Katana Zero is published by Devolver Digital, and with just a preliminary glance you can easily compare it to their smash hit Hotline Miami. It was developed by Askiisoft Games who I am unfamiliar with, but I wasn’t surprised to see their first game was a platformer designed to look something like you would play on a Game Boy. Katana Zero is their third game and this time they have gone for an 80’s TV and VHS aesthetic.
You play as Zero, a katana-wielding assassin with time-bending abilities. The game begins quickly, and within a minute you have chucked on your Walkman, a retro soundtrack is pumping, and you are slicing up enemies. Who you are slicing is unclear, as is where and why. The only thing you are told is to leave no survivors.
During one of the first significant combat sections, I saw a cat sitting peacefully on the table. I dispatched my enemies with style and grace and went over to kill the kitty as it was the last one left. (Maybe I took ‘leave no survivors’ too literally) I pressed the interact button, expecting to slice it’s poor head off cleanly. Thankfully, I simply gave it a nice pat. Maybe Zero isn’t just a merciless assassin?
Levels are broken up into sections or screens, and combat is extremely fast; when facing mele opponents if you don’t attack first, they will. Get hit and you instantly die, the game will then rewind like an old VHS player to the start of the screen. Entering slow-mo gives you more time to react and is extremely useful when facing opponents with guns. Do you perform a dodge roll to avoid their shots, or parry their bullets back towards them with a quick swipe of your katana? Apart from you katana, there are items scattered around the level which can be used as ranged weapons; you can only pick up one at a time though, so knowing when to use them is crucial. You will also have environmental traps at your disposal, like lasers that can kill multiple enemies with a flick of the switch. As the game progresses, enemies become more varied and combat harder. Although, for an instant death game, it never became very challenging, but it was always fun.
At the end of each screen, you are faced with a replay of your carnage, once again it’s like watching an old VHS tape, even to the point of pressing eject when you are done. Originally I thought this was going to be a feature I would use heaps as the combat is very stylish and I ended up pulling off some really cinematic moves. But I quickly found this slowed down the pace of the game, as each screen was broken up by these replays instead of moving quickly onto the next. I think it would have been better to see the whole level played out in one long sequence.
A surprising element of the game was a dialogue system. At the beginning of level two, I decided to be rude to the receptionist of a hotel. When exiting the hotel, she had called the cops on me leading to my untimely death in the resulting fight. I was told to use discretion next time to avoid collateral damage. If I had treated her kindly, I assume this part of the level would have played out differently. Although it’s a small thing at least that adds some replayability to the game.
Once a level is finished you are brought to a hub world, well more like a hub room, your dingy apartment to be precise. You can watch the news reports of your previous mission and other events going on in the city. Once you have sipped some herbal tea and are ready to move on simply lie down on your couch and take a nap. The next day usually begins with a trip to your psychiatrist who gives you an injection of your ‘medicine’ and a dossier with the next target to kill.
Most levels are essentially the same; make your way through several screens by killing enemies to reach the target. However, each level usually has a point of difference. One level I had to use stealth, another I lost my katana for a few screens. My favourite was a minecart section similar to the ones found in Donkey Kong games. On the other hand, my least favourite was an extended section on a motorbike, the gameplay was radically different to the rest of the game, and it didn’t quite fit in.
Later on, you find out that the drug being administered to you by your physiatrist is called Chronos which gives you your ability to slow time and the ability to predict the future. Time eventually becomes distorted, and the VHS starts glitching, you jump forward and back learning snippets about the past and the future. It’s convoluted stuff, something to do with war, super soldiers, drug trade and an evil government. It didn’t make much sense and was the biggest weakness with the game. I found myself wanting to skip the cutscenes and get back into the action.
Then just as I was getting really good at the game, it’s over. The confusing story came to a disappointing conclusion. I felt like I was missing something and after having a quick look at a walkthrough I realised I got a ‘bad’ ending. Turns out the dialogue choices change more than I initially thought, but I didn’t care for the story enough to want to try for a better one.
I played the entirety of Katana Zero in handheld mode as my wife watched Stranger Things Season 3 on the TV, another 80’s nostalgia fest. The game ran and looked great in handheld, but the VHS effects would have been more effective on a TV.