Katana Zero is one of those games that kicked around the convention circuit for a long while. I first played it at PAX years ago, and I’ve been eagerly anticipating more news ever since. It’s the type of game that sticks with you thanks to its high fidelity pixel art and a unique mix of mechanics. One part Mark of the Ninja and one part Hotline Miami, this gameplay is like nothing you’ve tried before. Like the best releases nowadays, Katana Zero creates something wholly new and very exciting from these disparate parts.
You play as “The Dragon”, a legendary serial killer only talked about in whispers. You can take down entire platoons with the flick of a blade thanks to your mastery of precognition. Behind the scenes, this deadly persona hides a troubled soul, a wandering samurai who’s lost his memory. A psychologist supplies you with drugs to halt the shadowy nightmares that invade your head each night. As you stumble through assignments that end in blood, you meet a little girl outside your apartment. Her words snap you out of a trance and lead you down one of several paths that make you question everything you’ve experienced so far.
Katana Zero Preview – Watch this baby slide
For a game focused on slick action set pieces, Katana Zero pulls off some impressive storytelling. Dialogue is slow and deliberate, with lines coming out at a set cadence. You can interrupt anyone to get on with the story, but it’s not just a simple skip. Characters react to whatever rude line you have to utter in order to get on with it. If you wait for your turn to speak, there are dialogue options aplenty, and there seems to be some variance with where the story goes depending on what you say. It’s hard to say how crazy things get from just this preview, but the paths seem to diverge enough that it might be worth a second run.
If you do decide to wring all the story out of multiple playthroughs, at least it won’t be boring. As you’d expect from a game with Katana right in the name, the sword swinging in Katana Zero is precise and deadly. It’s a 2D side-scrolling action game, but you can’t take any hits. That means each room needs to be executed flawlessly before you can continue. That might initially sound frustrating, but the quick respawns and looping music encourage the repetition.
Your focus is not on perfect runs your first time through. You’re instead planning each move meticulously and then seeing everything come together. To that end, The Dragon has several abilities to give him a leg up on the opposition. He can slow down time in short bursts, which is perfect for dodging incoming fire. He’s also got an invincible dodge that can quickly get him behind enemies and set them up for a quick kill. This is a stealth game with all the bombast of an action game, which is a mixture I’m very excited about.
Katana Zero Preview – Neon noir
You can dispatch foes in several ways. Sword attacks are lightning fast, and hitting a target releases an impact wave that can capture multiple goons in one hit. You can also throw knives and bottles you find lying around the environment to take out foes at a distance. Best of all, the aforementioned impact wave can also reflect bullets and you can slow down time to ensure that gunmen get a taste of their own medicine. You’ll need to master switching between thrown objects, sword attacks and bullet reflections to get to each new area. Progressing slowly through each room and mastering encounters makes the final result feel spectacular.
Katana Zero‘s visuals are also well worth mentioning. This is pixel art, but there’s nothing nostalgic about these expressive characters. If anything, it goes back to the few 2D games we were getting in the PS1 era, although it’s probably even better than that. Faces are expressive even with limited detail, and the smoke and lighting effects capture the vibe of each location. That extends to a soundtrack full of dark synth played from your character’s headphones a-la Baby Driver. Everything works together to produce a dingy atmosphere that matches the dark business you’re dealing with.
The folks at Askiisoft really have something with Katana Zero. There’s a possibility that the almost puzzle-style rooms could fall apart if too many mechanics come into play. A later section in the build featuring a mine cart and precise timing already has me a little flustered. Even so, the story and presentation hold a lot of promise, and I’m even more eager to play now than I was years ago. Thankfully, none of us have to wait long, as Devolver Digital is putting out Katana Zero this coming March.
Katana Zero was previewed on PC with a code provided by the publisher. The game is playable at PAX South and will be coming to PC in March 2019. Console ports are also in the works.