Review by RalphWiggum33
Reviewed: 07/22/05 | Updated: 08/02/05
A lot to say for minimalism and deviance
Killer 7, the latest offering from Capcom, was created by the all-star trifecta of Hiroyuki Kobayashi, Shinji Mikami, and most importantly, visionary developer Suda 51 and his Grasshopper studios. For nearly 4 years, screenshots have trickled, speculations have flown and the face of the game has slowly changed. Now the game is here and is almost as mysterious as before and has profoundly confused many gamers and the press alike. With its eye-catching style, emphasis on cinematics and unorthodox game play, many wonder how it all adds up.
The answer is simple. It is what it has promised to be all along: a surreal, eccentric story delivered in a fresh, almost post-modern style. One might call it artsy or pretentious, but in reality, Grasshopper studios has made something that further stretches the definition of a video game. Many games shout "me too in their plight to get people to buy them. K7 clearly shouts "not me at all" as it rips apart the strict "gameplay first" convention, spits on all of those who hail realistic graphics, and terrorizes those who expect a straight story. The screenshots piqued my curosity on several occasions, but when I finally played K7, it blew away my expectations. Its perfectly tuned minimalist approach proves less is more: there are no high scores, rare items, rankings, stats or anything like that. You collect blood by killing enemies and use it to power up your characters as you solve puzzles and untangle a complex story and the results are fulfilling. Naturally, this simple approach has some obvious repercussions, though not many.
The high level of artistic flair is the most obvious aspect of this game. In a time where developers are pushing technology to create photo-realistic experiences, Grasshopper Studios has decided to use cel shading to convey its creation. It isn't soft on the eyes, but in motion it is absolutely beautiful. The screenshots don't even come close to doing it justice. As your character runs through various locales, the background finely adjusts to every movement, flaunting its dynamic shading effects. This makes K7s world constantly morph in an exaggerated fashion: objects in the distance often don't look like anything, but as your character moves towards them, they come sharply into focus with pointy edges as the light source slowly slides behind them. This plays off of the basic palette, minimally detailed backgrounds and characters, giving the whole game a dreamy, yet schizophrenic feel.
The in-game action is just as slick. As you blast away at smilies, circles of blood swirl in the air before they funnel into your blood vials on the left side of the screen. When you run out of bullets, a quick 2 second reloading animation happens before you jump right back into action and notice the smilies weren't polite enough to stop and wait for you. This all feeds the intensity of the game and makes the action even more gratifying. The only drawback to K7s style is that at times when exploring a stage, you may feel a bit disoriented, as the occasional scene will look familiar. Fortunately, the game has a color-based navigation system and map, though you won't need them more than a few times throughout the whole game.
The cut scenes, without saying too much, are especially intense and are a great reward at the end of each mission. They occasionally flip to a darker, hand drawn anime style, but most of them use the in game graphics. The "M" on the cover is for real. Some of the content is especially intense and could make the staunchest Mortal Kombat fan blush. There's suicide, people shooting themselves in the head, the abuse of helpless old people, Russian roulette and all kinds of other racy stuff that you'll just have to see. Despite having some of the harshest violence ever seen in a game, it doesn't come off as tasteless or unnecessary. It's the cel shaded style and pressure-cooker of a story that makes it all completely legit. An interesting side note: Sony of Japan had their version a bit censored, while Nintendo has released the complete game.
Many games have subtly implemented soundtracks or music that is just there because it has to be, but it is apparent that real effort went into K7s aural aesthetics. Being especially sensitive to game music, I love that its soundtrack is simply tasteful and not repetitive. Most importantly, it compliments each characters personality, all of whom are complete freaks. Scary, violent freaks, with awesome one-liners taboot. On the other hand, this is also where some sound annoyances arise. Plain and simple, the characters repeat some of their catch phrases too often. They are good, but you will get sick of hearing Kaede say "Hurts doesn't it?" every time you shoot an enemy in a critical spot or "Look, I'm a cleaner" every time you turn on the TV in the save room. Also, when you talk to NPCs, their voices are layered over with modulations that make them sound pretty grating. It does lend to the atmosphere and I got used to it by the third mission, but there are other methods they could have used which would have been less irritating.
With all this style oozing out of K7 and talk of unconventional game design, many wonder whether the gameplay can hold its own. Well, it has two sides to it: a fun shooting side and an innocuous puzzle side. To sum it up, it's a hybrid of 3rd person exploring and 1st person shooting. The control scheme is very intuitive and becomes second nature after a half hour or so. The big difference in control is that you can't go anywhere you please. Some people have outed K7 as a "rail" game, as if this was a drawback. This is far from a bad thing, since it relieves you of any artificial freedom and allows you to get right down to business. The puzzles don't need much explanation, since they are on par with pin the tail on the donkey. Except that you need to find the tail before you pin it and you have to make sure that the tail and the donkey match. Not exactly MENSA material, but fun enough and basically non-intrusive. Luckily, the puzzles are just little vehicles for the shooter segments.
While you are on your way from point A to point B, you hear a laugh. You enter first person mode, scan and voila, a group of ten ugly mofos are slowly but surely making their way towards you. Time to fight. K7s action is very cool, very fun and even a bit deep. It relies on sharp shooting rather than traditional fragging. Prioritizing and timing are key and as the levels progress, new smilies with new attack properties emerge in larger packs. This is also where switching between the seven personalities comes in handy-- each character has a different feel in combat and it is up to you to figure out their different abilities in order to decide which one is right for the situation. They don't take much time to master, as you can switch characters in the pause menu at any point during a mission. The reward for battle is blood, aka experience, which you use to upgrade each characters attack properties. Hitting critical points on enemies can double the amount of blood you earn and is absolutely essential to make any real progress.
The fun factor in K7s action is sky high. It takes a few good dynamics and puts them to work. Each wave of enemies is different and each one is a little puzzle in its self. In the later levels, any combination of about 25 different types of smilies could be coming at you, which makes for some ultra-hairy shootouts. The boss fights are especially interesting. They aren't just big guys you have to pump full of lead in order to move on. Each one is a minigame, exploiting some aspect of K7s normal action. The bosses are very memorable characters, with extreme personalities. There's a team of Power Rangers called the Handsome Men, a stereotypical anime character Ayame Blackburn, an evil Angel Princess and Andrei Ulmeyda, the highly suspect fro-strutting mayor of a town in Texas. Prepare to laugh your ass off when Ulmeyda gives a sermon or Ayame yells with the urgent conviction that only a cheesy anime heroine could muster.
The only thing holding the action back is the slightly tame difficulty in normal mode. You essentially have 7 lives. After each personality dies, Garcian Smith, the cleaner, is sent out to pick up the body, which he can resuscitate with full health for no charge at the last save point. The only way to get a game over is to have Garcian die. Occasionally you get into a jam where the potential for him to die is present, but in my play through, I never saw the game over screen. In the games defense, there really is no need for controller-throwing difficulty because the main point is to unfold the story and you always have the option of choosing more difficult modes.
K7 is in the niche pack along with many other extremely creative and fun games that nobody buys for some odd reason. It accomplishes all that it has set out to do, but some precautions should be taken when approaching the game. By that I mean, the story is extremely confusing. Here are some basic guidelines, as if they will help your understanding-- Harmon and Kun are old friends but bitter enemies, make sure you pay attention to the politcal story, and also pay attention to Garcian. That's three main stories to keep track of, while each mission has its own story that feeds into the larger one which may or may not be told in order but could also just be a....aaaaaahhhhh!!! heh. If you are a fan of bizarre, paranoid-schizo thrillers with the oddest characters living in a hyper-precarious world, you'll love this.
Despite enjoying this sadistic entertainment, I do believe it is a bit too complex for it's own good. A few extra details to flesh out the story would make this game a total lock. As it is, you can put the story together, but there will be plenty of extra parts left over that don't seem to fit. A second play through will help, but it just isn't built for our complete understanding. If the intrigue isn't enough to get you to play it again, there are some unlockables like the extra difficult Killer 8 mode and secret characters. If you make it through Killer 8, you get rewarded with Hopper mode, where the Heaven Smiles are turned into grasshoppers, so I've heard. Anyway, this is a truly solid piece of work and like many of the niche games of the past, I hope it has a few sequels or becomes a huge influence for other devs because we need more like it!
A solid, disturbing 8 out of 10.
Rating: 4.0 - Great
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