Review: Katana ZERO
Framing is an oft-overlooked element of game design. Sure, you can slap bullet time or save points into your game without explanation, but making them part of the narrative can provide unparalleled immersion for even the most outlandish titles. That’s what makes games like Katana ZERO such rare joys, the fact that every single element of the presentation is tied to the narrative and mechanics. From your time-bending powers all the way to the VCR you select stages on, this intense, bloody journey builds layers of meaning and intrigue around a single, compelling core: getting through this neo-noir hell with as much style as possible.
In the rain-slicked streets of a grim neon city you arrive, clad in but a bathrobe and armed with only cold Japanese steel. The voice on the other end of your phone wants you to kill everyone in the strange factory you find yourself at, a simple task once you start slowing down time to the point where you can deflect bullets with a sword. Room by room you expunge all life almost effortlessly, painting the walls with blood from an impossibly quick blade. When your task is done you return to your hovel of an apartment, your nightmares, your appointment with that voice on the phone, your neighbors, your demons, your rivals, your doubts, your fears, and the truth.
To say anything more would be to spoil one of the most intense and twisting narratives you’re ever going to get from a platformer, one that I’m going to be mulling over for days if not weeks. Your hobo samurai has a lot of people interested in his mysterious combat prowess, while at the same time you get to play through vignettes of his life as an attempted citizen. There’s often more drama in these little glimpses of city life than in the machinations of war and government he’s caught in, thanks to some excellent writing and world-building. Just the way factions from the war are mentioned, or districts of the city, or famous figures is enough to make the setting pop in a way that few games can.
More than this, though, is how the brilliant dialog system puts you right in the center of the story. It’s one of those where your responses are on a timer, and you must make your dialog choice before time runs out. However, most choices also give you a tiny window at the start where you can interrupt the person speaking. Interruptions can lead to wildly different paths through the dialog, and sometimes affect gameplay beyond that. And it’s all done in lavishly colored animated text that floats over the speakers, highlighting key terms for emphasis and shattering on interruptions. Just when you think you’ve seen everything Katana ZERO does with this mechanic, I assure you it will find a way to surprise you.
That’s really the beauty of this one across all its features, that it will never stop surprising you. Every mechanic and detail will eventually get used in a way you didn’t see coming, and that happens most frequently in the action itself. As a godlike samurai assassin, you have only your sword and your reflexes to dispatch goons, swordsmen, armed security, and worse. But you can slow down time to perfect your moves, roll past deadly attacks, reflect bullets with your blade, and sling objects like bottles and vases to neutralize distant threats. Each room must be perfected before you can move on, like little bite-sized Hotline Miami levels strung together in a mounting crescendo of murder.
But here again, Katana ZERO excels in the details. The action you are partaking in, the ritual of attempting, dying, and attempting again, is framed as the planning that your bathrobed terror does before actually executing. Once you have perfected your plan, the game replays the room for you as if on a security tape so you can witness your exploits at human speed. This is a key framing mechanic, and one that the plot centers on in a big way. And even this will defy your expectations in incredible ways, ways that make the game all the more engrossing as you battle your way through it.
I cannot stress enough how polished every aspect of this title is, either. The pixel art is absolutely lush in its animations and special effects, making you feel ever strike of the blade and hitch of the video tape playback. The sound design matches the intensity of the action, and the soundtrack is some absolutely killer synthwave and soulful tracks that carry the neo-noir stylings to new heights. There are moments of levity, like the cosplay dialog options and Strong Terry, and moments of intense dread. There are beautiful vistas, and rooms caked in gore. It’s an incredible ride from start to finish, and I assure you that you’ll be left wanting more at the end of your 4-hour (or so) journey. Katana ZERO has a vision and it stops at nothing to express it, blending style, substance, and action into one of the most cohesive packages I’ve ever seen.