A Difficult Choice
The talk of the town in the gaming community recently is difficulty. Should games offer different difficulty levels to appease less-skilled or less-abled players? Would doing so compromise a developer’s “vision?” Do games have to be hard to be fun?
I’m not here to throw my hat into that ring today, but it seems apropos to mention as the game we’re looking at today is another that uses its difficulty as a selling point. A game where one hit means game over, and it ain’t pulling any punches.
It’s also a game that tells a surprisingly enthralling story, one that (if you’re even interested in video game stories) does its work to capture your attention and encourage you to work through its challenges to see it progress.
Is it the ideal way to present a game? Maybe, maybe not. All I know is that the difficulty and story work in tandem to create one hell of an experience.
Developed by Askiisoft and published by Devolver Digital, Katana Zero was released on April 18th, 2019, for Switch and PC via Steam. The Steam version was played for this review.
Because I Got High
Katana Zero sees you playing as “The Dragon,” a katana-wielding assassin living in a dingy apartment in the bad side of town. You have a psychiatrist you see daily to help you work through some weird dreams and a difficult past…but he also supplies you with targets that you need to take down in return for a drug called “Chronos.”
The game plays out as a kind of conspiracy thriller, meaning going much further than a surface-level explanation risks spoilers. Things start off as a simple assassin story before diving deeper into the main character’s past as well as his interactions with the people around him. The plot is surprisingly intriguing, and definitely not something I was expecting to get out of a retro-style ultra-violent side-scroller.
A rather interesting dialogue system is used here to help guide the story. When your character is about to speak, a bar appears at the bottom of the screen and slowly starts to fill up. If you press a button when it’s in the early red zone, you can interrupt the dialogue on the screen to have your character speak or take action. If you decide to wait, though, you’re given a few more choices to guide the scene in a different direction. While the choices you can make don’t appear to affect the game’s overall plot, the system here does add a fun layer of player agency.
Unfortunately, the story has a couple major stumbles. First, despite being well-crafted initially, the whole thing just kind of falls off in the endgame. Characters are introduced out of nowhere, a few major twists are thrown into the works, and then the game just…ends. There is a small note near the end that seems to infer upcoming DLC, which, if true, is quite a slap in the face.
Secondly, most of the characters themselves are disappointingly one-note and underdeveloped. The two key players here, the main character and his psychiatrist, undergo some interesting changes, but the rest of the cast is rather flat.
Despite these issues, the storyline here is still vastly entertaining up until the end, with a number of legitimate “oh shit” moments scattered throughout to keep your attention. While I despise the idea of a game’s story being completed through DLC (as I mentioned the game seems to infer), on the other hand, I still really want to see this story continue to a proper conclusion.
Guns ‘n Swords
Katana Zero plays out like an action-platformer, but, oddly enough, often ends up feeling like a puzzle game. Of course, it also has a twist to make it a bit more difficult – like many old-school games, one hit means instant death.
Each stage in the game is presented in a series of rooms with (typically) one objective: kill everyone. The main tool you have at your disposal is your trusty katana, although you don’t always have to get up close and personal. Most rooms have various objects scattered around that you can pick up and throw at enemies so fast that their bodies explode on impact.
There’s a third tool at your disposal as well, an effect of the Chronos drug the main character is given: the ability to slow down time. At the pull of a trigger, you can slow the game down to a crawl for a limited time to maneuver through enemies and reflect their gunshots back at them. I honestly didn’t end up using this function too often, saving it for gun-wielding foes who were to far away for me to reach before they fired.
The goal is to clear each room without taking a single hit, and the game is set up so that you’re destined to fail on your first try in most rooms. Perhaps an enemy pops out of an elevator at random and shoots you down, or you get taken out by a turret you didn’t see coming. Clearing a room in your first try (outside of maybe the first level) isn’t likely to happen.
Luckily, resetting and trying again takes a split second, and this is where the puzzle aspect comes in. Each retry resets the room to its initial state and, aside from the direction some enemies decide to walk, each run will typically play out the same each time. Thus, it’s down to you to work out the ideal way to cut through each room.
Some may dislike how this presentation seemingly takes player choice out of the equation. After all, most rooms really only have one or two ideal routes to take through them. I, however, vastly enjoyed approaching this game as a puzzler, often having to think my way through each room rather than brute forcing it.
Controls are mostly tight and responsive, although I did have a few minor issues here and there. Attacking enemies at a diagonal angle in midair wasn’t always reliable (playing the game using the D-Pad on a controller). Throwing objects, despite them having a bit of aim-assist, would occasionally miss a target altogether. Having either of these happen typically meant death and a reset, although they were more of an annoyance than a frustration.
Really, the only time the game got truly frustrating was during boss battles. Just like standard stages, you still perish in one hit during these fights, which means starting the whole fight over. Bosses come down to learning patterns and tells, which makes them trivial on replays, but the initial playthough had me spending most of my time starting these fights over and over again.
Speaking of which, like the bosses, the game as a whole becomes rather simple when replayed. I guess that’s the downside of a puzzle-like approach; once you know how to complete a puzzle, you’re not likely to have difficulty with it ever again.
Straight Outta Blockbuster
One of the best things Katana Zero has going for it is in its presentation. The whole game is designed in a dark yet neon-heavy artstyle. There’s a surprising amount of details to the pixel art as well, shining through the greatest during story moments. I was impressed at how well I was able to pick up non-verbal cues from these character sprites.
The soundtrack here is also a hell of a jam. All of the music here is done in an 80s synthwave style, lending a dark and ambient vibe to the entire game. It also provides an excellent contrast to the often brutal sights on the screen.
Everything from the neon-lit graphics and soundtrack to featuring VHS-style visuals between areas contributes to an 80s action movie vibe. I’ve seen many compare the aesthetic to Hotline Miami, which is an apt comparison, but it’s a style still seen so rarely in gaming that it feels fresh.
A Slice Off the End
Overall, despite some issues with its handling of its story, Katana Zero was an absolute joy to play through. It led me to do something I can’t say I’ve done with many other games I’ve reviewed: after I beat it, I went right back and started it up again to see how much more efficiently I could complete it.
The game does have a short run-time; I completed my first playthrough in about four hours. It has been released at a budget price ($14.99 on Steam at the time of writing), which makes it a bit easier to swallow.
While I can’t say I like that the game feels like it’s hiding its true conclusion behind future DLC, the package that we have right now is still damn fun to play through. If you’re not averse to some over-the-top violence, Katana Zero is definitely a game worth checking out.
Review copy provided by Devolver Digital for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.