Katana ZERO is a title that’s been in development for a very, very long time. The developers Askiisoft have been taking the title around the convention circuit for years, but now the title approaches release through the powerhouse that is Devolver Digital. A 2-D side-scrolling action game that appears to have Hotline Miami written all over it, but under the surface it really is it’s own little gem.
Players will immediately notice the Hotline Miami inspiration in the abundance of gore, the brutal one-shot deaths for you and your enemies that restart the level upon your death, the 80’s aesthetic and of course the throbbing electronic soundtrack. Oh, and the fact it’s hard as balls.
The difficulty doesn’t come from situations that are stacked against the player. It comes from the gradual introduction of mechanics that test the player and develop a gameplay loop that’s quite unlike anything else. Instead of relying solely on the player’s reflexes, as many titles of this nature love to do, Katana ZERO gives the player a skillset to master.
You have several skills at your disposal. One is a roll that makes you briefly invincible for its duration, allowing you to roll past guards and other precarious situations to set up a quick kill. Secondly, you can slow down time in short bursts, allowing you to dodge bullets, set up nasty bullet-deflects, and avoid any number of the precarious dangers Katana ZERO loves to put in front of you. While these abilities sound like the perfect escape should you make a costly mistake, they really are just another tool for you to use in your grand plan, because the game is far too unforgiving to let you get away with a lucky break.
You really do have to take each engagement with thought. This is not a title you go through perfectly first time. In fact, dying is almost encouraged by the gameplay loop, learning the level and its quirks, then thinking up the best approach to try it all again. Your death takes you back to the start of the level, and nothing will change. No guard is going to suddenly face the other way, no magic laser is going to kill everyone for you. Take what you learned, and try, try again. It’s a gameplay loop that rewards you for trying new things and also rewards you for taking the time to plan. It’s an incredibly satisfying experience made all the more worthwhile with a lovely level replay at the end, so you can see how masterfully you dispatched your foes without the stress of hitting buttons.
When it comes to dispatching your foes, you’ll be rather spoiled for choice when it comes to methods of inflicting pain. As the name might suggest, your weapon is a Katana, with blisteringly fast, hard-hitting blows available to quickly dispatch your foe. Better still, hitting a foe unleashes an impact wave that can capture multiple enemies in one fell swoop. What’s more, that impact wave can deflect bullets. Coupled with a nice bout of slowed time, and you have yourself an incredibly satisfying way of dispatching your foes.
If that all feels a little too pedestrian, you can use items you find about the world, such as knives and bottles to eliminate your enemies from a distance. It’s the mastery of all of these elements, coupled with movement, trap avoidance, and most importantly the invincible roll, that makes the gameplay loop in Katana ZERO feel so damn satisfying. Ever had that “one more level” feeling? You’ll get that in spades here.
What’s more, this isn’t just some senseless pixelated action title. There’s a storyline there, and it’s actually rather intriguing. You fill the shoes of “The Dragon” a legendary serial killer whose name is rarely mentioned aloud. while your legend runs deep, the persona hides a troubled soul, a wandering Samurai who’s all but lost his memory. You’ll receive help from medication to halt your shadowed nightmares, and as you slay your way through your assignments, you’ll meet a girl whos words will snap you out of a trance and lead you down routes that make you question everything you’ve ever known.
What improves the desire for “one more level” is Katana ZERO’s impressive storytelling. As you play through you’ll reveal more of the story with every level. Dialogue is noticeably deliberate, with a slow and meaningful pace that makes you pay attention. Interestingly, you have the choice the interrupt anyone you speak with, but this is not your usual skipped dialogue. Characters will react to whatever you interrupt them with, and they’re not always going to take it on the chin. If you wait, then you’ll have options galore, and it certainly seems that your reactions will have some impact on where the story goes. Even more reason to come back and play again.
Katana ZERO’s atmosphere deserves some recognition. This isn’t some nostalgia-fest pixel-art title. Characters are expressive even with the limited poly-count, and the levels have a distinctive atmosphere from the smoke and lighting that gives this 2D experience more depth than you’d think possible. Couple that with a soundtrack full of dark synthesized goodness that creates a dingy atmosphere that is really absorbing.
Katana ZERO is a title that holds a lot of promise. While it would be possible to easily break the fine balance of mechanics, if the title continues to add in the manner it is now, then this will be something truly special that fans will remember for a long, long time.