Katana Zero is one of those games that everyone should play, but seemingly only a select few are going to, at least on release. As the game lives on Nintendo Switch and PC only for the time being, Askiisoft’s and Devolver Digital’s mighty 2D slice-em-up will be only for a special few, and that’s a shame. It really is one of the only negative points about the game that I can think of, to be frank. The devastation of hearing Greg’s desolate sadness upon learning it’s a Switch-only console release was palpable, as Devolver’s output on the system is enough to sell systems. Probably not to Greg because he’s cheap, but to those who desire the very best of modern indie gameplay experiences, you know you don’t need to go much further than the games in this world discovered and published by Devolver Digital (Ape Out and the upcoming My Friend Pedro also being Switch only attests to this).
I was fortunate enough to have played the game – albeit briefly – at EGX Rezzed this year and this is what I said in my article, which you can read in full here if you so desire;
From the utterly gorgeous visual style – the best 2D lighting in game history? – to the insane levels of unimaginable violence, Katana Zero is going to impress a lot of people on release. It’s difficult to really compare it to anything else as the gameplay is so fast and fluid, though The Swindle and Celeste come to mind, if you can imagine the latter with an enormous frickin’ sword.
It’s a one hit kill experience so if you’re downed you need to try it all again from the beginning of the level. You also have the skills to take down your enemies with one hit kills though so it’s finely balanced, with the game wanting you to tear through each level without a single hit so it can show you just how awesome you were with a full replay of the level upon completion. It’s a welcome option, as the game is so delightful to play and look upon, to rewatch all that you’ve just achieved is a rewarding addition. I particularly enjoyed reviewing the moment I had to pesky bad ones following me and I simply destroyed them by switching on a laser with a switch I found.
That’s a quick summary at the top of this review to give you an idea of the first fifteen minutes of the game that I played, but once I was fortunate enough to get a code a few days ago I haven’t played anything else. You would think ‘well Rossko, of course. You have a game to review and you must devote all of your spare time to delve into its subtle intricacies and learn all there is to know about this game in order for us, the consumer, to make a decision on whether or not to part with our money’ and well, you’d be absolutely correct. Fortunately, I’ve also been playing Katana Zero all weekend because I simply can’t put the damn thing down.
The first thing you need to know is that KZ isn’t easy. It’s tough as balls and it’s fully aware of it with a great big bloody smile on its face. It’s a one-hit-and-you’re-dead slash-em-up so you’re going to die an awful lot, not just by making silly mistakes but by learning how each level operates. Primarily each stage has several floors which you need to navigate and there’s every chance you’ll need to use every tool at your disposal in order to finish each one without getting hit. I’ve died far too many times for my own liking so far but I try not to dwell on it. If you’re downed the game instantly throws you back to the beginning of each stage regardless of progress so you can take a crack at what you’ve learned about the movement of your enemies and using your slow motion or rolling past them (which makes you temporarily invincible) to tactically manoeuvre your way through each stage. You’re hugely powerful, so being able to down enemies with one hit works in your favour an awful lot but your enemies are just as badass as you are, so navigating each level and dying is all part and parcel with the mechanics of the game. Katana Zero makes you shout ‘FUCK’ out loud plenty of times when you think you’ve nailed it and you screw it up on the final enemy.
Every time you die a message comes up on the screen saying ‘no, that won’t work’. Complete a stage? ‘Yes, that should work’. Each time you fail it’s like it never happened. I get the impression that each failed run is your character standing completely still and attempting to figure out the best way to power through each stage. The game ‘rewinds’ back to the beginning of each stage and you’re set to try again. ‘Yes, that should work’ appearing on the screen is a hugely rewarding mechanic, it’s exactly what you aim for as you navigate your way through these hugely difficult stages. I haven’t yet played Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice but I imagine the feeling is mutual when you down a boss. Predicting the future is a nice little addition to your arsenal, you never really die.
Your Katana wielding character has plenty of tricks up his sleeve and you’ll learn to utilise all of them to ensure you tear through each level with little fuss. Kind of. From your badass sword that swishes across your enemies face with a burst of yellow and using your slash to deflect incoming bullets, to moving in slow motion thanks to your Chronos medication you are infused with before each level, stealthily hiding in cover in the middle of ravers on a dancefloor to avoid being seen by nightclub goons, being able to pick up axe’s and bottles to melee your enemies before they get a chance to reach you. Walljumping to slice open a baddun from underneath them and navigating your way to switches to turn on lasers and turn your enemies into dust, there’s a rather ferocious number of ways you can murder in this game and every single one of them is just as satisfying as the next. The movement in this game is almost like a choreographed dance. In a certain level I sucked at for a fair while you remember button combinations to ensure you can clear an area without getting downed.
‘Down, A to collect the axe and throw it, ZR to roll behind the turret to take it out, Y to knock down to the door, ZL to slow motion behind the far off enemy, ZR to avoid bullets, Y to turn his ally into a pool of blood before I aim for him, ZR ZR ZR to roll and Y to kill. Right. X to turn on the lasers. Yes, that should work’.
It’s almost poetic in this movement, each little segment has a rhythm to it that has to be matched lest the game bring you to your knees. Matching your movement every single time you repeat the level is essential, there really isn’t more than a few ways to get through each stage so you’ll need to learn what works for you, particularly as the gameplay is so swift in its movement. When you finally pull off the perfect run through a stage and the hallowed ‘Yes, that should work’ appears, there’s few better feelings in gaming so far this year. You know the rhythm of the movement you learned was crucial to pulling off that weighty mission. Well bloody done.
Away from each level we learn more about our protagonist through various scenes that showcase his life away from the murder-stab-stab he’s so particularly fond of. His life is seemingly rather miserable away from his work, living in a deadbeat apartment with little company, save a little girl who lives next door and doesn’t see our katana wielding protagonist as any kind of threat. Their relationship build throughout the game is it’s one of my favourite aspects, being able to delve into the life of our side-scrolling pixel samurai was an unexpected but delightful addition to the game. His faceless boss – who you speak to through phone calls and gives you various narrative options, including a *hang up* which is rarely advised – looks down on you, using you only for your exceptional skills in order to take down his chosen targets. There are specific objectives you also might need to complete such as not talking to your target, so when a conversational bar appears you have the option to simply kill them or ask them questions. The boss has made it clear he doesn’t want you saying a word to your next victim, so just take them out and get the hell away from the crime scene, later reported on the news that blasts through your television set in your crappy apartment.
You sleep through the day transitions and it’s here we learn that you have nightmares, images that get clearer as each day is finished and you go to sleep again. There’s little to take from them in the early stages, but they become more evident how they play into the overall narrative the later the game goes on. Another unexpected touch that really builds an interesting story that plays out moment to moment as the game progresses.
From a technical standpoint, Katana Zero is pretty much perfect. The neo-noir presentation is absolutely beautiful, showcasing perhaps the best looking pixel based visuals I may have ever seen. That sounds like hyperbole I know, but I genuinely believe it to be true. The slick movements of the characters are stunning, almost looking like fully-rendered 3D characters the way the models move. The lighting is exceptional, with each neon-infused level leaping off the Switch screen and looking even better when docked. You notice it clearly when your protagonsit is walking under different coloured neon signs and you’ll see the light bounce off them. It’s subtle, but it’s incredible.
Then there’s the music, which pounds out of your Switch speakers with such overwhelming force you feel obliged to carry on just to hear the next piece. Each composition (a truly brilliant synthwave soundtrack created by Ludowic and Bill Kiley) compliments the games mechanic perfectly, with a nice touch of letting you know which track you’re listening to at the start of the game and the artist. Safe to say I’m going to get this soundtrack on a shiny vinyl the second it becomes available.
I might even let Greg borrow it. Maybe. Probably not, tbh.
Katana Zero is simply a very easy recommendation. From the utterly perfect mechanics tweaked to an inch of their life to the visuals, the overarching story and inner conflict of your highly skilled protagonist and his external relationships with the world around him, counteracting with the hyper-violence he calls his work, the game finds a delicate balance between ridiculously stylish action and the more subtle downbeat moments that really bring out some wonderful character development. It’s a brilliant balance that brings out the best in a game that’s already stuffed full of a multitude of ‘one-more-go’ moments that keep you playing, and keep you guessing.
It’s a beautiful game that isn’t for the impatient. So long as you’re willing to play the long game with this one and learn as you go, attempting over and over again before finally cracking it and feeling like a superhero, Katana Zero isn’t going to let you down by any stretch of the imagination. It showcases – *yet again* – that Devolver Digital are absolute masters at finding hugely exciting, original creations. Their back catalogue and what’s to come this year are damn near all essential experiences, and you’re going to have the time of your life playing through them all – even if you do have to buy a Switch for the privilege.
How do I finish this review?
Play Katana Zero. You won’t regret it.
Yes. That should work.
Katana Zero is out now on Nintendo Switch (reviewed) and PC.
Publisher: Devolver Digital
In order to complete this review, we were provided with a review code from the publisher. For our full review policy please go here.
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