I’ve played a lot of games in my life, and none of them have been Killer7. Until now.
Killer7 is the brainchild of video game director SUDA51. As you might have guessed from his moniker, he is a man far too brilliant and hip for first or last names. A similar sense of style and vision is infused into his opus, Killer7, which was one of the titles made “exclusively” (isn’t that right, CAPCOM? winkwinknudgenudge) for the Nintendo Gamecube in a deal that was supposed to cement the chummy relationship between the revered third party and their erstwhile sugar daddy Nintendo. Of course, almost every game wound up being ported to the much more popular Playstation 2 (save for that shitfest P.N. 03 where you controlled Vanessa Z. Schneider, the futuristic babe who moves like a dump truck) or canceled. Killer7, however, was by far the odd bird of the lot. With everything but its basic premise shrouded in secrecy until just before its release, no one knew what to expect from it. Hell, after playing through the game, I’m still not sure I know what I just played.
Let me fill you in on exactly the kind of rollicking ride on the crazy train Killer7 is. You see, according to the manual, in the late 1990s, all world conflicts were solved. Yeah, just like that, I know. Nuclear weapons were dismantled and sent to an obscure, possibly fictional, Pacific island. To curb terrorism, flying in an airplane is now prohibited, and a giant highway connects Japan and the USA. But all of a sudden a new terrorist threat, Heaven Smile, bombs an important UN conference, shattering the feeling of safety that had been building. Heaven Smiles are people that are “touched by the Hand of God” and become creepy, invisible living bombs, with only their hideous giggles to identify them. A new breed of assassins emerges to deal with this threat, and the best of the lot are… you guessed it, the Killer7.
You play as the Killer7 group who–did I forget to mention?–are actually the fragmented personalities of a 60 year old man confined to a wheelchair. They are called the Smiths (yeah, the developers were fans of the band) and they range from Garcian Smith, an African-American who usually brokers the deals and cleans up after the rest of the Smiths, to MASK de Smith, a luchador who wields twin grenade launchers; seven personalities in all.
The game is comprised of several episodic missions, usually dealing with the assassination of a particular figure, and sometimes divided into two parts. The gameplay itself is disappointingly simple compared to the premise that backs it up. Killer7 is an on-rails shooter. Yep, you can only move in pre-programmed directions, forward or back. As you move through these environs, a sadistic giggle usually informs you of the presence of Heaven Smiles. Then you have to switch to First Person Aiming mode and scan the environment to unmask the hidden Heaven Smiles, then blast them to smithereens with your character’s weapon. Precisely-aimed blows to a Heaven Smile’s glowing body parts reward the player with “Thick Blood” that can be redeemed in a location called “Harman’s Room” (named after the sexagenarian leader of this troupe) to upgrade the abilities of the personas. These identical rooms scattered throughout the game can also be used to switch personalities via television (each personality is a channel) and to save, whenever Harman’s nursemaid Samantha isn’t shirking her duties, that is.
That’s basically what Killer7‘s gameplay comes down to: locating Heaven Smiles and shooting them. It’s ludicrously simple, although I did find the challenge of searching for them and hitting them in their (sometimes rather small or obscure) weak spots to be a simple pleasure. It’s not nearly as satisfying to just pump a Heaven Smile full of lead and watch it gush out streams of cartoony blood and die with a demonic cackle. There is another aspect to the game, though, and it’s puzzle-solving. Yeah, I can hear some of you out there groaning, but the game utilizes its characters rather uniquely in this respect. You see, every character has something unique about them. KAEDE Smith can absorb blood into her wrists to reveal hidden messages, or release blood to break through special barriers. MASK de Smith can use his huge firepower to bust through weak walls, and can use his wrestling moves to destroy obstacles in his path. The mute Kevin Smith (no relation) can become invisible and avoid the detection of both Heaven Smiles and security systems. Con Smith can use his swift feet to speed through long, boring corridors (or persistent enemies) and compact his small body to fit through tight spaces. Coyote Smith is an ex-con who’s an expert at picking locks and feats of athleticism like leaping. One of the stranger ones is Garcian, whose sole ability is in being able to revive dead members by retrieving their heads in the huge case he carries with him everywhere. If Garcian dies, it’s Game Over.
These puzzles form the meat of interesting gameplay in Killer7, most levels obstructing you from merely blowing through it by giving you tasks to accomplish, usually by finding ways to procure Soul Shells by solving puzzles with the abilities of your split personalities. The biggest complaint I hear from people is that they got five minutes (or however long) into the game and gave up because they had no idea what to do. While I can agree that the powers of the characters are sometimes not logical at all (I mean, come on, sucking up blood through your WRISTS?), simply reading the manual, heeding the words of your devoted gimp Iwazaru who is eternally tethered to a bungee cord, or referring to the in-game map that has the face of the persona required to solve the puzzle next to the location of the puzzle will basically hand you the solution to the puzzle nine times out of ten.
After the player has collected all of the necessary Soul Shells, a helpful Gateman lets you into the entrance of the Vinculum Gate, a location I will make no attempt to try to describe or explain. From there you’re taken to a Coliseum where you usually face a new breed of Heaven Smile that can kill you in one hit. If you are able to figure out how to kill it first, you proceed onto the boss encounter and after that the level generally ends. Lather, rinse, repeat.
If all of this sounds repetitive and a little simplistic, it is. One of the chief concerns with Killer7 is how basic, stripped-down and simple the main gameplay is. I mean, how do you pare a game down to less than “point and shoot,” anyways? Sure, they try to gussy it up with different abilities, special moves and incentives for pinpoint accuracy, but it’s all just putting makeup on a rather plain, frumpy girl. No amount of mascara in the world will turn it into Miss America or Resident Evil 4. I don’t blame people when they complain that Killer7 lacks meat, ’cause that’s what real gamers need.
Not only that, but the gameplay can also be extremely frustrating. Some weaknesses on the Heaven Smiles are so obscure or hard to figure out on your own that I had to resort to FAQs sometimes (although for normal enemies, Iwazaru gives you helpful tips on how to kill them in Harman’s Rooms). When you face enemies in the Vinculum Gate, it’s a one-hit kill scenario, often with only seconds in which to get a successful kill. If you don’t, it’s precious minutes you have to spend loading up Garcian, trekking back to your fallen comrade, reviving him/her, then re-selecting and going back to the Vinculum Gate to try it all over again. RRRGHHH. Also, the game can be pretty stupid when it comes to Heaven Smile spawning points. In one particular level, I came out of a save room and about a billion Heaven Smiles started coming to attack me, and I had almost no time to kill them all and ended up dying. Plus, I have no idea why they make you scan every environment for the Heaven Smiles. There’s no good reason why they should be invisible in the first place. It’s inconvenient at best and a complete nuisance at worst.
However, focusing only on gameplay ignores a huge part of the Killer7 experience; namely that, stem to stern, Killer7 is batshit insane. Completely bonkers. Weird beyond all compare. These terms have been used before for games like Metal Gear Solid 2, whose Plant arc brought a new level of post-modernism to video games. No, this is what absolutely crazy looks like. Hideo Kojima in his wildest dreams couldn’t be as strange and obfuscating as SUDA51 (I mean, c’mon, Kojima doesn’t even have any numbers in his name).
First of all is the game’s unique visual presentation. The game eschews hyper-realism for a cel-shaded, gradient-loving aesthetic, giving characters odd design quirks. MASK de Smith, of course, is the most egregious example of this. He starts out as just having a business suit, cape and luchador mask, but as he gets upgraded through the game, his outfit becomes ever more outlandish. At one point, he’s actually wearing crotchless chaps that highlight his neon-colored speedo. Heaven Smiles spew out cartoony-behaving spouts of blood when they’re shot, and when hit in their critical area, become countless particles of blood that gather in your HUD to herald the arrival of Thick Blood. The game uses any and all colors it wants. One area can be grungy and dark, the next a day-glow wonderland. The game also mixes it up with media, switching from its 3D models to stereotypical anime to a more American-style Flash animation. Hell, at one point you even bear witness to a 16-bit credit roll. My one gripe in this area is that the sections of video look unnecessarily shitty. I shouldn’t be seeing artifacts in my FMV, CAPCOM. This isn’t the PSone. If this game is so huge it had to be spread across two Gamecube discs, I expect a little fucking quality control when it comes to encoding the video, capiche?
Then there’re the nutsy interactive parts. At the start of every chapter, you must proceed by moving a laser sight over the silhouette of the assassination target and shooting it. During the introductory chapter, you defeat the boss by using Harman’s high-powered rifle to shoot at a ghostly apparition popping up behind a smiling “kawaii” angel. A shoot-out between you and a competing assassin is ended by an enormous plummeting statue head that comes out of nowhere. You engage in a confrontation with Power Ranger wannabes with each match-up between the Smiths and them pre-determined. No matter what you do during these segments, you can’t win or lose if you weren’t meant to.
There’s even craziness in terms of audio. The game loves to use hard audio editing, suddenly cuing up jarring sound effects (such as the annoying/anxiety-inducing laugh of the Heaven Smile) or put together odd combinations of background music. The music ranges from ambient to dance and everything in-between. The trek through the Vinculum gate starts with a driving rave beat, only to suddenly switch to a subdued number featuring clanking of pipes and moaning chants. Music will get used in a single area only to be discarded for the rest of the game. And it’s mostly great music, too. Anyone disgruntled about all game music sounding the same should get the soundtrack a listen.
The real part that punches my brain, though, is the story. According to pre-release materials from CAPCOM, “Killer7 will contain five storylines that span through four different worlds in two time periods, the present day and the year 2005.” Obviously, this is not what I have just described to you. SUDA51 had some large ambitions, ambitions that were too grand to be realized in any sort of practical way in a video game. Apparently, he details his original story in the Japanese book Hand in Killer7: Kill the Past, Jump Over the Age. Whatever that title means. So where does that leave his ideas for Killer7? Your guess is as good as mine, because the story is opaque as shit. I have next to no idea what’s going on, ever. Almost nothing seems to connect to anything else in any meaningful way. Garcian lives in a trailer house that has way too many rooms to actually fit, not to mention a door that has locks to kingdom come and the moaning and screaming of some constrained individual can be heard. Ghosts follow around the Smiths as they go on missions, sometimes providing helpful clues, sometimes just spouting some of the game’s inscrutable dialogue. The story twists and turns, but without an idea of where you started in the first place, most of the shocking revelations fall on deaf ears. People playing this game will undoubtedly resemble dogs that are being spoken to by people.
Plus, this game earns its M rating a thousand times over. “Fuck” is the magic word, seeing as you’re rewarded with a fuckalicious sound byte whenever certain characters score a one-hit kill on a Heaven Smile. NPCs don’t spare the cussing, either. Violence reigns uninhibited, villains decapitating children and people blowing their brains out on-camera. It’s like if David Lynch had a lovechild with Quentin Tarantino. Especially with the dialogue. It’s always cryptic, often punchy, and sometimes bitingly witty. It has that sort of repartee that you often find in a Tarantino pic. I wouldn’t be surprised if SUDA51 was a fan.
Of course, the problem comes when trying to appreciate this 10 lbs. of mindfuck in a 5 lb. bag. It’s the same problem one faces whenever one is confronted with something that tries to aspire towards some kind of artsy fartsy-ness: is Killer7 just bullshitting? Is all of this supposed metaphor and subtext and symbolism all an act of smoke and mirrors? Is there a man behind the curtain? Will I ever stop dusting off cliched metaphors? How much one enjoys the story of Killer7 will largely depend on how one views how it is presented. I perceived it as an intriguing bit of pop art with a sphinx of a story that probably only the creator fully understands. Others view it as a pile of dogshit that CAPCOM tried to pass off as edgy gaming to unsuspecting Gamecube owners. There’s a huge critical divide when it comes to Killer7, half the people thinking it has artistic merit, the other half decrying it as an empty, befuddling farce of a game.
And they wouldn’t exactly be wrong. You can’t exactly call the game a success, either commercially or artistically. While the game is undeniably suffused with a unique artistic vision, it seems to rarely add up to anything that resembles a coherent overall atmosphere. Then there’s the story. I can understand if SUDA51 wanted to convey his message with symbolism and metaphor and all that good stuff. I consider myself an intelligent guy who can usually pick up on what’s going on. But the stuff going on in this is downright baffling. I can pick out some general themes of tension between Japan and the USA, some stuff on the eternal nature of war and on passing the torch from the old generation to the new… but I’m not quite sure what it all adds up to. It’s entirely possible that if SUDA51 had been able to realize his vision the way he’d originally intended, everything would’ve turned out crystal clear (something makes me doubt that, though). As it is, though, this game requires an extremely dense and long plot guide to wade through, and often the writer of it has only SUDA51’s interviews to go on to make sense of this stuff.
It’s a shame that Killer7 ended up so goddamn confusing, because there’s a real gem to be found inside of it. In the final chapter of the game, a chilling segment involves the player in recounting the formation of the split personalities, and the origin of the Killer7. It artfully weaves between interactive sections where the player moves around with cutscenes that illuminate what little of the story I can make sense of with an incredible effectiveness, utilizing the tune “Greensleeves” in a way I won’t soon forget. To me, this is when Killer7 peaked in terms of being able to provide the player with entertainment. I can also appreciate Killer7 for always being unpredictable, even if it came at the cost of being befuddling to try to grasp. It was certainly one of the more eyebrow-raising games I’ve ever played, and I’ll always have a soft spot for what it tried to be, even if it stumbled in the execution.