If you asked me a week ago what the best game of 2019 that involved a katana is, obviously that would be Sekiro. Now that I’ve played Katana Zero, I have to reassess that statement. That should say a lot.
What It’s Like
Katana Zero is a 2D action platformer with slick pixel graphics and a perfect thumping soundtrack. Heard it all before, yeah? Well if we continue with the descriptors, we can add that Katana Zero is a game where you play as a psychopathic hitman. In each level, you are sent to kill people and you must clear each room in one life or start over. You have a sword (hence katana) and the ability to slow down time, sweet moves ensue. Does this all sound familiar? Like, every indie game ever but mostly Hotline Miami? Well maybe a lesser reviewer would say something like that, but frankly, I’m struggling to disagree.
Katana Zero feels very similar to many of the games we’ve seen in recent years, but that is by no means a bad thing. A game that takes what’s good and refines it into something better is always welcome, and I can’t think of a better description for Katana Zero than that.
Why It’s Better
I singled out Hotline Miami for a reason, the inspiration is undeniable. Katana Zero is a trippy tale of murder, conspiracy, and crime. You play as a samurai in a neo-noir world, a contract killer who kills at the behest of his psychiatrist. His reward is medicine, not money. Now we shan’t get into spoilers, but I’m sure you’ve clocked that there’s something suspect about a psychiatrist sending a patient out to murder people, and I promise you it’s even more insane than you think it is. Katana Zero will entice you in with slick gameplay, but it will hook you and keep you with its wild story. Again I don’t want to spoil anything, but there are two things I really want to bring up.
Firstly, there are some exceptional pixel animations in this game. The action looks great but I’m talking about the cutscenes, I really loved all the little animations of characters interacting and emoting. A lot of personality comes across through these little animations, really helps the writing shine. Secondly, you play as a psychopathic killer with time powers so naturally your perspective on reality is tenuous. This game is not afraid to break its own rules, think that bit at the end of MGS 2 where the game goes nuts, but for an entire game.
Is Sword-Feel a Thing?
As well as being as mad as a bag of spiders, Katana Zero is mechanically tight. Each level is a tactics puzzle in which you must take out all of your enemies to progress, without taking a single hit. Getting hit sends you right back to the beginning to try again. Again think Hotline Miami but with time powers, so all your deaths are canon! To help you manage all the chaos you can slow down time, and you need this ability more often than not. I often forgot about it because I’m an idiot, but in some situations it becomes crucial. Slicing your way through goons with precision takes reflexes, and your time control gives you the edge you need to stay ahead. Sending a bullet back to its sender is pretty sweet too.
One thing you can’t do is mash your way through this game. That was a habit I had to break, for the type of game this is I instinctively found myself trying to slash like a madman. Your attacks have to be deliberate, if you mistime or miss your mark, you’re probably dead. One slice, one kill. Keep it that way and you’ll succeed.
The Final Cut
Katana Zero is dark, brutal, funny and heartbreaking all in one solid package of samurai slow-mo action. It’s out now on Steam and the Switch, and it is a must buy for indie fans. Don’t sleep on Katana Zero, it’s worth your time.