Katana Zero is a slick, neo-noir, charming instant kill game developed by Akiisoft and published by Devolver Digital, containing intense gameplay and an even more intense storyline. This is not a game to sit back and relax with after a long hard day; it's more a game that requires your full, undivided attention and strategic skills if you don’t want to die a million times over. While Katana Zero is not for the faint of heart or extreme rage quitters, if you’re up for the challenges that this game has to offer, you’ll feel a immense sense of gratification upon completion.
You are a hitman, or "The Dragon" as your enemies know you by. Each day you are given a dossier, and have nothing but your katana and your drug, "Chronos." Initially, Chronos gives you the ability to slow down time, allowing you to dodge the fast-paced bullets of the dozens of enemies you face in each level. Later on, as you find out, Chronos is the reason why this Katana Zero uses the repetitive one-kill mechanic; the drug allows our protagonist to be invincible, allowing you to die as many times as you need to in order to complete the stages. Death is essentially a re-do button - unless you stop taking Chronos - then its withdrawal effects will kill you. Other than that though, you are an insanely dangerous hitman. All your bathrobe-wearing samurai killer needs is a hit of Chronos and some 80s themed sci-fi tunes blaring through his headphones before slashing away everything in his path to his target. Each room is swarmed with gun and knife-carrying mobsters, and your orders are to "leave no survivors." The stages get harder and the enemies become more fervent with their intent to kill you, especially nearing the heavily-guarded boss levels since they know that you are a dangerous Chronos-using war veteran.
Katana Zero's gameplay is fast. Muscle memory is key to mastering this game, as the enemies are so quick to kill you that you have no choice but to glide up the platforms and slash systematically through every one of them. It’s an instant-kill game, so one slash and they’re dead, and the same goes for you. You have a few more tools other than your katana at your disposal too, such as the ability to power slide, picking up to throw, and obviously Chronos, so that you can slow down time to attack even before the enemy has time to process that you’ve just busted their door down. Moving up to the higher levels requires a heightened sense of strategy, since there are so many enemies to deal with per platform, although by then you should have the muscle memory down to a T - especially considering the amount of times you’ve had to push yourself to continue. I’m glad there’s no death counter in Katana Zero, because you’re going to die. A lot. At least there are checkpoint systems, so you don’t have to start the level from the very beginning. You’re able to respawn in the same room, giving you the chance to think about where you went wrong and regroup your strategy. Even better, you'll be able to watch back the footage of the bloodbath after every completed room, and it'll make your gameplay look quick and effortless.
While Katana Zero has retro-styled graphics, the pixel art animations are incredibly slick. Every movement and facial expression is eloquently crafted to show the chaotic, raw experience of our unfazed psychotic killer. It amazed me how smooth the art was in this game as well as how much detail there is to create such a smooth, pixelated experience. As someone who dabbles in making pixel art, the art style hooked me in even before the storyline began. Accompanied with the dark color scheme and the 8-bit techno tunes, the aesthetic of Katana Zero reflects the storyline and gameplay - challenging and cool.
Aside from our protagonist’s psychotic killer side, after work he likes to spend time in his rundown apartment, drinking herbal tea and watching the news' take on his day’s work. It is an intimate look into his anti-climatic free time, until he befriends a little girl in his apartment complex. Here, along with your decision-making skills, you are able to see a slightly softer side of our hero, as he has the potential to act as a father figure to this lonesome child. This isn’t just the case with her. In fact, there are many instances in Katana Zero where you, the player, decides what he says to an array of people, from main characters to enemies to NPCs. The most notable is the therapist that you see the talk about your recurring nightmares and acquire your Chronos hit, as well as more eye-opening discussions later on.
However, there are more entertaining and charming discussions that you can have, such as with the receptionist at the beginning of the game. She’s a talkative character, but this can be used to your advantage if you decide to humor her before you go off on your killing spree (yes, the blood all over me is indeed a part of my cosplay, thanks for asking). To me, the ability to choose the protagonist’s dialogue this is a nice touch. It shows that he isn’t a two-dimensional killer, as well as solidifying the fact that Katana Zero has more to it than just slaying mobsters, despite appearing so from the get-go.
Don’t get me wrong, Katana Zero is a tough game, but not for the sake of being unnecessarily hard. It’s a game that requires your attention and strategic thinking. Being able so do so will not only unlock more challenging experiences, but also the opportunity to partake in character development and understand the in-game universe. Indeed, Katana Zero is more than just mindless killing, but is also about government cover-ups, evil drug junkies, the effects of war and remembering to trust no one.
Jasime reviewed Katana Zero with a personally purchased copy.