Due to the excellence of the game – I must beg you not to look up spoilers for Katana Zero and avoid using a guide, even if you can find one that is spoiler free. The game is rare example of something where every solution and surprise needs to be experienced first hand. In case you missed our preview, I was highly anticipating the full release. Does the final product meet the high expectations? Let us pretend the praise in this initial paragraph still means you cannot see where this is going. Speaking of predictions..
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Platform: Windows PC (Reviewed), Mac, Nintendo Switch
Release Date: April 18th
Price: $ 14.99 (Review Copy Received)
Katana Zero takes place in the 80’s retro-futuristic dystopia of New Mecca, where you play as a samurai assassin. Using your incredible powers to predict the future along with razor-sharp reflexes, you crave through anything between you and your target. Things are far deeper than that however.
You are plagued with recurring nightmares and your therapist helping you with your amnesia (and giving you your contracts), and your treatments seem to be making reality crumble around you. All the while a thin glimmer of your humanity is left in the little girl next door.
Due to the aforementioned reality-warping presentation, the story can get a little strange at times- in a good way. Just as you feel confident in knowing what’s going on, something comes out of left field and you cannot always be sure if its real or not. Even so, the game shows a horrifying interpretation of PTSD from war and addiction without ever feeling like it is beating you with a moral stick.
Others have claimed the games ending left too many questions unanswered, but I disagree. Not every mystery is solved, but I was still satisfied with the ending overall. My only gripe is that one particular element is revealed to be unsolved, and that it is not only a bit of a sour ending for some, but also feels like sequel or even DLC bait. That aside, it is still one of the best video game stories to experience this year.
The gameplay in Katana Zero has you clear out a series of rooms- killing enemies in one hit while avoiding anything that can also kill you in one hit. It keeps the tension high but out-and-out brawls are rare as you will quickly be swamped if you play poorly. You are required to plan ahead, and quickly learn from your mistakes as if you fail you merely restart in the same room.
While playing in each room, you are technically playing out the main character’s prediction of how things will go- hence the time-limit in each room representing how much the character can remember. Once you clear the room, you then get a replay showing it in real time- making moments you use slow-mo look like lighting fast reactions.
You are armed with more than sword swipes however. Wall jumps, rolling, stealth, and the ability to pick up and throw objects all seamlessly blend together for a constant flow of murder – once you work out the best way to tackle it. There are also smaller details like how swinging your sword upward in the air almost acts as a double-jump. Experimentation rewards you with more ways to move around than you realize.
Enemies likewise have to be tackled in different ways. Some goons can be armed with melee weapons, and if you attack them while they are swinging, you will merely parry the blow and stun them. While most bullets can be reflected, you will almost need to use slow-mo to hit them- though later on some enemies are even immune to their own reflected bullets.
The bosses in Katana Zero are also something special, despite how you still being subject to one-hit kills should make it frustrating. They almost turn into a level themselves – working out how to react and counter their hits. Although the order they use their moves can be random, so your reflexes are still tested as oppose to just your memory and logic.
This is further augmented with different gameplay styles in some missions and secrets- although the fruits of the latter is not unlocked until you complete the game. The different gameplay styles can come out of left-field, but the “die and try again” mantra makes learning the intricacies quick and simple. While some have complained a particular stealth section is better with a controller, I had access to all the same inputs on keyboard.
One criticism I had last-time was wanting a time-attack mode. Having played the game fully I now understand that was not really the point of the game. While you could attempt to beat it faster than other people, the focus of the game is not solely on the missions. This is one of the few times I would recommend a game for its story as much as its gameplay.
The conversation system in Katana Zero, for example, is fascinating. While saying “you have a timer for how long you can respond like in a Telltale game” may sound like condemnation, the ability to interrupt makes it great.
Not only can your possible responses change, but characters and the game do react to what you pick- especially if you interrupt or are otherwise rude to them. What you say in conversations also can have different effects in future levels – one in particular changing its whole objective.
Sometimes the conversations you have become a puzzle to progress, and those could have been a game on their own. If you replay older levels in a different way, what ever occurs in them becomes the new “canon” in other levels.
While conversations and combat are firmly compartmentalized, I found myself always looking forward to beating a level to get to the next scene. The dialogue is sharp and witty, though I feel many will be replaying to see how they can change the game, rather than see a new text box.
That being said, repeated playthroughs have plenty of dialogue to keep you interested. You will certainly wait and listen to goons conversations in levels, despite your time-limit.
Katana Zero beautifully marries moreish action/stealth gameplay and intriguing story, while making sure neither drowns out the other. It can be short (you could beat it in a weekend if you have all day to yourself), but experimenting to discover and unlock the secrets can extend that time. I also do not feel it is unreasonable for the price.
The game looks gorgeous, taking full advantage of the neo-noir art-style and using well drawn sprites. While some games using sprites can use ugly art-styles and limited animation, characters are readily identifiable and move smooth like butter.
Presentation is also a delight, taking full advantage of what a video-game is free to show to represent the main character’s fracturing mind. While many indie games have messed with the interface and other things the player sees, Katana Zero always surprises. Whether you believe Undertale is fairly praised or not for how it surprises the player – its got nothing on Katana Zero.
The soundtrack utilizes synth-wave in each level, but expands to other genres when moments get more sweet, sombre or horrifying. Even if you are not a fan of 80s music, the music has got just enough of a beat to stop it being purely relaxing, but keeps you engaged.
Katana Zero is something special on all fronts. It could have been just a game where you clear out enemies, but each room serves as a challenging puzzle with tight controls.
It could have been just a game with a story, but it handles its dark subject matter in an interesting way that does not preach or make light. It could have been just a good game, but it throws surprise after surprise at you in gameplay, presentation, and story.
This is what indie games should and need to be – something you would not see from larger studios playing it safe, with a laser-focus on making everything work perfectly.
All considered, Katana Zero will set you back the price of a good meal, while being more fulfilling than than certain AAA studios’ safe and bland attempts for over double that price. In the words of Katana Zero itself: Yes, that should work.
Katana Zero was reviewed on Windows PC using a review copy provided by Devolver Digital. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.