by Quinn Levandoski
reviewed on PC
More Than Meets the Eye
Given the general gist of things, I'd forgive you for thinking that Katana Zero is just another pick-up-and-play, brutally hard action game in the same vein as genre heavyweight Hotline Miami. Dressed like a samurai, and with a skill set to match, our protagonist Zero is a contract killer adept at infiltrating and taking out high profile targets. Katana Zero is bloody. Katana Zero is challenging. Katana Zero is also so much more than I expected it to be when I started playing.
At the start of the game, you know just about as much about Zero as he knows about himself, which isn’t much. We know he’s a veteran of the losing side of a war. He’s got amnesia. He dresses like a samurai, and he’s got the incredibly helpful ability to manipulate time. As you can imagine, these facts combine to make him one of the scariest dudes in town. The first level or two play the concept pretty straight. You’ll be plopped into a map and asked to fight through it in order to eliminate a target. Part of the game’s beauty is how much depth the combat is afforded by such a modest amount of actual moves and controls. Right away you’ll have the ability to slow time, slash with your sword, roll dodge, and throw environmental pickups, and nothing is added to that the entire game. There are no skill points, no combos, and no weapon improvements to work towards. What you get early is what you get, which gives the game time to really dig into the depth of its set up. One hit kills just about everything (including Zero), so perfecting your timing, maneuvering, and spacial management is absolutely critical. It’s all incredibly satisfying and really garners a palpable sense of achievement upon success. There were a few rooms that took me dozens and dozens of tries, and, while I can’t say I was never frustrated, the frustration always seemed surmountable and made my eventual victory all the sweeter.
Come for the Blood, Stay for the Story
If easy-to-learn, tough-to-master twitch combat was all that Katana Zero had going for it it’d still be a solid game that I’d probably recommend, but after the game’s opening mission or two the narrative starts to take hold and the wheels start turning for what becomes one of my favorite narrative gaming experiences in recent memory. What begins as a simple arcade action-platformer develops into a genuinely intriguing mystery about time, memory, drugs, relationships, and even mental health. The way Katana Zero uses its drug-infused time-manipulating premise to play with the player’s perception not only of the narrative but of actual gameplay and progress is deeply satisfying and is a perfect example of the type of stories that only video games can tell.
The story works so well in large part due to the wonderful presentation. I’ve knocked games quite often in the past for falling back on retro pixel graphics as a crutch to make up for poor artistic vision, but Katana Zero’s sprites and animation are top-notch. Every character’s every movement is animated with enough detail and nuance to really bring them to life and give them personality. This is true during combat, but it's doubly true outside, with simple body language doing a lot to sell anger, confusion, joy, and exhaustion. The soundtrack, which varies from classical to synthwave-y, perfectly punctuates story and action. The dialogue is also well written and is presented in an engaging timed-response system in which different dialogue options are only available at limited times. The best part is that people actually respond in a realistic way when you speak to them aggressively, interrupt them, or maintain your manners and respect. Too often in games I can act like a complete ass, get one line of dialogue about being nice, then the conversation moves on. That’s not the case here, with people’s general demeanor and the length of conversations meaningfully change in reaction to how you treat them.
Zero to Hero
Katana Zero is on the short side, but it uses every minute of its 5-6 hour run-time well, packed to the brim with satisfying carnage and a brain-bending narrative. It’s not often that a game so completely blindsides me, entering my radar and winning me over so quickly, and it’s a wonderful feeling when it happens. In fact, my only gripe, and it’s incredibly minor, is that I wish there was just a little bit more of it to love. I have no hesitations about recommending this game for just about everyone.
Music, art, gameplay, and story all come together to create a near-perfect gaming experience.