Bullets, Blood, and Pigeons. You can’t go wrong with that.
Genre: Action, Adventure, Shooter
Developer: Engine Software BV,
GRASSHOPPER MANUFACTURE INC.
Publisher: NIS America Inc.
Release date: 15 Nov, 2018
Ever read Frank Miller’s Sin City graphic novels? Each frame is carefully constructed to provide perspective and insight into the depth of darkness or mystique about the characters. That’s killer7. Even though the graphics are dated, the use of shadows and camera angles to provide emphasis and sustained dimension for dramatic effect is a solid milestone of artistic expression in video games. It doesn’t stop there, though, because the story and gameplay follow some of the most interesting and also frustrating setups I’ve ever played. killer7 is absolutely a unique enough game that it becomes a point of contention in your brain about whether this is a mess or a masterpiece. But you know, I think it’s that convulsing mash-up of ideas that gives it a flavor all it’s own. Bitter or sweet, you will likely ride a roller-coaster of reactions as you play and come out a little bit flummoxed about whether that was amazing or not. But, damn it was crazy as hell, that’s for sure.
In an alternate reality, the world’s leaders founded a nationwide peace with an international treaty and set out to destroy all the nuclear missiles as a show of solidarity. However, a terrorist group called Heaven Smiles begins infecting people to make them human bombs in an effort to destroy the world peace. It’s up to a hitman named Harmon Smith and his assassins to stop them. Ah, but there is a twist because Mr. Smith has multiple personalities, seven to be exact, and you change them at will to play the game. So, you’re a hitman with split personalities who assumes these personas to assassinate the bad guys.
The actual storyline is almost entirely dialogue driven and is propelled forward by events and scenes that play out to the plot twists. While I wouldn’t say it is a tour de force of writing, the character lines are given by people you have murdered in the past and their psyches guide you along the way, varying from a gimp in a leather suit to a tank top enthusiast with no fear about what his shirt says. The writing is no holds barred, with visceral jarring remarks and psychopathic comedy. It’s a dark world, but there is levity in the way the game laughs at the absurdity of it all, yet the scenes are often naked and raw with no filter. It’s a pinch of derangement with a dollop of devil juice, and the night is still young.
I’ve played both No More Heroes games made by SUDA51 on the Wii, and had an idea of what to expect, but I’d never played killer7. What got me pretty much baffled right off the bat was the way in which you traverse the game world. Instead of moving your character with a joystick you press A and select a path to be taken with the joystick or d-pad. It’s awkward and off-putting because it feels like a terrible design choice. You literally have to re-train your brain on how to *walk*. On top of that, when you get to a junction to select a path, the monsters don’t pause as you make a selection. I got injured many times while just trying to select where to walk to next. Now, I can understand the desire to make pathways clear and avoid getting lost, but the only benefit that came from this was that the camera angle was always fixed for the presentation. It allowed for low angles that give a more artistic perspective followed by a first-person perspective when engaging in combat, and I know it’s an on-rails style, but then again it sort of isn’t a *true* on-rails shooter. It’s just that I found walking to be annoying and would have preferred to walk normally.
There is no explanation of how to play to be honest, the tutorial is barely helpful. You walk by pressing A, there is a sort of radar scan by pressing the LT trigger. It’s never explained that you need to freely aim to hit the special area on an enemy to get a critical. These criticals earn you thin blood ( health/power-ups), and thick blood (XP) to be redeemed for upgrading skills. You also are never told that you need that thin blood in order to use special powers for certain assassins, something that confused me for quite some time as I tried to open a barrier without any thin blood on hand. Another thing is that the monsters are INVISIBLE until you use that radar scan, and this was never explained. It was all very confusing until I looked up a how-to in order to play. Woulda been nice, though. Really.
As I mentioned, the on-rails aspect is not entirely true. Although the paths are linear and pre-set, you can backtrack at will and move about freely from one area to the next within a level. However, the monsters respawn, sometimes at a very fast pace, so it may not be worth it to go back to that Save point. Thus, the game creates a lot of tension based on the respawns and the difficulty in getting to a Save point. If you die, one of the characters, named Garcian, must go to that body and revive them back at the last Save room. Then, you can walk back to where you left off, at your own peril. Some of the Save points don’t actually have a Save option, making progressing all the more frightening, although Garcian will respawn from there to get a body if you walked in there last. If Garcian dies, then it’s game over and you have to reload your last Save, and that can very well happen because Garcian has a very weak gun and limited health.
Honestly, this feels more like Resident Evil 4 than it does an adventure game or an on-rails game. The combat is very similar, the puzzles feel about the same difficulty, and you have to manage health and a light inventory. While not a copy of RE4 at all, it’s more in that vein than any other game I can think of, even compared to No More Heroes.
What killer7 diverges from is the way it actually handles the combat. Instead of changing weapons, you are changing *people* with their own health bars and upgradable stats. In this way, it kinda feels more like a party-based RPG. They even have their own phrases and lines of dialogue. Dan has a power charge shot, Kaede has a scope, Con has two guns that fire quickly, Mask has a super explosive shot, and so on. Throughout the levels, you won’t be able to rely on just one assassin, you must change them out frequently on the fly to get to hidden items and defeat certain enemies that are very hard to defeat otherwise. And do you know what that creates? A bond between the gamer and the character. It’s brilliant and I wish more shooters did this because I love all their little quirks.
The difficult part is simply the shooting, as it can be difficult to see all the invisible enemies until you get a chance to use your radar scan and by that time it could be too late if you accidentally walk into them when exiting a door. There are several cheap shots like that, so be aware.
I played this with both an Xbone pad and a Steam controller, but aiming is about as easy as moving through mud. With a mouse, this is substantially easier, and I feel might be best to play on the harder “Deadly” setting rather than normal using a mouse. With a controller, however, aiming is quite hard due to the wavering because simply auto-locking is useless if you need to keep a regular supply of thin blood for health and specials. I’d rather aim freely and stock up. It’s not a walk in the park and you can feel the 30 FPS dragging you down pretty hard. It’s not impossible, but there are certain monsters that need to be hit directly in a very tiny spot, like the giant monsters. I never hit a single one of those and it was teeth-grindingly annoying. So, pixel hunting monsters with a slow moving cross-hair.
The biggest thing I need to point out is that the main heart of the game is in the level design. It’s that to and fro of exploration, solving puzzles, and discovering the dialogue that makes the game special. Beyond the artistic exhibitions and demented characters, killer7 makes it an adventure to push forward and face the unexpected, with death whispering softly in your ear. The level of tension never lets up. Enemies have a variety of tricks up their sleeves too, like giving birth to bad guys on the fly, heavy armor, kill spots on their backs, and rapid movement that often exceed the controller’s ability to keep up. It is always something new the further you go on and there are more unlocks after you finish the game as well.
The bosses are probably the most contentious part of the game with me, and I had this same issue with No More Heroes. Most of them are frustrating, and I mean that with a capital F. Firstly, expect to encounter a boss that is absolutely bizarre, with the exception of just a few. Secondly, only 1-2 of your assassins will be able to take them down, the rest won’t make a scratch on them. Third, and most important, they often follow a pattern of either being incredibly easy with no challenge or require you to time a shot just right that is incredibly hard to do. The Ayame parking lot boss in particular took me ages because it’s like trying to shoot a mosquito with a pistol. Others are painfully simple, so it’s this weird choice in bosses that left me feeling that there could have been a lot more involved because it’s so off-balanced. And yet, I liked it because no other game dares do this. I have no idea why, but I do. In any case, it’s the trip to the boss that is generally the hardest part of the game, not the boss itself. This was a surprise to me, because the bosses in No More Heroes were substantially more notable.
I have to point out that, at least through my entire gameplay, the game never crashed to desktop, there were no lost frame drops, no crazy menu issues, and it ran smoothly overall with the exception that if I was in Big Picture mode it would give me a black screen for a bit when I exited the game, cured by using a mouse cursor to click anywhere. It’s a stable port.
However, I do have to note that there are quality of life issues because the game really plays exactly like the Gamecube version with added 16:9 format and some higher resolution images that have been upgraded throughout the game. Beyond this, there are very few obvious changes added to make the PC port better than playing it on the Dolphin emulator. There are no English subtitles other than the distorted voices of the side characters, the resolution options are locked to your screen resolution, and you have no idea where to rebind keys unless you look it up online that you need to hit F11. There is Steam cloud, which is super useful, but if you like achievements and cards then you will be out of luck until those are added, *if* they are added. If those features are important to you, then think twice about grabbing this. Other than that, it plays fine and looks great.
Presentation can sometimes change the entire feel of a game, and killer7 is definitely one of those games. The shadowy limited color set and strong lines become a major part of the game to the point of being the defining aspect even with the completely unpredictable often crazy-eyed storyline. Yet, it’s more than camera angles and smoldering half-shadowed expressions, the game wraps itself around you and doesn’t let go. It’s like the game itself is its own persona with a sort of self-made mythos, which is fascinating when you think about the game in terms of what it tries to be. As a shooter, it’s middling. As an adventure game, it’s nothing special. As an on-rails game, it has too much freedom. But combine all those together in a burrito with some fresh SUDA51 salsa and what a meal. What killer7 does is carve out its only notch as a wholly original game through the scenes it presents and the method it goes about doing it. The flair and daring of what happens in the game would likely be shunned by a big studio in this day and age. I’m half surprised it even got re-released, but it’s a testament to the originality of SUDA51.
Should you buy it? Yes. However, do keep in mind you will have to deal with some weird controls and a few very VERY frustrating fights that might leave you shaking your head in wonder about how it ended up in a game. As I said earlier, it’s a beautiful roller-coaster fusion of ideas that leaves you unsure of how to react, yet leaves a strong impression regardless. I think that’s the point, actually. Let’s see how fractured your psyche becomes after playing killer7.