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Katana ZERO Review — High Octane Medicine

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Katana ZERO is the trippy, action-packed platformer fans of Hotline Miami-style games have been waiting for. Developer Askiisoft has created a highly polished game worthy of a franchise, as it brings players into a unique world of murder and medication. What keeps Katana ZERO hovering above its contemporaries is a mysterious story filled with exciting and unique moments players will not want to miss. Put together an intriguing world, story, and blood-pumping combat, and Katana ZERO creates an experience unlike any other.

Similarly to Hotline Miami, Katana ZERO relies on a one-hit kill mechanic for both the player and enemies. Tackling each area with a plan of attack is the best course of action, as enemies will react at a lightning speed, meaning dodging and the concentration mechanic that slows down time become necessary to survive. Going into concentration mode can be the difference between life and death thanks to the small window it opens up. In addition to the protagonist’s samurai skills, the player can pick up and throw various items to get the upper hand. The game gives players two ways to pick up throwable items: pressing the pick up and throw button or dodging through an object, the latter making the player feel more powerful and reactive in the heat of battle.

Katana ZERO does a fantastic job of making the player feel like an action hero. Slicing down enemies or even putting them into a vulnerable state before landing the killing blow never stops being satisfying. Players cannot mash buttons to win; rather, timing and reflexes are needed to land a beautiful slash. Attacking with the sword can be done in eight directions. Each slice sends enemies flying with action-film-esque blood splatter that paints the wall, further making each attack feel more powerful. The main character can slash down multiple foes standing together and deflect any bullets within range. However, any combat attempt can be ended in a moment’s notice thanks to even the smallest slip-up. Nevertheless, players have many opportunities to get the drop on enemies, having the ability to strike from under the floor or from wall-jumps to cover distance quickly thanks to the level design.

Among the levels, the player gains access to a multitude of different tools, from throwing cleavers and explosives to smoke grenades that allow the player to stay hidden, attacking freely while unseen. On many occasions, these items become useful in specific situations. For example, explosives are used to take out a group of enemies or detonate an area covered in red barrels. The smoke works wonders when trying to get past a turret or take down a group of shotgun-wielding foes like a true ninja (shinobi).

Each level has interactive elements, with the main one being doors, but many other aspects help make each mission shine. In most cases, the interactions are simple or subtle and ensure the game never feels repetitive. Moreover, the interactions feel like more than just random gimmicks. The player can smash open doors, killing anyone on the other side, or even throw stuff at an exposed pipe to fill an area with steam.

A few times throughout the game, players will face off against a boss in battle. Similarly to other action platforming games, the match-up starts off challenging until the pattern is learned and then becomes exploitable. Bosses in Katana ZERO feel far more powerful than the player and the rest of the sword-fodder, as some can teleport or grab the player to deflect attacks. The one-hit health bar makes winning feel impactful because bosses take multiple hits to defeat and none of them fight the same.

The combat is easier described than performed. As in Hotline Miami, the player will die multiple times, then go back to the beginning of a section with a retro-style VHS rewind effect. Rewinding is a novel effect because most of the still alive enemies will continue their patrols or just stay at their station while dead ones will resurrect where they first started. The way Katana ZERO restarts a section makes each attempt a fresh experience, forcing the player away from habits in gameplay to keep them thinking. Breaking the player out of the habit of using muscle memory immerses them in the game as each run will never be the exact same.

Building on this implied VHS functionality, once the gamer finishes a mission, Katana ZERO will play a recording of the run, which can be paused, fast-forwarded, and rewound. Akin to SUPERHOT, the recording of a successful mission will be shown as if the game was never slowed down by the concentration mode, allowing players to further look like a true action hero.

Aside from action-movie combat, AskiiSoft manages to mech in many different play styles, such as stealth. Katana ZERO never feels the same from start to finish. Furthermore, the level design evolves to incorporate multiple paths or puts players into seemingly devastating positions for them to fight through. At one point, the game even starts to play like a different genre for a portion of a mission.

Katana ZERO is also not without humour. For example, enemies can be seen playing poker or even shotgunning a can of beer for initiation into a specific fraternity of enemy archetypes. Each level is not simply ‘get to the end while killing everyone to win’, but rather has story segments and sections that progress the plot, keeping a focus on the story more than just murderous gameplay. A game like Katana ZERO normally does not need to have such a strong focus on story or characters as long as the gameplay is solid and provides a challenge. Instead, AskiiSoft created a world with unique lore, well-designed characters, and a general mystery, culminating in the player needs to see a therapist after each mission for a dose of medicine. Askiisoft has created a world from the ground up, with character design that blows other games in the genre out of the water. The original trailer showcased the gameplay, which makes sense as the story is something that is best consumed without spoilers.

Almost every dialogue interaction has multiple paths, but the most unique aspect is the ability to interrupt whoever is talking. Interrupting is not just a way to speed through conversation, but actually makes an impact on how others respond to the character. After every response, a bar will automatically reset and choose whatever choice is highlighted once full. The beginning portion of the bar will be red, demonstrating that the other person is talking and whether the player has access to any dialogue options via an interrupt. Once the bar leaves the red zone, more dialogue options become available. The way Katana ZERO handles story is unlike any other game in the genre, allowing a freeform dialogue system.

No matter the choices made, the game will follow the same major plotline and end the same way. However, certain pieces of information about the overarching mystery can be found depending on discussions. Katana ZERO has more reasons to play multiple times as a way to explore each conversion and see the multitude of ways they can go.

Even though the dialogue does not change much of the plot, the choices made can alter aspects of the game. For instance, depending on how a certain situation plays out, the main character will start a level without their sword and have to work their way to it, creating even more of a challenge.

Katana ZERO is far better than what should be expected of an action-platformer. The gameplay is incredibly rewarding and challenging in all the best ways, and the combat never ceases to portray the power the player has. As the main character fights for what he is told to do and to solve the lingering questions, the game does an amazing job of showing the folly of the character and even growth he goes through. Between the combination of story and gameplay, as well as a multitude of features unique in the genre, Katana ZERO stands above all others.

OnlySP Review Score 5 High Distinction

Reviewed on PC.

A more personal look

Before even writing the review I finished the game twice, taking time to explore a lot of the dialogue options. Both times was in one sitting because Katana ZERO has its hooks in me. I even went back for smaller sessions to play through levels in hopes to find secrets. As a physical collector, I hope one day to find Katana ZERO as a physical release on another platform. I can not recommend this game enough to anyone reading. Do yourself a favour: stay away from all spoilers, because entering this game unaware of the story makes the plot all the better.

A graduate of Game Development with a specialization in animation. A true love for all things creative especially Game Design and Story.

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Review

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Review — A Symphony for the Fans

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Bloodstained Ritual of the Night

For a long while, the industry had yet to see a return to a true-to-form Castlevania title, leading many fans to speculate if Konami had abandoned the formula all together. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is ArtPlay’s response to this absence, with the legendary Castlevania-veteran Koji Igarashi at its helm. Although Bloodstained may not have certainty that it will continue the legacy of Castlevania, the title delivers on its promise as a game for fans, by the fans, and exceeds most expectations. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a true Castlevania experience in every way except the title. 

In Ritual of the Night, players take control of a Sharbinder named Miriam, an individual who can harness the power of magical shards crystallized by the souls of the enemies she kills. As the core mechanic, the ability to absorb shards and utilize their new skills is required for player progression and success. The fact that Miriam is a Shardbinder further reinforces the narrative of Bloodstained, since their existence often lead to negative events. The story contained within Ritual of the Night is similar to most Castlevania titles, except this time, Dracula is replaced in favor of Gebel, a more skilled Sharbinder and Miriam’s old friend and mentor. 

Bloodstained Castle

Most of the game takes place inside a castle, but long-time Castlevania veterans will expect that the castle is only an external facade, with caverns and caves hiding beneath. Remaining true to its Metroidvania roots, Bloodstained contains a sprawling map full of hidden rooms and secrets. Exploration is encouraged by the ever-present possibility of better items and power-ups in the following rooms. Bloodstained finds a perfect difficulty balance by spacing out save rooms to encourage caution. Every time death was close, the curiosity of what could be behind the next door drove the desire for further exploration.

The map present in Bloodstained is truly expansive and worthy of a Metroidvania title. Each new area provides an extension onto the already dense castle setting, never requiring players to travel to a new location to progress. All additional areas remain connected to the central castle, providing an experience that is continuous and believable. Similarly to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, players can unlock an “Inverse” ability that will flip the playable map upside down and allow for new experiences in an already explored area. Just as he did with Symphony of the Night, Igarashi-san crafted a beautiful setting that retains its appeal even when explored upside down.  

The desire to progress deeper into the castle is fueled in part by the Shard system and the potential of discovering new ones along the way. In Bloodstained: RotN, enemies have the potential to drop shards that provide enhanced abilities and passive stats. Players can equip multiple shards at once, each enhancing different areas of play. For instance, one shard can provide Miriam with an ability drawn from the creature that dropped it, while another can summon a familiar to accompany Miriam throughout her journey. 

Bloodstained Shard

As the game progresses, players are required to backtrack and utilize newly gathered shards to enter areas that were not accessible early on. In this regard, the title maintains its genuine Metroidvania, or Igavania, genre as some fans are hailing it. Killing a random sea creature might net Miriam the ability to create a directional aquatic blast, but use that ability near deep waters and players might be surprised by what they can do. 

Since every enemy in Ritual of the Night is capable of rewarding Miriam with a shard ability, players will quickly find themselves host to multiple of the same kind. To counter this, players are encouraged to sell unwanted shards for coins at the local merchant, where they can also purchase crafting items. The crafting system allows players to utilize recipes found throughout their journey and create food that provides a temporary boost to Miriam’s stats. Additionally, players can use materials gathered to enhance the shards they have amassed to alter its capabilities and damage output. 

Although Bloodstained deserves to be showered with praise, the game is not immune to technical issues that can hinder the experience. During the preparation of this review, the game was subject to continuous frame issues, where too much action would result in stuttering. Additionally, optimization issues plague the console port, with registration lag featured every time Miriam would absorb a shard or with the occasional room entry. ArtPlay has responded to these issues ensuring fans that optimization is a high priority for the company, and it will be addressing these problems within the next few patches.  

Despite a few technical setbacks, Bloodstained is truly an experience for first-timers and longtime Castlevania fans alike. Igarashi-san and ArtPlay built this game out of their love for the genre and that is evident in every aspect of the game. The preservation of a traditional Castlevania game along with the advancements made towards propelling the genre further help Bloodstained stand out amongst other Metroidvania titles of recent years. Although an argument could be made that the title leans too much on its Symphony of the Night influences, Ritual of the Night succeeds in providing fans of the genre with an experience that has been absent for years. 

Given that Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a crowdfunded game, the amount of love and attention evident in its production comes as no surprise. The level of quality that is present in this package is truly astounding, and the appreciation grows even more when considering the free content promised for the coming months. Perfection should not be expected from Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. However, the result is exactly what was promised by the developers, and fans could not ask for more. Throughout its development, Igarashi-san provided continual assurance that he desired to make the game a product of its fans. By listening to criticism and acting on it, he fulfilled his promise with Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

OnlySP Review Score 5 High Distinction

Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro. Also available on Nintendo Switch, PC, and Xbox One.

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