A shabby-looking samurai drops through the ceiling, sporting a bathrobe and a blade. Despite his appearance, he’s a fearsome assassin on assignment. The increased security does what they can, but the mysterious intruder somehow manages to dodge past their bullets, even flinging some back their direction with a preposterously-timed swing of his blade. Within seconds, the target is dead, dozens left lifeless in the wake of “The Dragon”.
Welcome to Katana Zero.
This 2D side scroller, in development for the better part of 6 years by indie game studio Askiisoft, centers around a mysterious samurai known as Zero. With the aid of a time-bending drug known as Chronos, Zero can see the future, witnessing multiple outcomes until he’s able to find a path to victory, and then takes it.
The game is made up of multiple stages, each one featuring a target that you’re assigned to take out. Of course, your target is typically tucked away behind multiple rooms of baddies/security.
As you make your way through the stage, you’ll find yourself slicing through your enemies with relative ease – it only takes a single strike to kill any of them. Likewise, your own grip on the mortal coil is weak: a single hit takes you out as well. So, you work your way through room after room, and if you die, your precognition allows you to acknowledge that plan “won’t work”, and it immediately rewinds to the start of the stage again.
The twist of time manipulation adds a refreshing element to the play, die, play again cycle that games such as Super Meat Boy and Celeste featured. Upon successfully clearing a room, an added bonus is getting to watch the “surveillance footage” of your attack, re-affirming your status as one badass samurai.
As I mentioned in the synopsis, Zero utilizes (well, is administered) a drug known as Chronos. This is the source of his precognition, and these powers translate into a “bullet time”-like effect that you can activate with the left trigger. While in this mode, bullets literally slow to a crawl, and you can use the opportunity to either roll out of the way of impending danger, or strike out at the projectiles to send them back towards their owners.
Of course, the power isn’t endless – there is a set amount of time that you can lean on this boon at any given time. There’s also the numerous, harrowing side effects of the drug that you get to see play out in the story elements of the game, but in an effort to avoid spoilers, I’ll leave that as a mystery for you to unravel.
Outside of the time manipulation, gameplay is largely straightforward. Jump, dodge roll, attack, even a simple “throw” mechanic for loose items you might find in a stage like smoke bombs or giant cleavers. Despite the fairly simple mechanics, Katana Zero masterfully deconstructs these gameplay elements, emphasizing on speed and deadly efficiency, and in the process, accomplishes the lofty goal that so many video games strive for: making you feel like a bona-fide badass.
What can I say? This game just feels damn good to play. Every roll, every slide, every slash – you’re in complete control of it all, and the tight, responsive controls means that any death is completely of your own doing.
Speaking of death – you will die a lot. I’ve seen it floating around that people are comparing this to Sekiro, and while I might not agree with them being alike, there are some elements of similarity – one of them being the difficulty. Because the level layout is constantly changing, there might be a guard not paying attention on one run, who’s alert and ready to fire at a moment’s notice in the next. The dynamic nature of the enemies helps prevent you from switching to “auto-pilot”.
It doesn’t take long to realize that Katana Zero takes place in a rather brutal world. Keeping it light on spoilers, what we do know is that there was a war that wrapped up not too long before the events of the game. Our protagonist lives in the 3rd District, which appears to be a run-down, urban design. There are allusions to a 2nd, and even 1st, district, which means that there is lots of income inequality and segmentation.
For a game that could easily lean on its fast and fun gameplay, the dedication that Katana Zero takes in building its world and narrative is fantastic. Early on, your key story segments involve your psychiatrist, who helps you work through recurring nightmares that you have. Scenes from these interactions were included in early screenshots and trailers, and I figured it would be an interesting gimmick. It wasn’t until the 4th or 5th session that I realized just how serious Katana Zero was about fleshing out their protagonist in a big way.
Your character goes for a stroll down the city streets. You go out and rent movies. You admire scenic views of the city with a neighbor. You share drinks with fellow war vets, and stumble back to your apartment. These story elements help elevate Katana Zero from merely looking like a neo-noir action title to solidly existing within this space.
The decisions that you make within your missions can also have far-reaching impact. Did a mission call for secrecy and discretion, but you kicked the door in and murdered everyone? Were you instructed not to let your target speak, and then proceed to let them share their manifesto with you? Did you involve unnecessary civilians, who now need to be “silenced” by the organization you work for?
The dialogue options in Katana Zero are where a lot of these decisions are ultimately made. Circling back to the emphasis on speed, you’ll notice that sometimes you can make a blunt, sudden response to dialogue, typically framed with a red box. By waiting for the progress bar to move out of the red area, more options become available – some unlocking extra plot details, or opening the path that you would need for victory.
The dynamism of these dialogue options put some recent RPGs to shame, layering in a narrative complexity that, admittedly, I was not expecting at all. Often times I found myself reflecting on my most recent conversation, wondering how I might have altered the story permanently with my snarky responses, or if I missed some nuggets of the broader plot by picking a certain response. It’s fantastic.
What’s perhaps most impressive of the narrative as a whole, is that it’s designed to be disjointed. Again, trying to avoid spoilers here, but suffice it to say that when you’re dealing with a time-manipulating drug, your personal grip on time may be a bit tenuous. With this in mind, Katana Zero does a tremendous job piecing together the narrative from this perspective.
While the world-building and story evolves impressively over the course of the game, I did find myself left with more questions than answers by the end of it. A particular post-credits scene also seemed like a low-hanging fruit to tease a potential sequel, and also just left me feeling uneasy in general. After spending more than a few hours with the title and in the world of Katana Zero, chances are you’ll feel the same.
Some gripes about the ending and plot points notwithstanding, Katana Zero will almost certainly exceed your expectations when it comes to the plot. It’s rich, engaging, and helps to lay a foundation for future titles. Think John Wick, but a video game…with swords.
If the game wasn’t already cool enough, the complement of Katana Zero’s refined, neon visuals and killer soundtrack puts it over the top.
Starting with the graphics – there’s a level of detail and polish in the sprites that is hard to find, even in this current era of 8 & 16-bit games making a significant impact in the indie scene. Characters dramatically swooping their hair to the side while letting out a villainous laugh, the way bodies fall as you slice through them…even details as small as a head cocking to the side or an eyebrow raising can be distinguished, making the experience even more engrossing.
Then there’s the music. Wow. The electronic score, put together by Netherlands-based Wic Recordings, features a range of tracks that not only helps fuel your frenzied killing spree, but helps to unpack some superb story elements. No lie – it’s one of my favorite soundtracks since Hyper Light Drifter landed.
Katana Zero is an amazing game. With tight controls, a fantastic story, killer visuals and a soundtrack to die for (and to), it’s a fantastic addition to the Switch indie lineup. Not only that, but it’s priced very well at $15. While the year is still (relatively) young, it’s definitely one of my favorite titles of 2019 so far, and stands at the top of the heap for new Switch titles for the time being. Oh – and it’s on Steam too!
What are you waiting for? Go get it!