It’s not as if Killer7 had much hype with which to mislead gamers, but many a player must have left it behind before seeing even a fraction of its true girth. Its surgically crafted looks – dark kindergarten colour palette and harshly graded shading – backed by Capcom’s perennial pedigree was enough to turn heads, and its promisingly ripe dementia enough to grip those heads by the throat. And, sure, while its lunacy could be enough to provide fetishistic arousal for those who like their games to offer an overdose of idiosyncratic personality, it likely left others spluttering and walking away, muttering and rubbing their necks.
Killer7’s psychosis is giddying and relentless, to the point of invading the spaces that can often be relied on as refuge: a stark and broody title screen where selecting a menu option is greeted with a piercing chuckle; loading screens that feature exploding silhouettes, ominously vibrating moons and sheets of blurred, twinkling pixels; tutorial advice and game hints meted out by a series of hoarse phantoms (a severed head, a dangling gimp, and more); even saving your game involves interacting with a schizophrenic dominant-submissive whose obedience and French maid outfit belies her secondary role as domestic abuser of Harman Smith, the leader of the elite squad of assassins that make up the Killer7.
Not that the Killer7 exist, strictly speaking. Each of the seven is a personality conjured by Harman, a 60-year-old dressed like a preacher and bound to a wheelchair that’s strapped with an armour-piercing rifle. And the Smith clan – Garcian, Dan, KAEDE, Mask, Con, Coyote, Kevin – is as rangy and enigmatic a bunch as could be expected. If that’s not enough of an assault for new players to wrap their heads around, any attempt to understand this family of pseuds is soon blotted out by a backdrop of geopolitics and suicide bombing, a wall of sonorous sound effects, a soundtrack that spins on a jukebox dime from deliberately cheesy techno to apt mood music to bare-faced sonic terrorism, and a script rich in slang, profanity and non sequiturs.
But, beneath the mask of madness, Killer7 is a surprisingly methodical and robust shooting gallery, even if it’s equally unconventional in approach when stripped to its mechanical parts. Exploration is handled in an on-rails fashion – characters move along predetermined pathways by simply holding down a button to make them run the course – with junctions and prompts offering slim choices along the way. An impersonal arrangement it may sound, but it’s one that allows the camera to showboat the gameworld to whichever effect it wants, while allowing puzzle props to be placed before the player with point’n’click precision. It also offers a greater opportunity to ogle, before stopping to flick to firstperson targeting for lightgun-style battles when confronted with Killer7’s terrorist force: The Heaven Smiles.
Invisible but often dawdling, Smiles are revealed by their unhinged giggles, and these humans mutated into walking bombs need to be scanned in firstperson to be made to reveal themselves. However Smiles are taken out – filled with enough bullets to turn their bodies into bloodhole fountains, instant-killed with a critical shot or simply upon self-detonation when they get close enough to your character – each one dies with a din of laughter, turning combat into a continuous chorus of hysterical cackles. And it’s the layering of multiple breeds of Smile (from rolling, jangling balls to ceiling-huggers to sickle-elbowed torsos) and their particular weak spots in any given set-piece shootout that can often demand a decisive, tactical triggerfinger. Bosses, too, are beautiful nonsense – take the example of a showdown with a pair of zombified businessmen, staged in an office boardroom, the tops of their skull-scalped heads firing blobs of head flesh in your direction. The strategy? Shoot one in his necktie so that the other moves to help him straighten it, exposing his vulnerable brain in the process.
A game that adheres so maniacally to its own rules is as much a turn up as a turn off, and risks coming across as ponderous and overly self-absorbed to those expecting a regular adventure underneath all the disturbing kook. Indeed, it’s perhaps Capcom’s assured production that proved to be a sufficient enough straightjacket to pull Killer7’s peculiar carnival into shape, and hold its mashed psyche together just tightly enough to allow the confident and vivid game within to not be lost to Grasshopper’s unwaveringly leftfield approach. Pitch-black but endlessly playful, always visceral but never predictable, it’s an experience whose bones few gamers will be able to pick clean, but whose existence fewer still should bellyache. A forthright and caustic original, it’s gaming’s own answer – if you like to draw such parallels – to the psychotropic, ultraviolent movies of Miike Takeshi, and one that will stand the test of time for as long as people can stand to play it.