Katana Zero puts you in the shoes of a notorious serial killer known as The Dragon who is tasked by his therapist to take down the mob using time bending drugs. If that sounds crazy, we’re just getting started.
I stand outside a closed door with my sword drawn, knowing that there are four mobsters on the other side. Two meatheads who’ll want to punch me to death, a swordsman, and a gun-toting bad guy on the stairs. I have a plan though. I’ll kick the door into the first meathead, swing my sword to kill the swordsman, throw this vase I found at the second meathead, before dodging behind the gunman and his barrage of bullets to clear the room. Let’s see how this plays out. Kick! Swing! Parried! Shot! Dead! Well, I guess that wasn’t good enough what with my dying within one second. Best go back and rethink this. This is Katana Zero.
If all that sounds somewhat similar to Hotline Miami, that’s because Katana Zero on Nintendo Switch has a lot in common with it. The trial and error gameplay, the visceral combat, and even the presentation have a lot in common with the former. This is, of course, not a bad thing as Hotline Miami was excellent fun. With that said, Katana Zero does enough different, beyond its switch to side-scrolling, to make it a worthy game in its own right.
The game begins with our character, seemingly a samurai, arriving at a facility with instructions to rescue a prisoner. A brief tutorial showing of the button prompts shows everything needed to take out the threats between you and your goal. Your mission is split into areas filled with enemies. Upon killing them all you are allowed to move onto the next screen. That’s easier said than done though, as you’re only one man armed with a sword and your enemies are numerous and more powerfully equipped. Thankfully, you have a few tricks of your own. Your sword has impressive range and is able to reflect bullets back at their source. This, alongside your ability to dodge past most attacks as well as slow time to a crawl for a few moments, makes you a more than formidable threat.
The time manipulation mechanic is quite interesting, as it ties into how the stages play out. For plot reasons, your character can do things with time. He uses this to play out the stages in his mind before executing them. When you play an area, you’re actually playing it through in the character’s mind as he works out the best way to approach it. Your (inevitable) death is met with a statement reading “No, that won’t work” as the protagonist determines that sequence of events won’t suffice. Success gives you the message “Yes, that should do it” and plays out your victory through a videotape. It’s an interesting way of handling fail states in a game like this, and it ties into the plot in rather clever ways.
These failures are really quite regular, as Katana Zero is a tough game at times. Death is swift and brutal for both you and your enemies, as one hit will send almost anyone to their grave. Death doesn’t set you back much though, as you’re sent straight back to the beginning of the section for another try. You constantly have the drive to try one more time as each area is quite short and learning enemy patterns is all part of the challenge. Each room is a swift battle as you throw yourself in, dodge around gunfire and wipe out everyone within. It’s thrilling as every sword strike feels powerful, sending your victim careening across the room, painting it red. I’m not normally one to revel in violence in video games, but it works incredibly well here.
Not all stages are aggressive though, as a couple of them are stealth based. I was concerned that these would be obnoxious — as stealth levels in non-stealth games often are — but they only crop up a couple of times and work quite well. You can hide in the crowd in the background or jump into rooms to avoid detection. Vision cones and the use of icons make it clear who can see where and it all feels quite fair. Like the rest of the game, your mistakes are your own!
The plot — which I won’t go into much here for the sake of spoilers — is advanced between stages when you return to your apartment (a little nod to Hotline Miami perhaps?) as well as in conversation with your therapist. Things start out quite sensible, and these conversations can affect gameplay in various ways. If you’re nice to people, perhaps they’ll be kind to you later on. I like that your choices seem to matter in various ways and are more than just you choosing a canned response. Later choices result in some unexpected outcomes and begin to reveal what is an, at times, quite obtuse plot. There is a great sense of mystery that kept driving me forward, and the bizarre imagery that crops up ensures you’re never quite sure what’s coming next.
The presentation is equally fantastic. The pixel art style is really well done, and the animation really sells the action both in game and in cutscenes. Everything’s brightly coloured when it should be, and there’s a great 80s aesthetic at times. The graphics ensure that every type of enemy is clearly presented so you know exactly what you’re up against at any point. The sound is equally tremendous, with a wonderful 80s inspired synth soundtrack that begins as soon as your character switches on his personal tape player. Effects are also very good. Sword slashes sound powerful as they connect whilst explosions rock the building you’re in. There’s really very little at fault in terms of presentation, although I did notice the occasional frame drop in both portable and docked mode when using smoke grenades if the screen was crowded. This only occurred twice throughout the game, however.
The level of difficulty was spot on for me for most of the game. The final boss was quite tough but could be defeated handily once I had figured out the patterns. It did get a touch frustrating in the last few areas of the game as the stages became very crowded with enemies. There would be occasions where I would just get overwhelmed by the volume of the opposition and it felt a little cheap. Still, the short reset time meant I wouldn’t stay annoyed for long, and a little persistence lead to victory before too long. The whole game took around four-and-a-half hours including these restarts, and it felt like just the right length.
Whilst Katana Zero could have been simply a Hotline Miami knock-off, it stands as a fantastic game in its own right. The art style, combat, story, and feeling of immediacy and power are wonderful and come together to create a great game that I would heartily recommend.
Katana Zero is available now on PC, Mac and Nintendo Switch.