Feature Article

Suda51's Killer7 Is A Punk Classic That's Still Worth Playing

The shape of punk to come.

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The world has never been ready for Killer7. There wasn't anything like it in 2005, when it released to zero fanfare. There's still nothing like it now, 13 years later, even though its creator, Goichi Suda, has made nine more games. It's only in the last five years or so we've started to see developers like Hideo Kojima, Toby Fox, and Swery play around on its wavelength, daring to be defiantly and blatantly bizarre and user-unfriendly in service of nothing but its own nihilistic being.

To wit, this PC release is a bare remaster. There's anti-aliasing now, it's in full widescreen, and on a good rig, you can regularly hit 60fps. That's it. And yet, it's maybe the greatest compliment publisher NIS could've paid to Killer7. It’s a game that accomplishes everything it wants and needs to do, at any resolution, on any platform, and doesn’t need high definition help to make its statement. It’s hard to figure out what Killer7 would gain from a more intense graphical upscaling besides adding a layer of polish that, thanks to the game's abstract nature, would ironically leech something away.

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If you're not familiar with Killer7: It's the future, and world peace has been achieved. Right when the UN is ready to put pen to paper on the treaty that would solidify that peace once and for all, a terrorist group called Heaven Smile shows up with an infinite army of suicide bombers crashing the ceremony and many other world-saving events across the globe. Deciding to take drastic measures, the CIA hires infamous-yet-senile hitman Harman Smith to kill specific targets who might be trying to exploit the period of disarmament to nefarious ends. Mostly, that turns out to be high-ranking members of the Japanese government, who are refusing to further submit themselves to American-led rule.

The "Killer 7" of the title refers to Harman Smith and his six dissociative identities. Garcian, a black, all-business professional "cleaner," is the second-in-command who receives Harman's assignments and is responsible for scraping the other personalities off the pavement when they get wasted. The rest range from the comparatively straight-laced--like the black-suited, revolver-wielding Dan or the toilet-mouthed Mexican assassin Coyote--to straight-up psychopaths. Kaede, who runs around barefoot, can summon ghosts with her blood, and Mask, a Mexican wrestler in a white tuxedo who carries grenade launchers, are the more unhinged of the group. Then there's Harman himself, revealed to be a sickly, wheelchair-bound old man whose caretaker, Samantha, goes back and forth from being a loyal and trustworthy servant when in her maid uniform to a Daisy Duke-wearing sociopath who may or may not also be Harman's BDSM partner. Freaky, but otherwise pretty straightforward.

On paper, Killer7 is a rail shooter. You run around self-contained areas, waiting to hear the distinct chilling laugh of a Heaven Smile, scan the area to make it visible, then fire away, preferably at their small but distinct weak spot to get a one-hit kill. If you take a hit, you can use the Smiles' collected blood to heal, wake up other personae, or power up the ones you have with new counter attacks. It's a fundamentally easy thing to do, especially now that using a mouse and keyboard is an option. There's some mild puzzle solving, and after finding "Soul Bullets" scattered through the stage, you take on a boss.

In practice, however, Killer7 has absolutely no interest in letting you play this simple game so safe. In fact, it becomes apparent very early on that the game's true enemy isn't the Heaven Smiles specifically, but the player's own ability to keep an even keel in an atmosphere of wild, abstract chaos. It all starts with the art style, a kind of psychedelic film noir that keeps all the askew angles and menacing shadows of the genre, while the actual action and scenery has more in common with bleeding-edge Asian horror. It's a weird mesh that simultaneously attracts and repulses.

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More than even the most unforgiving horror/survival titles out there, Killer7 is about unease and disquiet, in a genre of video game that by its very nature requires you to be a certain level of calm and collected. Even with an arsenal and a one-man army of badasses roaming the halls, you never quite feel in control in Killer7, and contrary to common sense, it’s actually a more exhilarating experience for it. This game is not a power fantasy, where the acquisition and use of sheer force can solve every problem. Killer7 is a haunted game where the victims of violence committed long before you arrived are everywhere--and have insight to impart.

The "why" of each mission in Killer7 is doled out in tangential, ponderous streams of consciousness, and if they only vaguely seem connected to the larger mission, it's because they aren't. Your primary hint-giving NPCs are an incomprehensible gimp in a red-leather bondage suit, and Harman's first target, now cold, with corpse's skin, musing as much on the nature of murder as he does on your current situation. The two who point the way to the bosses on each stage or offer important items are an innocent bystander whose face is stuck in an Edvard Munch permanent scream, and a suicidal teenager's severed, still-talking head. The player is the one who wants to keep their eyes on the prize, moving ever forward to their assassination target, not realizing in the moment that it's the least interesting and most abhorrent thing to do, especially without having a full grasp on the particulars. You shoot and kill and you ignore the collateral damage, and the dead, having no particular sense of urgency, are the only ones with the luxury to navel gaze.

Killer7 is a genuine satire, dark and grim, and so absurd it circles back around to being a sort of alien slapstick.

And yet, Killer7 is an ultimately Japanese story that feels gravely concerned with the home country being in the pocket of others--particularly the United States--and takes violent, darkly humorous potshots at the types of people and attitudes that perpetuate it. Killer7 is a genuine satire, dark and grim, and so absurd it circles back around to being a sort of alien slapstick, making Japanese-American sociopolitical reality into a twisted body horror vaudeville, and it’s distressing to progress and find out who the show’s for. There are forces in the game who are having just as much fun watching you run around with your wacky powers and fancy guns as you are, and if you don't feel as good about it when you find out who those forces are, then the game has done its job.

Beneath Killer7's varying atrocities isn't a smile and a wink from a developer trying to coax a specific level of confusion from their audience, but fire and purpose and anger that there really is no other example of, at least not in as cohesive a package as this. Killer7 has got style and substance, but neither are there to impress you. The mechanical function lets you believe that, sure, of course you're winning--but if you feel victorious, you're not paying enough attention. Killer7 is a very specific vision, and its remaster being presented largely as it was in 2005 feels like a statement: that Suda51 didn't apologize for the game being what it was then, so why should he start now?

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