- Review Price: £27.00
Increasingly, there are two sides to Capcom. On the one hand, we have franchise-friendly Capcom – the Capcom of Resident Evil, Onimusha, Devil May Cry, and a frankly bewildering run of 2D and 3D beat-em-ups whose subtle variations befuddle all but the most devoted fans. This is hardly a dull, unadventurous company – in this year alone it’s revamped survival horror with Resident Evil 4 and supercharged the Devil May Cry series – but nothing in those games can prepare you for those moments when Capcom shows its other side. Crazy, anarchic, subversive, postmodern, self-consiously arty, this other Capcom has already given us the frenetic cartoon adventure of Viewtiful Joe and now it brings us Killer 7: the world’s most confusing arthouse video game.
It’s fitting that a company so schizophrenic, with its strange satellite studios feeding into the central Capcom system, would come up with a game that has multiple personalities as a central theme. The titular Killer 7 are members of an assassins’ syndicate, and at the same time physical manifestations of a master assassin’s split self. Confused? We’ve only just begun. This is a story that manages to tie in terrorism, political corruption, mental disorder, nuclear weapons, bizarre sexual kinks, espionage, professional weapons, restless spirits and just about everything else. If you’re looking for sense or simple action, you won’t find much of it here.
And there’s no point going any further without mentioning Killer 7’s style. Most games have a graphics engine, a collection of characters and some landscapes for them to walk around in. If we’re lucky, a talented art team uses these basic building blocks to create a coherent world we want to explore, and if we’re really, really lucky, that world connects with a storyline and some great mechanics to form something that obsesses and enchants us for days or even weeks at a time. Killer 7 is different. Killer 7 has an aesthetic.
This aesthetic governs everything from the storyline to the characters to the script to the way it looks. Especially the way it looks. Imagine a blend of Japanese anime, punk rock, Tarantino movies, horror, David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch, all the oddest parts of US and Japanese indie cinema, all wrapped up in a stark, cel-shaded, four colour visual form. Imagine a game that’s shot and even edited like a film. Other games – XIII, Jet Set Radio – have tried to look like graphic novels, but Killer 7 goes one step further; it’s the world’s first graphic novel/video game/rock and roll/movie hybrid. Believe me, it’s not like anything else you’ve played.
Of course, it also doesn’t play like any game you’ve ever played. Capcom has at times tried to portray it as a first-person shooter, and to be fair there are plenty of moments when you’re shooting from a first-person perspective. However, it actually works quite differently. You control one of the Killer 7 syndicate at a time, mostly from a third-person perspective. You can’t actually control where they move, you can only make them move forward along a preset path, make them turn around and move backwards along the same path, or have them choose between several paths at a junction. Every now and then something happens. In some cases, it might be the discovery of an object or puzzle. At others it could be the arrival of a character, the most common being Iwazaru, an informative spirit in a red spandex gimp suit, and Travis, another weirdo spirit adviser with a penchant for cryptic slogan vests. I kid you not.
What happens most, however, is the sudden emergence of a ghastly chortle. This signals the presence of one of your enemies, the Heavens Smiles: a deeply unpleasant assortment of demonic mobile bombs. At this point you switch into a first-person targeting mode, scan the area for the chuckling terror, then try to dispense them before they can grab you and explode. Hit them in specific places, and you can collect their blood to restore health or buy upgraded skills. In this way, you wander through the missions, blasting and solving the odd simple puzzle, until you make it to a gate and a climactic boss battle.
Think you’ve got it? Things get odder still. The members of the Killer 7 – the sharpshooting Dan Smith, the mystic-powered ghost girl, KAEDE Smith, the high-powered wrestler MASK De Smith, etc – are all manifestations of an aging assassin’s split personality. The geriatric gunman, Harman Smith, can manifest one from a restricted selection of the seven at (nearly) any time, then utilise their unique skills to kill specific enemies, explore new areas or remove other barriers to progress. For instance, KAEDE can use her own blood to destroy magic barriers, while slick-dressing thief Coyote Smith can pick locks or climb onto roofs in a cinch.
For the first two hours or more, playing Killer 7 is an utterly confusing and genuinely frustrating experience. The puzzles are at the same time painfully simple and oddly obscure. It’s obvious that you need something to light the candles in one room, but who could guess the fire ring needed could be found in the mouth of a disembodied spirit head that loiters in a nearby tumble dryer. Combat is a hit and miss affair, the secret being to target vulnerable spots for one shot kills and reap the bloody rewards. Doing so with the GameCube pad – let alone the notoriously insensitive PS2 dual-shock controller – takes time, patience and practice, to say the least. A clearly marked map and the helpful in-game hints delivered by your creepy spirit buddies help clarify matters, but Killer 7 really does take some getting used to.
Amazingly, it grows steadily into a pretty compulsive game. The style certainly helps, and there’s something about its atmosphere and general weirdness that makes you want to see what other oddities the game’s off-kilter world has to offer. The puzzles and the combat develop a rhythm of their own, the game introduces new strange and wonderful personalities, and the plot takes new bizarre directions that you can’t help but want to follow.
Yet at the same time there’s something in the game mechanic that is – without doubt – fundamentally broken. You can get used to the set paths and learn to work around the painfully slow reload times that some characters have been saddled with, but when the Heavens Smiles seem to respawn constantly; when they can be on top of you before you’ve even had a chance to turn, scan and target; when multiple goons gang up and blast you one after another before you get a chance to get back on your feet; then Killer 7 can get really, really aggravating. The fact that you’re rooted to the spot while aiming hardly helps, and there are times when you’d kill for regular third-person action game controls so you could just scoot out of the way or take a shot on the run. We know that this way allows the developers to control the point of view, the visual style and the flow and pacing of the game, but wouldn’t it be nice to have something we could actually play?
Some small recompense is meant to come in the person of Garcian Smith, who can be sent out to retrieve fallen assassins and return them to life back at base. I guess it’s a change from the old checkpoint and save/reload routines – and save points, staffed by Harman’s schizophrenic nurse, are scattered fairly widely – but, still, it’s also a bit of a chore. Die, come back as Garcian, retrace steps to point of death, recover killer, resurrect killer, return to scene of crime…., I’m sorry, but who thought this was fun?
And it’s this sort of thing that stops me fully recommending – even enjoying – the game. In so many ways, Killer 7 resembles a lot of classic arthouse movies. Like Deserto Rosso, Last Year at Marienbad or Pierrot Le Fou, there’s something compelling in the style and engaging or provocative in the content, but while you can’t get it out of your brain, you also can’t really bring yourself to love it. It’s not so much a love or hate game, more a love AND hate game. Perhaps that’s the weirdest thing about it. Well, actually, with this one, maybe not.
An artistic triumph; a gameplay disaster; a simple puzzle that’s strangely hard to solve; a 3D shooter with a broken leg and a gammy eye; Killer 7 is all these things and more.