If memory serves me well, about a year and a half ago I was feeling kind of down on video games. The start of this generation had been quite nice (largely because of the Dreamcast), but for the last year or two, it had seemed like the best I could hope out of a game was that it was a well-executed example of ideas I’d seen before. Not that there’s anything wrong with polishing ideas, but I’d prefer a bit more novelty in my diet. Fortunately, matters quickly improved: Katamari Damacy, GTA: SA, Shenmue II, Jade Empire, Resident Evil 4, and Shadow of the Colossus are all great games, and I learned something from each of them.

Which brings us to today’s topic, Killer 7. Honestly, I just don’t know what to make of this game: it’s so different in so many ways from what I’m used to that my brain is having a hard time figuring out how to approach it. I’m not convinced that it’s not better than all of the games mentioned above (though what could be better than Katamari Damacy, really?); it probably has more flaws than any of them, but I also suspect game designers will still be (or should still be) learning from this game a decade from now.

I’ll start with my current basic categorization of video games: is this a game that I would allow Miranda to watch me play, or is it a game that I don’t want Miranda to watch? (That categorization is why I’m normally in the middle of two video games at any given time: right now they are KOTOR, in the former category, and God of War, in the latter.) This game unquestionably falls into the latter category; I don’t mind a bit of gun violence, but the weird creatures attacking you in the game are enough to disqualify it. (I don’t want to have her waking up screaming after dreams of invisible vaguely zombie-like monsters that lurch towards you, grab you, and explode.) I’m not sure I feel like explaining to her about the character who can break through barriers by slitting her wrist and spraying out a sheet of blood. And I’m not sure that she would react well to walking through a laundromat, opening a dryer, seeing a severed head in there holding a ring in its mouth, and having it talk to you. Probably the blood-spattered ghost of a boy that warns you about each level’s miniboss would not go over entirely well. And then there’s Iwazaru, who periodically gets lowered down from the ceiling via wires, wearing a red latex suit, a strange harness, collar, and straps across his face, whispering secrets to you; probably Miranda would be fine with him, actually, but it’s hard to say for sure.

(Completely unrelated note: there would seem to be an opossum walking through our backyard. Fortunately, the Zippy defense squad is on the case. I didn’t realize that opossums carried leaves and branches with their tail like that.)

The way the game handles multiple characters is fairly unusual. Multiple characters have always been a bit of a pet peeve of mine, though I won’t repeat my rant here; in this game, you have a choice of eight characters, who are all supposed to be alternate personalities of the same person, or something like that. (I’m not entirely clear on several aspects of this game.) You can switch between six of them at will (the other two of them are only for special circumstances), and they each have a special ability that you need to use in appropriate areas. It mostly feels like a game with a single character with several abilities, but there’s a bit of an RPG feel in there as well, since there’s a low key leveling-up system (using blood you’ve collected from killing enemies) which affects each character separately. It’s an interesting enough setup; works well enough, though I won’t say it’s rampantly successful. For one thing, the abilities are only used in certain specific areas; they could provide more differentiation between characters in the core gameplay, so that you could have a choice as to how to approach the game. (Which, actually, might not work so well in as strongly scripted a game as this one.) Also, most of the abilities are rarely used; for example, the aforementioned wrist-slitting only comes into play two or three times.

The game also tells you where to use each ability. (Though I think there’s a way to turn off those hints.) Which, surprisingly, doesn’t bother me too much – one of the things that I’ve learned over the last year or so is that, while I like it if a game requires me to do some amount of thinking, I’m actually pretty flexible on the exact amount as long as there’s enough going on to hold my interest. There are a few other puzzles in this game (e.g. using information from a poster that you saw elsewhere in the level to unlock a drawer); fine by me.

It’s done in a cel-shaded art style; I haven’t been thrilled with examples of that since Jet Grind Radio, but it’s a great fit here. Some levels also feature a distinctive style for their cut scenes – one level, for example, uses a superhero comic book style, and another level has a key enemy introduced in a very amusing anime fashion.

It doesn’t use normal controls for character movement – if the controls from the early Resident Evil games drove you crazy, then don’t think about picking this one up. You don’t use the joystick to move around: instead, the green button moves you forward, while the red button turns you around, so you can move in the other direction. And at some (but not all) places where the scenery branches (intersections of streets or corridors, fronts of buildings, etc.), you’re given a choice of directions to move in. If you hear a spooky laugh, then you probably want to select the R-trigger, which drops you into a first-person mode where you can look around freely (but not move at all). Which raises two questions:

  1. Why did they do this?
  2. Why isn’t it driving me crazy?

My best guess at an answer to the first is that it allows the designers to control the presentation and focus of the game. The game isn’t about you running around freely, exploring everywhere, developing a fighting style, searching everywhere for objects. It’s about you going where they want you to go, fighting enemies only as it advances the plot or as necessary to keep you from being bored while moving from place to place, solving puzzles in tightly scripted situations.

And my answer to the second question then is, their design is rich enough that I’m happy to put myself in the designers’ hands and go with the flow. The visuals, the character and level design, the plot are all the product of a strong vision; I’d rather explore that vision than fret about the fact that the game mechanics aren’t what I’d normally prefer. Don’t get me wrong – open-ended game play is great, too. But several games over the last year have taught me that games can do quite a lot of scripting for you, as long as they throw in a little bit of work for the game-player – witness the recent proliferation of Shenmue-style QTE’s, or the whole last chapter of Shenmue II.

There’s more to say about the game – its resurrection method of handling death deserves consideration, and I should say more about the plot (for that matter, I should figure out what on earth is going on in the plot) – but I’ll stop here. One question that remains: has Capcom always been this good? I am very glad that I played both this game and RE4, and Okami is the upcoming game that I’m looking forward to the most. In the past, I haven’t played many of their games, and in fact there are several well-regarded series of theirs that I’ve ignored completely; was that a mistake? I should investigate further.

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