It's been a year since Grasshopper Manufacture's rock star founder Suda 51 was doing the rounds for Lollipop Chainsaw, a game whose tongue was stuck so firmly in its cheek it was in danger of poking through the other side. There was something absent there, though - a part of me wished that Suda was building a Japanese version of The Warriors (or even something that more closely resembled Koko Dai Panikku, the violent '70s Japanese high school outcast film Lollipop was inspired by) instead - and the end result fell well short of its outlandish potential. Lollipop Chainsaw lacked a certain something - it was missing a little of the style that's made Suda's name.
Killer is Dead looks like it'll deliver that and then some; this is a beautifully opaque portrait of striking visual expression. It may be the most stylised game Suda has yet embarked on - no small feat when considering what you can find when leafing through his back catalogue - and it's a pastiche of violence, post-effects and exploding colour. (Suda calls the look a "hyper-contrast shader," which he wants people to think of as the game's calling card.)
"I keep striving for something new that people have never seen. I don't want it to have a certain name, like a comic-like look or a type of formalism," Suda says about an approach seen before in Killer 7 and No More Heroes. "From a digital art perspective, I'm trying to capture something that's happening in real life, but not in the regular sense that people imagine - [I want] to describe it in a different way."
Killer is Dead is spread out like a television drama across a succession of episodes following executioner-by-trade Mondo Zappa. He's an amalgamation of Killer 7's cold-blooded Dan Smith and Flower, Sun and Rain's detective-like "searcher" Sumio Mondo, and in our brief demo he's just ascended to the top of a corporate tower where his mark is waiting for him.
There follows a boss battle between Mondo and the ghoulish Victor, a corpse who's sporting frilly Victorian garb and recording headphones, and who's drawn from the Suda 51 casting book of insane villains. Victor has the ability to steal sound from his victims and plans to use it to destroy the world - not that Mondo can hear anything the old corpse says until he puts on his own pair of solid gold cans.
When the battle proper starts, Victor sheds his weak form for a much more powerful one, sporting a weird cybernetic suit whose massive arms extend like limber sinew. Combat looks similar to No More Heroes in that Mondo's primary tool is a katana, though there's some gunplay thrown in for good measure by way of the executioner's transforming cybernetic arm.
Although the nuts and bolts gameplay seem relatively straightforward, the artistic flourishes throughout the fast-paced battle are mesmerising. Mondo's blade leaves an electric trail of neon blue as it bites through the air, while Victor's hulking arms bathe the screen in fuchsia tones. Whether by bullets or sharpened steel, anything designed to be cut to ribbons explodes in a puffy display spanning the chromatic spectrum.
And then there's the blood - we're well used to seeing geysers of it erupting in Suda's games, and in Killer is Dead it pops that much more amongst the violence. Mondo's got a punishing attack that momentarily slows down time, changing the colour palette of the screen as he swings his sword, and there's a Sin City-like effect as the screen is soaked by the plasma effects of Mondo's killing moves.
"We wanted to have this vivid colour - it used to be a lot more colourful and we actually toned it down," Suda says. "But I think we found a really good medium, there's a colourful stillness that's sort of monochromatic, but at the same time sort of not. That makes the visuals more unique."
With such an arresting visual signature, it's surprising that Killer is Dead runs on the Unreal engine. The high contrast, which often drowns half the screen in shadow, looks incredible in motion, especially for a current-gen title; out of all the comic book and cel-shaded art styles I've come across in video games, Killer is Dead may be the closest thing I've seen to actually mimicking the excess seen in a lot of high-production anime. (For its part, the colour and shading in Killer is Dead are highly reminiscent of anime classics Akira and Ninja Scroll.)
There's another, more curious part of Killer is Dead's make-up, too. Dubbed "Gigolo mode," it's a series of breather side-missions where Mondo can relax and show off his prowess with the ladies (at this point it's entirely unknown what exactly this design will entail.) Yet even the mere mention of a similar mode in a game made by a Western studio would likely face intense controversy and public media scrutiny. Are Japanese views on sexuality such a special case?
"I think Western publishers do similar things, like with GTA, going out to a strip club and other things," Suda says. "But I do understand that if a Western developer was to create something like [Gigolo mode] it could backfire."
Suda says that a sexual undercurrent just fits Killer is Dead.
"I don't really use [sex] as something full frontal, but sexuality is a good way to express a certain element in the game," he says. "Maybe sexuality in games shouldn't be as big a taboo, but at the same time I live in a country where sexuality is pretty crazy."
Suda's subsequent comparison of Mondo to 007 doesn't exactly warrant much surprise, even if Gigolo mode seems a strange choice for a game with such an outwardly aesthetic agenda. But Grasshopper's bizarre frontman says he still has a lot crazier ideas he'd love to make into games.
"I still have an indie mentality," he says after I ask him about returning to offbeat designs closer to past games like Flower, Sun and Rain or Michigan. "I always want to create something new just to be adventurous. And I am thinking about making a game where the main character doesn't have a weapon. It doesn't necessarily have to be an action game. I would like to try to come up with a game for that."
Whatever the case, Killer is Dead's artful presentation could be something special. And there's every reason to think whatever's up Suda's sleeve next - and we should all hope that it will be a weaponless project - will continue to surprise.