Katana Zero Review - 2D Action Platforming at its Best
Katana Zero ties an incredibly dark and thrilling narrative directly into fast and deep gameplay to create one of the best games of the year.
Review copy provided by the publisher
Katana ZERO was not the game I was expecting. Sure, it’s a 2D action platformer. I knew I was going to get some great combat elements just based off of what I had seen online and from the little I played during my time at PAX South earlier this year. However, what hooked me wasn’t just the gameplay – the overall narrative was deep, engaging, twisted, dark and enthralling.
This game kept my eyes glued to my Switch screen and my hands tightly gripped around each joy-con. Katana ZERO combines elements that you wouldn’t normally find in a shorter indie title to create one of the best games to release so far this year.
Katana ZERO, developed by Askiisoft and published by Devolver Digital, puts you in control of “The Dragon,” a super skilled samurai assassin tasked with taking down high-level targets. Through the 15 or so levels of the game, you will use your sword to take out rooms of enemies while also utilizing a dodge roll, an ability to slow down time, and the ability to pick up objects and chuck them at enemies. On a surface level, Katana ZERO looks like your run of the mill 2D action platformer, but once you dig deeper there is so much more to discover.
The overall narrative to this game captured me and what I find even more compelling is how the story ties directly into the gameplay. A modern issue with storytelling in video games is that, well, its a video game. There has to be gameplay in there to keep the player entertained between cutscenes unless a game is designed around it. Sadly, the gameplay often contradicts the narrative the game is trying to tell. A typical example would be dying hundreds of times without the game ever mentioning it once. We have grown accustomed to it and really just turn our brains off when it comes to this dilemma.
A game-specific example would be Link collecting 50 rushshrooms for some random dude so he can make a quick buck in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild while Calamity Ganon destroying Hyrule and Zelda is still battling the beast inside Hyrule Castle. It is nothing I would ever argue against a game for, but it is always fascinating when a game ties the two elements together. A great example of this would be in God of War. The overall point of that game was to scatter Kratos’ wife’s ashes atop the highest peak in the realms. That’s it. Their mission wasn’t time sensitive so who cares if they wanted to explore some. Atreus would even make mentions to it when inside the boat. While the overall premise of Katana ZERO isn’t the same, the gameplay ties directly into the narrative.
If you would like to go in blind, maybe skim through this review because I am going to touch on some elements that you might not want to be spoiled; however, I will try to keep it as light as possible. As stated before, “The Dragon” is an assassin that kills high-level targets. Before each mission, you meet with a therapist to talk about a previous mission, get your daily dosage of medicine, then get your next assignment. He will ask you questions about what occurred and you are given dialogue options to respond. You can even cut him off and ask for your drugs. Sometimes he will oblige, while other times he will get upset.
As the game continues on, the plot slowly unfolds and it is seeming unveiled to you that this medicine you are receiving gives you the ability to see into the future; however, you slowly lose all perception of time. If you run out of medicine, you essentially lose your mind and wander the rest of your days as a crazy person with no perception of time. It was fascinating to see how he handled being shackled to this drug while also using it to strengthen his skills. There are times in Katana ZERO where there will be Kojima-esk cutaways abruptly to completely different sections of the game.
This include moments like one where the player randomly appears back in the chair with your therapist, strengthening that sense of lost time. As the story continues, “The Dragon” slowly finds the truth about this drug and how it is being used against him while also finding out who he really is. What was cool gameplay-wise in relation to this was how Katana ZERO played with the gameplay mechanics of this perception of time.
During one section, you are getting questioned by some crazy mob boss. If you answer one of his questions wrong or even say something to slightly irritate him, boom, he puts a bullet in you. But since you are given these abilities to warp time, you get warped back the beginning of the conversations and answer questions before he even spits them out. For example, he says something about going on a date, then once you go back to the start, you can cut him off and bring that up, confusing the boss. He becomes aware of your condition will even joke around asking how many times he had killed you before. It was definitely one of the most interesting dialogue systems I have played around with.
Now, because “The Dragon” can see into the future, that gives you the ability to plan out each level before you actually go through them. Each time you die, he states “no, that won’t work” and you rewind to the start of that section of the level. Once you go through the level safely, “The Dragon” will state “Yes, that should work” and a replay of the level will play that can be skipped, slowed down, or fast forwarded through. The gameplay tying into the narrative really heightened the sense of immersion.
While the narrative kept me glued to my switch between levels, the gameplay was challenging, engaging, and satisfying when I took control. I can tell that Katana ZERO will be mesmerizing to watch someone speedrun, like Super Mario 64. As my skills increased, I felt myself quickly reacting instantly utilizing all of my newfound abilities. To start a level, I could bust through the door to take out a guard, stun a sword wielding enemy running towards me, jump over the stunned enemy, slow time to deflect an incoming bullet back toward a guard, and then turn around to take out the stunned guard.
That might just be one room within a bigger room. Another might have you dodge rolling two guards with shotguns because there are too many bullets to deflect while another might have you utilize a bunch of throwable objects to take out enemies at a distance. Once you have almost mastered the craft, a level will legitimately surround both sides of you with enemies that you must kill. At one point, I almost put down the controller because I thought I had entered a cutscene due to how many enemies there were. But nope, I had to take them all out. The gameplay loop of this game is so incredible due to the instant replayability after dying, the little moments of meticulous planning before making an attack, and the satisfaction of pulling off what you had planned.
My main gripe with Katana ZERO was sometimes it felt like I had to have just a bit of luck on my side to clear out certain areas or rooms. Sometimes a shotgun guard will hear you from the room over and come rushing into blast you, but other times they won’t. There were times where I thought I should have taken out an enemy but still died; meanwhile, there were other times I thought I should have died but actually was able to traverse the room. It isn’t that big of a deal because it only happened in some areas, but it is still worth noting.
This game left a lasting impression on me. It is really hard for me to come up with any gripes that I had with it. The soundtrack is incredible, the game has a beautiful pixelated art style with a neon noir touch, the narrative completely captured during my playthrough, and the gameplay is thought-provoking, fast, incredibly fun to play and even more fun to play once you have mastered it. If you are a fan of action 2D platformers, Katana ZERO is without question a must buy and one of my favorite games of the year so far.