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.
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.