Saturday, May 3, 2014

Gamecube review: Killer7

You may have gathered from my many reviews of Suda51’s games that I am a huge fan of his work. Much as I love No More Heroes and its sequel, I was acutely aware of the fact that most Suda51 fans held Killer7 to just as high a caliber. I recall seeing promo content for Killer7 before it ever released on the Gamecube via Nintendo Power and various websites, but never had the chance to play it in proper until recently. Whereas No More Heroes is an unapologetic satire on the action game genre as well as the video game industry at large, Killer7 combines horror and action elements in an on-rails shooter that involves clever puzzles, requires quick thinking and fast reflexes, and boasts a curious brand of dark psychedelic flair.

The Smith Syndicate, otherwise known as the Killer7, is made up of – you guessed it – seven core members. Garcian Smith is liason between the six assassins and their master, Harman Smith. In the event that one of the six assassins – Kevin, Dan, Kaede, Mask, Con, or Coyote – is killed during a mission, Garcian can retrieve their remains and bring them back to life. The catch, however is that Garcian must retread their steps into enemy-filled territory. Thus is the big gamble with retrieving a dead Smith – Garcian cannot be upgraded, and in the event that a mission does not require use of the Smith in question’s unique abilities, it may be wise to simply carry on with the remaining members of the syndicate.

Blood is the currency of Killer7, and is used to heal during a mission, required to utilize the unique abilities of each of the Smiths, and can be exchanged for upgrade points to boost the stats of the Smiths. Each Smith has a different skill set, ranging from Con’s speed in both mobility and firing rate, to Kaede’s long-distance scoped pistol, to Kevin’s throwing knives which negate any need to reload. However, each Smith has an offset to prevent any single one from becoming more powerful than the others. Con’s defensive capacities are practically nonexistent, and though Mask deSmith is built like a tank, the spread of his grenade launchers results in his gathering a lower-quality blood far more often than not. Kaede and Mask’s unique abilities often reveal hidden messages and passageways respectively, and are most helpful in solving puzzles. Coyote and Kevin’s abilities are most frequently used to access new areas of the map, while Con’s ability to hear specific sounds and determine the correct path off those sees the least use. Dan’s ability to charge up one Collateral Shot in order to take out enemy spawn points is used sparingly, but is practical nonetheless.

The enemies that the Killer7 face at every turn are monstrous humanoids known as Heaven’s Smiles – effectively walking time bombs with abilities that vary from one mission to the next. If a Heaven’s Smile gets too close to one of the Smiths, it will detonate and chisel away a decent portion of their health bar. Some varieties of Heaven’s Smiles are slow but capable of taking many hits, others are stationary but notably more lethal as ‘turret’ units. Some of the more dangerous Heaven’s Smiles, encountered later in the game, are designed to race toward players before they have much time to devise a countering strategy. While the game never feels cheap or frustratingly difficult, it certainly demands a unique learning curve given its style of gameplay, and a trial-and-error pattern is key to taking down some of the game’s most lethal enemies.

These Heaven’s Smiles are the binds that tie everything together, plot-wise. At the outset, Harman has an encounter with an old acquaintance named Kun Lan. Kun Lan has acquired the means to offer ordinary citizens the chance at becoming Heaven’s Smiles, and furthering his terrorist routine. Swept up in the rivalry of these two old men are political officials representing Japan and the U.S., as well as other radical idealists like one Ulmeyda. It’s a melting pot of cleverly-scripted characters with colorful attitudes that lean more toward the practical and realistic given the scenario at large, as opposed to No More Heroes’ more crazy and eccentric residents. Even with the M-rating slapped on the box, it should be noted that Killer7 is a thinking man’s game – not just because of the logic-based puzzles, but because of the story and setting’s emphasis on more adult themes like modern terror tactics, cultist followings, irregularities in space-time, geopolitics, and moral ambiguity.

Much like the more recent Killer is Dead, Killer7 utilizes a hyper cel-shaded art style, wherein whites are borderline-glaringly bright, and shadows are nearly pitch black. The animations and details of each character model are incredibly well-rendered, however, so it is thankfully not a case of the art style trumping the care put into bringing the Smith Syndicate to life. The soundtrack incorporates a number of industrial and techno tunes to flesh out its near-future setting, while also adding a dash of rock and classical string sounds to the mix. Some of the cutscenes opt for a modern anime approach, while the majority deliver story segments in small doses of grungy 2D digital animation.

Kiler7 will run players about fifteen hours or so on their first playthrough. Some levels are more time-consuming than others, as they may require the Smith Syndicate to retrace their steps in order to complete a puzzle that was impossible to overcome at an earlier point. Others host considerably more enemies, leading players to have their triggers ready to go at a moment’s notice. But even the first introductory level lacks a linear design. There is never a set order in which players must overcome the various challenges of each mission, rather the ultimate goal is to retrieve all the required Soul Shells rewarded from mastering puzzles and exploring the environment. The game does mark each puzzle, Soul Shell, and point of interest on the map screen, making retreading one’s steps a less tedious process, though the game will never state outright what needs to be done at each location.

However, clues can be purchased for an adequate amount of blood from the ghostly figure of Yoon-Hyoon and his luchador mask. Similarly, the bondage jumpsuit-bound individual known as Iwazaru offers tidbits on local enemy tactics in any given locale. Arguably the most interesting of these phantoms is Travis Bell, a young man who knows perhaps more about the picture at large than any of the Smiths. His knowledge of the Japan-U.S. political affairs and the associates Garcian occasionally meets with makes him a key part of unraveling the grander story.

While the seven Smiths are merely faces with separate weapon sets at the start of Killer7, they each have their time in the spotlight, and by the game’s final hours, each will have a distinct and rounded identity. Some of the Smiths are explored in greater detail through letters and key items found within missions, forcing some digging on the part of players. Others, like Dan and Mask, have fully-scripted cutscenes allotted to them. Upon completing the main game, the grueling challenge of Killer8 is unlocked, which grants players access to Harman Smith alongside the other six assassins.

Killer7 is a rare gem, unfortunately overlooked by many due to its limited exclusivity to the Gamecube and release late in the sixth console generation. Despite the fact that the game does see a couple of hiccups few and far between, there isn’t any one element that stands out as being significantly flawed. Killer7 is weird, no doubt, but that is standard of any Suda51 title. Killer7's unorthodox controls and general gameplay may seem a bit daunting at first, but by the time players complete the first mission, it should all feel very fluid and natural. Killer7 deals with some dark plot elements that are very relevant to this day and age, and the culmination of its mature storytelling, wild artistic vision, and crazy creative gameplay make it one of the best games I have experienced on Nintendo’s purple lunchbox console.

My rating: 10 (out of 10)

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