Katana ZERO Review
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Platforms: PC (reviewed), Nintendo Switch
Katana ZERO is a stylish neo-noir, action-platformer featuring breakneck action and instant-death combat. Slash, dash, and manipulate time to unravel your past in a beautifully brutal acrobatic display.
Katana ZERO is an ultra-violent, samurai slashing neon-soaked mystery that's best played in one sitting, akin to a binge-worthy anime. As the fantastic feeling and rewarding combat grabs you, paired with the wonderful pixel art it's hard to stop playing, but it's the intrigue of the plot and its wackiness that will have you saying "one more level" late into the night.
From the outset — especially if you've watched the trailer for Katana ZERO — this game may look light on story, which, to me, was surprisingly not true. In fact, for the first couple levels of Katana ZERO, I think I spent more time in conversation choices than action, which was fine, but surprising.
Katana ZERO has you take on the role of a katana wielder with little backstory, but this is quickly explained via amnesia. You're given missions — AKA assignation targets — from your psychiatrist, who also happens to be your drug dealer, dosing you up on a mystery drug before each mission that he explains will help with your sleep problems. Those problems being weird dreams, shadowy figures appearing in the night and general disconnection to the world around you. Quickly Katana ZERO's story gets quite crazy and I'd be lying if I said I understood what the hell everything was about by the time the credits rolled, but then I also don't need to understand it all, and hell -- I don't even know if I was supposed to understand it all.
Without spoiling anything as it is a rather short trip with Katana ZERO taking me roughly 4 hours to complete, the game features many interesting themes including war, addiction, violence and drugs, of course. When it's all said and done, however, the game is left open for a sequel and from what I'm aware, post-game DLC is coming in some fashion, so ultimately Katana ZERO story wise can feel very much like the name implies: a prologue, chapter zero.
The majority of Katana ZERO's mission simply requiring killing all enemies in a room/screen, moving to next and repeating until it's over. Levels begin with a trip to your psychiatrist where you'll discuss the previous mission and what your dreams were about. After a mission you'll head home, interacting with a neighbouring little girl and go to sleep dreaming the same strange thing every night.
Playing Katana ZERO reminded me a lot of Hotline Miami's (also published by Devolver Digital) combat design, although Katana is a side-scroller. You die very easily, in one shot in fact, which means mastering each screen in the game often feels like a puzzle and pulling off the perfect sweep, taking out enemies fast and efficiently feels rewarding and bad-ass.
Your katana itself will kill most enemies in a quick slash, although some enemies will block your swing with their own weapon and require clean-up, while others carry a shield that does need getting around as well. You can use several other techniques to take out foes as well including slamming a door against them as you enter a room, throwing objects at them ranging from bottles to knives, or — and this one is very badass — slowing down time and hitting their own bullet back at them. Yes! Matrix shit.
Katana ZERO's time mechanic is part of the core gameplay as it allows you to hit bullets back at enemies, dodge them and other objects, but also allow yourself a breather if needed. It's also used as part of the story in a very unique way. Much like other games in similar genres that having you dying a lot, including Hotline Miami as mentioned, or even Celeste or Super Meat Boy, Katana ZERO will have you very quickly upon death respawn back at the start of the current room. It's fast and thus saves frustration other difficult games tend to build with loading screens. But what Katana ZERO does is build this into the narrative — you're dying over and over as if you can see what will happen until you get the perfect route and clear the room. Every death is followed with a "not like that" as the game rewinds time with a VHS effect to give you another go. This ability your character has becomes an integral part of the story as well, but it's super interesting just from a video game perspective to see a game actually play with your deaths and use them in the narrative.
There are a handful of boss fights in Katana ZERO and all felt unique and carried their own narrative weight. The final fight really grabs on to the rewind-time mechanics and pushes you to use your never-ending lives to conquer a foe one-step at a time and challenges you to use the knowledge each death brings you to slowly learn the puzzle.
Katana ZERO is has a surprising amount of level design and variation. Although I probably would have been fine if the whole game was simply: kill enemies in the room, proceed to next, kill enemies in the room, repeat until the level is cleared -- it wasn't. One of the earlier levels, for example, has you using stealth to creep through a crowded club to make your way to your target and a later level had me surprised to be playing out what I thought was going to be a cutscene simply because it was completely different to the rest of the game.
In between all the slashing, dodge rolling and time-rewinding deaths you can spend a lot of the game in conversation choices. I say CAN because you have the choice of playing the game like the ultimate asshole if you choose and cutting off everyone speaking, skipping most conversations. I played them all out because I wanted as much story information as possible, but replaying levels I was able to skip moments where I spent five or more minutes in conversation with characters. One level, in particular, I interacted with the receptionist at a hotel as I was entering, telling them I was a cosplayer and that's why I had the massive sword on my hip. They believed me. When I was leaving the building later after killing, I dunno 20+ people, the receptionist stuck up for me as a Police Officer tried to question me, explaining that I was, of course, a cosplayer. If you're rude to that receptionist on the way in, your exit doesn't go as smoothly. From what I can tell, none of these choices changes or affects the games ending in any way, but they add to the overall experience on the way through.
Katana ZERO features this fantastic neon designed pixel art and the character designs are fantastic. The world itself was reminding me off Final Fantasy 7's Midgar, maybe a hundred years prior to Cloud showing up. It's definitely based in our own Earth though, but it feels otherworldly at times.
The soundtrack in Katana ZERO is kick-ass with a majority of the songs coming from ludoWic. These dark, electronic tracks that perfectly suit each and every stage begin every level by setting the mood. They are going to be on repeat for a while for me as soon as the soundtrack arrives on Spotify.
When you finish Katana ZERO you unlock this room that has several doors that you can open with secrets of some sort found within the game. There's no explanation of how to get them, where to look, or what exactly you need to do to get them. I'm all for hard to find collectables, but it's really weird when you find out after FINISHING the game that there is stuff to collect or achieve somehow, and it's a really odd choice to not explain or help the player at all in heading in the right direction towards unlocking these. I have no idea how you unlock them, or what's within these doors.
Katana ZERO is ridiculously cool and fun to play, but it's the mix of its intriguing, mysterious plot and the katana action that will lead many to finish it in one play session. If there's one major complaint about Katana ZERO however, it's that there isn't enough, but that doesn't mean you can't rewind-time to do it all over again.
(Katana ZERO code provided for review)