Review by JayLabPrime

Reviewed: 09/06/05

Weird, wonderful and wildly experimental; killer7 is one of the most remarkable games of the past few years

If you've read any reviews of Killer7, 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 gameplay is dreadful, and 3. It's style over substance. Two of these statements are true. See if you can guess which ones.

Lets start at the beginning: Killer7 was announced back in 2002 as part of Capcom's daring initiative to create more original titles (along with Viewtiful Joe, PN03 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 the game's premise and a general perplexity about how the game would actually play.

Indeed, even after it's 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 killer7 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 and stylish 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 game's 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 lets move onto assumption 2: The gameplay is dreadful… Well, it's not really. I guess it could be best described as functional, rather than exceptional or dreadful, but there's a certain elegance to it 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 the B button turns you through 180°. 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 lets look at it this way; say you did have the ability to explore normally (a la Resident Evil 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 killer7 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 practise 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 Resident Evil 4… See, the game casts you in the role of wheelchair-bound assassin Harman Smith (and his 7 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 RE4). 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 gameplay 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. Repetetive, but agreeable. Lightgun support would’ve been an interesting addition I feel.

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 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 answers, 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 as a serious and credible work of postmodern art.

And that contentious word brings us to our last question of the day: Is killer7 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 killer7 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 simplicity of the gameplay, all the game’s disparate elements come together to form something more… Something amazing. While killer7 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 ever, but when it comes to this particular work of art, that’s the only way I can put it. Killer7'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…

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

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