It's impossible for the connected gamer not to have heard some of the hype, the questioning curiosity, or even the abrasive sound caused by people scratching their heads and wondering what the @#$#@ this strange game titled Killer7 is about. The devotees of the enchanted school of hardcore gaming, who are relieved to see otaku bizarreness other than the King of All Cosmos with his magnificent codpiece, of course counter the philistine masses to revel in Killer7's strangeness. There is one thing that all would likely agree on: Capcom has produced a game that may seem like a throwback to halcyon days of yore, when adventurers pointed and clicked their way to the end of a game, but it drips modern style and gun action along with rivers of blood.

From the beginning it was evident I was playing a particularly stylish piece of electronic entertainment, with a blunt opening that played out like the introductory credits of an anime movie, using bold colors and clean lines. This stark design gives the game a dramatic feeling throughout. The outdoor night in one chapter looked especially beautiful, featuring rain and Japanese trees in a grey-on-black world reminiscent of an old ink painting. Every transition in the game, whether the blood that coalesces with a character change or the static screen that accompanies loading from disc, illustrates that care was taken to generate the elegant atmosphere of Killer7. Let me not forget to mention the bizarrely endearing Iwazaru, a speak-no-evil spirit in red bondage gear who frequently pops up to assist, chide, cajole or even give the occasional narcissistic soliloquy.

The game is focused on countering the deadly Heaven Smile, mutated beings who have become monsters able to move invisibly and undetected through society, allowing them to appear where they will and to explode mercilessly, causing havoc and bloody destruction. They are a disturbing form of terrorism in an alternate near-future world, where countries are united and peace is the order of the new day. Right away the story jumps into an international scale, with the fate of Japan hanging in the balance.

Slurp was the sound of my brain getting sucked in. I was reminded of Front Mission 3 with its alternate Japan, its large man-made island, and even the segues that represent travel across the country. The story stayed interesting, albeit confusing, all the way to the dramatic ending of the game. It's a story worth pondering, and will take a bit of mental mastication to determine what was really going on. I will say that the ending sequence of the game gave me goose bumps. Or was that the definite ending…?

It is the Killer7 who can effectively fight the Heaven Smile. Each of the seven deadly personas of this syndicate has unique skills, all of which are required to progress through the game. The unusual premise is that each member of the Killer7 is one of Harman Smith's seven personalities; and each personality is a discrete individual. In terms of gameplay, I swapped assassins as appropriate for the task at hand, tapping each character's strengths and abilities. I had a lot to learn initially about how to utilize each character, but fortunately the game offers informational resources in the checkpoints and save areas known as Harman's Room. This was very beneficial, as not everything was self-evident (for example, how to counter-attack when an enemy was upon me, which saved my bacon a few times).

Killer7 is a very dark and—at times-a mentally claustrophobic game, steeped as it is in murder, intrigue and evildoers. There is a lot of death, gore and generally stylized unpleasantness. I was treated to everything from implied sex and invalid abuse to human taxidermy. One ongoing story is that of a severed head which keeps appearing to help out the Killer7. This started out amusingly, but progressed to be a sad story indeed. Even with the manga styling, this is not a game for the imaginative gamer who is shy of (or should not be exposed to) violence.

The focus of the action is based on shooting, with lots of blood to be harvested depending on how accurately the player targets the enemies. Attacks are done in a first-person view when the cackling laughter cues indicate the approach of a Heaven Smile. And the Smiles are present with good variety. Different weak spots or required tactics ensure it's not a mindless bash-fest for the gamer. The need to collect and conserve blood (which can charge shots or heal the Killer7 personas) adds a little more strategy. Also, thick blood can be converted to serum and used to upgrade the personas' stats, giving a bit of a RPG feel to the proceedings.

The game isn't overly difficult, although I think gamers without steady hands will be at a disadvantage until they are able to strengthen the personalities appropriately. There are many puzzles scattered through the game, and these tend to fall in three categories: memory-based, having the correct object to activate some element, or using the right character to reach an unavailable area. I had a definite sense of satisfaction in solving these puzzles, most of which were straightforward or intuitive. I was glad they weren't overly complicated, which kept the streamlined feel of Killer7 intact. Even the boss fights are like puzzles, in that they are based mainly on determining the correct actions to take in order to obtain a successful outcome for the player.

The game isn't without warts, or what would likely be angiomas in the world of Killer7. The biggest debate is likely to be about the control scheme. The three-dimensional world is not free-roaming where the player can wander at will. Rather, the gamer moves along set paths by pressing a button to move "on rails," with the options to turn around and to select from branching paths. It sounds confining, but in practice it was refreshing. I felt able to focus on story exposition and solving puzzles with minimal fuss. When combat was required I could participate in a visceral fashion that didn't involve trying to find the best location and angle to fight effectively. On the Playstation 2 version there were frequent load times, and although each load was brief, I found the frequency of them jarring. My main complaint was a few spots where the sound cue that heralds Heaven Smiles didn't seem to occur. These events didn't impinge upon my enjoyment of most of the game, but they did cause a couple of particularly aggravating moments.

I shut off the game after completion and wondered, Was this a triumph of that eternal fight of style versus substance? Killer7 has a look and feel that isn't quite like anything else out there. It treads new ground based on older sensibilities and demands to be taken on its own terms. It has a complex and mind-addling story that would make Hideo Kojima proud, combined with slimmed-down gameplay that Tetsuya Mizuguchi could have authored. It seemed fresh to me. The story had enough twists to keep me enthralled to the end, which didn't require an epic forty-hour time commitment. There were elements of strategy in the shooting, but it wasn't a first-person frag-fest. I would say that the emperor wears its bloodstained new clothes quite well. Rating: 8 Heaven Smiles out of 10.

Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.

According to ESRB, this game contains: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Sexual Themes, Strong Language

Parents will probably not want to buy this for children, due to the violence, foul language and sexual situations.

Fans of stylishness or strangeness should immediately buy this game, as it fulfills both of these.

I feel that Deaf and Hard of Hearing Gamers will have a struggle, because the laughter cue that signals nearby enemies has no non-audio equivalent.

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