Version tested: GameCube
Few game creators could ever or would ever get away with conceiving a game that pushes its stylistic vision to the forefront of the experience, but that's exactly what Capcom and co-conspirators Grasshopper have done with Killer 7.
In many senses, Killer 7 distances itself as far as possible from the videogaming herd while also being an incredibly focused and back to basics shooter at heart; you just have to unravel a few obtuse layers to get there. While many games before it have played around with cel-shading and have made striking visual statements, few have thrown so many radical design changes at us in one go and expected the audience to take them on board.
That Killer 7 throws control and camera convention completely out of the window is one thing, but to do so without so much as even the briefest of tutorials is the biggest possible statement of its wilfully obscure arthouse intent. To thrust gamers into an environment where even the ability to move around or change the camera angle is completely at odds with anything else tells you something about where the developers' heads were at during this game's protracted development process.
For a while Killer 7 really does feel like a case of 'forget everything you know'; a bit like the sense of disorientation of getting in a left-hand-drive for the first time. And then being asked to steer with your feet, use the in-car stereo controls instead of the pedals and high-five pedestrians with your spare left hand.
As ludicrous as that analogy sounds, it's not all that far removed from Capcom's intriguing decision to map the movement controls of your character to a single button and completely remove any responsibility over the camera angle. That's right, hitting the A button has your chosen character run forward, and hitting B turns you around 180 degrees. That's it.
As you approach objects of interest (such as doors, corridor junctions, objects, NPCs) a transparent glass shard indicator slides onto the screen allowing you to interact with them. A quick nudge of the appropriate direction on the left stick confirms your choice of path, and that's all there is to the nuts and bolts of getting around Killer 7's environments.
As alien as it sounds, and as jarring as it feels when you first get your hands on it, this new control system hasn't ripped up decades of game design principles simply for the sake of being 'arthouse'. Okay, perhaps that's a matter of opinion, but by locking the camera to a midget-staring-at-your-armpit view it instantly allows Capcom to continue in its long-held desire to deliver a 'dramatic' jaunty angle on the proceedings. Remember how long Capcom persisted with the fixed cameras in Resident Evil? [*shudder* - Ed].
Whether this is a good thing or not is an argument that will rage forever, but it does - at the very least - mean that we, the viewer, get to see the game presented in The Way The Designers Intended. It's an admirably single-minded purity of vision, but a somewhat superfluous decision given that the actual meat of the game - the combat - actually takes place entirely in a manually selected first-person mode.
About eighty per cent of your time with Killer 7 will be spent trying to defend yourself from a perpetually respawning posse of exploding zombie-like creatures, known as 'Heaven Smiles' after their delightfully fixed grins. The main issue to address initially is to actually find out where the threat is coming from, due to their state of invisibility. The first thing that alerts you to their impending presence is a delirious cackle that emanates from the speakers whenever they catch sight of you. At that stage you must switch to the first-person view by holding down the right shoulder button and performing a quick 'scan' of the area with the left shoulder button. If you're looking in the right place (not always likely - they could be behind you or around the corner) they'll show up in all their vile glory, complete with a gold-yellow weak spot for you to target.
The combat system feels rather like Resident Evil 4's in many respects, and, just like Capcom's other zombie fest, the degree to how much you enjoy Killer 7 depends an awful lot on how proficient you are with the analogue stick. With practice, skill, familiarity and a succession of upgrades it's possible to really get into the Virtua Cop-style combat, but for the first few chapters it can be a real ball-breaker and somewhat unforgiving. In tandem with the overall bewilderment you'll doubtlessly experience with the unfamiliar, counter-intuitive control system, and the rambling, obtuse character interactions it's a game that takes a long time to truly appreciate.
You might rapidly come to the conclusion that Killer 7 is a complete pile of self-indulgent nonsense that's sprung forth from the minds of men bored with making conventional crowd-pleasing entertainment. It's like Radiohead's Kid A all over again. For the first few hours you'll go through the full range of emotions - from delighted admiration through to total distraught bewilderment. But whether you come full circle very much depends on what you want from videogames. Do you want to wallow in the glow of the familiar or experience something that sets out to do things differently? If it's the former then you'll almost certainly throw the pad down in disgust in less than ten minutes, but if it's the latter, then Killer 7 is likely to provide a peculiar degree of satisfaction the more time you invest in it.
There comes a turning point during Killer 7 when somehow everything starts to click into place. You stop getting so annoyed with being blown up and start appreciating that the combat's perhaps not as annoyingly simplistic as you thought it was, that the enemies don't quite wield as much power as you credited them with, and that you're not as bad an aim as you thought you were.
You also start to appreciate the puzzles for not being as elaborate and overbearing as they could have been, and start to slot into a nice rhythm that makes you want to make progress because it's actually good fun, and not merely just to 'get it out of the way' like many other games.
The other main factor we haven't discussed yet is how significant the characters are to Killer 7's unique appeal, and it grows with every passing chapter. To begin with, all you can fathom out is that a wheelchair-bound old man by the name of Harman Smith seems to have an ability to command a plethora of radically different personalities that collectively form the infamous 'Killer 7'.
Each element of Harman's twisted split personality is selectable via a TV set - several of which are dotted around each level - or interchangeable through the pause menu, and each has their own specific set of strengths and weaknesses that come into play at specific points during the game. For example, Kaede Smith is the only one of the seven to sport a zoom on her gun, so becomes essential when you need to pick a target off from distance. Coyote, on the other hand, is adept at lockpicking and leaping to improbable heights, Kevin can turn himself invisible, ex pro-wrestler Mask can blast anything to pieces with a bloody great shotgun, Con can run like the wind and hear things others can't, while Dan is just a badass extraordinaire. The smooth-talking, laid back leader of the gang, Garcian, plays a crucial role of 'cleaner'. Although his duty in the game appears to be less 'hands-on', his ability to resurrect downed members of the Killer 7 by picking up their remains is one that spares the player from many a Game Over screen.
As you go through the game dispatching Heaven Smiles you'll swiftly gather up blood for targeting their weak spots - mere kills don't earn you anything. Siphoning off blood eventually allows you to trade two different types of the sticky red stuff; thick and thin blood. The former allows you to convert it to a serum, allowing you to upgrade each characters in four key areas (Skill, Speed, Waver and character-specific skills like Invisibility, Range and so on), while the latter acts as health, allowing you to survive unexpected blasts from the devilish foes you often inadvertently run into.
It's important to emphasise that it's only when you've steadied your aiming abilities and powered up that the game really starts to come into its own. Also, as each of the 25 different varieties of Heaven Smiles start to become familiar to you, the less of a menace they become and the more satisfying it is to blast them in the best way you know how.
Acquiring the intimate knowledge of each character's skills helps make the game's combat way more enjoyable, although we'd prefer it if Capcom didn't resort to respawning enemies into areas you've only just battled through. Satisfying combat is one thing, but repetition borne out of lazy, old-fashioned gaming mechanics is entirely another. There should be a law against this stuff.
And while we're on the subject, it becomes an awful drag to find yourself having to constantly resurrect your downed characters, especially when the sparseness of save points can result in unpleasant, tedious retreads if Garcian himself cops it (being as he is the only character you can't resurrect, therefore prompting the dreaded Game Over screen).
But as much as we admire a lot of what Killer 7 stands for, we can't help shake the feeling that the game is far less ambitious than it initially appears. It is, for want of a better summation, a very simple linear shoot-'em-up with a cast of complete oddballs and a story that you'll either lose interest in, or wish you hadn't really bothered getting your head around in the first place. In this case it really does seem to be being obtuse for the sake of it, or maybe something was just lost in translation (especially the Pigeon Carrier notes that all feature song titles from The Smiths, hilariously).
The crunch issue is whether you'll want to buy it or not. For those desperate for something new to chew, it really is one of those games you need to play for yourself and to hell with what anyone else thinks of it. Try it. You might like it. The slightly awkward conclusion is that Killer 7 definitely isn't for everyone. It's a concept game, an arthouse game, a simple game, an often beautiful game, but most certainly never an everyman's game. For some people Killer 7 will be deemed awful, shallow, impenetrable, undesirable. It's a game that's sure to polarise opinion, but this reviewer swung from loving it to hating it and eventually to admiring it despite its obvious flaws. You just wish Capcom had gone all the way and done something truly mesmerising with gaming, so you could say yours truly is personally disappointed that it's ended up merely being a stylised shooter. But taken on its own merits, it's a damned fine effort and it's earned itself a fan here - certainly in the context of any future drunken rant on the subject. Just try it.
8 / 10
Tom's killing in the game of...
Mess. Killer 7 is a mess. A mess of messes, some of which are messy in that comforting "this is my mess" kind of way, and some of which are messy in that depressing "my little brother decided to disassemble my DVD player" kind of way. Critiquing it is very much like trying to reassemble something you didn't take apart in the first place - and the results, as must be obvious from the vastly different reactions charted by various review aggregators and web forums, certainly aren't the same for everyone.
What's slightly disarming about the whole affair is that for all its almost Lynchian obliqueness it actually reveals itself as quite a simple concoction. Movement seems awkward because you're not used to it, but you soon get the hang of running along one path and using the stick to opt for a particular option when it forks, and once you understand about using the left trigger to scan and things like the individual Killer 7 members' reload cycles and various abilities, that side of the game is more of less sewn up, leaving you to apply their standard skills to certain confusing situations and concentrate on not getting your head blown off, solving the relatively simple (and distinctly Resi Evil-esque puzzles) and figuring out what on Earth is going on plot-wise. Once you get the hang of actually playing it, the latter is arguably the most difficult thing in the game.
But to begin with, you will be confused. The omission of a proper tutorial is very daft, with simple concepts like Garcian's ability to resurrect characters barely explained, and critical information hidden away in overlong one-sided chats with apparitions of your past victims who are dotted around the levels to offer advice and the occasional tool. Already confused by the back-to-front mechanics, some people will be turned off by their stumbling verbosity and lose interest - and that opening burst of frustration will sour proceedings and lead to lots of bitching about the movement controls, the aiming, the puzzles, the boss design and so on. Surely this is true of any performance medium? If the audience feels bad about the first bit, they'll greet everything that follows with cynicism until equilibrium is restored.
Killer 7 does that within a few hours, as the core components start to make sense and your characters improve their aiming skill so the crosshair doesn't waver so much, but there are still too many points of division for this to be termed a classic.
The way the movement path is restricted could actually be deemed a good thing if the idea had been put to work a bit more elegantly. Preventing gamers running up against walls and swaggering drunkenly from side to side as they move can upset the suspension of disbelief, not to mention spoil set-pieces. First-person shooters are often guilty of this - as the edginess is scythed away by the player's instinct to constantly back away to frame them on-screen, as if they were a war reporter rather than an actual soldier caught up in the event. Killer 7's movement idea gave the designers the chance to resolve that by framing events and locations creatively, yet most of the levels don't seem to have been designed with that in mind, so the result is something that gets rid of the problem of swaggering characters but fails to visibly improve things by capitalising on the potential it had to go further.
Naturally, in the absence of any obvious improvement, most people instinctively treat it as though it's change for change's sake and, as we've already suggested, if they're pissed off already it's going to earn another red mark on the mental list of things to whinge about on the forum later.
The combat, meanwhile, is going to fracture the groupthink on Killer 7 to an even greater degree. It's a bit like playing House of the Dead with an analogue stick, because it's often impractical to spin round on the spot and back off, and if you just run for it you will collide with enemies who remain translucent until you've scanned them. Standing there fighting, not everybody's good at aiming with analogue sticks. So while some will be perfectly content and find their blood pumped by the slaughter - which is accompanied by some delightfully emphatic victory-babble from your chosen persona, not to mention some extremely arty animations - others will be turned off by it, and may not even stick around to discover that you can make things easier on yourself.
What's more, the game doesn't help itself with monsters that you can't place until it's too late (oh how we yearned for surround sound!), and some encounters that demand pixel-perfect aiming. One sticks in the mind in particular - somewhat aptly, it's an encounter that involves targeting an exposed brain that's just a few pixels wide. Using Kaede's scope, this is tough but doable. But she's only available if you've woken her up by killing a certain number of enemies and using one of the TV sets we mentioned earlier to rouse her. Otherwise you're stuck with two guys with wavering guns and a knife-chucker. It wasn't that hard to stay alive, but even sat two feet from a 36" widescreen TV using RGB cabling it took nearly a quarter of an hour for this writer to register even one hit. Lord knows how anyone's expected to do it that way on a smaller TV using a blurrier connection like composite or RF.
Fortunately, whether you fall on the side of the frustrated or the skilfully enthralled, there are still plenty of things that will appeal to any gamer in the short and long term. The visuals are the most obvious hook - a dazzling arrangement of coloured cels with only minimal texturing and deliberately peculiar colouring, it's a bit like playing a cel-shaded game with no outlines and only the most striking shadows given more than a gentle gradient-fill of shading. Seeing it in motion for a while, it becomes normal, but it's never short of an artistic flourish to keep you interested - and we're still yet to become bored of the way your character is suddenly tugged apart into floating blobs of blood, which draw to a halt in mid-air and then drop to the floor as one, whenever you switch to another of Harman Smith's personas.
But perhaps the thing that will make or break the jaded gamer's appreciation of Killer 7 is your interest in its narrative. Those of us still content to romp home relying on mere mechanics for entertainment will have made our minds up by now, and there's a good-length adventure here which journeys through plenty of interesting locations and has been designed efficiently with only a few true moments of obtuseness (respawning enemies and remember-the-pattern-and-apply-it-later puzzles, for example) to upset proceedings. But those who need the added padding of a gripping narrative are going to be split between those who enjoy the awkwardly told tale of a planet tumbling into anarchy in the aftermath of World Peace, and those who get bored of the clunky dialogue and the confusingly weighty atmosphere that pervades most of the game's cut-scenes. Sometimes you feel like the only guy in the room who doesn't know what's going on, and if you're the sort of person who finds that off-putting rather than intriguing, you might not last.
Still, if Killer 7 is undisputedly one thing then it's fascinating. It's absolutely fantastic to see something like this given a worldwide release on PS2 and GameCube in such a risk-averse climate, and Capcom deserves kudos for giving the game its support. Whether it deserves kudos for the content is a much more difficult equation to unravel, but for all its divisiveness and peculiarity, it seems obvious which number belongs on the end.
7 / 10