Where modernism was about objectivity, postmodernism was about subjectivity. Where modernism sought a single truth, postmodernism sought the multiplicity of truths.
“The following is a contributor post by the Sometimes Vaguely Philosophical Mage.”
***This review concerns the 2018 Windows re-release of 2005’s Killer7, originally released for GameCube and PlayStation 2. Besides quality-of-life improvements there are no significant differences between the remastered version and the original. We are grateful for having been provided with a review key for this version of the game.
Goichi Suda – better known as Suda51 – is, I think, adequately described as something of an odd chap by most standards. There’s another quote, from Suda himself, which I considered using as this article’s header but decided against for reasons that may become clear in a moment, but here it is:
You know, you can see on the screen, in No More Heroes you sit on the toilet to save the game – I guess making a game for me is a bit like that. When you take a s***, everything you’ve consumed is all mixed together, there are all sorts of things in that – and that’s the same kind of idea, I think.
The context, as if context were needed for this beauty of an utterance, is that Suda’s talking about how he likes to try a bit of everything. What’s the point of restricting oneself to enjoying only one thing, or genre of thing? His work, he says, is born of a love of many things, combining them into something that perhaps some would see as disconnected or insensible but which to him is a natural fulfilment of the best part of each of those things.
This is almost certainly a huge over-generalisation, but works born of what we might call Eastern culture often seem to me to be less concerned with devising something that makes literal, logical sense and more in favour of ensuring that it’s tied together thematically, metaphorically, and creates a unified presentation of an overarching message. Read anything by Haruki Murakami and you might get a sense of what I mean by this. I’m not suggesting that this is a flaw, by the way; if anything, I think that I identify more with this approach to philosophy and art. I like a good well-knit plot as much as the next person, but in general I think I would rather have something eschew the need for total imperviousness to plot-holes in favour of delivering a cohesive artistic experience, and Suda51 is something of a master at this.
Killer7, y’see, is a game about a lot of things: multiplicity, memory, death, terrorism, nuclear war, eternal recurrence, and a bungeeing ghostly gimp. It does have what you’d think of a plot, or narrative, but if I may indulge in a metaphor for a moment:
Think of a ‘regular’ game’s plot as being like a path drawn on a map. It’s a map of somewhere familiar to you: a city you’ve lived in, maybe, or even your own neighbourhood. The path travels through and around various areas on the map, some of which you might have been to before and others that you may not have been, but can be followed from start to finish without any real difficulty.
Killer7‘s plot is like an upside-down, colour-inverted map of somewhere you might have heard of once, with a path that goes off in all sorts of directions and sometimes just breaks entirely before resuming somewhere else, and you’re having to read the map as it floats merrily past you outside the window of your hurtling-back-to-Earth spaceship.
That’s not a criticism, by the way. Eventually you might find that your ship has in fact landed in the place that the map depicted, and your confused memories of glimpses of a bizarre path give you enough recognition that you can navigate your way to something that is, while still unfamiliar and confusing, at least secure. Similarly, Killer7‘s overarching narrative seems almost unconnected to anything you experience within the game itself until, at some moment of epiphany which might be handed to you by the game or which you might simply experience almost unprompted, things click into place and you breathe ‘Ahhhhh’. Then, very quickly, you cut it out with the relaxing breathing and get back to shooting hordes of advancing exploding invisible grinning zombie people. Have I not mentioned those yet?
Perhaps we should pop back to the beginning for a moment. You play as the Killer7, a group of elite assassins who may or may not all in fact be the same person. It’s not made entirely clear until towards the end of the game who each of the Killer 7 are, and even then the nature of their continued co-existence is uncertain. For gameplay purposes, what matters is that you make your way through each level switching between ‘personalities’ at will to make use of each one’s unique abilities to proceed.
It’s an interesting relationship that the K7 share – whatever that relationship might in fact be – and it’s evocative to me of Suda51’s status as a man who wears many hats when it comes to making games. He is, I think, one of the clearest examples of an auteur in gaming (alongside fellow Japanese developers Hideo Kojima, Hidetaka Miyazaki, Yoko Taro, and Fumito Ueda – and there are Western examples, of course), which effectively means that he has an enormous amount of creative influence in the games he works on – to the extent that he can really be considered almost the sole author of his works despite the fact that there is of course still a team and a studio involved.
Suda creates the worlds for his games; he designs the characters, writes the dialogue and scenarios, and develops the concepts for the gameplay. When Suda creates a game, although he is only one man, he must become many people, and do the work of many people. Similarly, in playing Killer7, the player (who is – we must assume, unless there have been significant developments in personal duplication since I last looked – also just one person) must assume the role of a single individual divided into conflicting, yet co-existing, personalities with their own skills and jobs to do.
Now, then. Like taking one person and rendering them several, let’s break Killer7 down a bit.
The Killer8-Bit Review
Killer7 is presented in cel-shaded, stylised polygons; it’s a distinctive art style and one that I feel gets the job done. It’s colourful, which I always appreciate, and would certainly be difficult to mistake for anything else. The Steam release raises the resolution somewhat, making this version rather better-looking than its original GameCube-era incarnation, but the graphics themselves aren’t changed.
Creating distinctive characters is important for a game that revolves around playing as seven (or eight – again, we’ll get to that!) different people, and the Killer 7 are all well-designed, with looks that reflect who they are and what they’re there to do. I’ll be covering the individual members in the ‘gameplay’ section, and I’ll talk briefly about their designs there too, but suffice to say that one look at each member tells you pretty effectively something about their traits and skills, while also often introducing something mysterious that makes you want to know more (why is KAEDE’s dress blood-splattered and her feet bare? – what’s the story behind Con’s blindfold or Kevin’s sunglasses? – please let’s get to see MASK de in action as an actual luchador!).
There are a cast of supporting characters, too – some of them are a little forgettable, especially once the game starts introducing a wider array of named characters who mostly wear similar suits and have similar faces, but the ones you encounter more often and directly are just as memorable as any of the K7:
There’s Travis, the eyeless man who’s always wearing a tank top with different words on it (in one early scene his top is emblazoned with ‘Bad Girl’, and the combination of those words and the name Travis might ring familiar if you’ve played a particular, later game also made by Suda51); Iwazaru and Kikazaru, the two bungeeing gimps; Susie, who’s just a head; and Yoon-Hyun, who is sometimes just a guy and sometimes a rager in a possibly evil luchador mask with his middle fingers permanently sticking up.
Most of the important characters, then, are pretty nicely-designed; the enemies you’ll spend most of the game fighting, however, do manage to be fairly effective and memorable but are much simpler in their stylings. They’re just sort of weirdly-coloured, heavily angular shapes (varying from the humanoid to the rolling-ball-anoid) – the different types of enemies, requiring different tactics to defeat, are easy enough to tell apart at a glance, but I can’t say they look particularly good.
Similarly simplistic are some of the visual effects, in particular the ‘blood’ effect – you’ll be seeing a lot of it, but it’s really just a lot of red dots moving around, or a stream of red lines. I can’t imagine that the hardware of the time would have been able to produce anything much better than that, but it can nevertheless be a little distracting
As for the levels and environments, they’re not bad enough to be distracting but not really good enough to be noticeable or commendable; the fact that I have very little to say about them says, I think, all that needs to be said! (That goes only for the strictly visual elements of their design; the level layout is pretty nicely done.)
I will give a quick nod to the animated cutscenes – while most of the game’s scenes are in-engine, some of the more important ones are done in an animesque style, and they’re very well-done.
Here’s something weird. I initially put down a 3 in this category on the grounds that I was thinking back on playing through the game and couldn’t really remember any music at all. Then, though, I went and had a look for the OST, and… what the heck have I been doing?!
There’s a whole array of ambient, electronic, jazzy, and atmospheric pieces, running to over an hour of original music, and it’s all really good.
Did I accidentally turn the music volume off at some point without realising? Have I had the entire game on mute? (Not likely, since you depend on being able to hear the invisible Heaven Smiles in order to survive.) Was I experiencing a bizarre memory blank? Or… does the music just not really play during gameplay?
Turns out the last option is about right. I went back and looked at gameplay of the missions and found that, as I’d thought, there’s mostly silence from the score during most of the playtime. It’s probably a good choice, since it means you’re able to hear the grisly cackle of an enemy approaching in time to spot and destroy them, and it does make the whole thing rather more atmospheric. The music kicks in only during some sequences, mostly ones with no hidden encounters, and story sections, but when it does… I’m shocked at how good the soundtrack is, now that I listen to it.
I’m conflicted: should I give a high rating because the music is very good, but the silence is in fact probably better audio design, or a low one because for much of the time spent playing there is in fact very little sound at all? I’m going with a 6 because that soundtrack is truly far better than I thought it would be, which is an odd statement that sounds rather a back-handed compliment, and because the other elements of audio such as effects and voice performances range from really rather good to really rather bad but work out, I think, slightly better than average.
The closest thing I can compare Killer7 to is an on-rails Resident Evil 4. It doesn’t play quite like anything else I’m familiar with: you can’t move freely, but must hold a button to run down a preset path and can turn around or choose your route at junctions. Enemies will appear along your way: grisly Heaven Smiles, grinning zombie kamikaze units who’ll walk, run, or crawl at you until they grab you and explode, unless shot dead before they reach you. You must hold a trigger to raise your weapon (during which time you cannot move, hence the RE4 comparison), use the left stick or mouse to aim, and then click or press X to fire. Oh, and you’ll also have to press another button between raising your weapon and aiming, because every Heaven Smile is invisible until you ‘scan’ for them. Your only clue that they’re there is the menacing laughter that plays as you enter the room. Killing them yields both ‘thin’ and ‘thick’ blood, which are used to fuel healing and special abilities (thin) and level up characters’ attributes (thick).
Dispatching the Heaven Smiles, you’ll need to explore each area to find items to unlock doors to proceed. Each of the playable characters has one or two unique skills which may help in combat or may be necessary for progressing through the environment; you can switch personalities at any time, although you’re sometimes forced into a particular character or limited by personalities being ‘sleeping’ until you’ve progressed enough through a level to wake them up again.
Let’s finally discuss the Killer 7 themselves in detail, since this seems as good a time as any!
First, Harman Smith. He’s an old man who seems to be the dominant personality in control of the K7 group as a whole, and as leader he doesn’t play as much of an active part in missions. He is playable only during certain scenarios, during which he rides along in his wheelchair and attacks with a ludicrously huge anti-tank rifle. Although he’s certainly a part of the main cast, he isn’t counted as one of the seven (hence ‘Killer7’ despite there being eight Smiths… although a New Game Plus option does have a rather neat spin on that, which I shall say no more about).
Then there’s Garcian Smith, who might be considered second-in-command. You won’t be playing as him all that much unless you die a lot, since his main purpose is to be the ‘cleaner’ of the group. He’s fairly unremarkable in terms of fighting abilities, but should you lose one of your personalities to a Heaven Smile you’ll need to wake Garcian and take him to the body to revive them. He’s also perhaps the most important to the plot, besides Harman.
Dan Smith uses a powerful revolver to deal pretty hefty damage, and can unleash a charged shot that’s the only thing capable of destroying certain wall-like types of Heaven Smile, so you’ll need to use Dan at least once or twice in most levels. Dan gets probably the next-most character development and backstory after Harman and Garcian; besides these three, the rest of the Killer7 don’t really have all that much direct involvement in the story.
KAEDE Smith is a young woman in a bloodstained white dress and no shoes; she has a scoped pistol which is quite handy for hitting enemies’ critical weak spots at range but which has the reload speed of a slug wading through a pool of thick raspberry jam. (In a touch I rather like, her reload speed is significantly slower if you try to reload while zoomed in with the scope, making her even more likely to die if you fumble her.) She also has the peculiar ability to slit her wrists in such a way that the rain of ensuing blood can destroy certain barriers, or blood in the environment can be absorbed into her to help solve puzzles. She’s good for entering rooms where the Heaven Smiles are still inactive and distant, but almost useless once they start their deadly approach.
Con Smith is a blind (or, at least, blindfold-wearing) kid with big headphones and dual pistols. He’s very quick, both on the gunfire and movement – triggering his special ability allows him to run probably three to four times as fast as the rest of the Smiths, which is great for getting through areas quickly (but don’t go too quickly, lest you run right into a Heaven Smile). I used Con probably more than any of the other Smiths purely for his speed, which let me take out Smiles in fairly short order and get from room to room faster than I’d otherwise have been able to. (He also seems to reload by knocking the magazines down to his feet and then kicking them back up again. How that works, I’ve no idea.)
Coyote Smith is a Latino punk who holds his gun so far sideways that it’s practically upside-down, can make incredible vertical leaps, and is somehow able to open padlocks just by wrapping them in one hand for a few moments. Generally, these padlocks just open shortcuts to previous areas, but since there’s a fair bit of backtracking in order to collect items and access new areas, it’s very useful.
Kevin Smith is a sunglasses-wearing albino man with a bit of a hunchback who doesn’t ever talk and has an unlimited supply of throwing knives. He can also turn invisible, which is both handy for some puzzles and means that using him correctly allows the player to breeze through some areas without needing to fight at all. He’s widely considered the most useful Smith due to this skill and the fact that his knives can be fired at a fairly quick pace without having to reload.
Finally, there’s MASK de Smith, a hulking luchador with very high vitality and dual grenade launchers – they’re good for eliminating single enemies quickly and reliably, but reloading after each shot means they’re not the best for groups, and you can’t get the critical hits that yield thick blood with them. He can be used to blow up cracked walls or push heavy objects, and his voice really doesn’t fit his design. Most of the K7 are well-acted, even if only a few of them have any lines beyond battle quips, but Mask’s voice is so distracting that I can barely watch him talking. To his credit, though, there is a cutscene in which he literally headbutts an incoming bullet, which rather than blowing a hole in his skull simply falls to the floor as a crumpled chunk of lead. So that’s cool.
Those, then, are the Smiths, whose skills you can use to make battles a breeze, traverse areas, or solve puzzles. There’s a fair bit of variety introduced to the gameplay by swapping between them, but the play itself is streamlined to the point of conspicuous simplicity: move, interact, aim, shoot, and that’s about it. This ties into the game’s overall themes and narrative, which we’ll come to soon.
Overall, Killer7 can be difficult to play. It’s not the smoothest of things, and it’s not always the most fun – it’s not the easiest to pick up, and you’ll need to sit through a few lengthy explanations if you want the game to tell you how blood works and other useful things. The on-rails nature of it makes it feel constrained, but the fact that all you can do is go where the game tells you and hopefully not die on the way is both thematically appropriate (again, we’ll get to that) and difficult to dislike: it’s so simple that there’s not all that much to pick holes in. Personally, I can’t say I would recommend playing Killer7 for its gameplay, but I equally can’t fault the gameplay for being what it is in this particular game.
As I mentioned just above, picking Killer7 up and getting going isn’t too hard on account of how little there is to controlling the game, but there are a lot of things that you kind of need to know but that you’ll have to go out of your way to learn about. The puzzles aren’t too hard, but upgrading your characters (which isn’t strictly necessary but makes things significantly better for you later on) is something you’ll have to find out about for yourself, and the plot is not very accessible at all.
That said, the low number of buttons requiring attention means that I think the gameplay of Killer7 would be accessible to someone with mild physical or mental impairments, and that kind of accessibility is also very important. It does, however, lack subtitles or (perhaps partly due to its age) much in the way of other options for people with other kinds of sensory difficulty.
Here follows an attempt to describe what Killer7 is about. I’m gonna drop some spoilers, of a sort – so be warned – but I’m not gonna reveal any of the game’s big internal twists.
On an alternate Earth, a peace treaty ended all wars and all countries flew their nukes up into space and smashed them against each other, destroying their weapons in a show of fireworks as a symbol of the end of conflict. Japan had one major political party but, shortly after the fireworks, a splinter group formed a new one which became more dominant, seized control of the government, and started moving to break Japan’s cooperation with the US. (The US, for its part, doesn’t really care about Japan and would also be perfectly happy to burn bridges with them.) Around the same time, a terrorist group called the Heaven Smile appeared and deployed zombified former humans fitted with bombs.
Meanwhile, an old man named Harman Smith has something called Multifoliate Personae Phenomenon; having at some point absorbed the personalities of seven gifted assassins, he can now change into any of them at will. They can also see the ghosts, or ‘remnant psyches’, of previous victims (including Iwazaru, Suzie, and Travis, who appear throughout the levels to offer advice or exposition). Harman has a sworn enemy, Kun Lan, who seems to be the leader of the Heaven Smile.
The Killer 7 battle Heaven Smile while (pretty much separately from what the player’s getting up to) a global conflict unfolds in which members of the prominent Japanese parties kill others and attempt to infiltrate the US by moving millions of their party members to a single state, thus potentially winning a seat on the Senate. Then some things are revealed – both to the characters and to the players – about the K7 and their hidden involvement in these international conflicts, the Heaven Smile are confronted, and… well, it seems that the conflict between good and evil (or, specifically, the Seven and the Smile) has occurred countless times over millennia and will continue to do so.
That’s about as simply as I can put it, and I’m indebted to whoever wrote the plot summary on Wikipedia (which was immensely helpful in putting together my own above). It’s impressively concise yet comprehensive.
In executing this narrative, Killer7 doesn’t like to spell everything out too explicitly – although there certainly are points which are straightforwardly expository, it feels more like a trail of breadcrumbs than a narrative throughline. More important to this game than its concrete narrative beats are the ideas and themes that it can express through them and weave into them.
Let’s talk about those themes, then, shall we?
I think that in discussing the game to this point, we’ve already teased out what some of its themes might be. There’s certainly an exploration of Eastern culture versus Western, what with the central conflict of the game being between the US and Japan – and the American (Jewish-dressing, in fact) Harman Smith versus the Oriental Kun Lan. I actually think that the game itself constitutes an interesting example of an Eastern work which could be juxtaposed to much of that produced in the West; I discussed earlier in this review my feeling that Eastern literature and other story-forms seem to more often maintain a kind of dreamlike thread, ensuring consistency more securely between metaphors and themes than between concrete plot and narrative events.
Similarly Eastern – perhaps even specifically Japanese – is the game’s evocation of cycles, of recurrence as a theme. This comes across in the narrative, as well as in the constant repetition of actions – move, aim, shoot – and the conspicuously identical ‘Harman’s Room’ areas that crop up every few rooms, their bizarre twin-nature only reinforced by the different outfits and poses of the characters within. Each level is a little cycle of its own, following the same sort of structure until it all comes to a head… only to repeat again. Suda51’s fellow Japanese auteurs also explore this theme: all of the ones I named earlier deal with this in one form or another. Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid features new generations reliving the sins of the old, clones trying to set themselves apart from their progenitor while in doing so defining themselves as successors; Ueda’s ‘spiritual trilogy’ of Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, and The Last Guardian all evoke rebirth in their stories (tying themselves to each other in doing so, even); Miyazaki’s Dark Souls series is all about trying to end a cycle; Taro’s Drakengard and Nier properties, particularly Nier: Automata, feature characters and even worlds locked in loops, trying to escape, failing, succeeding only to find themselves in new ones. I think, too, that Killer7‘s combination of entirely outlandish scenes (see MASK de headbutting that bullet or Kun Lan flying across rooftops) with serious ruminations is similar to a phenomenon that was touched on in a recent Mage Cast focusing on Metal Gear Solid. It seems that auteurism allows for the most bizarre mishmashes – of course, it depends on them being executed well, but in Killer7‘s case I think they really are.
The other primary theme of the game is a lack of freedom. Some games take joy in giving the player the ability to do anything they’d like; Killer7 rebels against that, making the inherent artifice of that concept (because, really, a player can only be as free as the game itself allows them to be) part of its mission statement. The K7 group’s movements as almost secondary to that overarching plot, with them almost entirely unable to affect anything in any meaningful way, is hammered home by the restrictions imposed by the gameplay: you’re only free to do about four things, and the sum of those things is ‘progress along this preordained path’, or else die too soon to see it. There are no multiple endings and the game only gives the player one choice – a single decision to make, near the end. Without giving too much away, the choice is (SPOILERS: highlight to reveal) whether or not to kill an important antagonist. Here I’m unable to avoid giving it away, but nevertheless: it makes absolutely no difference whatsoever. Where some games are an exercise in exploring the player’s whims and psyche, Killer7 subverts that aspect of its medium and instead riffs on the ultimate and inevitable lack of freedom that, in the end, is the truth of things.
I can’t let the ‘themes’ section end without mentioning again the nature of Suda51 as a creator, of an auteur as someone who needs to be multiple people. Consider the Killer7 group of assassins as a single character and we see a nuanced, interesting creation; yet each of them individually (besides two, perhaps three) is really only one trait. Similarly, Killer7 the game as a whole is a deep, complex thing, yet each of its parts is pared-down to be so simple as to almost be parody; Suda51 the creator produces bizarre, interesting works, but must do so by extending himself to involvement in many areas, stretching himself thin. That’s not to say that I think that Suda’s skill in any of these areas is lacking, but that I find it fitting that a man who achieves his goals by becoming many different people – writer, director, designer – should create a work in which the player must become many different people in order to achieve the game’s objectives.
I really do think that Killer7 is commendable for the way that each of its elements ties into, reinforces, evokes, or highlights a theme. It’s relentlessly driving at some larger point; it’s just not always that easy to see until much later.
If you’ve learned nothing else from reading this (by now over 4,000-word) review, you’ll hopefully have picked up that describing Killer7 is rather difficult because it’s really quite unlike almost anything else. Comparison to other games is next to useless, and expressing enough information to adequately communicate its other aspects is hard to do without running up enormous word counts. But, hey, this is The Well-Red Mage, and high word counts never scared us Mages.
The point is that if I can say anything at all about this game, it’s that it’s unique. I can think of very little else that’s even remotely like it – even Suda51’s other works, which might bear some similarities, aren’t alike enough to it to be able to describe it in those terms (that is to say, I can’t sum it up as being ‘No More Heroes on rails’ or ‘Killer is Dead with multiple personalities’; that just wouldn’t be adequate). I have to recommend Killer7, personally, purely because the sum of its parts is something totally unfamiliar when I try to compare it to anything else I’ve ever experienced.
That said, those component parts are in many ways tried-and-tested. Explore areas for items to unlock doors; shoot things; switch characters for different abilities… I can’t give Killer7 a perfect 10 for uniqueness because it assembles itself out of things that aren’t really all that innovative at all. It’s the assembling (or, if you want to return to Suda’s earlier metaphor, although I could understand why you wouldn’t, the digesting) that makes it special.
My Personal Grade: 8/10
I like Killer7. I like it a lot. I probably won’t be replaying it any time soon, but I’m of the opinion that it was a valuable and worthwhile experience, and that’s about the best thing I can say of any experience.
Like the game itself, I imagine that this review has been a fairly confusing ride, perhaps even one that doesn’t feel like its pieces ought to hang together all that well. If you’ve stuck with me through to this conclusion, I’m grateful and I hope you feel that the overall effect is successful. If so, then you should probably go and play Killer7. And if you stopped reading this review thousands of words ago because you simply didn’t have the energy to continue with the effort – well, first of all, you’re not reading this, so I hope this simply osmoses across the cosmos and into your cerebrum somehow – then Killer7 probably wouldn’t be for you.
I feel that by now I’ve said just about all that I can say, although I’m sure I’d have more to discuss if anyone wants to ask questions or talk about any specifics! Ultimately, perhaps the most useful thing I can say is that I really do think Killer7 is an artistic accomplishment, and that might or might not interest you. Either is fine, of course, but… if you’re even a little bit intrigued, give it a go. See what you find, and what meaningful whispers and ominous laughter echo in your mind evermore thereafter.
Aggregated score: 6.6
Though he’s been known by many names across the vast and peculiar landscape of the Internet, every iteration of The Sometimes Vaguely Philosophical Mage has shared an urge to look far too closely at tiny details and extrapolate huge, important-seeming conclusions. These days, in addition to Mage duties, he can be found discussing gaming and other pop culture (and occasionally sharing some of his own musical and fictional creations) at the Overthinker Y blog and on Twitter.
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Categories: Game Review