A clean slice of intense action.
In recent years there has been no shortage of games that have you play as a katana wielding samurai; games like Nioh and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice have strived to give players a taste of how it feels to enact violence with deadly precision. Katana ZERO is the latest to step into that niche, but it’s the game’s unique style, a Blade Runner-esque industrial cityscape, as well as its cutthroat side-scroller gameplay that sets it apart from the rest. Its short-lived campaign offers a lot of enjoyable action and breaks it up with healthy doses of its intriguing and baffling story.
The story may be hard to follow, but it is consistent in its intrigue…
Katana ZERO’s narrative is the epitome of weird and wonderful. The story itself is simple to understand; you play as a samurai assassin known as The Dragon, taking contracts from your therapist who tops you up with a fresh dose of drugs after each session. It’s only once you delve further that things start to spiral into a mess of hard-to-follow plot lines, posing a wealth of questions for the player to keep track of, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The story may be hard to follow, but it is consistent in its intrigue, particularly with its approach to dialogue.
You are offered a surprising level of choice with how you approach conversation; dialogue options are varied enough that each choice feels like it matters. This offers awesome replayability, and you are often given a choice to cut off anyone speaking to you, telling them to get on with it or something to that effect, which is a useful option if you would rather skip through dialogue and cut to the chase.
That’s where the meat of Katana ZERO comes in: the combat. Levels are set up as a bunch of short single stages, each one acting as a checkpoint (much like Celeste but with a lot more blood). You can kill enemies in a single hit, but they can also kill you in a single hit which makes the combat tremendously challenging. One wrong move and you’re back to the start, but that’s OK because the game doesn’t make a point of punishing you; you simply hit retry as many times as it takes to get it down, and then watch your mastery unfold in a security camera style replay.
The idea of constantly being one wrong move away from death makes every close call feel like a constant high.
It is quite a spectacle to watch unfold the adrenaline rush you just experienced. The idea of constantly being one wrong move away from death makes every close call feel like a constant high. You’re given the ability to deflect enemy bullets with a well-timed swipe of your blade, as well as the ability to dodge roll and slow down time (courtesy of those drugs your therapist is giving you). All these abilities come together to create a breakneck action experience that rarely gets old and feels like a constant joyride.
You can use your dodge roll to move past deadly lasers which are worked into the majority of later levels, which ups the tension even more so, making absolute precision a necessary tool to break through the army of thugs in every level. Enemy types are also varied plenty, with everything from punching brutes to shield holding police officers who will stop you dead in your tracks, forcing you to find other ways of dealing with them.
Throwable objects are also littered throughout the levels, giving you more options for ranged attacks. You can throw a cleaver at an unsuspecting gunman or lob a molotov cocktail into a room of enemies you wouldn’t be able to take on with your sword alone. Add all this variation with the fact that any mistake could mean restarting a level, and at its core Katana ZERO is a difficult game, but it rarely feels like a frustrating one because the levels are never longer than a minute or two. It feels great to practice a level over and over again until you master it, and that repetition makes a game that may otherwise be on the shorter side feel like a meatier experience.
It feels great to practice a level over and over again until you master it…
That feeling of being an unstoppable force is one that few games manage to achieve, but Katana ZERO absolutely nails it in combination with its neon VHS visual style and sublime soundtrack. Those two things really go hand in hand, especially since the music feels like it’s straight out of your favourite depiction of a dystopian industrial future, covered in purple shades of neon.
The experience is overall tightly packed with never a dull moment; with a gratifying balance of action-packed combat levels and engrossing story-driven ones. You feel like a genuine swordmaster when you finally break each level, and although each stage seems to get more challenging as you progress, it’s ultimately well worth playing to the end. The story can be confusing with all the plot points it expects you to keep track of, and while it left me with more questions than answers, it also left me wanting more, and as the saying goes; you should always leave them wanting more.
Yes, if you:
- Love the visceral feeling of slicing up enemies
- Enjoy the feeling of mastering each level
- Like an intriguing plot that keeps you interested
No, if you:
- Aren’t a fan of side-scrollers
- Don’t like a challenge
- Prefer a simple narrative