Wednesday, 2 May 2012

We're in a tight spot! A look back at Killer 7

At a time where every FPS is an interchangeable war-themed bore, and game worlds come in a million different shades of brown, it's refreshing to revisit a game as unique and deranged as Killer 7. Equal parts on rails shooter, geopolitical thriller, survival horror, and just about everything else besides, Killer 7 revels in being difficult to characterise. You'd expect no less from a collaboration between Goichi Suda and Shinji Mikami, two of the industry's most creative minds, and from the offset you get the impression that they were having fun here.

Taking the role of Harman Smith, wheelchair-bound geriatric and world's greatest assassin, you attempt to unravel a tense political situation between Japan and the U.S all while battling an army of suicide bomber zombies called Heaven Smiles. Luckily for you Harman heads an assassins guild called the Smith Syndicate, formed from his own split personalities, who make up the eponymous Killer 7. Each of the 7 has their own unique weapons and abilities, and you can switch between them at will (in an explosion of blood). If that doesn't sound mental enough for you, chuck in advisory gimps, chatty severed heads, knockoff Power Rangers, and a whole lot of gushing blood. It's safe to say there's nothing else quite like it.

Each mission is a new assignment: there'll be a target for you to assassinate, and a whole lot of puzzles to solve and monsters to kill before you reach them. Character control is on-rails. You hold a button to run along a prescribed path, choosing to branch off onto other paths along the way. When the Smiles make themselves known with their telltale laugh, you switch to first-person mode and scan the area for them. You'll encounter a wide variety of the things, from the alien queen like Duplicator Smiles, to the distorted Phantom Smiles, that all have to be killed in certain ways. Thankfully most of those ways involve bullets, though you'll have to be quick to gun them down before they grab you and detonate.

All the twisted storytelling is complimented by a visual flair that's unmatched. Cel-shaded graphics allow for a noir-style design; all cinematic angles and moody shadows, and make it feel like more like a high-concept animation than a videogame. It compliments the bloody violence and strange characters on show well. The sound design is also spot on, adding to the surreal atmosphere perfectly. The Smiles' gleeful cackle upon spotting you will have you nervously scanning every environment, and if you hear them running your worry can turn to panic. 

Playing over it again, you end up almost surprised with how well Killer 7 has aged. Granted, the visuals are a bit on the blurry side these days. The cel-shading masks much of the issues though. But none of the gameplay mechanics feel outdated, other than the slightly archaic “Find square object to open square lock” puzzles, clearly carried over from early Resident Evils. Overall it still feels fresh, unique. No doubt because, in the seven years since it came out, there hasn't been anything else like it.

It's a crying shame that Killer 7 didn't enjoy the success it deserved back in the day. Despite praise from the gaming press, and a handful of awards to its name, sales weren't spectacular. It's telling that it shows up on so many “best game” lists, though. Few games so perfectly deserve their “cult classic” label; fans will still attempt to unravel the twisted plot, or happily quote lines from a script dripping with metaphors and hidden meanings. It's very much a mature game; not in a hollow, “filled with violence and swearing” way, but in terms of the story and the way it's told. You're never talked down to, never have your hand held. Nothing is made obvious, and it powers towards a wholly satisfying conclusion (with a twist that'll have your jaw dropping). So many other games would do well to take a leaf out of Killer 7's storytelling book.

Suda went on to bigger things. No More Heroes was a breakout hit on the Wii, spawning a sequel and an HD re-release on PS3. But as good as Heroes is, it's Killer 7 that sticks in the minds of most fans. There's something about it, difficult to pin down. If any game is deserving of an HD treatment, a decent re-release and the chance to pull in some new players, it has to be Killer 7. Still one of the best, easy. In the name of Harman...

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