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Katana Zero

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Developer: akiisoft
Release Date: April 18, 2019


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Switch Review - 'Katana Zero'

by Cody Medellin on May 22, 2019 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

Katana Zero is a stylish neo-noir, action-platformer featuring breakneck action and instant-death combat.

Buy Katana Zero

Hotline Miami was an influential game for many reasons, and there are at least two reasons why the game was so fondly remembered, beyond just being fun. The first reason is because of the story, which does a great job at manipulating players' expectations and providing a narrative that got odder as things progressed. The second reason was because the game demanded perfection. There was some room for error, but each level in the game asked you to be near flawless, and the one-hit kills meant having to start over and try the level again until your muscle memory executed everything effortlessly. Katana Zero is compelling for those same two reasons.

The minute you boot up the game, you're treated to a menu with an option screen that looks like a VCR, so you know that you aren't going to experience a normal tale. You play the role of The Dragon, an assassin who dresses up like a samurai and uses a long-reaching sword. Though a mostly silent killer when on the job, you are a long-suffering soldier from an unknown future war with constant nightmares that you can't quite interpret. By day, you go to your psychiatrist, who tries to help you cope with your visions and administers a drug to supposedly make things normal. By night, that same psychiatrist provides you with a target who you need to kill — without leaving behind any witnesses.

The setup alone is intriguing enough, and Katana Zero does a good job of peppering the gameplay with cut scenes that deepen the story around The Dragon and provide some shocking narrative twists. The snippets of the world anecdotally show off a dystopian future with evident class separation, and your squalid apartment shows how bad you have it. The appearance of a little girl might be reminiscent of "The Professional," except for the fact that you aren't training her to be your apprentice or replacement. The constant unraveling of your dreams becomes the hook needed to keep pressing through the story, while the appearance of a Russian gangster and the cryptic sayings of your targets makes it obvious that things aren't what they seem. Without spoiling anything, the game goes places and does things that not only shock but also press you to see things through to the end.

Aside from the cut scenes, the narrative is very dialogue-driven, but the process of choosing dialogue is different for the genre. You're presented with a time bar and a dialogue option that's usually presented as rude or impulsive with a negative slant. Wait until the bar gets past the red zone, and you're given a few calmer responses to questions, or you can let the bar expire to provide silence as your answer. The dialogue choices do what you would expect, as your responses change everyone's reactions toward you, and some choices either reveal or hide some of the narrative from you. There's even one choice in particular, given at a very obvious spot, that will either end the game early or let you continue on to the other ending. Neither outcome is presented as a bad choice; that's awesome to see, since you're often given clear good or bad endings for your efforts.

Between the episodes with homeless ex-soldiers and the obnoxious partying of your next-door neighbors are the action sequences that start off with you pressing play on your Walkman, a nod to the main character of "Baby Driver." Presented in a side-scrolling format, the game has you essentially trying to clear out rooms or sequences by any means possible. As mentioned before, your sword is your main tool, and you'll use it to slice up enemies from almost any angle. Slashing your sword acts as a parry for other bladed enemies, and you can also slash to reflect bullets at enemies, automatically targeting them so you know your slashes aren't deflecting bullets to walls or in the air. You can use the environment to your advantage, as things like vases can be picked up and thrown, while smoke grenades in the field can obscure everyone's vision so you can stealthily slash away. You have the ability to do a dodge roll that protects you from some gunfire and lasers, and you can also do some wall-jumping, but your most devastating ability is slowing down time to better react to enemy movements.

All of those abilities are powerful because enemies go down in one hit. Except for the bosses and some of the heavily armored cops, everyone from machine gun-toting bodyguards to pugilists and metal drones go down with one sword slash or well-placed item throw. By that same token, you can also be downed with just one punch or gunshot. Dying brings you back to the beginning of the stage with everything reset, so you can try again. Infinite lives ensure that you have as many opportunities as possible to fail before finally getting it right.

This balance between power and vulnerability dictates the pacing in Katana Zero, as you'll fail a level multiple times before successfully completing it. This can all sound tedious, since you'll be forced to restart rooms when you die, but the developers have done a good job of balancing that by making the rooms rather small, almost as if portability was kept in mind for the level design so players can chip away at a level instead of having one long, continuous run. Boss fights use an invisible checkpoint system to emulate this, and what you get is something akin to Super Meat Boy, where success means seeing a replay of your work, minus the failures to get to that point. The replays can make the game feel like it has start-and-stop pacing, but those same replays are skippable. There are also enough enemies to kill, so the adrenaline rush of getting through flawlessly never lets up.

The one complaint that can be used against the game is its lack of replayability. While the dialogue options present some variations on how some missions will play out, the bulk of the missions runs the same way, so the variations are minor. There are a few secrets here and there, but there's no real incentive to find them beyond their fleeting cool factor. Aside from the aforementioned big choice in the game, your motivation for replaying the title would come from the desire to speed-run it unofficially before the patch properly implements that feature , along with a new hard difficulty mode.

The presentation mimics that of quite a number of other pixel titles that are going for a gritty 16-bit style. The characters are squat, but their constant bobbing and smooth movements make them lively, even without the extra fidelity that taller character models would've afforded. The backgrounds sport some muted colors but still look detailed, while various effects look beautiful, whether that's in the character trails you leave behind when you slow down time, light shafts from various sources, or the constant blood splatter. Meanwhile, the game's lack of voices makes way for a more pronounced use of effects, and the soundtrack is absolutely perfect. It sounds like a mix of 1980s synth with heavier action beats and, as with Hotline Miami, you'll want the Katana Zero soundtrack outside of the game.

Katana Zero is a mesmerizing title. The narrative twists and turns in odd ways, and the payoff is both open and satisfying. The action is crisp if you can commit everything to memory well enough to create small, bloody masterpieces. With a familiar yet attractive presentation, Kata Zero feels right at home on the indie-loving machine that is the Nintendo Switch.

Score: 8.5/10

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