Action Indie Platformer Review

Katana ZERO – Review | Cyberpunk Action, Samurai Style

Katana ZERO is an action platformer from Askiisoft featuring fast-paced samurai action against an 80s-inspired cyberpunk backdrop. You play as Zero, a katana-wielding assassin working for a mysterious organization in the neon city of New Mecca. Katana ZERO is a compact game with streamlined mechanics, but there’s still a good deal to unpack in the experience. Let’s get to it.

A Flash of the Blade

Katana ZERO wastes little time in dropping you straight into the action. After a few cryptic lines and a quick call from the boss to confirm the mission–rescue the scientist, leave no survivors–Zero pops a tape into his Walkman and gets ready for another day at the office.

In Katana ZERO, death comes in a single blow, both for you and your foes. Fortunately, Zero is not just any man in a bathrobe. He’s a psychic armed with the power of precognition. Your attempts to play through each level represent Zero looking into possible futures until he finds one where he accomplishes his goal. Zero can also concentrate to briefly slow time in his precognitive visions, giving you a moment in the otherwise frantic action to plan your next move and allowing you to pull off some wild stunts. Once you’ve guided Zero to a successful future, you can watch him live it out in real-time on the security camera footage and admire your bloody handiwork.

Though Katana ZERO occasionally changes things up a little, the core gameplay mostly consists of murdering your way through bite-sized pieces of a larger stage on your way to taking out a target. You only have a few moves, and there isn’t a huge variety of enemies, but I never thought the action got stale. The controls are razor-sharp. Each swing of your katana feels decisive, and kills are satisfyingly brutal.

Levels also offer you options for eliminating your enemies. You can pick up and throw a variety of objects with effects ranging from smokescreens to fiery explosions. Some stages allow you to interact with the environment, for example, by turning security lasers on and off. Will you use these tricks to your advantage and pick off foes one-by-one before they know what hit them? Or will you blaze through head-on in a whirlwind of blood and steel, using your time-bending powers to deflect bullets and dodge attacks with inhuman precision? Both can work.

Katana ZERO gets fairly difficult toward the end. Even if you can slow time, your katana slash has a short cooldown. You can’t just run into a hail of machinegun fire and expect to deflect it all with your blade. You need to make every swing, jump, and dodge count. At the same time, failure never sets you that far back. For me, the game found that sweet spot of pushing me so I felt a sense of accomplishment when I made it through a tough segment without becoming frustrating.

Katana ZERO - Boss Fight

One More Time

Katana ZERO is on the short side. My first playthrough took about 5 hours. While the $14.99 price tag might seem high for a game of this length, I thought it was completely worth it. I found every second captivating. Katana ZERO does offer a few optional easter eggs for those interested in looking. These include a small number of collectibles, as well as references to other media hidden in conversations and backgrounds. Some of these secrets have achievements attached to them.

I also think Katana ZERO has decent replay value. For one it looks like a fun game for speedrunning. And while I’m not a speedrunner, I enjoyed exploring the different approaches I could take. I had great fun challenging myself to complete each level in the way I felt was most stylish and awesome. After all, what’s the point of playing as a samurai assassin if not to cleave through your enemies like an overpowered anime character?

Katana ZERO - New Mecca

The City of Neon Lights

Between missions, Zero lives his life in a run-down apartment in the slums of New Mecca. Much of the character development and worldbuilding plays out during these segments set in the city. Zero often spends his downtime drinking tea and watching old samurai movies. That is when he doesn’t have to see his psychiatrist. Being a psychic assassin brings its fair share of troubles, and Zero, haunted by his past, is no exception. Zero might also hit up the bar for a drink, rebuff the requests of the lively neighbor girl to play, or just wander the city. What you see of New Mecca feels weighed down by neglect and hopelessness. You can exist there, but it’s no place to live.

Storytelling Through Action

The most impressive thing about Katana ZERO is the way that every part of the game comes together to build a cohesive narrative experience. Zero’s enigmatic past and secretive missions are at the center of the story, and the ways in which the game lets you bring Zero to life and see the world through his eyes make this an experience like no other.

For one, Zero is no mute protagonist. Katana ZERO features a dialogue system with timed responses, forcing you to live in the moment. I liked this, as I often fall prey to the temptation to agonize over these choices and break my immersion. Some dialogue even offers a brief window at the beginning to interrupt the other party, though they may not be happy if you do so. These choices let you play out Zero as the person he feels like to you. Is he a cold-blooded killer who asks no questions? Zero can complete his assignments with ruthless efficiency and a minimum of chatter. Is he paranoid and unstable with doubts about his missions? Maybe Zero decides to ask a few things that he shouldn’t. You’ll have to decide for yourself what kind of person this mysterious swordsman is.

Katana ZERO - The Receptionist

Dialogue is expressed purely through text and speech bubbles, but Katana ZERO finds ways to bring this to life. Text appears at a leisurely crawl when characters are speaking calmly but pops suddenly into view with an accompanying crack when the speaker becomes agitated and even explodes in a shower of letters when characters interrupt each other. Liberal use of colored text helps further highlight tone and emphasis.

But perhaps the most evocative part of the experience is simply being Zero. Any game can hand you time powers and let you do cool stunts, but in Katana ZERO these powers are an integral part of who Zero is. And all of it, from the framing of exploring possible futures to the feeling of time slowing to a crawl, lets you see the world the way Zero does. I don’t want to point out anything specific to avoid spoilers, but Katana ZERO incorporates these mechanics into its narrative in some creative and mind-bending ways.

To Be Continued?

My one major concern with Katana ZERO is that narratively it demands a sequel. While some truths are revealed, major plot threads remain unresolved, and seemingly important characters are left almost totally unexplored. Nearly two years out from the original release the only information we have is that a free DLC is planned for 2021 but will not conclude the story. Katana ZERO reportedly took 6 years to make, so it could be a while before we get answers. And sequels aren’t sure things.

Katana ZERO does resolve one of the central mysteries that it builds up throughout the narrative, which helps give at least some sense of a completed arc. And even though the experience would have been better served by a less sprawling story and cast of characters, for me, all the things that the game does well, both in its gameplay and its creative approach to storytelling, vastly outweighed the inconclusive ending. I simply found I wasn’t that bothered by it. However, if you’re someone who values closure, you might this part of Katana ZERO frustrating.

Cinematic Flair

Katana ZERO looks and sounds spectacular throughout. New Mecca itself is brought to life with vibrant pixel art and feels at once gaudy yet worn. Character animations are fluid and stylish, and your time manipulations are accompanied by trippy visual effects inspired by tape skips and CRT television. Katana ZERO isn’t shy about showing you the results of your killing sprees either. Bodies will fly as you paint the walls with 8-bit blood.

The music in the New Mecca segments is appropriately weary and wistful, making the whole city feel like a bar past closing time. But once Zero pops a tape in and prepares to get down to business, things shift. Pounding beats and blaring synth drive you forward in your quest to leave no survivors. The tracks in the later stages are especially intense, often building to a dissonant cacophony. It’s a fitting complement to Zero’s escalating bursts of violence.

Katana ZERO - Motorcycle Chase

 

The Verdict

Katana ZERO offers sharp, satisfying action and a creative and immersive approach to storytelling all served up with style and flair. Though its short length and inconclusive ending may be turn-offs for some, I found Katana ZERO to be one of the most memorable experiences in my past few years of gaming. I highly recommend it.

KATANA ZERO IS HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Platforms: Steam (PC)

Interested in more action? Check out our review of the Ninja Gaiden Master Collection.

Thank you to Wes’ Wallet for the review copy of this title. He bought it himself.

 

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