It's been over two-and-a-half years since Capcom memorably announced it would be treating Gamecube owners to five exclusive titles, though things have altered slightly since then. Of course, three of those five have already been released. P.N.03 (PALGN score: 6) was arguably the weakest of the bunch (though misunderstood if you ask fans of the game), Viewtiful Joe (a deserving 9) enjoyed an positive critical reception, even if consumers didn't embrace the comic-book superhero in quite the same way, and Resident Evil 4 (a perfect 10, this site's first and only perfect score) was, well, simply magnificent in every way. Dark Phoenix is missing in action, presumed lost to development hell.
Thus, the fifth and final piece of the puzzle is killer7 (the lower-case 'k' is a post-E3 adjustment, as is the lack of a space between 'killer' and '7'), almost certainly one of the most outrageously stylised games ever created, and a title that is looking like it could have your average politician in quite a froth should it ever come remotely close to selling Grand Theft numbers. To date, there's been little concrete information given to the press on Grasshopper Manufacture's surreal creation, save for the occasional obscure screenshot that's been dripfed into PALGN's inbox. But now, three weeks away from the European and Australian launches of the title, Capcom have divulged a sudden welter of information.
In what is a game driven considerably by narrative, it seems appropriate to begin with the rather unique story that underpins killer7. In Grasshopper's game, the world has finally embraced global peace. A network of intercontinental expressways has been established, bridging the continents. Radioactive materials and weapons of mass destruction have been eliminated, removing all threats to peace. Yet with the World on the brink of a new, utopian era, the arrival of the Heaven Smiles - violent soldiers released by a powerful underworld kingpin - threatens to upset the applecart as havoc begins to reign on the streets once again. Hark the arrival of Harman Smith, a wheelchair-bound assassin with a multiple-personality disorder of considerable proportions.
Smith rules over not two, but seven alter-egos, all of whom share the same surname and a capacity for extreme violence and murder. By switching between his seven different personalities, Harman is able to employ each personality's unique abilities to complete their mission. It's up to the player to interchange Harman's seven 'partners' and utilise the special powers that dwell within them in order to assassinate Kun Lan, the notorious criminal overlord behind the chaos.
It promises to be a somewhat crazed and convoluted tale, but it gives PALGN great pleasure to confirm that, despite the highbrow, ambitious narrative and the edgy, post-modern looks, there appears to be a solid game in here. The action is exclusively on-rails, a creative decision that caused some consternation amongst Gamecube fans, though with the likes of Rez, Lylat Wars and Panzer Dragoon Orta in the same genre, PALGN isn't overly anxious about this. Indeed, it works well here, with the player being moved around the predetermined paths of each level by holding down the A button, and the B button turning them around on the spot. Occasionally, the paths fork off in different directions, at which point the screen divides into fragments, offering different routes that the player can choose from with a push on the analogue stick.
The bulk of the gameplay is a mix of shooting and more cerebal moments, so when the bullets aren't flying, there's usually Resident Evil-style puzzles to be solved or exploring to be done. Progress isn't always as straightforward as it seems however, with the player permitted to make use of any one of the game's seven protaganists whenever they please. As mentioned above, each of Harman Smith's seven alter-egos possess very different skills, with the nature of the game's puzzles and environments demanding that the player makes use of each character.
They're a motley bunch, ranging from Kevin Smith - a knife-throwing expert with the ability to turn invisible - to MASK De Smith - a wrestler armed with a grenade-launcher - to KAEDE Smith, a ghostly, adolescent girl who carries a sniper rifle and disposes of selected barriers by slashing open one of her wrists and dissolving them with a wild spray of blood (talking of which, this isn't a game that shies from showing ample amounts of blood, with Tarantino-esque dollops of gore justifying the '15+' certificate that will accompany the game in Australia and the '18+' certificate in Europe).
Should any of the seven Smiths actually die during the game, then the player is taken back to the nearest 'TV room' - essentially strategically-placed savepoints - where the player then assumes the identity of one Garcian Smith. It's then Garcian's task to retrieve the body (now in a bloodied bodybag) of the fallen Smith from the same location where they died. Should Garcian himself be taken out by one of the Heaven Smiles, then it's well and truly game over. It can be a tense experience as well, especially when you consider the Heaven Smiles are near-invisible, appearing only as faint blurs who are given away by a distinctive, sinister sniggering. Switching to the first-person perspective allows the player to temporarily see them, meaning constantly switching between first- and third-person perspectives - much like in the recent Metal Gear Solid games - is something of a necessity.
A morbid humour pervades the game, best characterised by the various ghosts (supposedly past victims of the killer7) who turn up at various points in each stage to give hints on how to solve puzzles. These apparitions range from the spirit of a gimp hanging from a cord to a disembodied head that appears in curious places, such as the inside of a washing machine.
Whether or not this kind of thing will appeal to a sizeable audience is very debatable, though by introducing a simultaneous PlayStation 2 release to go alongside the Gamecube version (both are due for release in PAL regions on 24th June), Capcom clearly feel there's a taste for this type of game. Indeed, PALGN would love to see such an esoteric title succeed at retail - killer7 has all the visual flair and imagination of a Viewtiful Joe and then some. What will be more interesting to see is whether or not it possesses the substance and the commercial appeal of a Resident Evil 4.