Katana ZERO from relatively unknown Askiisoft is surely going to be the game that will make them known. Coming from the house that published Hotline Miami, Devolver Digital has a penchant for 80s and violence. But Hotline Miami this is not. While reminiscent in many ways, instead offers fantastic platformer style combat with control of time to give you an advantage within each encounter. Katana ZERO is often frustrating, but highly rewarding that utilizes non-binary choices to shape the narrative in really exciting ways.
This is a slashction platformer, and the titular character ZERO, is the protagonist you’re in control of through 95% of the game, and only in one mission do you play as someone else with different set of abilities. As you’re brought up to speed on the events, you’re given a ten day countdown until “something” happens. What that is, you’ll have to see. Along the way you’ll be given missions, and you’ll pass or fail them, based on the objectives you’re given. There are interludes at your apartment that serve as downtime between all the action. Though, here there are equal amount of things that happen, exclusively through conversation with NPCs. This downtime provides breaks from Katana ZERO‘s combat.
Katana ZERO is trial and error, made easier with rewinding to the beginning of the level on error (death). The later levels are naturally longer, and become next to impossible. There’s seemingly some bullshit events where you’re caught completely off-guard and I’m sure are completely avoidable, but caused what I had considered to be a perfect run, ruined. Everything about Katana ZERO‘s encounters can be summed up as a combat puzzle. Once you figure out the method that works for you, you can piece by piece sort out how to get to the finish. Katana ZERO offers stealth as a means to rewinding as little as possible, but things won’t always go according to plan. So whether that’s returning bullets back to their senders, killing without alerting surrounding enemies, or utilizing throwables to kill enemies; you’ll find the key to solving the problem plaguing the room.
Katana ZERO‘s title screen, music, and art style isn’t entirely cohesive, but there’s a neo-noir vibe set against a gritty 80s neon look that works well and evokes the era nicely. This is accompanied by its 16-bit-like graphics, offering many more frames of animation and smoothness that just looks great. ZERO even equips a walkman with each mission, giving even the inclusion of the soundtrack a reason for existing. It makes the look, sound, and design purposeful, rather than superfluous.
Continuing this design, there’s even a VHS effect when you pause the game, but this extends to the gameplay mechanics where you can slow down time, or it is rewound if you die – so it isn’t just an aesthetic. The main mechanics of Katana ZERO are performing a dodge roll, and manipulating time. You have a battery that is charged up by being out of combat. When you use it, combat is slowed so that you can dodge bullets, avoid charging enemies, and overall get the upper-hand. The time mechanics aren’t required in the early levels, but they quickly become a requirement, forcing you to do better, which results in you being more satisfied and confident with each encounter.
Askiisoft subverts expectations of dialogue choices, as they non-binary in nature. There’s never an explicit understanding how a response will be taken by the person on the other end of the conversation. An innocuous choice might have ramifications you couldn’t possibly predict. You have a timer that ticks down before you’re able to properly respond, interrupting someone before they finish talking could cut off future dialogue choices and information for the rest of the mission. Choices have consequences, but there’s no way to go back unless you replay them, which can have an impact on the ending. There’s at least one “big moment” where you do make a binary choice that certainly shapes the ending you’ll have. When engaging in conversation, each character not only has text, but also has color and animation accents that help convey the emotion and tone, allowing you to read them as intended.
There’s elements of consequence within missions as well. You are often given an objective to not kill, but then during the mission, things shift and you think it’s safe to kill the police officers but you actually get penalized. This ties in to multiple ways to solve the combat puzzle. With each level being hand-crafted, you’ll be able to memorize enemy placement, routes, and how best to complete the room. If you’ve made a bad choice, replaying the level can right some wrongs.
What any medium can do well, is provide something to break-up from what would be monotonous. In music, it’s a different tempo in the next track, movies have different scenes, and games have different sequences. In Katana ZERO, vehicle sections break up the gameplay, and still manages to utilize the time mechanics to great effect. The game doesn’t emphasize them, but the bosses in the game are few, but equally something that stands out, and offer their own combat puzzle to be solved.
The bad guy AI in the game isn’t anything special, but the way they react to death, nearby explosions, and subtle changes in sound, shows how quickly things can go off the rails. It exemplifies your fragility, as you can die from a single hit at any moment. The countdown clock of ten days references the number of levels. If you complete a level, you can go back to it and replay it to make different decisions or experience them again. At around five hours for completion, Katana ZERO warrants a replay and picking apart what makes its levels so great.
Katana ZERO is really fantastic at providing mind-bending, reality altering sequences both in gameplay and story. While I never felt like I knew where things were going, it ultimately falls short of greatness by the end. With nothing more than a tease and a wink, the game ends, feeling unfinished with too much of a setup to continue via DLC or a sequel. That said, Katana ZERO is absolutely a worthwhile slashction platformer that does unexpected things with its story to make this a must play.
A pre-release Steam code was provided by the publisher for review purposes