Katana Zero

Retro-Style 8/16bit indie titles are all the rage currently, they bring a sense of nostalgia even when the games aren’t themselves old or remasters. And a lot of these titles follow old genre tropes, be it platformer, “Metroidvania” or RPG – usually while throwing in their own mechanics to add a twist that makes them unique or stand out.

Bring in Katana Zero, the subject of today’s ramblings, the latest offering by developer Askiisoft and published by Devolver Digital. It is a stunning pixel-art action platformer with a “neo-noir” setting in which you play as a Katana wielding samurai, who often gets mistaken for a cosplayer…

I touched, briefly, on Katana Zero in our EGX Rezzed coverage, in which I named it my favourite game of the show. Just doing the intro and first level left me hooked and excited for the games release. I immediately got home, trawled through my emails and put in the request for a review copy on the Switch – this was a game I had to play more, and was excited to ramble about in review form!

I very nearly made a boo boo with this write up though. Those of you who’ve read previous reviews of mine will know that I often struggle to find time to finish games – especially when trying to get a review done with a quick turnaround. This time I very nearly did the “that is enough play time to get an idea of what to talk about”. I’d played a good few hours, I’d mastered the controls and mechanics experienced so far, and got a good idea of the quality of storytelling involved.

Luckily, however, unexpected plans were made, and I couldn’t do the review write up that night as planned, which meant I got another lunch break of playing Katana Zero on the Switch in my car – which was just enough time for the story to explode and the game to open up into even more of what was already making it great.

Before long I’d finished the game, and *poof* was ready to begin my review!

As touched on previously, it’s a fast-paced action platformer, with stunningly beautiful pixel-art graphics and an awesome synthwave soundtrack. You control the titular katana wielding assassin who can manipulate time using a drug called Chronos. It is this time manipulation that sets the game apart from other hack and slash action platformer games. The two main uses of time manipulation are the ability to slow down time to “bullet time” to allow you to dodge, attack, move or whatever you need it for – which is on a refilling timer. The other main use is to rewind time, as you don’t have a health bar, one hit will kill you, so at the moment of death you’ll automatically rewind time to the start of the area/level to try again. Once you clear each stage, it replays your gameplay in black and white, as if being watched on a VCR allowing you to either continue, or try over to do it better/quicker etc.

It’s as if the respawn mechanics are actually explained in the game mechanics and story, which is quite a cool touch – especially as you get deeper into the story and uncover your past, and what is really happening with those giving you the orders.

The gameplay, mechanics and general style really lend themselves to the Switch, however I do feel that the Switch’s lack of “achievement” system doesn’t do this game justice – I imagine this game could be a really cool one to achievement hunt on. I was very excited after finishing it to discover that there were some hidden collectables within the levels to go back and find.

The game isn’t overly long, which is probably why I actually finished it, it has some 12 or so levels to play through, with slightly different objectives in each, sometimes you’re asked to sneak through levels, and sometimes you just slay everything in sight. The “perfection” feeling can set in though, sometimes even though I’d cleared an area I’ve thought to myself “I can do that better” and replayed through it anyway. Which is quite unlike me! I tend to just get stuff done and get on with it, it is part of the reason I tend to dislike side quests in my beloved Zelda games – I just want to crack on with the main story.

Earlier I said that the pixel-art graphics were “stunning”, and that can sometimes seem like a bit of an oxymoron – being pixel art there are inherently limitations to how good the graphics can be. But there was a particular scene, in which I hope to get a screenshot from my Switch for, where you’re walking down a long corridor with these big windows that have light shining through, and the way the light interacts with the character model actually blew me away. Even with pixel art I was amazed.

There isn’t a whole lot to say about the soundtrack, it just fits the game brilliantly. Especially as, similarly to the way the respawn mechanics fits into the story, the soundtrack does too. Each level begins with your character setting up their headphones and picking the music track they want to listen to – complete with a corner pop-up on the screen telling you which song is playing.

All that is really left to talk about is the story. And without going deep into spoiler territory, it’s great! It started off with lots of little jokes and quips that made me chuckle that sucked me into what was happening, and as the story got more in depth I found myself immersed into what was happening – and wanting to delve deeper.

It has quite an interesting voice dialogue mechanic, where you can interrupt someone who is talking, which almost adds a roleplay feel to it. Your character essentially has PTSD and if you want to play him quite snappy you can, interrupting whoever is talking to you to say “Shut up and give me my medicine” or patiently waiting for them to finish, which then gives you a variety of dialogue options (which still usually includes the interrupt line, just not in red).

Interestingly dialogue is somewhat meaningful, choices you make can reflect things later in the level/game. In one of the first levels you can choose to flirt with a hotel receptionist who comments on your appearance, if you claim it is cosplay, then make up some crazy story that it is from, she’ll jump in and help you out when you get to the end of the level, giving you the option to then leave without having to fight/kill the police who turn up.

I mostly played the “Therapy” inter-level sessions as a good patient, answering the questions in what I thought was the right way, and I’m not 100% sure if this reflected dialogues later on or not – it would be interesting to play through again while “being a dick” and see if it changes things later on or not.

I’m hoping there is an update of some sort, as I felt the story wasn’t quite finished yet. I’m not sure if it has been left open ended to allow for a sequel, which I’d be all for, or if there is going to be an expansion to the story of some sort down the line.

All in all everything rolls together to make a brilliant game, the gameplay is great, the artwork is stunning, the setting and story is gripping and the sounds just blend it all together to Katana Zero an early contender for one of the best indie games of the year for me, possibly even going as far as one of the best games of the year for me so far. Its shortness could be considered a downfall, but it also allowed me to actually finish it. I’d say its biggest downfall is that the Switch doesn’t have an “achievement” system, as this game would really benefit from that I feel.

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