Katana Zero came to my attention after seeing a Nintendo Direct or something similar. At the time I saw this, I also saw the trailer for My Friend Pedro and out of the two, the latter appealed more.
The buzz has died down for now, but I don’t want to reveal any spoilers, as I found the story quite engaging, and it is better to experience some of the reveals first hand. What I can tell you is you play an assassin named Zero who can manipulate time. Should he die, the level rewinds à la VHS style, and he’ll try again until he gets it right, then move on to the next stage.
Each mission is an assassination, and there are a handful of stages or areas to complete until you get to the target. It’s a 2D platformer, but you won’t be focussing too much on jumping from one ledge to another. Katana Zero is a one-hit policy, after all, so you apply a slight degree of stealth until you plan your attack. Some enemies will melee you, while others will shoot. Unless your reactions are tighter than a ducks arse, you won’t stop a bullet unless you slow down time.
Roll With The Dialogue
There are two options. First of all, you can slow time, represented by a depleting battery level, and hit the bullet towards the NPC to kill them. Alternatively, you have a roll that dodges the shot and allows you to get in close. Dodge rolls work for shotguns (scattered fire), riot guards and bosses. You don’t collect anything to recharge the battery as it refills by itself. You can pick up one-off projectiles however such as meat cleavers, statues and Molotov cocktails that help you take out an enemy from a distance or to kill one if you are being swarmed.
With each mission, you can engage with your target through multiple-choice dialogue. While it doesn’t change the game, it’s a nice touch and a little like the LucasArts of old such as The Secret of Monkey Island. There is also the option to cut the dialogue, often with a curt response. Ideal for though not interested in this feature, or for those completing a further playthrough.
Between missions, Zero has counselling sessions, provided by his employer. Again, this is a dialogue opportunity to find out more about Zero and his background. Finish your session, then return to your apartment for a herbal tea and sleeping on the sofa. He’s quite a tortured soul, and in some respects, the story is a little downbeat. The mood is a must for the story though and works perfectly.
A Bit of Wabi-Sabi
The presentation of this game is superb. Everything about it oozes character. While 16-bit sprites, the level of detail such as the way Zero walks awkwardly in his geta (samurai type wooden shoes), raising an eyebrow or stroking a cat(!) is brilliant. It is ’80s inspired, hence the VHS videotapes throughout, but it doesn’t have the cheese associated with the era. The palette is pretty good too with a slight cyberpunk feel to it, reminiscent of the period.
While there isn’t any voice acting in the game, as you’d expect, the sound effects are also perfect. The slices of each cut, or being blasted by a laser is a lot of fun. Well, not always. There is an immense satisfaction of kicking a door in on an unsuspecting NPC too. The mechanics are brilliant, but hearing that door open and slam is brilliant. As for the soundtrack, it is again one of the best I’ve heard in a game. Much like Akane, it’s a bit of synth-wave, and I’d highly recommend listening to to the link below outside of the game.
It’s All in the Reflexes
Some of the levels are so infuriatingly difficult that it will take a lot of attempts to get through. One particular stage had me kick a door into a riot guard, sporting a shield and shotgun, with another armed thug on the stairs above him but within my line of sight to get shot. As soon as you kick open the door, the shield pushes you up and back, meaning you can’t roll away from the incoming bullet from above.
The eventual solution was to open the door from afar, roll into the riot guard then throw a projectile at the incoming gunman. After the umpteenth time, until I got it right, I suddenly was killed by the next goon. However, the first bit was committed to muscle memory, and I was able to speed things up.
That’s what it mostly boils down to a mixture of timing and working out the patterns of NPCs. There’s no time limit so you can take your time with it, but due to the fast-paced nature of assassinating enemies with a blade while getting shot at, the majority of the time you (me) get impatient and try to steamroll through. That doesn’t work though.
The same pattern learning applies to bosses too. They only need to be hit three times, but their attacks are insane. I didn’t realise, but it was the last boss I got stuck on (the first of two phases), and I was getting killed so often that it was the first time I broke away from the game for a breather. When I finally worked out their attack pattern and tailored my movements, it was easy. Should I be saying that? Yes – it was comfortable in the end, but I put my time in.
Short and Bittersweet, But More to Come
Katana Zero is a relatively short game. Earlier I said that the dialogue doesn’t impact the game, but there is one scene which does. I opted for a choice which ended the game, and something didn’t feel right. Going back, I changed my decision, and there was so much more than I would have missed out on, should I have been satisfied with my first choice. I wasn’t.
In the credits, it appears that this is a one-man-band production, a chap named Justin Stander. There are others involved to some degree, but the fact one man has created this is amazing. You could say that having a publisher as almighty as Devolver Digital is a boost in itself. It seems to be the norm at the moment, what with Matt Dabrowski who also did Streets of Rogue. The only real issue here is the game takes much longer as not enough hands involved. There will be DLC for Katana Zero soon, but if that is down to one person, we could be waiting some time. It would be worth the wait, though. I’d comfortably say that Katana Zero is one of the best games I’ve played this year.
I mentioned earlier that missions aren’t on a timer, but there is the appeal to replay this again. I did, not long after I finished it. After completing it, I unlocked a speedrun option. Now, I’m not even close to speedrunner material – in the time it takes me to put on a game and a brew, most speedrunners have finished the game. I did look at the feature, and you can adjust it to your will – i.e. remove dialogue and cutscenes to speed things up. Katana Zero is already fast-paced, so the speed run feature doesn’t appeal to me, but it will to others. There’s also a level unlocked which hints at DLC as Zero says he needs to return in a few months.
No doubt you’ve already seen the playthroughs, read the reviews or even completed this yourself. If you haven’t experienced Katana Zero, I highly recommended it. My Friend Pedro appealed to me more in the trailer, but Katana Zero wins hands down and just something else. Yes, rogue type games and pixel art graphics are ever common, but this is near on perfect in my mind.