I thought I knew exactly what I was getting with Killer Is Dead. I’ve had the game’s PC ‘Nightmare Edition’ sitting in my Steam library for a while, no doubt impulsively purchased during a seasonal sale, driven by nostalgia for early Suda51 title Killer7. I’d read the reviews upon its initial 2013 release, and remembered except near-unanimous horror at the game’s ‘Gigolo Missions’, seedy side tasks that see you seduce (or rather, leer at) a series of ‘sexy’ ladies. So when I turned to it to review myself, I was already looking forward to penning a feminist screed, to ranting and raving about gender norms and GamerGate, a lament of the modern gaming industry.
This will not be that.
Not because I’ve discovered Killer Is Dead isn’t so sexist after all. It is. It really, really is. So sexist. Unfathomably, fundamentally, remarkably so. It’s so sexist it comes full circle and seems like it might be a subversive feminist comment after all, then keeps going round and settles back on ‘so fucking sexist’.
But despite that, and despite myself, it’s impossible to stay mad at it. Perhaps it’s because it’s so over-the-top in its treatment of women as objects, so deeply committed to its misogyny, that it becomes laughable rather than threatening, as pitiful as it is perverse.
Then again, it might just be because nothing in Killer Is Dead makes any damn sense and I don’t know what I played and what happened and who did what or why or when or how or where am I again?
Here’s what I do know (I think?). I play as Mondo. He’s an assassin – or ‘Executioner’ in ‘the lingo’ – with a katana and a strange robot arm that apparently drinks blood. I go to kill some very weird shit – a woman who was turned into a crab monster, a vampire, a sentient train. The Big Bad is David. He’s taken over the Moon from its princess, Moon River (yes, Moon fucking River), and now lives in a moon palace on the dark side of the moon. After that… it gets pretty hazy.
One level is Alice in Wonderland-themed. Another draws from ‘50s sci-fi B-movies. In perhaps the sanest of them all, I fight a Yakuza boss who rides a tiger that he brings to life from a tattoo. There’s a unicorn. There are recurring ‘dream’ missions, used to fill in the ‘back story’, most of which revolve around a fried egg – which, most baffling of all, is consistently referred to as a soft-boiled egg throughout.
It’s the little touches like this that add to the sense that Killer Is Dead is nothing more than an all-out assault on my sanity, a willful attempt to punish me for expecting structure, coherence, narrative, or the basic laws of cause and effect. I wish I’d taken more notes, because it’s the sort of insanity that slips through the cracks of your mind as quickly as it arrives, no doubt finding some secluded spot to nestle and fester. It feels impossible to put into words, as if it actively resists any attempt to convey the full extent of how bat shit fucking mad it is. It’s like one of those mind control fungi, suppressing attempts to warn others of its dangers, hoping to lure in new, unwitting hosts.
Terrifyingly, I find myself looking forward to the Gigolo missions between the segments of the main game – not because they’re entertaining, enjoyable, or (God forbid) arousing, but because they actually make a lick of sense. Dark and disturbed as they are, they at least don’t feel like early-onset dementia. I relish these tiny islands of sanity in an overwhelming sea of madness, even as I resent myself for doing so.
Here I am tasked with charming a selection of generically attractive women – know in-game as ‘beauties’ – in exchange for unlockables and bonuses. As an eligible bachelor with a middling track record on Tinder, this should be right up my street. As a firm feminist, I should probably hate it. In actuality, I can’t do anything but laugh.
There are two steps to seduction. For the first, I must build up my own confidence, or ‘Guts Meter’. This is achieved, naturally enough, by zooming the suddenly-first-person camera into their genitals, as if staring at someone’s crotch or tits is the natural way to build up the nerve to talk to them. If I make the mistake of ogling for too long, the ‘beauty’ might notice and slap me, ending the date right now. Though to help me out, I can use X-Ray glasses, which rather helpfully let me look through her dress at the lingerie underneath for an immediate ‘Guts’ boost. Hooray. The Guts Meter is a little picture of a brain that fills with blood as I continue to leer. I suspect it’s really rushing somewhere else.
Fill up the brain, and Mondo apparently feels emboldened enough for the second stage of seduction: buying her shit. Bitches love presents, right guys? These range from the traditional (a single red rose), to the relatable (a stiff drink), to the downright insulting (a pack of chewing gum). Give a ‘beauty’ enough gifts (paid for with the earnings from missions) and you win her heart and, if you’re lucky, a cutscene of her stripping.
Of course, women don’t get off easy in the rest of the game either. Throughout missions I can also occasionally find a hidden, sexy nurse (though they don’t look like regulation scrubs to me) who lets me unlock extra combat challenges. Complete enough of those, and I get to seduce her too. Among my entourage are two fitties with a taste for improbably revealing outfits – and, inevitably, alternate costumes that take this to even greater extremes. I quickly set these as the defaults, confident that the only way to survive this game is to throw myself into it as fully as possible.
In perhaps its crowning achievement, Killer Is Dead even manages to fuse its two great themes – rampant sexism and unfettered madness – in a late-game mission where I have to fight my way through a sentient runaway train (named Thomas, in a baffling nod to the British kids’ TV show). For this mission, the ladies mostly stay at home, because – and I quote – “the railway is a man’s passion.” This line, or variants thereupon, is repeated at least three times as Mondo and his boss gush about their respective hard-ons for steam engines. “This is no place for a lady,” we’re told, and I’m inclined to agree. Though I’m not sure it’s any place for me either.