Developer Suda51 and his studio Grasshopper Manufacture have endured a rough couple years – at least, as far as public perception is concerned. After blazing onto the international scene in 2005 with the surreal Killer 7, Suda quickly made a name for himself as a sort of B-movie auteur in Japanese game development, then just as quickly appeared to lose his edge. Let It Die looks to change all that.
While sales didn’t set the world on fire, Grasshopper earned a steady following of fans around the world with offbeat, funny, and striking concepts that were often gushing with comic violence. After Killer 7, Suda’s most famous is probably 2008’s No More Heroes, initially a video game for the Wii about a slacker American otaku who becomes a world-famous assassin inspired by his love of anime.
No More Heroes struck a chord with audiences, then the big publishers came calling. Grasshopper’s rough-around-the-edges, fuck-corporatism sensibilities were something the industry was paying attention to, and, like so many stories about creatives, the money it began to attract caused some problems for Suda and his team.
The most noteworthy example of this, and probably the saddest, is Suda’s partnership with EA for 2010’s Shadows of the Damned. Ostensibly a comedic grindhouse horror shooter done in the style of Resident Evil 4 — Grasshopper even partnered with Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami, then free from Capcom — what the game was eventually released as was a far cry from Suda’s original intention.
Initially, Shadows was named Kurayami, based on Kafka’s The Castle, and was meant to be more of an adventure game that wasn’t “dependent on guns,” as Suda himself puts it 2015’s The Art Of Grasshopper Manufacture. With the number of revisions EA insisted on, the game was evidently re-written as five completely different scenarios.
While Shadows isn’t an outright awful game, and certainly has personality and style to spare, it’s nowhere near as good as what it might’ve been. Mikami even said that Suda’s personal attachment — and its being so far from what he wanted it to be — broke his heart. It also set off what at the time seemed like a trend that Grasshopper wouldn’t be able to break free from: making third-person action games rather than the more eclectic output the company used to. (Voyeur-cameraman horror? Check. Lynchian adventure mystery where you only solve puzzles with math? Check).
What followed did nothing to belay suspicion. 2012’s Lollipop Chainsaw was conceived as a schlocky ode to pulp exploitation like 1978s Koko Dai Panikku as well as zombie films of the era, but ended up feeling like a brawler one might’ve found on XBLA at the time, as written by James Gunn channeling his Troma days.
Even if you liked Lollipop (a game I fastidiously tried to enjoy), it was hard not to see it as a game that was only published – by Warner Bros. Interactive, oddly — because it was not far removed from Shadows of the Damned. 2013’s Killer Is Dead followed suit; despite the overall quality, particularly its eye-melting aesthetic, its design was that of a third-person shooter. (A minor western outrage over some publisher-mandated “erotic” content didn’t help its case, though.)
But that same year, Grasshopper was acquired by GungHo Online Entertainment, a Japanese giant best known for creating the billion-dollar Puzzle and Dragons mobile games. Suda and his team have essentially been in hiding, working on what’s now known as Let It Die. And despite the fact that Grasshopper, whose motto was once “Punk’s Not Dead”, has been bought by a corporation, their upcoming PlayStation 4 exclusive looks every bit creatively free as something they might have conceived in the early 2000s.
Essentially, Let It Die is kind of like Suda’s take on the Souls series through the lens of the post-apocalyptic anime Violence Jack with a touch of Koei-Tecmo’s Nioh and a dash of rogue-like design. As such, players take on the role of a survivor in a earthquake-blasted Tokyo, with the goal of climbing a mysterious tower that’s appeared in the midst of the disaster.
That survivor begins as most do: with only their skivvies to cover them. From there, players must battle through weird enemies to find promising equipment in order to better ascend the tower. The guide to this world is the grim reaper himself, who rides a skateboard and wears 3D glasses, though little else is known about how the narrative will unfold.
Interestingly (and much like Nioh), when the player dies, that “death data” comes back in the form of an enemy in someone else’s game. Sticking close to the FromSoft model, there’s a plethora of violence and gore and, uh, eating frogs and wild mushrooms. That’s in addition to Grasshopper’s somewhat trademark cel-shaded look. The soundtrack is a unique mix too, made up of metal compositions from Akira Yamaoka as well as over 100 unknown Japanese rock outfits. It feels exactly how a Grasshopper game should feel.
More surprising is that Let It Die, likely by virtue of GungHo’s expertise with mobile, is a free-to-play game. With its production values, it could easily be released as a full-priced retail release.
GungHo’s CEO, Kazuki Morishita reportedly (from my brief experience talking with him) takes an actively hands-on approach to development. It helps explain why Grasshopper apparently is allowed to once again just be Grasshopper, no strings attached. (The upcoming remake of their original game, The Silver Case, also seems to be proof of this.) For fans that have been waiting for the studio’s resurgence, Let It Die has all the signs of being long overdue great news.