By Josh Speer / April 29th, 2019
|Release Date||April 17th, 2019|
|Age Rating||M for Mature 17+ – Blood and Gore, Strong Language, Suggestive Themes, Use of Drugs, Violence|
It took all of my significant willpower not to litter this review of Katana ZERO with story spoilers. The game was so brooding, engaging and mysterious that I wanted to lay it all on the table and psychoanalyze every juicy detail. But for the sake of those who have yet to play this indie gem, I decided to hold myself back as much as humanly possible. Going into the game, all I really expected was a flashy and violent game, but instead Askiisoft (the team behind Tower of Heaven and OverPowered) brought their A effort. This is a dark, edgy and mysterious game, and one I’m happy I had the chance to cover. To see why I feel that way, just keep on reading.
After watching the Nintendo Direct trailer for Katana ZERO, all I really expected was an uber-violent action game. I would have been perfectly fine with that. But what I never could have deduced was how much lore sets the stage for the story. Sure, the violence is there and it’s a lot of fun, but that’s almost just the window dressing. The lasting appeal of this game is the unique story, and the way it is told. You play a silent assassin who lives in New Mecca whom the public knows as The Dragon. Your past is something of a blur, but you have a medal of honor from a bloody war that occurred a few years back. You’re given mission dossiers by a dour therapist who checks your state of mind after missions, and also gives you a handy booster shot. If that all sounds a little sketchy, that’s good. Cause this is a game that constantly made me doubt the trustworthiness of the narrators and characters. It also quickly becomes a game where you can’t even trust your own eyes, as reality becomes twisted and time itself seems to turn against you.
Speaking of time, that brings us to the game’s unique combat twist. For reasons I won’t get into, your character is able to manipulate time. This is not only handy, it’s necessary for survival, since one hit and you’re toast. Thanks to your time manipulation, you can literally rewind the clock when you die, and you’ll die a lot. More useful is how you can slow things down to an utter crawl. While that does give you a distinct advantage, it’s not an unfair one. For one thing, you also go slower when using this skill. For another, you don’t get any real protection, and if a slow moving bullet hits you, you’ll die all the same. Oh and you have a meter that controls how long you can slow time, and once it’s depleted, it takes a while to cool down until you can use it again. In other words, the time control is a wonderful mechanic, but it is one that forces you to use it sparingly and think strategically. In fact, the entire game encourages careful consideration. Even though it’s full of combat, each room you enter is like a miniature puzzle, and it’s up to you to solve it while ensuring your survival.
Having said all that, keep in mind you still have a ton of freedom in how you go about executing your enemies. There’s no wrong way, so if you prefer going full kamikaze, you’re welcome to. If you are more of a stealthy ninja type, that works too. I personally preferred the more violent style, and rarely did much sneaking. Just be flexible, cause the enemies you face are smart and pay attention, and if you alert one of them, they’ll usually bring friends to investigate. But on the plus side, they’re just as fragile as you are, and connecting once with your katana blade will do them in. Thankfully, that’s not the only tool you have at your disposal. You’ll find a variety of them as you prowl each area, and they also do a great job of killing things. Better yet, many items can be thrown at foes, which opens up even more opportunities. Items will range from blunt instruments, like daggers and statue busts, to smoke grenades and much more. Just keep in mind these items are all single use, so you’ll need to get adept at using your trusty katana.
My favorite thing about the katana is how fluid and effortless it makes combat. Though you can’t throw it, it has a pretty good range, and you’re able to use it while dodging. Even better is how you can slash upwards and diagonally, and you’ll get a little bit of an aerial lift. You’re like a murderous dolphin, and have a great economy of movement. I took great joy in waiting in stairwells for thugs to patrol, leaping into the air sword-first and dispatching them. But perhaps coolest of all is how your katana can deflect bullets. Yes, you heard that right. It takes precise timing, but by freezing time just after a foe shoots a bullet, you’ll have ample time to swing and deflect it back at them. I took a while before I got good at this technique, but once I did, the combat really opened up. But before you get too cocky, understand that you can only realistically deflect two bullets before your time manipulation meter runs out, and you have almost no chance of deflecting a shotgun blast (though I did miraculously manage to do that once).
Besides the glorious combat, there’s also a shocking amount of story. There are recurring themes about substance abuse, the horrors of war, and the resilience of humanity. I was deeply surprised by the extent of branching paths in Katana ZERO. The game will remember your conversation responses and will react accordingly. Case in point, when I snuck into a building to murder my mark, the receptionist asked why I was dressed so strangely. I picked the most hilarious option, which was that I was cosplaying as “Pinkachu”. I met that same receptionist more than once, and her belief that I was a Pokémon cosplayer not only led to humorous results, it even let me avoid some trigger happy police. Depending on your dialogue decisions, you’ll also reveal little glimpses of the plot, and open up more options. It’s really satisfying, least of all because the writing for the game is really, really good. I didn’t find any grammatical problems at all in the dense script, and that made me enjoy the experience even more. When you toss a really quirky cast of characters into the mix, you have the makings of something special.
It would have been enough if everything I said thus far was the extent of it, but the excellence found in the other areas also applies to the visual side of things. Even if you don’t love pixel art, you’d be hard pressed not to find wonder in Katana ZERO. There’s a ton of bloody detail, neon-drenched lighting and wonderful character design. Normally I’d find something negative to say about the sound design, but that impressed me too. I love how they alternate between classical music in the calm moments and hard-rocking club music for the combat sections. The sound effects add to this as well, with the screams of foes, the gush of arterial spray and other elements that add to the grungy noir atmosphere of the game.
Now, while I loved almost every aspect of Katana ZERO, there were a couple small areas it faltered. One is that, wonderful as the story is, it was a bit hard to decipher at times. For one, I can’t say with certainty I understand the backstory for the main character, nor the motivations of others. That didn’t make things any less enjoyable, but I also have a fuller appreciation of things I fully understand. Also, though the autosave feature worked most of the time, there was one time that it didn’t, and forced me to replay one chapter. Lastly, though the game is a lot of fun, it’s also very short. I couldn’t have spent more than 4-5 hours playing it, and though there is a bit of replay value if you want to choose different branching paths and try for different endings, I still wish I was able to spend more time in this world.
Having said all that, it’s impossible for me not to recommend Katana ZERO. Not only is it a great game, it’s a perfect example of why I have such faith in indies. For $14.99, you get a fantastic and unique action platformer with some of the most phenomenal boss fights I’ve ever experienced. Sure, it could be longer and the plot could make more sense, but it’s still a wild and satisfying ride. And when you factor in how one ending hints at a sequel, it’s very possible my minor complaints could be cleared up in the near future. I’m really happy Askiisoft and Devolver Digital brought this gem to Switch, and I can’t wait to see the next game they have up their voluminous sleeves.
Review Copy Provided by Publisher
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