Although already established in the Japanese game industry, the 2005 GameCube (and PS2 port) release of Killer7 gathered Grasshopper Manufacture a new, sizeable Western audience. Divisive views from critics and gamers alike have created a bit of a Marmite scenario over the years, but the visionary approach and unique stylistic choices cemented Suda and his studio, Grasshopper Manufacture’s status at the core of Japanese unique game design.
The World Won’t Change, all it Does is Turn
Having come fresh out the absolutely mind-bending acid-trip of a narrative that is The Silver Case, and its more recent follow-up, The 25th Ward, I was more than ready to OD on another shot of Goichi Suda goodness. In that respect, I was not disappointed.
The story spans government conspiracies, terrorist activities, assassination-led weaving plot-points, the narrative the supernatural, identity (at a personal, global and deity level, no less), global politics, mental health, ghosts among many other themes. The writing is an exquisite treat and comes gift wrapped in Suda51’s offbeat, dark humour. What’s more, it’s all delivered with subtly and subtext in contrast with the in-your-face action.
In an alternative reality where nuclear weaponry has been disposed of and the Japanese-led United Nations are introduced to the game’s antagonist, Kun Lan. Kun Lan holds the power to turn people (willing or otherwise) into maniacally laughing, exploding creatures, not unlike zombies. His creations form the terrorist organisation, Heaven Smile and the world’s power balance is back under scrutiny. Heaven Smile is after the assassin group The Smith Syndicate, led by Harman Smith, whose seven members form the team of playable characters, taking on sequential missions. The plot is a rollercoaster of government conspiracy-ridden spirals, occupied by wacky assassins who refuse to remain seated. As the lore unfolds, the twists and turns don’t stop. It’s tough to follow, for sure, but it’s a hell of a ride.
Master, We’re in a Tight Spot
Killer7’s setup is stylishly slick, and there may be an element of, then publisher, Capcom’s DNA present in the Resident Evil-like puzzles. Find an item, take it over there, pull a lever, release the key, revisit the same areas with enemies respawning in the same place and so on. Solutions are occasionally cryptic, requiring changing characters and utilising their specific abilities within the environments, but they keep the Smiths busy if nothing else. I wasn’t blown away by any of the puzzle elements, truth be told, and oftentimes made me wish for a cleaner run to the next cutscene.
Gameplay is frequently where the divisive opinions come in. Killer7 does not control like a 2018, nor does it control like a 2005 game. At its base, it’s a third person on-rails exploration-based affair with but with a first-person stop, aim and shoot mechanic. Combat is peculiar (I’ll get to that) but movement, even more so.
By holding ‘A’ (Xbox One controller) you effectively run on-rails, tapping ‘B’ will turn you in the opposite direction. Turning down corridors involves selecting the direction from a quickly appearing menu overlay. It all takes a little too long, frankly.
The aim is as clear as the visual, narrative and story outline; to be different. However, many gameplay conventions are there because they’re natural and ubiquitous to a console controller set up. Innovation in this area takes huge, Nintendo-style leaps and risks, unfortunately, in terms of the control scheme, Killer7 doesn’t leap and instead changes direction, sticks its fingers in its ears and wanders off like a stubborn metal fan who that admit they love that catchy pop chorus off the radio.
Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now
Enemies are generally invincible until scanned; when using an Xbox One controller, ‘RT’ is held to initiate the first-person camera aim, press ‘LT’ to scan the area for the translucent Heaven Smile zombie-like enemies, and, once identified and visually fleshed out, they can be shot using the ‘A’ button. Reloading is automatic once your clip’s emptied, or a flick of the right analogue stick will manually do the job. Hitting highlighted areas of the body will make enemies disintegrate rather the simply bleed, meaning you gather bonus blood as a result. Different body parts someone react to targeted shots, human-like foes will fall to a crawling position when shot in legs, headshots remove heads and so on. It’s a simple system that, although a little clunky at first, is quick to bed in. Is it fun? Mostly.
The best part of the combat is switching Personalities as each comes with their own weapon and style. Though most are variations of handguns, they all come with a set of unique character animations, pushing their traits to the front and centre. The reload set-pieces, in particular, are a highlight here.
Navigating the level up/save point hub location (Harman’s Room) involves switching the TV on and flicking through various options. It’s deftly handled with channel hopping offering the chance to create serums from collected blood and to choose between available assassins. The Smith Syndicate ‘Personalities’ have individual stats to level up (through use of the aforementioned serum) and their respective channels also display their unique abilities, as well as the requirements for unlocking them. When menu exploration is this visually diverse, it really means there’s no boring downtime when tinkering.
Chatting to your creepy-gimp-friend, Iwazaru (hanging from the ceiling, often spouting now-familiar phrase, “Master, we’re in a tight spot”) allows you to view a number of previous dialogue segments, tips about enemy types, use of abilities and various other tutorials. The in-game menu consists of the list of Smiths Personalities, which can be changed on the fly, item list, blood (which can be consumed to recover health) and memos (plot-relevant notes that can be collected).
Performance on PC is extremely stable. There’s nothing flashy here in terms of upgrades and the only graphical option beyond resolution is an anti-aliasing option (literally just basic on/off anti-aliasing). That is apart from the glorious 4:3 aspect ratio option. However, there’s no need for excess when using modern hardware. The game looks very much like its older counterpart and didn’t need anything more than a thin coat of up-res paint.
The voice acting was originally cast in English so there’s no element of having to adapt pre-rendered Japanese content and it hits home. The voice direction really works and feels thematically suitable, with the cast doing a fine job. Playing with headphones lets you appreciate the interesting mix of obvious and subtle ambient metallic, static and white-noise sounds; stuff that wouldn’t be out of place in a survival horror, but with the added funk of the man behind tracks from the Danganronpa series, arrangements for Super Smash Bros. and, more relevantly to Killer7, The Silver Case; Masafumi Takada. This kind of sleek soundtrack is perfectly cohesive with the bright toned-pseudo-noir clash, while the darker environments felt almost Shin Megami Tensei in atmosphere at times.
Killer7 gels and feel like the work of a master director. It’s truly a piece of art and, if you’re the type of player who can forgive the backtracking, odd-pacing and quirky control systems, you’re likely to have a blast. That might be a big ask for most, though.
Overall Score: 7.5 / 10
Now, if you need me, I’ll be in rehab, jacking-up on No More Heroes.
Format: PC (reviewed), GameCube, PS2
Price: £15.49 (Steam)
Publisher: NIS America (Capcom for GC, PS2 versions)
Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture Inc., Engine Software BV
Age Rating: 18+
Release Date: 15/11/2018 (Steam)
Review copy provided by publisher