Katana Zero is a 2D action platformer game that came out in April of 2019. I don’t know exactly how it happened, but I missed this title when it first dropped. I did see something about it near the beginning of 2020, but I figured I would get to it eventually.
Sometimes, when I get to a game that has been out for a number of years, I can find it underwhelming. This is especially true if someone has taken the formula of the original game and improved upon it, or created something entirely new with the same premise. While I will say that it is unfortunate that I waited so long to play Katana Zero, I will also say that it has in no way diminished this game in my eyes.
So, for the gamers who sometimes don’t have the cash to buy a game when it first comes out, who are inundated with other games to play, or have too many responsibilities, I’ve taken the time to see if this game is worth your time and money two years later.
Live / Die / Repeat
Katana Zero takes place in a Cyberpunk Neo-Noir future. You play as Subject Zero, a katana-wielding amnesiac who works as an assassin for a mysterious organization.
Zero has two abilities that make him uniquely suited to be an assassin.
The first is time dilation. He can slow down time, allowing him a level of speed and accuracy that far exceeds that of a normal human. This is used to slow down the frenetic action sequences and give yourself some time to breathe as you figure out how to deal with the onslaught of bullets.
While this ability is helpful, it runs out quickly and takes some time to replenish. I often found myself opting not to use it until it became absolutely necessary to do so.
The second ability is precognition. You see, death comes swiftly in Katana Zero. One hit, and you die. That’s it. Precognition allows Zero to see the results of any action he takes before he takes it. This essentially means that he can see all possible outcomes to any given situation. When you are playing the game, you are simply playing out those possibilities until you find one that allows you to succeed.
When you do finally complete an area without dying, you are shown security footage of your perfect run. The best part about this is that it does the run at full speed, leaving out any time dilation and making you look like a complete badass.
A Marriage of Form and Function
What is, hands down, my favorite aspect of Katana Zero is how the gameplay mechanics affect the story, and vice versa.
Zero’s time dilation and precognition are used to facilitate the storytelling. Sometimes you’ll be in the middle of a mission and it might cut back to an earlier point in the game to show you that Zero essentially lives in a reality unstuck from time itself. You can never truly tell where or when he is in the story because of this.
The precognition also lends itself to some very well-done scenes. These include scenes where you play with dialog and death, and others where your security footage playbacks are used to interesting effect. If I went into any more detail it would likely spoil the fun, but needless to say I was very impressed with the way the story used Zero’s abilities.
The cherry on the top of everything is that Katana Zero is an absolute joy to play. The controls are responsive and tight, and the gameplay is fluid and easy to learn. There is a level of skill involved, as later sections of the game require pinpoint accuracy and impeccable timing, so that’s something to be aware of before purchasing the game.
Though sometimes dying is half the fun.
I will say that there are a couple of levels where you need to use a stealth mechanic that is, unfortunately, not as fun as bandying about cutting people down with your sword. These sections weren’t exactly bad, but I felt that they broke up the action in a weird way.
What’s There to Talk About?
Another aspect of the game that I found truly interesting was the way dialog was presented.
You don’t just get one or two dialog options per interaction. Instead, you start off with one off-the-cuff answer that usually derails whatever the other person was going to say.
If you wait long enough, however, you’ll open up some other options that might yield more information… and they probably won’t piss off the person who’s talking quite as much.
While most of the dialog options never really lead to any big changes within the game, it was a nice way to spice things up when you weren’t running around killing everything that moves.
While I have already mentioned a couple of times that I really like how the story is told, I also enjoyed the story itself. It may not be the greatest story ever, but it hits some highs–and lows–that I found pretty impactful.
It reminds me of films like The Man From Nowhere or Safe. Basically, a guy with an unknown, yet violent, past kills his ways through an army of faceless bad guys.
The only real difference between those movies and this game is that in the movies, the guy is protecting a small child, whereas the game merely has Zero hanging out with one from time to time.
I also enjoyed that the game wasn’t told in a strictly linear way. There are dream sequences that might be flashbacks, flashbacks that might be inaccurate, and even some future flashes. While it can be confusing, I never found these aspects to be unwelcome. In fact, sometimes the best parts were me staring blankly at the screen trying to figure out what, exactly, was going on.
Overall, Katana Zero is a game you should not miss out on. The story, while short, is told in a unique and interesting way, and holds a surprising amount of emotional weight. The gameplay is phenomenal, with fast-paced action and pixel-perfect controls. And the game itself is a near perfect combination of the two.
I’m giving Katana Zero a stylish 9/10 for being unapologetically cool with its retro aesthetic and neo-noir setting, and for not only attempting some risky design elements, but for pulling them off without a hitch.
Overall, Katana Zero is a game you should not miss out on. The story, while short… is fantastic…and… and told in a… unique… have we done this before?