Thursday, July 12, 2007

PlayStation 2 (PS2) - Killer7 - Completed First Boss Fight

Killer7 is a case of function following form. Gameplay considerations take a back seat to the title's striking anime-inspired visual art style and convoluted, surreal plot. However, I found that within those stylistic constraints the gameplay worked well for me. But it's definitely not for everyone; it will appeal less to those seeking a standard JRPG or those seeking an FPS action-fest, and more to those who want something a little different, a little cerebral, a little bit adult in its themes.

If you like narratives in which the dividing line between reality and hallucination is quite deliberately blurred, or where the reader or viewer is never quite sure whether the story's events are taking place in the story's world or in the protagonist's delusions, then this one is for you. It shares themes with works such as those by Philip K. Dick (both the stories and the movies made from them - We Can Remember It for You Wholesale/Total Recall, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep/Blade Runner, A Scanner Darkly, Ubik), David Lynch (especially Twin Peaks), and Franz Kafka.

Taken at face value, Killer7 is about an assassin hired by the U.S. government to target and kill suicide bombers called "Heaven Smiles". This is no ordinary assassin; he has multiple personalities that manifest physically, changing not only behavior but also clothes, height, weight, face, hair and gender in the blink of an eye. He is haunted by apparitions, ghosts of his previous victims that offer him advice or insults. And he is the only person who can see the Heaven Smiles.

Or perhaps it's all just the paranoid schizophrenic delusions of a crippled, senile old man.

The real strengths of this game come from its story and presentation. It has a complex and interesting plot that operates on a number of levels from the psychological to the philosophical. The presentation just drips smooth criminal visual style, reminiscent in some ways of anime such as Akira. The sound and music support this, sounding similar to music from spy movies and old ganster movies. I won't give too much more of the plot away for fear of spoiling it for those players who decide to pick up this game. It's the style that keeps the player watching, and the plot that keeps the player going, that sense of, "What's going to happen next? What the hell is going on? And what does it mean?"

I believe the game got the low review scores it did because of a combination of unfamiliarity and violated expectations. On the one hand, its decidedly unique gameplay didn't fit comfortably in any familiar categories, and on the other expectations created by the pre-release hype and trailers were violated.

Movement and shooting in Killer7 is neither the freedom of a Quake, the step-to-the-next-spot choice of Myst, nor the amusement-park-ride-on-rails of House of the Dead, but rather some combination of elements from each. From a movement point of view, the game map consists of lines and intersections. At intersections the player chooses which direction to go next, and while travelling on a line between intersections the player can move forward, stop, and reverse direction at any time. Shooting can be done at any time but requires the player to stand still doing it. This combines the choice-based travel of an adventure game with the rails and shooting of a light-gun game and just a touch of the freedom of an FPS.

Based on the trailers and marketing materials, one could have come to any one of several incorrect conclusions about the nature of the game. One might have thought it was a first-person shooter with RPG elements, and while it does include shooting from a first-person perspective, and RPG-like levelling of attributes, both the restrictive movement and third-person view when not shooting violate FPS norms. Or one might have taken it for an adventure game with a shooting gallery minigame, but movement turns out to be too dynamic for that. Or it could have been a rail shooter, except that the player actually does have some control over movement.

And so some reviewers' expectations were violated, and even those without expectations found themselves in unfamiliar territory, dealing with gameplay as fractured and changeling as the narrative. As videogame reviewers are not, by and large, an intellectual lot, many found themselves unable to fully enjoy it.

I, on the other hand, only purchased the title as a symbolic protest against the anti-game activism of Jack Thompson. I'd heard that it wasn't a good game, and played it thinking that I was going to experience a cookie-cutter near-plotless FPS distinguished only by extreme amounts of violence, blood, gore, and possibly sex.

Boy was I wrong.

On a purely gameplay level Killer7 is only mediocre despite its innovative blend of styles. But taken as a total experience, it offers far more food for thought and emotion than yet another military shooter or swords-and-sorcery RPG.

There are two aspects of the game that I think could stand some improvement. The map could be more informative, and the help could be far better integrated into the gameplay.

The map is good in that it shows you where certain vital objects are, which personality you need to get past certain parts, which areas you've already visited (colored green), and which area you're in (colored yellow). But its single failing is that there's no you-are-here marker; there's no way to tell from the map where you are within an area. I got lost several times trying to figure out which intersection I was at in an area.

The in-game help is only available from Harman Smith's safe rooms (sometimes containing save points, like towns in RPGs). And the nature of the help violates what should be a primary rule of game design: show don't tell. Instead of showing the player how various features work within the game, the help has one of the ghosts telling how they work. The translations from Japanese to English of the explanations are less than stellar, and are presented at a speaking pace. They can neither be slowed nor sped. Considering how unfamiliar some of the game mechanics are, especially those concerning blood and special abilities, not integrating these features into an optional extended tutorial is a serious error.

To sum up: Killer7 is a terrific game with minor flaws that's not for everyone. But if you like complexity, mystery and especially weirdness in your entertainment, it may well be for you.

Grade: A-

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