Killer 7 was one of, if not the most polarizing game of its generation. I have seen debates in which people are asked to “step on one side of the line” in regards to what they think of a game, but only after Killer 7 popularized the idea. You must either love or hate this one, with no chance of finding a middle ground.
What could cause such divisive opinions in the first place? We can start by blaming ourselves. Killer 7 was announced early in the Gamecube’s life, when users were scrambling for another violent, mature game that could legitimize Nintendo’s place in the console war. Nintendo’s family first attitude was costing them users and goodwill, so fans of the company felt compelled to defend them, as well as their purchase. If Killer 7 were good – nay, great – then perhaps it could inspire other developers to focus more on the ‘Cube. Instead, the game was released in 2005, the same year as the Xbox 360. The Gamecube was dead in the water by then, or close enough to it. It was time for a swan song for the little console that could, but instead we got something that swapped mass appeal for artistic expression. But perhaps this was all meant to be. The console’s story is one in which Nintendo’s goal to appeal to the entirety of gamedom hit a road bump as both they and third parties got a bit more experimental than usual. Lots of gamers love Mario, Zelda and Metroid, but a smaller subset would consider Mario Sunshine, Wind Waker and Metroid Prime to be their franchise favorites. From this perspective, Killer 7 was right at home on the Gamecube.
But that didn’t stop people from raging. Even if the previews and reviews warned us of the linear controls, awkward 1st person combat, and convoluted story, people still bought it and still complained that it was not their cup of tea, even though they knew the flavor of said tea beforehand. The initial reactions were indicative of the type of console fanboyism that was much stronger last generation. Back then, people were used to getting upset every time a Gamecube exclusive fell short. Some of them still had yet to grasp the idea that a non Nintendo console may better fulfill their needs, and even more of us thought that Nintendo was in worse financial shape than it actually was. Nowadays, we still get mad when a “core” game on the Wii falls flat, but we also know that these failures are not nails in Nintendo’s coffin. And we know that the 360 and PS3 have well rounded libraries of their own, and are worth owning (if we can afford them). If Killer 7 came and went on the Wii, we would probably regard it more like No More Heroes (another game developed by Grasshopper Manufacture), and get on with our lives.
As for the game itself, I consider myself a fan. Killer 7 is described as the kind of game you have to “get” in order to appreciate, but I have been distancing myself from this line of thinking. You don’t have to “get” it so much as you have to get over the steep learning curve of the first level. After that, your enjoyment of the game will boil down to whether it offers exactly what you are looking for. Are you the type who wants to take the setting for what it is, or the type to question how the characters decide which hallways and doors they can move through on their on-rails path through a level? Do you care more about solving puzzles, or whether they make a lick of sense? Will you enjoy upgrading your skills through some light grinding, or does that sound tedious? Is the ability to revive characters worth it when it involves so much backtracking? Essentially, like any game helmed by Suda51, you have to ask yourself whether you will view his questionable design choices with a critical lens, or if you will give him a pardon for the sake of the points he is trying to make.
I will admit that I fall into the latter category, at least when it comes to Suda, though my reasoning in regards to Killer 7 is that the game’s oddities work in its favor. In a setting that combines reality with demi gods and paranormal cults, having puzzles that are traditionally “gamey” in their absurdity is hardly surprising. Furthermore, the cast itself is a well rounded blend of oddballs. Too many games have a habit of making their characters weird and quirky simply for the sake of it, but the Killer 7 avoid this problem. Some of them are designed to portray the typical archetypes of contract killers, while others take traditionally safe and innocent roles (cute teenager, heroic wrestler, handicapped child) and add a subversive twist that put them on the right side of unsettling. It also helps that the story hits the right notes at the right time. Bosses and NPCs alike are often killed off with brutal efficiency and never discussed again. When it decides to wax philosophical, it does so without overstaying its welcome. For such an artsy game, it does not try to beat you over the head with its themes. Instead it invites you to a strange and seedy world that you are not supposed to like, but feel compelled to explore.
Speaking of the plot, while I thought that it came out of left field, it ended up being interesting enough. While there is much of the game’s history to parse (and indeed, some members of the Internet have scoured any and all materials to do so), its basic premise is an exploration of the post WW2 struggle between East and West. This main thread is easy enough to understand, so the game isn’t entirely a matter of having to figure out Suda’s messages in order to feel like you got something out of the experience.
Killer 7 is also a great example of the visual splendor that can come out of cel shading. The simple, at times abstract depictions of ordinary locations, as well as the sometimes odd choices of coloring come together to make many of the environments works of art in and of themselves. It also reinforces the notion that this is very much a fictional and exaggerated depiction of the real world, and is the first component of the game that is able to set this tone.
Looking back at Killer 7 without the generational baggage and fanboy rants, I find it entirely plausible to find a middle ground, or at least a simple assessment. It still feels unorthodox, and it does get too weird for its own good, but the game is so well documented at this point that it is easy to know what you are getting into. If you still haven’t played Killer 7, figure out if it is right for you. If so, you will find some way to enjoy it. Otherwise, no amount of effort will turn your opinion into a favorable one. It may not have turned out to be the game everyone wanted, but at least now you can’t say you were scammed.