphere remains outside of Earth’s jurisdiction, yet rumour mill merchants speculate that a fantastical castle is situated there, where unexplained, supernatural, criminal events occur…
Back on a version of Earth not too dissimilar from ours, at a secret state institution known as the “Executioner Office” new recruit Mondo Zappa – a suave, skinny suited assassin – must seek out the wrong-doers and kill the killers after greeting and listening to an array of woeful tales from some colourful clients. Whether it was a seemingly ordinary customer who had been deeply wronged, an outrageously spandexed demi-god with an unusual power complex, or the government calling because the Earth itself has literally been stolen by a laser-eyed giant, Mondo travelled the world and beyond to serve his violent flavour of justice.
The opening scene had the executioner-for-hire calmly walking after a slathering, hunched back bad guy down a red brick alleyway. A pair of ugly goggle-eyes and large, rotten wonky teeth defiantly flashed white in the dark, heaving as the realisation set in that Mondo had the upper hand. Forcing me to pause before Mondo made the final, neck severing, blood gushing blow, the definitive action demanded my full attention. The camera panned away, silhouetting him against a giant waxen moon. His square glasses and razor sharp blade glinted as he slicked back his hair and announced in a low, calm but firm voice “Killer is dead.” This irrevocable moment, this final split second after each encounter, was consistently cinematically mesmerising.
Though the scenarios, locations, characters and villains were a bog-eyed, bewildering batch of crazy, the action was actually satisfyingly slick, as long as I kept investing in Mondo’s skills. An expert with a Katana, by slicing and dicing up the sci-fi, tar-black, dark matter skeletal enemies known as Wires, Mondo could collect moon crystals to exchange for upgrades in speed and skills, as well as replenish his health and blood levels by collecting energy cores and red roses.
Where his left arm used to be (though he had no recollection of how he acquired this powerful enhancement) was a blood-powered artificial device that had interchangeable attachments including a drill and a flame thrower which could also be pimped. Even on the easiest of difficulty settings, the going was often tough, requiring a mixture of perfectly timed parries, frantic thumb destroying button mashing or shooting. Boss battles were suitably long and required unique yet repetitive attacks whereas Mondo’s unsettling, fleetingly traumatic dream sequences were fanciful and twisted the pace. There was a welcomed variety of fracases whilst the bullet-time photography accompanying a well-executed combo attack added to the gloss and dazzle that shone through during the more intricate battles.
“If this were a B-rated Italian monster movie, this would be a walk in the park” Mondo dryly informed an opponent, unsurprisingly as there were B-movie cinematic influences woven throughout including a Tarantino-esque use of chapters, film noir close-ups on voluptuous lips or freshly lit cigars, ludicrously sensational plots, hammy dialogue, lots of gore and of course boobs. Though it may be lacking in subtlety, it's not to say that Killer Is Dead isn’t entirely without artistic merit; in fact the environments, weapons, and characters with their brush-stroked faces and illustrated clothes seem to have freshly stepped out of the developers sketch books.
From the Alice in Wonderland tea party themed house of horror where a possessed pretty young girl wearing a blue pinafore erupted out Barbie-doll-faced spiders during a grotesque encounter in a pastel-pink coloured playroom, to the neon, glass-paned high rise tower of sound where a mad musician named Victor was trying to purify the world with dark-matter melodies; each level was comic-book beautiful, with painted detail that bled into an inky blackness at the edges.
My favourite section that magically captured all of Killer Is Dead’s bold aesthetics, bizarre scenarios, and slicingly good action was when riding with Mondo’s colleague Vivienne. After unleashing her special 16 pistol move, the "Vivienne Phantom", we sped through the shiny wet cobbled back streets of a Japanese market town on her motorbike simultaneously battling a samurai swordsman riding a giant tiger.
As the series of bizarre, strangely connected execution jobs directed agent Mondo Zappa to a strange Moon Palace, it became clear that as well as drawing on a plethora of B-movies, Killer Is Dead also had strong seijin-manga (sexually overt manga aimed at grown men) inspirations that were blended together to create the trademarkably wild, hyper sexed, anime violent style that’s now synonymous with video game designer SUDA51, CEO of Grasshopper Manufacture, here combining forces with developers Kadokawa Games.
Killer Is Dead may have seemed to be an ostentatiously weird ride, but it was also a game about conduct. As Mondo abides by the traditional code of the sword, administering honourable deaths, his controversial code of conduct with women could be straight out of an outdated James Bond book of seduction. Following the relaxation of censorship in Japan during the 1990s, a wider variety of explicit sexual themes appeared in manga and videogames intended for male audiences. Even after the Tokyo government passed a bill in 2010 restricting harmful content, the genre’s visual, overtly sexual representation of women and the emphasis on the male gaze still remains, and is lively in Killer Is Dead.
Spidery long legs, bum-skimming skirts, nipped in waists, impossibly jugglesome boobs squished into low cut tops, pointed chins, glossy parted lips, and large Manga-eyes framed by soft hair; the women of Killer Is Dead are classic bishōjo where their main task is to surround the hero. Alongside the Shiva-armed Vivienne, Mondo also has an assistant in the plastic-child-like Mika. More of a fangirl, she threw tantrums or power punched the air, often squealing with delight during missions. Mondo revealed he lets her live with him because she’s good at cooking his favourite food – soft boiled eggs – but she also could be called upon to straddle him and pound on his chest to deliver vital CPR when on the brink of falling in battle. When she wanted to help in a fight against a lunatic runaway train, Mondo told her that it wasn't a job for women and children; “This is a man’s job. Railways are a man’s passion.” Mika unquestionably shouted out a high-pitch “Be careful” to which Mondo replied “I have a man’s passion on my side” before they both leapt off onto the snowy railway tracks of Russia, confined to their roles as executioner and witness. Having enjoyed combat with Lollipop Chainsaw’s Juliet, it felt a missed opportunity to not give the ladies a slice of the action.
Machines might be a man’s romance, but away from the intensity of the main quest, Mondo also enjoyed seducing a wide variety of beautiful women. Just as audiences understand that when James Bond orders a drink for a pretty lady, his intention is to be rewarded with sex, so players are rewarded with special new weapons if they succeed in Mondo’s mini-missions of wooing beauties. However, unlike Bond’s encounters that are scripted displays of consensual, lustful prowess where audiences suspend their belief in order to be entertained, in Killer Is Dead the interactive aim of winning over a woman’s heart strayed into embarrassingly unsocial perving territory.
Using his special ‘Gigolo’ vision to grab their attention and enhance the mood, Mondo started each mission by lustfully staring at his softly lit, female target as they sat alone. On screen, there was a ‘gut-gauge’ and Mondo had to wait until the beauty glanced away in order to focus on the girl’s chest or crotch from where love hearts and sparkles exploded, accompanied by an erotic soundtrack of womanly sighs and moans, filling his gut with pleasure. If the beauty suspected that Mondo was staring too long or was made to feel awkward, she would blush, ask him to stop or slap his face. The gauge would go down and the peek-a-boo would start all over. Once the gauge was full, the option of gift-giving became available. Using money earned from his job to buy exotic roses and perfume in order to seal the deal, if a girl then accepted his gift(s) she would declare her happiness and her desire to know what his love feels like...
Though Mondo’s intentional gaze was under my direct control, I neither condoned nor condemned his actions as it was made explicitly clear that his gigolo status was a huge character trait, and the ridiculously masculine mini-missions were but a small part of a series of other side-quests (infiltrate a level with a given time frame, eliminate waves of enemies etc.) that were franticly good fun.
Choosing to engage as I did, I wouldn’t excuse these unnecessary mini-missions, but neither was I uncomfortable with them. I subscribed to the scenario – to Mondo’s fantasy sex life – though not to his idea of courtship, in order to progress in other parts of the game which I really enjoyed. Within the overall context of the game, it was yet another element of a fantastical, melodramatic, implausible world that was full of pleasure and pain. Thankfully, women like Vivienne, had a more empowering presence and though it was rather boring to see the beauties so easily swayed by Mondo’s tried and tested techniques, the market for this genre will find their expectations more than matched. To be seen as bold, virile and successful, Mondo resorted to predictable behaviour typical of seijin-manga and of the terribly clichéd B-movie leading men of a now distant era; he sought control over his client’s enemies, and his women.
There were other moments where he self-referentially broke the ‘fourth wall’ by mentioning his role within the game. We as players were reminded that we were merely guiding him through and we chose whether to take on his traits and actions: the good, the bad and the ugly. With his theatrical statements about machines being a man’s romance, or his cringe-worthy attitude towards beautiful women, Mondo had to work hard for his rewards, as distasteful as some players might find the process.
The dark side of this game might be the predictably sad ‘bed-a-beauty’ mini-missions, but is predominately a totally bonkers, brilliant sci-fi, sword-play tale of one smooth assassin taking on some weird moon criminals and I totally recommend a visit to the dark side of Mondo’s mesmerisingly mad moon.
Killer is Dead is out now on PS3 and X360.