There was a moment while playing Katana Zero where I thought I’d found a game-crippling bug.
After a critical moment in the plot, my samurai sword-wielding character found himself in what appeared to be a mansion. Two goons laid in wait behind the door in front of me; for now, I could see them but they couldn’t see me. So, I readied my weapon and barged through the door to unleash sweet and bloody murder.
But then the game glitched and I was thrown back to the starting position.
So, I gave it another try. I readied myself, approached the door and watched as my character kicked it down with commanding immediacy. Glitched again; what is going on, I thought?
I tried again a third time; then a fourth, then a fifth. With each subsequent attempt, the time between glitches reduced until I couldn’t take a single step without the game glitching.
Enraged, I let out an exasperated sigh and got out of my chair. But then, Katana Zero revealed it was all just a trick.
Katana Zero Review
If you think Katana Zero is your standard pixel art, side-scrolling hack and slash platformer, you better check your assumptions. Katana Zero is that rare game that boasts both style and substance.
Set in a dystopian world where the 1980s never ended, everything in Katana Zero casts you as an amnesiac samurai who carries out brutal assassinations by night and attends therapy sessions by day.
So, the idea of the main character suffering memory loss isn’t entirely original. But what Katana Zero does with this idea is pretty jaw-dropping.
The story includes elements of time travel, government conspiracies, and even an ’80s action movie-inspired motorcycle chase; all of the twists and turns make for a compelling and, dare I say it, dark narrative.
Anchoring the plot is a mystery that slowly unravels as you progress through the game. New details of which are revealed slowly and deliberately. Every time I thought I had a handle on what was happening, Katana Zero threw me a curveball; this constant shifting in the narrative really drew me in for its 5-hour duration as I wanted to get to the bottom of what was going on.
This might make you think Katana Zero is a short game, therefore not worth your hard earned cash. You would be dead wrong. Once you finish Katan Zero the first time, you’ll want to jump right back to the start and re-experience everything with the fresh knowledge those closing scenes reveal to you.
Kill Me Once
There’s no avoiding the fact that Katana Zero will be compared to Hotline Miami. While such comparisons are completely justified, the former is absolutely its own game.
Now, both games do share similarities. Katana Zero, like Hotline Miami, is a dark, fast-paced action game that tasks you with killing rooms filled with enemies before they kill you. Failing to do so will cause you to die an instant, brutal death; emphasis on brutal. Katana Zero is a highly violent game where characters behead each other and the bodies pile up quicker than you can count.
To help you avoid falling victim to a one-shot death, Katana Zero provides your amnesiac samurai with two abilities; a dash-roll and time slow.
When performing a dash-roll you’ll quickly move about two steps in the direction you’re facing. You’ll also become invincible, meaning you’ll be able to avoid enemy gunfire allowing you to move in closer to your target.
Slowing time is just as useful. Doing so lets you deflect incoming bullets back at enemies. You can also slow time to avoid other hazards such as crushing platforms and lasers.
Happy Death Day
If you can not manage to best your enemies, who serve you with an untimely death, it’s not game over.
Drawing on its ’80s inspired aesthetic, Katana Zero rewinds the action akin to a rewinding a VHS tape back to the beginning of the current room.
The first few stages feature relatively small rooms with roughly two or three sub-rooms and only a handful of enemies. Later stages feature more expansive rooms filled with upwards of a dozen enemies.
Late-game rooms can be rather difficult to overcome; I think the most amount of time I spent trying to clear a single room was 40 minutes. And while it’s annoying to die over and over and over again, this sort of gameplay loop is par for the course with a game like Katana Zero.
Much like in Hotline Miami, it’s through this constant live-die-repeat loop you’ll come to learn how to overcome Katana Zero‘s rooms (or death rooms, as I call them) in any number of ways.
A fantastic example of this is during the late-game ‘Bunker’ level. In addition to your primary weapon, the samurai sword, you can also pick up and throw certain items. This includes Molotov Cocktails, which can be thrown at red barrels to cause huge explosions.
At first, it wasn’t obvious that I could take this approach. However, after dying probably like 20 times, I took a different path and found a Molotov Cocktail. After a few failed attempts I managed to lure as many enemies as I could to the area with red barrels, then used the Molotov to ignite the barrels and blow them sky-high.
(Death) On Two Legs
All of Katana Zero‘s action is framed with some tight platforming controls.
Moving around the screen feels buttery smooth, and when combined with your dash-roll, you’ll be swooshing all over the place as you bring the sweet release of death to your enemies.
There’s a number of enemy types for you to contend with. From muscle-flexing strong men, knife-wielding tough guys through to armed goons and SWAT cops; you’ll need to utilise everything at your disposal in order to succeed.
Each enemy type brings its own unique challenge to the table, which does well to keep you on your toes. This variety really shines best when there are multiple enemy types in a single room; it’s in these moments, where many of Katana Zero‘s elements come into play, is when the game is at its most enjoyable.
If At First You Don’t Succeed…
Katana Zero features a small number of boss battles which, while fleeting, are highly memorable.
The first real encounter you’ll face with a ‘boss’ character is similar in tone to the one you first face in Mega Man X; squaring off against a much more powerful enemy with no hope of winning. Subsequent boss battles are fairly more balanced, in that you actually stand a chance at winning.
What I liked about this first boss battle is how it highlights the glitch I mentioned earlier; remember, the one which kept resetting my character’s position? Only, rather than skipping backwards, this glitch flashed time forward. Its function served to confuse me, as well as advance the plot and reinforce Katana Zero‘s unique literary device all at the same time.
Late-game boss battles are more straight forward, though not any easier! Just like with the death rooms, boss battles will require multiple tries before you’re able to overcome them.
My favourite boss encounter would definitely be the ’80s action movie-inspired helicopter showdown. Following a sequence where you race through the city on motorbike cutting down pursuing enemies, you come face-to-face with this flying death machine that rains bullet hell down on you. Mixed with the synthwave soundtrack, it makes for one of Katana Zero‘s most memorable moments.
The Sights and Sounds of the ’80s
Katana Zero heavily draws on the sights and sounds of the 1980s for its visual aesthetic and soundtrack. As a fan of everything ’80s, from everything to terrible slasher flicks to hair metal; I very much dig developer Askiisoft’s artistic choices.
The in-game soundtrack, which is heavily inspired by synthwave, provides Katana Zero with a dark and foreboding tone; which coupled with the heart-pounding action makes for a brilliant experience. I especially like how the soundtrack itself is presented in-game, as a cassette being played by the player-character; who, at the beginning of each level pauses for a moment to press play before beginning his carnage.
Moreover, the level select screen presents each level as a VHS tape. Choosing one plays a short animation of the tape being inserted into a VHS player, itself hooked up to a small CRT television. This harkens back to the rewind-style reset that occurs whenever you die, as well as the black and white replay that plays whenever you clear a death room.
It’s these little touches that imbue Katana Zero with its own personality and sense of style.
Three Options; You Die in Them All
Katana Zero also features a conversation system that allows you to shape the flow of its narrative.
When engaging an NPC in conversation you have the choice to either interrupt them, thereby forcing the narrative along, or hearing them out and choosing from a list of available dialogue options. The choices you make can, and do, have an impact on the relationship you share with certain NPCs.
For instance, during an early hotel-based level you can engage the receptionist in conversation about cosplaying and anime. Humour her interests and she’ll vouch for you to a cop later on as you attempt to leave covered in blood. Choosing to ignore her or be rude to her, and that scene could play out very differently.
A later example involves your player-character’s therapist, who frequently comments on your behaviour during your sessions with him between levels. Force your way through his conversations and he’ll dismiss you later in the game where his opinion of you is the difference between life or death; but be kind, talk to him and cooperate in the sessions and he’ll show you restrained kindness.
Some people will argue these choices ultimately don’t matter, but my position is this player-choice system is a welcome addition. For a game that appears to be all about gameplay, at least on the surface, the extra emphasis on storytelling and choice helps elevate Katana Zero to a higher stature.
A Bloody Good Time
Katana Zero is a bloody good time. Sure, I got annoyed at it after dying for the 40th time in a row. But this wasn’t because Katana Zero is ‘cheap’ or ‘too hard’, but because the game wants to develop me; hone my skills so I can overcome future challenges.
After each difficult encounter, however, I walked away feeling like I’d learnt something new, be it a new way to use my skills, or a different way to approach certain enemies.
If you liked Hotline Miami, prepare to fall in love with Katana Zero. Imbued with a hard-edged 1980s aesthetic, it offers players a dense, well-written story coupled with fast-paced, blood-soaked action that’s rewarding and satisfying.
Katana Zero was reviewed on PC using a digital code provided by the publisher.
Game Title: Katana Zero
Fast and fluid (bloody) action - 9.5/10
Neon-soaked '80s visuals - 9.3/10
Dark story filled with twists and turns - 9.7/10
Player-driven choices change the narrative - 8.7/10
Fantastic synthwave soundtrack - 9.0/10