Katana Zero is a brutal, challenging, neo-noir 2D action platformer that leaves a strong impression.
You control Zero: a Katana wielding assassin who has the ability to slow down time, as you complete various different contracts that are supplied by your psychiatrist. Sounds pretty insane right? It is.
Beyond the cool aesthetic and intriguing premise, there is a lot here to discuss, with some interesting design choices that may polarise some.
Not all is as it seems:
Set in a dystopic, post-war metropolis called ‘New Mecca’, the world of Katana Zero is one rife with brutality and mystery. Between every kill, and every stylish run, there is a story being told. In-fact, Katana Zero surprised me in terms of how much time has been devoted to the story.
Often weaved through subtext and acute worldbuilding, Katana Zero has unashamedly opted for a much more direct way of story-telling than I have generally experienced in this genre. Cutscenes between missions, as well as an open-ended dialogue system, contribute to this story-heavy approach.
A risky gamble, but thanks to a compelling script, interesting characters and some meaningful choices, it all comes together so well.
I have absolutely no intention of spoiling any aspect of the game’s story; I found it far too gripping and shocking because of going in ‘blind’, however, I am happy to say that it was my favourite part of the game. Again, not something I would normally expect from this genre.
The overall structure is fairly simple; missions consist of taking down various different targets that are assigned to Zero by his therapist. Depending on how you approach these missions, as well as how you behave during your therapy sessions(and how much you ‘comply’), the story can branch out in different directions. This gives the game a degree of replayability, as depending on your choices, you will experience one of ‘two’ potential endings.
As mentioned, I am intentionally leaving a lot out of this description. I just want to reiterate; the story is really quite fascinating.
That being said, there was one prevailing gripe I had with the story. Sometimes it felt like the game was a tad too ambiguous and vague, just for the sake of building intrigue. By the end of my playthrough I certainly had a lot to theorize about, but also an alarming lack of understanding regarding the games events. I think there could have been a better balance here; between offering players the chance to read between the lines, and also to present at least a few concrete ‘facts’ about the story.
Simple, stressful, but ultimately satisfying:
One hit – that is all it takes for Zero to get sent straight to the great beyond. One hit is something you cannot afford – at any moment – throughout Katana Zero. No surprise here: I died a lot. However – and without sounding too dramatic: death has been mine and Zero’s greatest teacher.
You’re expected to die in Katana Zero. It is part of the experience. And, thankfully, the pace of the game and the size of the levels encourages you to experiment. Each mission is divided into a number of smaller floors that you need to get through. This structure encourages a frenetic, ‘trial and error’ approach to each floor, because when you die you’re quickly brought back to the start of the floor, rather than the whole level.
This makes Katana Zero feel far more forgiving, and led to me doing a number of intentional ‘trial’ runs to see how I could best use the environment; enemy positions; and the many collectable weapons, to my advantage. By the end of a successful run I felt empowered; like a mastermind revelling in the rewards of his careful planning. It also kept me motivated to press on, despite the inherent game’s difficulty. Each death whilst disappointing, taught me something new; especially with some of the multi-layer boss battles. Again, finally surpassing a challenging boss felt incredibly rewarding.
In terms of mechanics, Katana Zero keeps things relatively simple. You have a melee attack with your katana; you can pick up items from the environment to use as weapons; you can dash, dodge and jump your way through incoming fire – all pretty simple stuff really. Oh, and you can also manipulate time.
Over the course of the game, progression doesn’t materialise in the form of gaining new abilities or skills, but rather, mastering all of these simple mechanics, and figuring out when to use them most efficiently.
When things come together, it can be incredibly satisfying. That being said, the environments and enemy variety don’t change all that much throughout the game. Aside from some unique mechanics in boss battles, there is little else that diversifies this formula. In a sense, this is understandable; the game is about mastery, however, I would have appreciated a greater variety of enemies and ways to interact with the environment. Whilst the story constantly kept adding new layers and twists, the gameplay sometimes struggled to keep up.
In the end, the games modest length and tight story, support a simple, well designed gameplay formula. However, I would hope to see further innovation in the planned dlc release.
Stylish and full of character:
Synthwave music – check. Neo-Noir aesthetic – check. Katana wielding assassination – check.
Katana Zero absolutely racks up style points. I’m not sure how I’d quantify ‘cool’ in a gaming sense, but this game definitely fits the bill.
The game is a sensory buffet; with excellent sound and graphical design contributing to a pronounced tone and character. The gritty New Mecca provides a memorable performance, with the juxtaposition between Zero’s neglected apartment and the psychiatrists distinctly ‘lavish’ office, offering an additional layer of visual character building and storytelling.
Furthermore, the brutality of every time-shifting kill, and assassination, is punctuated by the games excellent sound and visual design. I really cannot understate how much I adored Katana Zero’s style; it makes you feel like such a badass.
Is it worth it?
Unlike Katana Zero, and it’s intentionally ambiguous narrative, I am going to be very clear for a second: Katana Zero is absolutely worth the money. I’d even go as far as to say the story alone justifies the games modest price, and with upcoming dlc(free, I might add), as well as a somehow even more brutal hard mode(unlocked upon completion), there is a decent amount to experience beyond the initial 4-5 hour story.
If you’re looking for an intriguing, suspenseful narrative with complex characters and themes; fast-paced, empowering gameplay full of badassery; and a fantastic aesthetic that just oozes character, Katana Zero is a must buy.