Cut to the point.
At the start of every level in Katana ZERO, the samurai you play as begins by popping in some earphones, pressing play on his cassette player, and grooving to some sick beats. Mostly because nothing stresses how good someone is at their job like the ability to do it while listening to music. What follows in each level of the game is – to put it simply – a bloodbath. But it’s a slick and stylish one that oozes cool effortlessly, leaving you to sink further into the tub. And unless the final game is a radical departure from what I’ve seen of Katana ZERO, it’s looking set to be another gem from Askiisoft that’s been picked up by Devolver Digital to add to its pile.
At first glance, Katana ZERO might look just another side-scrolling action game and if I’m being ruthlessly candid, you’d be right. Except, the pace of Katana offers combat that moves a mile a minute, with your death only serving to rewind time to the start of that segment, challenging you to kill all over again but in a more economic fashion, making every strike count. When you’ve finished cutting your way through each section, you’re shown a full replay of your winning run, and it was this that made me understand just what kind of game Katana ZERO really is.
Because as it stands, Katana ZERO quickly reveals itself to be a puzzle game. Not so much in the conventional sense, rather in the “killing X amount of people is the puzzle” kind of way. Anyone who’s put their hand to Superhot will be familiar with this puzzle style. But Katana ZERO does an excellent job of hiding that puzzle-esque design of its game through the simple yet brilliant styling of its combat. You’ve only got a handful of moves at your disposal, obviously you can slash, you can also slide, roll, jump, block bullets with your sword, and throw some objects. Levels are setup in such a way that getting through them comes down to finding out which moves you need to use and when. Of course, there are a ton of variations you can use to do this but because of that near-instant style of the level restarts, I quickly fell into a rhythm of what I did for each segment of a level until it all clicks into a one-shot murderfest. It’s too early to say anything definitive but I haven’t lost patience with that repetitiveness of the levels. It all feels like the game giving you the chance to do everything faster and with a bit more style.
Oh, yeah, the slowing down time thing, that’s a bit weird isn’t it? From what I understand, samurais can’t control time, yet there I was, slowing down time to hit a bullet back the way it came. This time-bending ability comes as a result of a drug, affectionately named Chronos, that the samurai’s therapist gives him during each of their sessions, I don’t want to delve too far into the game’s story mostly because it’s such a fascinating underlay for Katana ZERO that giving too much away feels like a dick move. What I will say though is that I wasn’t expecting the story to pull me in as much as it did. Going to therapy sessions where you psychologist helps you interpret your dreams of shadowy figures shooting you as a child, before he reminds you that you’ll have to go out and murder an assortment of people later that day. This tidy routine of therapy, drugs, and murder soon begins to unravel for the samurai though and the entire game gets weird in a move that I simply didn’t see coming. Again, I’m doing my best to avoid being decisive but the story of Katana Zero looks like it’s on to a winner.
And a large part of why is because of the dibs and dabs of freedom the game offers you in its dialogue. Conversations are moulded around what you want to do in the game. If you’re just there to kill people, the game offers a red dialogue option, something that’s basically interrupting someone to tell them to shut up. Do this enough and characters react as you’d expect, at one point my psychologist told me not to “fucking interrupt” him again, while a hotel receptionist had a pop at me after I told her to shut up. But delve a little into these options and you’re presented with new ways to explore the story, learning a little more about the world around you and a bit more about yourself. As it stands, the dialogue system works very, very well. The skip option is used so cleverly, with the reaction it garners surely enough to tempt even the most impatient of players into seeing what else they can do during these conversations, while the choices-proper help really flesh out the world the game is set in.
It’s a fairly depressing world if I’m being honest but, would you expect anything less for the life of an assassin? It’s a city that’s full of cramped apartments that house annoyingly loud neighbours that are constantly stoned, while the grimy nightclubs and criminal-infested mansions are just a few stops you make during your night-time job, all of which are scored by heart-pounding music that only seeks to add a solid soundtrack that makes your clumsy murder-spree look like a carefully choreographed dance. It all looks pretty great already, even in its early version. The game’s 16-bit design runs rampant with the charmingly retro design that’s propped up by a modern polish, sneaking in a touch of the third dimension when you see the steam from a hot drink get blown away. It’s a choice that suits the game very well and I doubt we’ll see too radical a change when Katana ZERO lands in March.
I’ll keep this short and sweet. As it stands, I hope Katana ZERO doesn’t move too far away from what it looks like, sounds like, or how it plays in its current state. Even though it follows a formulae we’ve seen before, it’s a game that seems to borrow from here and there, before making it all click together in a way that looks set to wow players.