When Katana Zero was first revealed to the public all the way back in 2016 at PAX Prime it seemed like all agreed that Katana Zero is an absurdly stylish game, every part of it just exudes coolness. Dubbed as a Neo Noir action platformer with fast paced combat, the question is now. Is there true depth to this indie title or is it simply style over substance?
In Katana Zero you take on the role of an assassin named The Dragon. Haunted by graphic nightmares, he seeks help from a therapist who also to double up as the one giving him his next target and the dubious drug “Chronos” that has severe side effects and gives the ability to manipulate time, in a sense. With its retro visuals I must say that one thing that caught me off guard about Katana Zero was its story. This game does offer a fairly meaty mystery for its genre and aesthetic, but more on that later.
Life as an assassin certainly isn’t easy. In fact in the world of Katana Zero if you get hit once, you die. Thankfully this same rule applies for the majority of foes you will face. On top of that The Dragon has the ability to slow down time, slash bullets back at enemies and a few other ticks. Getting to grips with the mechanics and controls takes no less than a few minutes. After that you are on your way to slicing your way through your opponents.
Levels take place on a 2D plane and the goal for the majority of your missions revolves around killing everyone and getting to the end of the level. For the most part the levels are fairly linear, the developers do claim that you can execute a level in multiple ways, but I felt most had a clear cut path to complete them. Later on you can see different options spring up, but less frequently that I would’ve liked.
Overall though the actual gameplay is sublime. The difficulty is ramped up at a pace that always maintains and challenge throughout. As gun wielding enemies are sparse at the beginning they become more common later on. Each segment completed feels rewarding and the penalty for death never feels too severe, nor does the game ever feel unfair. The satisfaction you feel once you gracefully cut down a room full of enemies without stopping is maintained throughout the entire game.
Then on top of the core gameplay, you have most levels introducing certain gimmicks to set them apart. Optional stealth segments, mine cart rides, motorcycle chases and even a segment that seemed very reminiscent of the final boss battle in Sonic the Hedgehog work there way in and every part works well and never outstays its welcome. Finally there aren’t many, but the few boss battles in Katana Zero are excellent. At first they seem overwhelming, but as you notice patterns, you’ll soon be taking out your foes effortlessly (on the 9th try that is)
As I mentioned above the story in Katana Zero certainly caught me off guard. At first all I expected was a simple token story with a few lines of dialogue thrown in there, but what I got was very different. Katana Zero‘s story simply excels. Not only does it give players an engaging story, but it also takes full advantage of the tricks one can use when telling a story in a video game as well as making excellent use of the “Chronos” drug it establishes in the world.
A key gameplay mechanic throughout the story is the real time dialogue system it has. It doesn’t have a massive impact on the game, but your choices can lead to different outcomes in certain parts of Katana Zero and one section does make excellent use of it alongside the time altering affects of Chronos. It is difficult to go in to a lot of detail for Katana Zero as I don’t want to spoil anything, but story is superb. You just don’t expect this level of ambiance or character development from a retro inspired aesthetic.
The World and its Sound
Great gameplay and a great story are more than enough to carry Katana Zero, but the icing on the cake and what makes it truly stylish have to be its aesthetic and soundtrack. There certainly isn’t much special about a indie game that has a 16 bit look, but Katana Zero does deliver a grotty and horrible world that players must traverse. Some of the levels are a bit too similar for my liking though.
Then finally there’s the soundtrack for Katana Zero. I love myself a good old 16 bit tune, but Katana Zero opts to deliver a modern soundtrack and it is a great one. Every part of the game is accompanied by a excellent track that sets the mood perfectly. Even though you may die and die and die in Katana Zero the music will keep you bobbing your head to the beat.
Is it all perfect?
From start to finish Katana Zero gives players an excellent all rounded experience. However that is where the biggest issue for Katana Zero comes into play. The overall replay-ability isn’t spectacular. Once you clear the main game there is an extra level and different weapons to unlock by meeting specific requirements in each stage, but tracking down these key cards can at times be tedious.
Even though the requirements to unlock them can be clear, it can be a hassle to actually know which stage actually has anything to offer and going through the dialogue again can be tedious. On top of that you do realise that as your skills increased so much through the game that the earlier levels become a walk in the park.
System reviewed on: Nintendo Switch.
Disclaimer: A review code for Katana Zero was provided by the publisher.