Publisher: Devolver Digital
Platform: PC (Reviewed), Switch
Release Date: April 18, 2019
Typically speaking, I almost immediately check out when a publisher announces a retro-inspired platformer. After all – how many cutesy platformers with pixel art do we really need? But something about Katana Zero, Askiisoft’s latest action platformer, pulled me in immediately.
You’ll take on the role of a nameless assassin who uses a katana as his weapon of choice. He’s got a drug pumping through his veins — called Chronos — that allows him to slow down and manipulate time. And, it’s clear that he needs the drug to function. Chronos creates, essentially, the core gameplay mechanic that sets Katana Zero apart from other platformers.
When you play Katana Zero, it feels like you’re John Wick in a ninja’s skin and with headphones on bumping 80s synth-heavy techno while taking down enemies. That’s the best way to describe it, really, as the precision required to kill your foes and clear each level can only be compared to that of John Wick.
By the end of the game, your kills feel like an artistic form of expression and a way of life — not just a means to an end. There are many different ways you can tackle each new level, and you’ll find yourself dissecting each of them to find the most efficient way to complete it.
Every slice of your blade kills an enemy in one shot, and you’re tasked with killing enemies with expert precision to avoid getting hit with a bullet or other enemy weapon, as getting hit results in instant death. You’re always faced with more than one enemy scattered across different parts of your screen, and your job is to figure out how to take them all out before getting taken out yourself.
But Katana Zero isn’t a punishing game, really; every instant death results in an instant restart of the level, with no annoying loading screen after you die. That’s really a part of what makes Katana Zero such a strong game: when you die, you’re at the beginning of the level in an instant dissecting where exactly you went wrong.
Some levels you’ll be able to clear on the first shot, while other levels will have you twisting your controller in a fit of rage after dying time and time again. However, Katana Zero is never too difficult as to make it feel like a chore.
There’s a lot to love about this indie gem. Its neon-heavy visuals give the game a vibrant aesthetic, its synth-heavy soundtrack is bumping, and its level design is exceptional. Each level presents its own unique challenges, and figuring out how to best go about each level is fun. It’s these different challenges that provide plenty of gameplay variation that keeps Katana Zero from overstaying its welcome.
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The story is actually a pleasant surprise that’s told through cinematic cutscenes. It’s not a straightforward story, and it’s surprisingly intricate with a satisfying conclusion.
It’s also worth mentioning that the game is so well-polished. In 2019, games releasing in a well-polished state seems to be something of a rarity. But even so, Katana Zero’s quality is noteworthy, as there aren’t any graphical hiccups or bugs to speak of. Gameplay is incredibly smooth and ran surprisingly well — even when I tested it on an older business laptop.
As far as the combat, itself, is concerned, each one-hit kill is as satisfying as the next, and slicing through your enemies while slowing down time around you never grows stale. You’ll feel like Beatrix Kiddo from Kill Bill as you slice and dice through enemies with precision, and mastering that precision is rewarding.
From start to finish, Katana Zero is a platformer brimming with style. Sure, it’s using pixel art, but it also adds in some cool effects like your katana shining when you swing it, your gameplay quickly rewinding back to start so you can see your mistakes in reverse, and the screen shaking with each kill. It’s these types of unique stylistic choices paired with the game’s neo-noir setting, an incredible soundtrack, and brilliant combat that makes Katana Zero one of my favorite games of 2019 so far.