What’s Good About: Katana Zero
This game is fucking rad and you should play it. I finished the game and it’s still fresh in my mind as of the time of this writing (like, “not even an hour after finishing” fresh), and I really want to dig into this Because this feels like the most committed I’ve seen a game be to its central narrative, gameplay and thematic hooks in a very long time.
The basic setup is that you’re this dude in a bathrobe and a katana who works as an assassin in exchange for drugs. I see you eyeing that close button on the browser tab, keep with me for a bit. As weird as that opening sounds, it serves as the lead-in to a story about a government conspiracy and the soldiers that it used and discarded in wartime operations striking back against it. If that sounds interesting, then too bad; it only makes up a good 5% of the plot, and the rest is more about the discovery that any of this is happening at all. And while that may sound like I have an issue with that, I actually really like it because it feels like it’s supposed to be the setup of a larger, more interesting narrative. So for now, we’re left with a series of escalating assassinations that I’m not going to get into further because some of that stuff gets Fucking. Wild. How wild are we talking? It’s some “you need to see it to believe it” kind of nonsense. But a small hint that I can give you is this: perception of time gets fucked within some very cool ways and that’s all I’m saying.
Overall, the immediate comparison that comes into my mind after thinking on it harder is that Katana Zero feels very reminiscent of Hotline Miami. And I’m not talking about both of them having similar aesthetics and gameplay loops (although that does come into it a bit). And though you play both games as a weirdly dressed individual that can be summed up as “this person should not be so efficient at murder at first glance and ends each day by going back to their shithole of an apartment”; the difference is that the story in Katana Zero feels more like the tale of the one dude getting caught up in a whirlwind Neo-Noir conspiracy and that the gameplay conceit for as to why it’s so hard is actually really inspired.
Remember the drugs that I said that our protagonist is on? Well, said drugs give him the ability to slow down his perception of time and a weird form of limited precognition that only triggers death. These are essentially what you play with when going through the levels because the section replays are you watching security footage in real-time of you being a badass and killing all of the unfortunate mooks getting in your way. That’s right, the gameplay is more or less your planning your assassinations in real time and I love that a lot. It definitely leads to some funny moments where if you die, you just go “That’s a terrible idea, let’s scrap that” and I’m a sucker for that kind of thing. Kind of like how in Prince of Persia Sands of Time had the Prince himself going “That Didn’t happen” whenever he died because he was telling a story. This also ties into you being more willing to try more unconventional solutions to getting through each level because that setup can let you go “kill this dude, kill this dude, die, start over. Rinse and Repeat until the level is done”.
They then go and put a unique twist on that several times throughout the game. Because these fights usually have all of the same mechanics of regular gameplay, they are done in ways that make it feel like you are fighting a more similarly skilled/powerful individual as opposed to the hordes of guards that you ruthlessly slaughter. And then there are encounters that offer huge twists to how the game is played that I’m not going into because you need to see that shit for yourself.
This is also tied together by a soundtrack that’s equal parts Synthwave, EDM, and even light jazz at points and it’s great. It’s a very neon-sounding mix of music and I appreciate its commitment to aiding in the game’s overall Swagger.
Overall, I think of all the games I played that came out in 2019, Katana Zero has to be my favourite so far. It may be a good 6 hours long, but it's a damn good six hours. Check it out when you can.
Links for images, as usual, provided by https://www.igdb.com/games/katana-zero/presskit