Updated: 5 days ago
Platform: PC, Nintendo Switch (platform reviewed)
Genre: Action Platformer
Release: April 18th, 2019
Springtime is a wonderful time to reflect on your life, mother nature is bringing everything back to life, the days are longer, and the weather is bright and welcoming it just begs to be explored. Everything smells new and exciting…It’s also an excellent time for gamers with the sheer amount of spring sales across all platforms and it’s exactly why we’re here today, so let’s dive right in!
A Game of Many, Many Halves
That subheading fellow casuals is not a misnomer, this is a game of second, third, fourth and fifth chances, let me explain. Katana Zero is a fast-paced, side scrolling action platformer where one false move is all it takes. Set in a dystopian 80’s tinged, neon future, you play as Zero, a katana wielding hitman, sent out into the seedy metropolis by the worlds dodgiest therapist, to take out targets related to Chronos. A time-altering drug that allows you to manipulate and rewind time.
No really, you literally rewind stuff...
All is not as it seems however, as Zero is an amnesiac killer, having no memory of his past life except for what his therapist tells him in their “sessions” before he sets out on his next mission. Throughout the game you will start to slowly uncover the twisted machinations of the people you work for and find out maybe a bit more than you bargained for over the course of 7, in-game, days. There are plenty of twists and turns throughout the story here to keep you engaged.
The conceit for each mission is that you will go down in one hit, requiring you to restart the level after every failed attempt. Luckily you have the Chronos drug at your disposal that allows you to manipulate and slow down time. Thus, allowing you to dodge or even deflect gunfire back at your enemies or give yourself the opening you need to slash goons in twain with your katana.
So, How Does it Work?
For those familiar, this is very much in the same vein as Hotline Miami, except maybe not as twisted or unnervingly violent. I mean…it is violent, but the moral ambiguity won’t keep you up at night… at least not as much. What I mean by this is, it’s very simple to pick up and play but difficult to master. Sure, you won’t be pulling off crazy combos with your katana, but the engagement comes from the trial and error style of it all. You will die a lot, but that’s the point. You’re supposed to use the tools you have to bear, to complete your mission and kill the target.
It’s a game of layering tactics. Because of the Chronos coursing through your veins you can die repeatedly and learn by each death. Very quickly, you’ll find yourself teasing out the best approach and your reaction time will get quicker every time. I found myself constantly learning enemy behaviors little by little, building up momentum to eventually getting that perfect run and leaving a trail of blood and bodies in my wake, which the game lets you re-watch at the end of a section so you can see, in real-time so to speak, how it looks to be a badass.
As you progress through the story the difficulty ramps up. The game constantly throws different enemy types at you that each have their own quirks you must learn. Because of the sense of style, it carries throughout, these enemy types are easy to distinguish from one another. From the run of the mill thug, that looks exactly like the meathead your picturing that for some reason brings a fist to a sword fight. To the more dangerous riot police that can stop your momentum dead in it’s tracks with a shield bash to knock you down, requiring you to flank them as quickly as possible, you will be kept on your toes.
Beyond that you'll have environmental hazards like laser grids, automated turrets and…mechanical… stompy… things (my English failed me, what can I say) to contend with in later levels so on top of enemy placement, you must also be aware of your surroundings. While these are thrown at your in quick succession, the nature of the game-play means you won’t feel overwhelmed, learning to deal with new threats feels like a natural progression. I rarely felt hard done by when I had to restart a section. Your mistakes get you killed and for me, the point of this game, from its story to its game-play, is about learning from your past mistakes.
To help with the sheer number of bad guys you also have throwable objects to use. From statue busts and knives to take out ranged enemies, to later items like Molotov cocktails and remote detonators for taking out larger groups. There’s variety aplenty here. You’ll also square off against some bosses here and there when the story calls for it. There are a few standouts later, but these can be insanely difficult when you first encounter them, the key is persistence but by god was my patience tested. It speaks to the breakneck pace of the game that I just kept plowing on regardless. The frustration never lasted more than a few minutes because the satisfaction of beating a boss or difficult section far outweighed any temporary feelings of frustration.
Breaking Down the Rest
All that game-play stuff aside, the story itself, which starts cliched, is really engaging. There’s an earnestness to the writing that kept me going. Zero is clearly haunted by a past he doesn’t remember and the game messes with you throughout. Outside of the shady organization that is pulling your strings, Zero’s mind is fractured, and I found myself wondering if what he was seeing or doing was really happening. The game is not afraid to break the fourth wall, it is self-aware but not to the point of parody, it uses the fiction it has created against the player, creating an unreliable narrator. Is Zero really the good guy here? Can you really trust what is right in front of your eyes?
It helps that the game gives you a sense of agency by way of choice-based dialog. I didn’t feel at the end that it really changed anything story wise, there’s a clear A to B playing out here, but the little ways you can engage with characters were meaningful. I based my choices around the idea that Zero, just wants to break the cycle of violence by his own hands. But the game doesn’t let go. I was hooked by the satisfying game-play loop but felt more unsettled by my actions. Sure, I couldn’t do anymore than the game allowed but the questions it raises have stuck with me since putting it down and I can’t help but respect the developer for it.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the music here as well. The soundtrack (which by the way is on Spotify) is fantastic. Perfectly complimenting the neon soaked 80s aesthetic, I loved every minute. It’s even incorporated into your characters personality, at the start of each mission you will see him plug in headphones, and the track name and artist will appear at the bottom of the screen. The synth wave beats build slowly adding tension to each level as you progress through. It compliments the fast-paced nature of the game-play, starting as low roar that evolves into a maddening wave of noise, perhaps not so subtly reflecting Zero’s broken mind you might say...
So, What Does it All Mean?
I haven’t exactly been subtle here and this game took me by surprise. I went in knowing that at the very least it looked and sounded cool but there’s a depth to the writing and overall design that hooked me from start to finish. Everything feeds back into everything else, there’s a singular vision here that captures the imagination. It’s a short ride but the nature of the game, and perhaps some unanswered story questions, suggest that I’m not quite finished here yet. I slept on this one for awhile but I’m glad that changed and I suspect you will be too.
Play this game if….
· You enjoy any 80s nostalgia even if you weren’t born in the decade
· You want something easy to pick up and hard to put down
· You revel any chance to live out that samurai fantasy
· You should just kinda pick this one up to be honest…
All images taken from the official press kit, found here
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