Goichi Suda likes to mess with people. His deconstructionist Flower, Sun, And Rain, makes players live out the mundane parts of a private eye’s life, forcing you to walk back and forth over an island looking for people’s lost possessions. Killer 7 wields Dadaist surrealism like a cudgel, alienating players with constricted controls to make them reconsider their violence. Suda’s satirical No More Heroes casts you as the ultimate video game obsessive, and then it makes you wade through scut work like garbage collection to get to the action. The reward for killing is to turn around and do even more dreary day jobs.
It’s all for a purpose. All three games use tedium and barriers to realign the player’s perspective. They ask you to think about the reasons behind what you’re doing. Suda’s latest game, Killer Is Dead, screws with the player, but it’s not clear why. Thick with the same absurdist vignettes, confrontational tasks, and gluttonous violence and sex of his best work, this game lacks the binding voice of its predecessors. It’s almost impossible to tell what Killer Is Dead is trying to say.
At least this much is clear: It’s fun doing Mondo Zappa’s job. The dapper mod (and possible Moon Unit cousin?) you play in Killer lives as a state-funded assassin hired by clients with unusual problems. An Audrey Hepburn lookalike named Moon River is forced from her home on the moon by a guy in a golden cod piece, and Mondo agrees to kill him in exchange for a kiss. An aging yakuza is possessed by a tiger spirit, also from the moon, and wants to die a free man. Mondo runs him down on a motorcycle and acts as his seppuku second in a Zen stone garden. Every weird gig is painted in the game’s wet, often beautiful cartoon art, dense with shadows and blood that looks like landslide runoff rather than gore.
On the way to these targets, Mondo fights Wires—soulless beasts from, naturally, the moon—and while the brawls are simplistic, they can also be breathlessly fun. You can slash with Mondo’s sword and punch with his giant mechanical arm, useful for unbalancing the hollow-eyed purple moon men trying to kill him. Just slamming one button to cut things up may seem banal compared to other, more complex slice-and-dice games like DmC: Devil May Cry, but Killer’s simple thrills are addictive all the same. Dodging an enemy at the right time speeds up the action to a frantic speed, and the screen goes red, letting you whale on a monster to your heart’s content. It’s easy to get swept away in the sword’s flow. So easy, in fact, that I scarcely noticed myself repeating the same moves over and over again.
But Suda’s always at his best when he’s screwing with you, making play a pain. The pain in Killer is Mondo’s sex life. When he’s not on the job, he goes on “Gigolo Missions,” and they’re just awful—predatory, stupid, and awkward. All you can control on a Gigolo Mission is Mondo’s head while he sits at a bar talking to a variety of women in evening wear. The goal is to get laid. First, however, Mondo must build up his courage to give her a present, and the only way to do is by ogling. Staring at a date’s chest, legs, or eyes fills a meter. Stare too much while she’s looking and you get a drink in your face. Stare subtly enough, and the meter fills. Then you can give her a gift purchased with your murder spoils, bringing her that much closer to letting you spend the night.
It’s as skeevy as it sounds, and even more so when you acquire the x-ray specs that let Mondo see his dates’ underwear. None of it is pleasurable. This is bad design with intent, especially paired with the immediate fun of fighting. The field of view in Gigolo Missions is cramped, the moaning sounds that accompany every successful leer are grating rather than titillating, and Mondo never appears to take any joy in what’s happening—sexual or otherwise. His stony silence doesn’t come off as stoic, just blank. The game doesn’t force you to play through all the gigolo outings, but if you want to acquire points to upgrade Mondo’s fighting ability, you have to play through them.
Why? Maybe Killer makes a broad statement about the risks of a violent living—the idea being that if it’s so easy to take pleasure in death, your personal life will be an empty, awkward mess of sex and materialism. But if that’s the message here, then Killer misses the mark, as the gigolo mode, story missions, and everything else are so loosely linked.
Killer comes off as too goofy and too brazenly self-aware for such a serious purpose anyway. Suda frequently breaks the fourth wall in Killer, most significantly in the game’s ninth chapter. While you’re chasing down a 73-meter-tall monster stomping on a military base, Mondo’s boss calls him on the phone to tell him the beast is the result of human cloning experiments. Mondo says he’s going to waive his fee since the creature is the result of the world’s greatest ethical crime. “Is this game ethical?” his boss responds. “It’s none of my business,” says Mondo.
In one way, Suda seems to be excusing himself from making art altogether. All the killing and weird predatory sex are just more stylish pornography for a medium with a seemingly bottomless thirst for smut. Read another way, though, Suda seems only to be questioning himself: Why am I still making these games? What with its moon obsession, Killer Is Dead seems to find Suda waning. He’s still using his same tricks—it’s a high-style game with some instant fun that discomfits the player, forcing them to engage at a deeper level—but for seemingly no other reason than to use them. It’s a fascinating document of an artist in transition, but on its own, Killer Is Dead is as cold and confused as its hero.