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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

American Fugitive Review — A Grand Tale of Theft and Auto

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American Fugitive gameplay screenshot 1

The original Grand Theft Auto rocked the virtual world with its violent gameplay from a birds-eye view perspective back in 1997. Once the series moved to a third-person, 3D perspective with Grand Theft Auto III, few gamers looked back and few developers attempted to replicate the original style. More than 20 years later, Fallen Tree Games has become of those few with American Fugitive.

Players control Will Riley, a man convicted for a crime he did not commit and filled with the desire for revenge. Once he has escaped from prison, Will must find old friends—and meet some new ones—to run errands and discover the person who killed his father.

The game is played from a top-down perspective in a 3D open world. More reminiscent of Chinatown Wars than the original Grand Theft Auto, the camera adds a level of complexity to American Fugitive, as players often will not see what lies beyond the edges of the screen. While a behind-the-character perspective would, at times, not go amiss, players will eventually grow to familiarise themselves with the camera, respecting the callback to classic open world titles.

American Fugitive gameplay screenshot 2

The open world itself is also reminiscent of classic titles, with simplified designs regularly complimented by the detailed art style. The game’s animated, cartoon design scheme is fitting of its fast-paced action gameplay, always managing to keep the player on their toes and keen to discover more. Technically, the game plays almost flawlessly, with no significant performance issues to disrupt the player while they explore the map.

Players can explore the rural open world of Redrock County on foot or in a vehicle. The vehicular gameplay may take some time for players to familiarise themselves with, with some overly slippery mechanics leading to some unfortunate collisions, though fitting to the game’s tone. Thankfully, most environments in the game are destructible, so sliding off the road—if the player follows the road to begin with—does not often lead to disaster.

Despite beginning the game as a seemingly innocent man, Will doubles down on his criminal actions once he escapes from prison. Akin to Grand Theft Auto, the player can hijack cars, kill civilians, and attract the attention of police. Most residential buildings in the game can be robbed by the player, often leading to tense confrontations with the homeowners or police, so players must continue at their own risk.

American Fugitive gameplay screenshot 3

The ‘wanted’ system in the game works similarly to Grand Theft Auto games, with players accumulating up to five stars depending on their behaviour. The stars often accumulate a little too quickly, however, with additional stars regularly added simply for evading police. Oftentimes, the player may possess a full wanted level—complete with large police vans and circling helicopters—within a minute of committing a minor offense. While this over-the-top gameplay design is fitting to the pace of the game, it may lead to frustrations within the main story missions by bringing the player’s progress to a halt.

The missions are also reminiscent of those in Grand Theft Auto, tasking the player with a wide variety of tasks to keep them busy while the story evolves. While many of these missions may seem disconnected to the main narrative structure, they are unique and regularly keep the player entertained, ranging from simple fetch quests and car robberies to full-scale shootouts. The game’s fast-paced gameplay and lack of loading screens also make the poorly-placed checkpoints bearable, especially when the beginning of missions require the player to drive to a certain location.

American Fugitive‘s storyline is simple in design but entertaining enough to keep the player engaged. The game’s ‘cutscenes’ exist in the form of text atop character designs; while some simple voice acting would elevate these scenes with more dramatic tension, they are short enough to maintain the player’s attention and continue the missions at a fast pace. Players will find themselves surprisingly engrossed in the story, wanting to see it through to its full conclusion.

American Fugitive gameplay screenshot 4

Accompanying the fast-paced gameplay and narrative is the game’s music. From slow, explorative themes to fast-paced tracks, American Fugitive‘s original score is reminiscent of some of the best soundtracks across different media—from television’s True Detective to video gaming’s Red Dead Redemption 2 and The Last of Us. Each song accompanies the gameplay nicely, ramping up and down as the player makes the appropriate actions, and, along with the expert sound design, add the auditory sprinkles atop a visual and narrative treat.

American Fugitive, simply put, is fun. Fallen Tree Games has added its own unique twist to a classic gameplay formula, and utilised a simple but engaging narrative and a beautiful original score to maintain the player’s interest until the very end. Despite a few minor flaws in gameplay, the game stands strong against its competition. Players looking for a fast, fun, and mature sandbox game should not miss American Fugitive.

OnlySP Review Score 4 Distinction

Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro.

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