In this 2D high density pixel-art dash ‘n’ slash-‘em-up, you play a lone assassin who quickly earns urban-mythical status as ‘The Dragon’. Taking on missions without much by way of context, you stylishly run or sneak through linear rooms in order to get to your mark and dispatch them, no questions asked. That is unless you feel like talking…
Katana Zero’s neo-noir cyberpunk setting attacks your mind in the best possible way; constantly messing with your expectations. Your character’s interactive daily routine consists of your counselling, your mission, drinking herbal tea and falling asleep with the TV on. Beverage preferences aside, it’s the counselling sessions that flirt with the mystery of who you are and why you do what you do, in the initial stages of the game, creating an unusual concoction of entertaining nuggets of narrative, a side of presence and a morsel of backstory. Presence, for your character, is important as the drug you’re being injected with at the end of each session, aptly named Chronos, gives rise to some unconventional effects.
Avoiding spoilers is an absolute necessity for gaining the full impact of Katana Zero’s acid trip of a plot. Not knowing who you are or what you’re doing makes for a clichéd, yet utterly compelling means of guiding you through this turbulent ride. Things start dark and descend from there. The best bit though? The choices. Your perception of time, place and identity is about to undergo some readjustment. Buckle up.
Character interactions take place during gameplay in neat, cinematic set-pieces where the fluidity and quality of the writing draws you into the sword-wielding hitman’s meaningful conversations. The weight of your existential nightmare bleeds into Katana Zero’s dialogue choices. When given the choice to respond to a cue, a bar hits the screen, prompting you to select your next line. The game will often give a harsh/blunt option that is only available for a small portion of the quickly depleting timer, once the timer passes a certain point, other options become available. This creates a stimulating tension by giving you a short window to hit home with the immediate gut reaction or miss the cue in favour of a more thought out and reasoned reply. This role-playing element not only adds interactivity but a firmer connection between the player and the character. Now sip your herbal tea and get some shut-eye before the mission.
After being given a folder with details of your target, you’ll proceed to burn it, Mission Impossible style. Then it kicks off.
It’s in my Blood, Sucker
Each level is set out in sections that generally take around 30 seconds to pass through. Within the series of rooms, patrolling enemies will be on guard and ready to attack, and my word, their reaction time is good. A successful run involves dispatching everyone quickly and efficiently, however with only a blade and a dodge roll to take on a hail of gunfire you’re not going to have an easy time of it. Take a single hit and you’re dead.
Kick down a door, roll past the first guy, slice him the back, ricochet a bullet off your katana, back into the face of the next dude, then… well, get shot in the face by the other fella stood at the back of the room. It was never going to be easy. Good job there’s a chemical tool in your arsenal, that grants you one hell of an equaliser.
Chronos grants you the ability to manipulate your perception of time and an exceptional precognition ability. Like Dr Strange, Shulk or the Rat from Juni Taisen, Katana Zero’s so-called Dragon can play out the scene ahead before it occurs. In gameplay terms this means that, on death, you rewind to the start of the section. There’s great satisfaction in making a clean, pre-approved run before watching the (skippable) replay of the scene immediately after.
In order to gain the upper hand, you’re able to slow time down to a crawl to enable you to dodge attacks and skilfully slice yourself a path to the end. This bullet-time feature is limited in use but steadily recharges when unused. It’s thrilling to run through a hall way, tap the bullet time button just as you’re about to get shot to give you that little extra reaction time and quickly plan out how you’re going to reach the next foe, right after you’ve flung the vase from the nearby table between the eyes of the unsuspecting sap who underestimated your top-draw sword skills, then strolling out like nothing happened.
You zig When you Should’ve Zagged, and oops, Junior takes a knock to the Noodle, Comes out with a Shiner the size of a Grapefruit
Movement is tight, the platforming light, which isn’t an issue as you’ll want to spend most of your time on the ground (being mid-air makes you an easy target) and the slashing simple, but satisfying. The accompanying animation is smooth and the games runs without a hitch, allowing the character designs to be appreciated. The pixel work leaves a lasting impression and just fits the general theme.
Katana Zero is a difficult game that promotes a blend of trial-and-error and strategic planning. Enemy movement and reactions are easily mapped but this predictability is offset by the unequivocal split-second punishment that’s coming your way when your timing’s marginally off. At times it feels like an action-platformer, other times a puzzle game in working out the best route. Death is to be welcomed as means of improvement and the incremental gains after each run will allow you to adjust to the game’s attention demands.
All this sounds intense, right? Well the looping, trance-like state that’s brought in part by the electronic soundtrack, coupled with the time-bending mechanics makes everything feel calm. Yes, there’s tension and frustration abound, yet Katana Zero brings that wonderful arm-chair chill time once you’re immersed in the dark settings.
Katana Hero Mode
My one complaint relates to the sudden surge in difficulty that appears approximately mid-way through the game. A later section, which I won’t spoil, has a means of introducing a new mechanic that gives you a powered-up feeling. That’s short-lived as the accompanying levels are ludicrously difficult. A room with four guys isn’t too problematic, depending on the type of enemy, but when the SWAT-style shields are out and everyone seems to own an automatic or wide-spread shotgun, progression quickly grinds to halt. It took a big push to become competent enough to clear these stages but I can imagine a lot of players losing patience with the structure before they reach this point.
With some serious head-mashing, perception-bending, moral questioning and heterogenous (and often twisted) cast, the narrative beats Katana Zero offers hold a lot more than a small section of gameplay footage or trailer can possibly give away. The gameplay is fun, if a touch repetitive in the late game, but the overall package is polished and packed with a good few hours of action. The game is an experience that’s worth a playthrough for anyone. Replayability mileage may vary, even with the story options allowing for a different angle, but with the only drawback being the sudden difficulty spike, there’s far more to love than loathe.
Seriously kids, don’t do drugs.
Gameplay : 8
Overall Score: 9/10
Format: Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PC, Mac
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Age Rating: PEGI 16
Release Date: 19/04/19
Review copy provided by publisher