Sharp like an edge of a samurai sword.
Taking more than a few cues from Hotline Miami, Katana Zero is a blisteringly fast slash-em-up with action that’s an absolute adrenaline rush. Which is appropriate because it’s largely about a neo-noir-inspired samurai who sticks a bunch of needles in his body.
It wears its inspirations on the sleeves of its kimono, but Katana Zero refines the tried and true one-hit-kill formula in a manner that makes it feels fresh, exciting, and innovative in surprising ways.
Katana Zero puts you in control of a nameless samurai assassin with the power to manipulate time and see into the future. In an extremely clever and fun framing of the action, every level is contextualized as being the planning of an assassination. So, instead of your character dying, you’re told “No… That won’t work,” as your precognition rewinds to the start (complete with old-timey VCR effect), giving you a chance to find a solution that doesn’t end in your death. Every level even ends with a security camera recording of what “actually” happened, which serves not only as a way to see your moment of triumph played back, but also to subvert expectations in interesting ways later on.
Working up to that moment is a blast because Katana Zero’s action is fast-paced and empoweringly flexible. Like Hotline Miami, it’s one shot, one kill for both you and any enemy that isn’t a boss. Your character can slash in eight directions, slow down time, use a dodge roll to avoid bullets, or reflect bullets back with his sword. There’s a great flow and feel to your character’s movement thanks to small touches like how each sword swing gives you a slight boost of momentum, or how you can cancel out of any roll, and the way each kill gives a satisfying screen-shake and pause to the action (both of which can be adjusted or disabled in the options).
My favorite thing about the action of Katana Zero though is the slow-mo effect – specifically, how optional it is. It never feels too strong; it’s on a pretty strict cooldown, and since enemies will hear whenever gunfire rings out, you’ll rarely have time to stay safe long enough for it to replenish. This puts it in a perfect spot as a powerful ability to get you through a tough situation while still being limited enough to keep the action quick.
As I got better, I found myself trying to wean myself off using slow-mo as much as I could, because storming into a room full of enemies, deflecting bullets, dodging shotgun blasts, and cutting up baddies all at full speed feels incredible. I also liked keeping slow-mo in my pocket as long as possible as a get-out-of-jail-free card.
Katana Zero’s story doesn’t quite hit the high note that its action does, but it’s at least carried by strong writing and a few great characters, such as your boss/therapist that guides you through your traumatic past while also providing you with the dossiers of people he wants dead, or a psychotic Russian named V. There’s also an innovative dialogue system that gives you unique options depending on when in the conversation you decide to interject and skip through NPC’s lines. For example, if you just want to get a move on past the receptionist at the front desk of a hotel full of dudes that need a killin’, you can rudely shut down her every attempt to talk to you, resulting in her getting super pissed. Or, if you wait ‘til she finishes every sentence you will be rewarded with new dialogue options, such as one that allows you to tell her the fun lie of saying you’re cosplaying as a character from an anime. Either way, the resulting dialogue is entertaining and well worth multiple playthroughs to see how the scenarios play out.
That being said, any deviations in the story due to my choices felt largely superficial, so there were times when later dialogue options felt wildly inconsistent with my previous decisions. The biggest issue, though, is the fact that very little is resolved by the time the credits roll. It feels like it’s planned to be the first part in a series of games, and I’m interested to see where a potential sequel or DLC might go from here, but it’s hard not to feel like the story of this first chapter was all buildup and no payoff.
Katana Zero won’t take more than four to six hours to complete, but it’s a very tight four to six hours that cuts out any fluff. It never feels like it’s running out of ideas, and every level does a great job of introducing small twists to its simple formula, from a minecart level to a motorcycle chase sequence to one particularly standout level that’s a bit too spoilery to talk about here.
It also helps that everything looks and sounds great. The slick neon aesthetic and fantastic sprite work go hand in hand with some legitimately impressive 2D lighting effects that give Katana Zero a unique visual style and personality. There’s also a fitting and fantastic retro-electro soundtrack to go along with the action.