INSOMNIA

Killer 7 (2005, GC)

By JayLabPrime / September 6, 2005


If you've read any reviews of Killer 7, either in print or on internet gaming sites, you've probably been privy to the following pearls of wisdom: 1. The presentation is amazing, 2. The mechanics are dreadful, and 3. It's style over substance. Two of these statements are true. See if you can guess which.
   Let's start at the beginning: Killer 7 was announced back in 2002 as part of Capcom's daring initiative to create more original titles (along with Viewtiful Joe, P.N.03 and the ill-fated Dead Phoenix). Since then the game has undergone a protracted development, and over the years has elicited a wide range of mixed responses, such as confusion over its premise and a general perplexity about how it would actually play.
   Indeed, even after its release, it remains a game that is notoriously difficult to describe, and even with all the reviews in the world you don't really get a feel for how it all gels together until you have the disc in your console and the controller in your hands. The simple fact is that Killer 7 is a weird game. It's weird like the last two hours of Metal Gear Solid 2. It's got a story that is as oblique and abstract as a David Lynch film, it's got a freakishly bizarre cast of characters, including a ghostly gimp, a disembodied head, and an abusive and schizophrenic maid; it's got a wacky and perverse sense of humour; it's got silly (but supremely cool) cutscenes, menus, and chapter intros; and on a deeper level, it also happens to have a radical new method for navigating a 3D space. It's without doubt one of the most interesting and remarkable games I've played in years.

   But before all that, lets go back to the first of our three statements. The presentation is amazing. It really is. The game makes use of a minimalistic style of cel-shading for its in-game graphics whereby characters are shaded with only one or two colours, while backgrounds often consist of screen-wide colour gradients with heavy black lines denoting edges. It's a very striking style, and the art directors make excellent use of it (I was particularly impressed with the black/white motif in Chapter 04). The game's tremendous sense of style is also carried over to things like character animations and special effects, and the fact that even simple things like the character-change effects are mesmerising time after time is a testament to how well it's all been executed.
   Other impressive aspects of the presentation include the strange menus and title cards (each stage begins by showing an oversized silhouette of the target, which explodes into a hail of red blobs when shot, followed by an image of a full moon that throbs in time to a growling bit of ambience) and the magnificent audio design. The soundtrack is expertly composed, consisting mainly of eerie electronic stuff (quite Yamaoka in parts) with some odd acoustic guitar tracks thrown in as well. Sound effects are also weird and wonderful, with a particular favourite being the screeching guitar medley that plays whenever you discover a secret or solve a puzzle.
   So the game has all the style in the world, we've established that, so let's move onto assumption 2: The mechanics being dreadful… Well, they are not really. I guess they could be best described as functional, rather than exceptional or dreadful, but there's a certain elegance to them that, even on my second play, I continue to find quite attractive.
   Movement is handled as follows: Holding the A button moves you forward, while tapping B turns you through 180 degrees. Whenever an alternate path appears, or an item you can interact with comes into view, some prompts will (stylishly (of course)) appear onscreen, and flicking the analogue stick in the appropriate direction determines your action. That's all there is to it. It's streamlined almost to the point of non-existence, and that’s why it's so brilliant. Critics of the game have complained about not having the freedom to really explore the environments, but let's look at it this way: say you did have the ability to explore normally (a la Biohazard 4 for instance), what would you actually do with that freedom? Push your character up against the walls while furiously tapping the A button just to make sure you don’t miss anything? In Killer 7 all paths are visible, all items are highlighted, and the fact that your paths are predetermined avoids all the usual camera problems in 3D games. It's clean, fast and efficient, and it allows a near-limitless amount of freedom for the directors to spin and pivot the camera around wherever they like (and they do, to an incredibly cinematic effect). While it all sounds pretty odd on paper, in practice it becomes intuitive far more quickly than you’d expect.

   So far so good, then, but putting aside the way movement is handled, the combat portion of the game actually plays in a not-too-dissimilar fashion to the likes of Biohazard 4… See, the game casts you in the role of wheelchair-bound assassin Harman Smith (and his seven split personalities) and charges you with exterminating the "Heaven Smiles" — a weird cult of grinning suicide bombers that is terrorising the United States sometime in the near future. Heaven Smiles come in all shapes and sizes (literally) and are actually invisible to the naked eye. When one is near you’ll be alerted to their presence by sinister giggle, at which point you hold down the R button to enter the first-person aiming mode (during which you are rooted to the spot — much like in Biohazard 4). In order to see your enemies you must first "blink" by pressing the L trigger, and then you’re free to blast away before they get too close and explode in your face. All enemies have a yellow "critical point" which, when shot, delivers an instant kill, and killing enemies this way rewards you with a commodity referred to as thick blood. This can be exchanged for serum from the mad doctor inside the television (yes you read that correctly), and this allows you to upgrade character abilities. Killing enemies via straightforward blasting yields "thin blood" which can be used during normal play to restore health. It's a simple and well-balanced system that succeeds in making combat continually worthwhile (as if the visceral satisfaction of seeing your enemies explode into thick blood wasn't enough).
   How enjoyable you find the combat system relies, to a certain extent, on how proficient you are with an analogue stick. Being a console FPS player I've become adept at using my thumbs for precision aiming so for the most part I had no problem with it. Admittedly, there were times when I felt a certain degree of frustration with it, particularly how small some of the weak spots were, and how awkward some of the enemies were, but it's a pretty agreeable setup. Repetitive, but agreeable. Light gun support would’ve been an interesting addition I feel.
   The puzzles are incredibly simple yet at times make no sense whatsoever. They usually revolve around bringing the right item to the right place or having the correct Smith and using his or her special ability. (For example, if there’s a security laser blocking a hallway, you need Kevin Smith — who’s grown slimmer and paler since directing Clerks — and his invisibility power.) All of the puzzles are either laughably easy or deviously hard to figure out (though the Normal difficulty map shows you how to solve them anyway, so don't play on Normal). One good thing about Killer 7 is that the only time you ever need to go into the menu screen is to change characters or heal. Items are used automatically when you approach the place where you need to use them, and they are also picked up just as fast.

   As the game wears on (and it's pretty long; 12 hours-ish I'd say) there comes a point where some of the novelty of the aesthetic wears off and the combat does begin to feel a bit repetitive, and it's at this point that the player's interest in the narrative becomes the main motivating factor. To that, let me reassure you that perseverance brings its just rewards. There are a lot of seemingly disconnected threads to the story, but in the game’s final half hour it takes on a really amazing quality, and brings forth a torrent of twists and turns — some explicit, some incredibly subtle — that raise as many questions as they answer, and will have you scratching your head in disbelief. Director Suda51 plays it all very close to the chest and it has taken a lot of discussion from dedicated fans to even start figuring it all out (see: Shockley Haynes' 26,000-word plot guide). I have to say I got a rather Silent Hill vibe from many of the game’s final areas, which contained a lot of visual storytelling and a great deal of symbolism and metaphor. It's easily one of the most mature and complicated videogame stories I've played, and as such, the game takes its place alongside the likes of Silent Hill 4 and Metal Gear Solid 2.
   And that contentious word brings us to our last question of the day: Is Killer 7 style over substance? Well, there’s no simple answer to that. If you’re looking for a straightforward yes or no response, then I’d have to say yes, the game is style over substance, but really, in the case of Killer 7 I think it'd be more accurate to say that style IS substance. In many ways the game reminds me of Rez, in that despite the mechanical simplicity, all the game’s disparate elements come together to form something more… Something amazing. While Killer 7 may not have taken things to the same extreme as Rez, there was almost certainly a similar kind of philosophy behind its creation. They're shooting games with soul.
   Now I realise that having a review essentially culminate with "it's more than the sum of its parts" is hardly the most convincing argument, but when it comes to this particular game, that’s the only way I can put it. Killer 7's sense of style pervades every aspect of the game, and ultimately makes it one of the most memorable experiences of the current console generation. I greatly enjoyed playing through it, and while it does occasionally feel repetitive, frustrating, and sometimes annoyingly obtuse with its storytelling, it's also completely unique and wonderful and it is without doubt one of the defining moments of this generation. It's a production that was backed by a type of game-making ethos that we don't see nearly enough of these days, and it's one that videogaming needs now more than ever.
   In the name of Harman…

Killer 7 is runner-up to Insomnia's 2005 Game of the Year.

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