Title: Katana Zero
Release Date: April 18, 2019
Reviewed On: PC
Publisher: Devolver Digital
I’ve never really expected a compelling story from a fast action indie game to leave me in awe. While that’s not to say other games don’t impress me, Askiisoft’s approach to storytelling in their newest game Katana Zero very well may be the best story that I’ve experienced in a game in recent years. I can attribute this to the developer making full use of the medium and grabbing the players’ attention from beginning to end. The harmonious blend of interactivity, sights, and sounds is one that I think no avid gamer should miss out on.
Katana Zero opens with a nameless assassin accomplishing numerous contracts while undergoing therapy to keep himself sane. It’s not until certain events unfold that things are not what they seem. Everything surrounding the katana-wielding assassin strays further from reality as friends and foes are telling him conflicting messages about who he is and what everyone is after. It is then up to the player to solve the existential crisis they are presented with.
Askiisoft does a great job using video game’s interactivity to tell this story. How the narrative reacts to my commands does a fantastic job in making me feel as though I’m uncovering the truth myself. Though not only are dialogue options altering the adventure but the timing of my responses to situations has an effect on the narrative as well. One cutscene, for example, has a villain try and intimidate the assassin, giving less than a second to select “do not flinch.” Later dialogue scenes have the same villain that thinks of me as cold and unfeeling. These small details in interactive media do well in having players feel the adventure revolving around them and the effect definitely works here.
Additionally, Katana Zero has focused its visuals on the look of neon punk with clear film noir influences. The iconic look of bright colors reflecting off dreary stages is executed well because it is never overdone. Moments in the story are still able to have completely dark aspects when the character is in an alleyway arguing with a homeless person or returning home to a trashy apartment. These strong traits in visuals make even a 2D pixel art game resemble the real world.
And it goes without saying that the music and sounds are just as good. Everything from katana slashes to jumping on a car is loud, punchy and tactile, which is what players want when facing a number of enemies that can kill you in a single hit. Meanwhile, the music that plays over each stage is fitting to the level a player is in. Loud electronic dance club music becomes muffled while fighting backstage or clearing out every thug in a level can result in complete silence before the next cutscene.
Combat feels extremely satisfying because kills and deaths are so fast-paced yet visually clear that subsequent attempts have the “one more time” factor. While at first, I had issues with the assassin seemingly launching himself in the air for no reason when attacking enemies, it was once I realized that combat had a physics-like reaction with attacks that I understood why Askiisoft made the decision, especially after I mastered it. Using bad guys as a sort of springboard to launch at another enemy helps with the fluidity of the fights and made the gameplay very exciting.
That excitement continues with the fast-paced nature of the title. With enemies sprinting at you with bullets flying all over the screen, it becomes necessary to use the game’s bullet time feature to slow down the action and even deflect some stray bullets back at your enemy. The cost for using the ability too much can leave players with a slowly recharging energy bar and another death on their record. Also, each death causes the player to rewind time and start the fight over. The immediacy of the encounters is another reason Katana Zero feels great to play. Other games that use this type of respawn system have this feeling of rebuilding momentum that I feel can cause players to put the controller down after some failed attempts. But the design Askiisoft made places the character really close to the action meaning the only reason I would put the controller down is to relax my hands after a tense stage.
The only time that combat could potentially slow down is when enemies mow down the assassin. It becomes clear early in the game that getting too close to an enemy results in being knocked down, leaving the player open to death by gunshots, stabs and other means of dying. But what is never clear is the amount of time the player has to recover and try to save their run. In one instance, the assassin took a while to recover. While in another, the assassin got up instantly. This leads to some deaths feeling unfair. Though these moments only happened a few times, it was enough to hurt my experience.
As I said before, Katana Zero gets so many things right as a fast action video game. But it also does a lot right in the context of a film. The plot of an assassin being driven into the uncertainty of reality is a powerful one. The same can be said about the writing when events are vaguely being jumped back and forth between during the narrative. This pairs well with the assassin’s ability to rewind time, thus differences between game and cutscene work together instead of being contradicting, like with games that have a hero that also murders people.
While these critiques can be philosophical, it helps a lot in making Katana Zero a blast to play. Having good characters and dialogue had me excited to see where my story options would take me which fueled the adventure for me all the way to the final boss.
If gameplay, audio, visuals, and story were ammo loaded into a gun, Katana Zero is firing consecutively from each barrel. With every component supporting each other, the title feels very consistent and well rounded. Any flaws like difficulty or varying times of knockdown recovery can be overlooked in my opinion. And with the fantasy it presents, Askiisoft has made a game I feel can stand alongside some of my favorite movies. In fact, If I were to turn on my TV and think of a movie I wanted to watch, I might just put on Katana Zero instead.
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