Dodge. Slow down time. Slash. Repeat. Both the instructions for my morning haircare routine and how to make your way through each level in Katana ZERO; a gruesome side-scrolling platformer about a swordsman with a mysterious past. This cyberpunk-samurai adventure is equal parts frustrating and satisfying; you’ll want to throw the controller across the room but you’ll be glad you didn’t.
Developed by Askiisoft, Katana ZERO takes place in a city littered with addiction, lowlifes, and neon lights. Zero, a samurai hired to take out the filth that plagues the city, eliminates his targets one by one – leaving no survivors in his path of destruction. Fueled by a drug called Chronos, Zero is able to bend time and evade death. But without Chronos, Zero risks a horrific fate where perception of time is subjective, putting him at risk to be lost in a state of mind worse than death. On top of dealing with a drug that both fuels and plagues him, Zero has a whole host of other issues to contend with. He will encounter nightmares from his troubled past, uncover the truth behind his assassination missions, and question the motivations behind the man who acts as his therapist, boss, and dealer all mixed into one.
Zero’s therapist provides him with a secret dossier at the start of each level with the name and information of his next target. Before a level begins Zero will plug into his music, a pump-you-up synth soundtrack featuring artists such as LudoWic, Bill Kiley, and more. Amped up on the music, and Chronos, Zero can roll to dodge hits, bullets, and lethal laser shields or slow down time to knock a stray bullet back at his enemy with the blade of his katana. If Zero is hit with a fist or bullet he will die immediately upon impact. But here’s where it gets interesting. With Chronos, Zero is able to rewind time and avoid death. Once hit with a bullet he will say “No…That won’t work,” and rewind the timeline like you would when watching your favorite part of a movie on VHS as a kid. But instead of replaying that one hotel scene from Home Alone 2 over and over again you’re trying not to get killed.
There is nothing more infuriating however than when you reach the end of a level and one more enemy shows up at the end to take you out, forcing you to rewind and start the whole level over again. Take a deep breath, try a different path, attempt a different tactic, and master time manipulation to strike your opponents at just the right moment until the level is complete. To be honest – despite having to replay levels multiple times, I never tired of slowing down time to hit a bullet with my katana and hear the gratifying – ting – sound of it against my blade.
Zero’s katana blade is his signature weapon and will be used 98%* of the time to defeat enemies. But players can also pick up items like statues, flower pots, or fire bottles to throw at enemies while swinging their katana blade at the rest of the enemy entourage. There is something really pleasing about kicking open a door, picking up an item off the nearest table, throwing it at the first guy you see, and then slowing down time to slash your way through the rest of your enemies all before any of them can even register that you’ve entered the room.
Between all the fighting, blood, and guts, there’s a tragic story motivating Katana ZERO’s gameplay. In order to push the story forward players will be presented with dialogue choices, that won’t drastically change the direction of the game, but will give players an opportunity to know as much or as little as they want to about Zero, his past, and his current state of affairs. The more questions Zero asks the more you’ll uncover about this anti-hero and have a fuller scope of the story. These dialogue choices can even help Zero build relationships with people, like his neighbor, a pesky little girl whose interactions with Zero humanize him to be more than just a killing machine. Unless you choose to be mean to her the whole time, in which case, what kind of terrible person are you?!
There will be a point in the game where players will be presented with a difficult choice. One choice will end the game and the credits will roll…which is what happened to me initially. But I had so many more questions that I needed answers to. I decided to go back and change my decision which opened up a whole other part in the story with more levels to explore.
This 16-bit world will explore feelings of rage with every fist that pounds against a table, shaking the entire screen. You’ll feel how frustrated Zero is with the world around him each time he cuts a person off while they’re talking, forcing the text from their speech bubble to explode and the letters to cascade away. Through Zero’s journey players will be exposed to acts of violence, some of which were so horrific that even in 16-bits I wanted to look away. I saw some things that I can’t unsee…
From the beginning the story had me hooked. Even with its multiple twists and turns I was still able to track everything – to a point. As the game neared the end I felt like the story was racing to the finish line but never quite made it there. I still have so many questions and I feel like there were many loose ends that I haven’t pieced together quite yet. Luckily I waited until the end of the credits (like any well-trained Marvel movie fan would do). The post credits would appear to show either a DLC option(s) or a Part Two yet to be released. I’m not sure what Askiisoft has in store for us next but I’m eager to know more about Zero and what the future holds for him.
Katana ZERO is available on Nintendo Switch and PC.
Check out the trailer below.
*This is a completely made-up statistic but it sounds about right… give or take a few percentage points.