Guest Poster: Hax Monster revisits an old favourite Killer7

Posted by: Jason Silverain / Category: , ,

In spite of the fact that you probably never have heard of it, I am not exaggerating in the slightest when I say that, for me, Killer7 is the best game ever made. Better than anything ever designed before and after. To illustrate how highly I think about Killer7 it deserves mentioning that my former best game ever was The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Amazing as that game still is, it’s outstanding quality seems mere child’s play when compared to the rollercoaster of an experience that Killer7 provided me with.

However, the game has slipped by the majority of gamers unnoticed. It came out in 2005 on the Gamecube and was later ported to Playstation 2. Developed by Grasshopper and published by Capcom, Killer7’s directors were Shinji Mikami, who had already made a name for himself with Resident Evil and Devil May Cry, and Goichi Suda, who later became a well-known game auteur known as Suda 51. Suda’s fans will know Killer7 as the game with which he genuinely made his reputation, especially in Europe and the US and although back in 2005 Shinji Mikami was the only one mentioned on the back of the box, it would forever be remembered as Suda’s personal masterpiece. And although I had little idea what I was in for when I bought it, the term ‘masterpiece’ quickly seemed an understatement.

Although Killer7 earns almost all it’s stripes in the story department, I won’t get into that until the end of this review as this is a highly spoiler-sensitive game. As understanding the plot largely hinges on player interpretation, it is very well possible that basic elements of the plot are only understood at the end, so even saying what the plot is about can ruin the experience for you. Therefore, I will first talk you through the gameplay. Killer7 is at heart a railshooter with puzzles. However, the term ‘railshooter’ shouldn’t go unqualified here. You can only move along rails and you shoot from a first-person perspective, like you would in other railshooters, but you are able to freely move your character up and down this rail at any time. The camera normally is in third-person mode, but if you hold the button to aim your gun you switch to first-person mode. You hold another button to move forward and press a third one to turn. You can also decide which way to go at some intersections, where you move your analog stick to select a path to take. It is always clear when enemies are around, as they are announced by the sound of laughter. During the game you can switch between a maximum of seven very different characters, all with their own weapons and special abilities. All of these characters can be upgraded with a basic upgrade system. Upgrades and puzzle hints are purchased with so-called ‘thin blood’. There is also ‘thick blood’ which can heal your characters and can power some character’s special powers. Both are acquired by killing enemies. Beyond on-rails shooting there are the aforementioned puzzles, which are quite unusual in their appearance but which generally are not too challenging. Often they require you to get a key-like item from elsewhere in the level, or they require you to simply use a certain character’s special ability. These special abilities are all aimed towards making the way on through the level accessible and using them for puzzles is usually no more complicated than recognising which character’s ability is required, selecting that character, and pressing the ‘special ability’ button.

Levels usually follow a pretty similar structure. You can move about freely from the word go and can backtrack as far as you want at any time. There are multiple puzzles scattered across the level and inbetween them you will find constantly respawning groups of enemies: origami-like invisible exploding giggling monsters named ‘heaven smile’ which only become visible when you press a button. The central idea for each level is that you collect all so-called ‘soul shells’, which are often found at the end of puzzles. Then, at the end of the level, you need to pay those shells to be granted access to a kind of sub-bossfight with a special enemy. Once you enter this fight, you can’t return. Once you are victorious you may continue to the last part of the level where usually the biggest plot-relevant things happen after which there is usually a bossfight. Sometimes the game takes two connected stages, both structured like this, and calls it one level. Mind that I am leaving a few details on this level structure out, because mentioning some things can already be seen as a spoiler.

Realize that Killer7’s gameplay is almost always easy as hell. Like I mentioned, enemies are always announced by laughter, so you will never be surprised by them. You also are provided with auto-lock on, which is especially overpowered when you upgrade the lock-on so much that it targets enemies’ critical spots which give you an instant-kill when hit. Although, on the Gamecube version, auto-lock is less of a luxury and more a necessity as the Gamecube’s analog stick is a complete nightmare if you need to do precise aiming and some bossfights certainly demand spot-on accuracy. This, beside the fact that the game was amazing in general, is a reason why a PC-port would still be a good idea. But generally, aiming is a piece of cake. And the other pillar that gameplay rests on, puzzling, is no problem either. You can always use thick blood to buy the solution to a puzzle and you are always given a free hint if you want. But often a hint isn’t needed because you only need the aforementioned key to a door or the right character and their special ability.

But difficulty-wise, the story more than makes up for the gameplay. Besides being completely vague and abstract in general, the game is extremely scarce with explanation. Beyond some cutscenes most background information comes from characters, usually ghosts of the deceased, that you can talk to for information. Those ghosts are basically like audio logs in Bioshock in that they provide a lot of background information on what’s going on. However, I don’t think it would have been possible to have them talk more cryptic if all of them had been talking Arabic because they all seem to have turned whatever message they had for the player into some vague poetic text in which it is up to you to interpret their message. Cutscenes aren’t much clearer, because there is little exposition and people constantly throw complex and unclear terms around such as ‘Yakumo’. Nothing is ever explained and to have some grasp of what’s going on you have to digest every character’s words five times and remember everything that ever happened in the story with great detail. That is quite challenging, shown by the fact that there are plot explanations out there for Killer7 that are the size of small novels. But in a way there’s a certain beauty to that all. Let me compare it to London’s tower bridge. For touristic purposes an elevator was built in the towers. A tower bridge with an elevator is like a game that explains all of it’s plot explicitly so that players stay engaged. After all, a developer wants his plot to be understood so that his game will appeal to a wide audience, just like how an elevator makes a monument more accessible, ensuring that more people will visit it. However, this elevator is no part of the monument and in that way slightly tampers with it’s purity, so to speak. Killer7 is more like a tower bridge without an elevator. There is only plot and nothing that is meant to make the story more easily understood is in the way of the plot’s inherent beauty. That also shows how little financial motives there were for creating Killer7. This is not everyone’s kind of game and, thank goodness, no-one at Capcom or Grasshopper tried to turn this into an everyman’s game just to increase the target audience to make profit.

I just want to tell you some more about the story’s actual content and as telling you even a little bit about the story is immediately an immense spoiler, this entire paragraph contains enormous spoilers. Essentially, one might divide events in Killer7 up into three levels: a divine level, a worldly level and an individual level. Events on every level have consequences for the levels below it. The ‘highest’ level is the divine level, where a battle between the devil of the east, Kun Lan, and the god of the west, Harman Smith, takes place.
Their battle has been going on for all of eternity and is fought through their direct actions on earth or the actions of their agents on earth. This battle can be extended to the events on the worldly level of Killer7, which focuses on a Japanese conspiracy to control the US and the US’s battle against the Heaven Smile, which have become the main terrorist threat in the alternate-history universe of Killer7. As Harman Smith is the god of the west and as Kun lan is in control of Japan and is the creator of the Heaven smile, these events are the earthly manifestations of their eternal struggle. Then there is the personal level, which revolves around a man named Harman Smith, who is not the god of the west of the same name, but an assassin in service of the US who can manifest himself as seven different assassins which are also the playable characters in the game. These seven are all quite different, but share their knowledge and act as one. There is Garcian Smith, a afro-American in a white suit who is a ‘cleaner’. He can revive the other assassins by collecting their bodies and is the only one who can directly talk to Harman Smith, his boss. Then there’s Dan Smith, an American, young, somewhat loud-mouthed assassin armed with a revolver. His special ability allows him to destroy monster spawners that block the way. Con smith is a young blind boy who can hear what others can’t and shoots with two pistols. Coyote smith is a south-American thief who can pick locks and jump over or onto obstacles. Mask de smith is a Mexican ex-wrestler who can move heavy obstacles out of the way and uses grenade launchers, that can also destroy weak walls. KAEDE smith, the only woman, can shoot blood out of her wrist to summon a demon that can make magical barriers disappear, a power that I for some reason don’t envy. Her pistol has a large scope which is never really a definite must but which you’ll really want to use for those accurate bossfights. Finally, there’s Kevin Smith, an albino that throws knives and can turn invisible to avoid security lasers. On all three levels of the plot the story deals with the relation between the east and the west, or, more specifically, Japan and the US.

You really don’t have to stop considering playing Killer7 when I say that the plot is complicated and sometimes completely incomprehensible, because the game has such a great atmosphere that simply being inside the Killer7 universe feels unique. The atmosphere is as great and mysterious as the game’s story and really brings across the exact feeling intended. A key way the atmosphere is brought across is in the graphics. Killer7 came out in 2005 and therefore had little processing power at it’s disposal. Luckily the game used this limitation to it’s advantage and chose a textureless, somewhat cartoony, sterile artstyle that is still nice to look at today but which could be handled by the consoles back in the day. Considering that the story is abstract and surreal, these abstract surreal graphics are really fitting. The dialog is amazing as well. Those dialog lines which were as comprehensible as listening to Arabic might not always be easy to follow, but they are certainly nice to listen to. Then there is the masterful soundtrack. Music-wise it’s nice to see that the developers grasped that you don’t use loud, exciting music for exciting cutscenes. On the contrary, you should use calm music because of that juxtaposing the intensity of a moment with non-intense music makes a way stronger impression. The voice acting in this game is seriously out of this world. Never have I seen more emotion in dialog lines than here. That’s all the more impressive considering that this was a low-profile release and not the kind of thing you’d hire million-dollar voice actors for. All of the above leads to a never-before seen level of immersion which you still get if the story makes no sense.

Although I still spend every waking moment praying that this game will be launched again on PC, I’m pretty sure my hope is in vain as Killer7 slipped a lot of people by unnoticed and wasn’t the kind of money-making machine the mainstream industry seems to love so much these days. Then again, back in 2005 there were almost no possibilities to launch a game besides consoles and the money one had to invest to make a console game meant that you did have to make something that appealed to a wide audience as you had a lot of money to make back. Now, however, with the rise of the indie-games market and the internet, there is a place for unusual games for smaller audiences and Killer7 would exactly fit that bill. Therefore, one would say that conditions for this masterpiece would be ideal today. The day I see Killer7 on the Steam sale page is the day I will download a million copies of it just to ensure Capcom will turn a profit on it, but until that day, I will at least still have a reason to pick up my Gamecube controller.

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  1. Hax Monster Says:

    Haxmonster here, forgot to mention that I've used the following source for this review:
    (Written by James Clinton Howell )
    I've assumed the story meaning from this plot analysis for this review, although no analysis, obviously, has universal truth.

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