Bullet time action and compelling storytelling combine in this excellent 2D action game from the company that brought you Hotline Miami.
As summer games droughts go, 2019 is looking like one of the less severe of modern times. We wouldn’t say the next three months were busy but there are a lot of interesting games coming up, including Rage 2, Total War: Three Kingdoms, Blood & Truth, Super Mario Maker 2, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, and Wolfenstein: Youngblood. The next few weeks are the driest but that’s good in a way, as it gives us a chance to catch up with some of the smaller titles already out. Such as Katana Zero, one of the best indie games of the year.
Like many an indie title Katana Zero is not an immediately impressive sight when you see the screenshots or videos. There’s some very nice pixel art but that’s a pretty commonplace look for indie games and increasingly something of a cliché. There’s a lot of obvious comparisons to make when it comes to the gameplay too, which works something like a side-on version of Hotline Miami – except with swords instead of guns.
There’s also a strong element of platforming in the game, although things never get quite as extreme, or abstract, as something like Super Meat Boy or Celeste. And yet despite all these familiar components Katana Zero still manages to feel fresh and exciting, not only because it blends all its gameplay elements together so well but because it’s one of the few video games where you get to visit a psychiatrist between levels.
Actually, the idea of a talking to a psychiatrist has come up in a number of survival horror games, most notably Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, but here it’s used less for psychological profiling and more to underpin the game’s unusual story. Katana Zero takes place sometime after a disastrous war, with your character suffering from guilt and post-traumatic stress in a city plagued by crime and homelessness. Which is a lot more serious a backstory than you might expect for a game filled with brightly-coloured sprites and endless OTT violence.
Your character is an assassin, one with the very useful ability to be able to see into the future. What this means in gameplay terms is that you get infinite chances to navigate the series of side-scrolling stages and every time you die it’s put down as simply a planned attempt that you realise won’t work out. As almost any enemy attack results in your instant death you have to be very precise about everything you do and while certain randomised elements mean you can’t just learn a stage by rote you definitely need to plan for every eventuality.
Since your main weapon is a sword a key skill to learn is when exactly to strike; too early and you’ll miss your target and almost certainly die, too late and you’ll be killed before you get a chance to do anything. And that’s assuming the enemy doesn’t have a gun, in which case they’ll shoot you dead the second they get a line of sight.
You’re a very nimble assassin and as well as a vital dodge roll, that’s used to avoid both enemies and environmental traps, there’s also a lot of wall-jumping and other 2D platforming to be done. But your most useful skill is the ability to slow down time, allowing you to tackle otherwise impossible groups of enemies and deflect bullets with your sword. A slow-motion effect is hardly a unique idea but this is one of its best implementations in a long while and also cleverly woven into the narrative.
Those gameplay basics are more than enough to fuel an entire game but Katana Zero goes the extra mile by ensure plenty of variety in its various missions. One focuses more on stealth, another on less subtle one-off weapons, and each has its own unique setting and assassination target.
You’re told from the start that you have to kill every goon you come across, but the game also features a simple dialogue system that allows you to interact with non-combatants. This allows you to, for example, charm a hotel receptionist or choose exactly how you engage with your therapist. It’s time-based as well, so not only can you lose your chance to say something but the other person might get angry if you interrupt them.
The game clearly wants to take its story seriously but just as it seems to get going the whole thing ends with what is essentially sequel-begging, as everything is left on a cliffhanger and all you can do is hope the game does well enough to ensure a second chapter. This sort of thing is bad enough in full price games – more than one of which has been left without any resolution thanks to such tactics – and it’s not something we expect from an indie game.
Despite the lack of closure this is an exceptionally well-crafted action game that manages to mix the familiar with the pleasingly unique. In that sense we’ll be more than happy if there is a sequel, and although we don’t have the ability to see the future we’d be willing to bet that Katana Zero will earn itself more than enough fans to justify a follow-up.
In Short: An elegant blend of 2D action and cyberpunk storytelling, that manages to make a very distinctive experience out of some very familiar indie tropes.
Pros: Excellent combat system, with some of the best use of slow-motion in years. Excellent presentation, with a surprisingly involved narrative and a simple but effective dialogue system.
Cons: None of the gameplay elements are exactly new, even if most of them are used extremely well. Truncated plot is very unsatisfying.
Formats: Nintendo Switch (reviewed) and PC
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Release Date: 18th April 2019
Age Rating: 16