The masocore genre is incredibly fitting for indie developers. It channels nostalgia while also giving players a way to test their skill in ways that 3D gaming usually does not. Hotline Miami, Super Meat Boy, and more have all found success but that success has inspired a ton of other games to follow in their wake. Although an increasingly crowded genre now, Katana Zero looks like it will stand above the pack with not only its approach to story but also with its nearly flawless controls.
Katana Zero gives players a katana, a dodge roll, the ability to slow down time, and a free hand to grab and toss bottles and other environmental debris. It’s a simple set of abilities that the game stretches and forms the whole game around. And, given the type of game it is, it uses that simplicity to create difficult gauntlets for you to slash your way through unscathed.
Levels take precision to get through since everything takes one hit to fell, including yourself. The controls are more than up to that task as they spectacularly smooth and responsive. Slashing and dashing just feel sublime and always do what you want, when you want, meaning that you’ll never feel cheated during your repeated trips to the morgue. Justin Stander, the man who has ostensibly been making this game by himself, has spent the last six years obsessing over the details making sure love and care went into every aspect of the game, especially the controls.
“You have to make the engine flawless. No bugs,” he said. “Everything needs to feel like an extension of the player. When you play it, you should always feel like this is exactly what I wanted to do and that is what the character did. It has to feel like enough controls and tools to be able to do everything you wanted to do.”
And that’s basically how the game feels. Slashing is quick but you’ll still be bested especially if you mistime your sword swipe and fail to deflect the bullets coming at you. Throwing objects stuns or kills depending on what you’re tossing and can help you knock down foes across the room while you deal with the ones in front of you. Dashing can get you into and out of danger and its generous amount of invincibility frames keep combat from being frustrating. Slowing down time augments all of these abilities as it makes badass actions more doable, which is something you’ll see played in real time at the end of the level.
Katana Zero Preview | A barrage of new variables
It all comes together so well and is augmented by the game’s ability to keep throwing different scenarios at you in its relatively short levels that’ll work well on the PC but probably even better on the Switch, given its portability. Stander believes that making a game around one-hit kills is easy but finding ways to stretch that out into a full game with constant surprises is hard. Because for how satisfying the core mechanics are, they’d still get a little stale if the game around it didn’t evolve.
Thankfully, it does. In its first few levels, it constantly introduces new enemies, environments, hazards, and more that each make you play it a little differently. For example, one level introduced turrets while another was a pure stealth mission where you had to hide instead of murdering everyone. There’s even a level later on that lets players choose their own path and each is a parody of a popular movie. Along with changing up the narrative, Stander sees this as a key way to keep the game fresh.
“I really love to defy expectations in this game,” he said. “As soon as you think you understand how this game is going to play out, then I just try to completely shift it on you. So even at the beginning of the game, you think there’s this format of you kill people, you go to sleep in your apartment, then you go to your psychiatrist and he’ll give you your next job and you continue to go in that format. And as soon as you comfortable in that, I try to shift things up. And I do that several times throughout the game.”
Katana Zero Preview | Talking (not chopping) through the story
Layering in more enemy types and levels is a standard way most good games in the genre change it up but Katana Zero’s story is one of its most unique ways it achieves that same goal. Instead of being some half-hearted lines of dialogue that give the barest possible excuse to move you to the next level, Katana Zero actually has an involved plot that you have a say in.
Conversations are peppered with choices and can affect how the characters perceive you. Its interrupt feature is a bit more nuanced. You can tap through dialogue by cutting off the other person, which can have a multitude of effects. People can grow irritated at how you treat them, which can lead to unique scenarios. This also even starves you and the protagonist of information, which can be confusing for both parties.
It’s not just for impatient players craving to get back into the gameplay but it allows for some interesting opportunities for the game to branch. While the story doesn’t change, the way in which it is told does change as you make decisions, which can stem from interrupting people. For example, there’s an early scenario where you can tell a hotel clerk to piss off. At the end of the level, she will turn on you, calling the cops, giving you more enemies to fight, and dying in the process. It also changes later beats in the story that Stander understandably didn’t want to divulge. He did, however, state why he decided to take this route for the story.
“Every little choice you have has small ripple consequences,” he said. “Not everything is as important as each other but there are hundred and hundreds of choices throughout these cutscenes and the idea is to really think the player always has agency while they’re playing. They are never spoonfed the story from an arm’s length. Instead they are always directly engaged which is why there is an interrupt feature. It directly plays into how the player wants to play the game.”
Katana Zero Preview | Surreal sword slicing
These elements play a role in the story that dips into the surreal at times. The main character is haunted by odd dreams at night as well as bizarre conspiracies in his waking hours. And whether it was the out of context demo or indicative of the actual game, it didn’t make much sense but it was intriguing as it laid the seeds for weird, experimental narrative. It was written well all around and was engrossing in its peculiar presentation but its actual plot will need to convincingly wrap up all these ties in order to truly fulfill its potential and go beyond being just a trippy collection of scenes.
But, given its style, that might be just fine too. Katana Zero is a beautiful game that may look like other games of its ilk yet is bolstered by its incredible soundtrack and gorgeous retro visuals. Lights reflect in ways not usually seen in games with throwback art styles and is noticeable as the pinks and blues bounce off the protagonist’s head. Songs are not only diegetic through the main character’s Walkman, but are also catchy and match the neon-fused 1980s tone the game nails. Its visual and audio styles work together, creating a grungy, VHS-inspired atmosphere that’s true to the Drive poster it was inspired from.
Katana Zero might appear to be another fast-paced indie game but it has all the right ingredients to rise above instead of merely being another follower. Its bumping synthwave soundtrack, pretty neon art, and branching dialogue system are all quality facets that work well individually but better together. And every aspect is strengthened by the silky controls that always performed at the pace the high difficulty demanded; the linchpin of the entire game. It’s undeniably impressive and up to the full release to maintain this quality and pacing throughout.