At first glance, KATANA ZERO seems to do a lot right. The game has stylish fast action in the same vein as Hotline Miami, synthwave tunes, clever storytelling, and high-quality pixel art. It’s not the most unique combination, but it was a whole lot more original when Katana Zero first premiered years ago. During its long development cycle, it retained a lot of what drew people to it in the first place, but it also suffered. This is a shaggy game, one overflowing with mechanics and ideas. It’s impossible for this one game to give proper time to everything, so it is a smorgasbord of sampler platters; a lot of different tastes, but nothing that quite satisfies like a full course meal.
Katana Zero Review | A bathrobe and a samurai sword
You play as a wandering samurai with mysterious origins. Your psychiatrist and handler sends you to attack various targets, preferring to keep you in the dark about as much as possible. You have the power to both stop time and survive death, making you the perfect assassin. It’s only when you start to get visions of a past you can’t recall that your life begins to shatter and you start to question your jobs, targets, and identity.
Katana Zero shines brightest in its narrative scenes. It takes from other innovative games, using hard cuts and VHS effects to display your protagonist’s uncertainty in his surroundings. The dialogue system, which lets you interrupt characters to get to the point, is fresh, even if most of your choices will lead you down the same path. Characters slowly dole out more details and raise new questions constantly, driving you through the action scenes to get another intriguing plot point.
Katana Zero Review | Going nowhere fast
Unfortunately, your quest for answers never really ends. Without giving too much away, it seems like Katana Zero either doesn’t have any answers to share or ran out of runway before they could be implemented. At the end of the campaign, there are still plenty of questions and not many answers. The whole enterprise feels like a middle season of Lost without any other context.
The only thing Katana Zero does have a lot of is scenes of “shocking” ultraviolence. It certainly tries to be mature, but it is just as hollow. Having seen the ending, a lot of the early mystery and intrigue suddenly falls flat. It’s hard to invest yourself in a story where all the plot threads lead to nowhere.
If the story is undercooked by the end, the combat system and gameplay are the exact opposite. When you start off, Katana Zero feels great. Slashing enemies, dashing through lasers, deflecting bullets, everything in the base move set is fun and fresh. The early levels draw you in and hook you. There’s a good balance of difficulty and it is a fun challenge. You don’t mind restarting every room a few times to keep flowing through the story.
Katana Zero Review | Everything and the kitchen sink
The problems come when Katana Zero adds more mechanics on top of what works. This is a game that loves to take risks, throwing everything it can think of at the player without regard for their enjoyment. You have stealth sequences, minecart sequences, alternate playable characters, a motorcycle chase on a highway, and more. Halfway through the campaign, the variety of less than perfect ideas overwhelms the awesome core of the experience.
It’s not to say that some of these diversions aren’t fun. The boss fights are right up there with modern retro greats like The Messenger and Shovel Knight, even if they are a bit on the easy side when it’s all said and done. The highway chase works well as a throwback to games like Battletoads, and there should have been a few more gadgets to play around with in more forgiving environments. The best bits come when Katana Zero slows down and really plays with your character’s time travel abilities. It needed more of that and less unruly stealth.
Katana Zero Review | Drunken master
Whenever you do go back to the puzzle-like combat rooms later on, the difficulty spikes. As the experience becomes unfocused, you have to constantly relearn a control scheme with too many options. The whole thing sends you hurtling through a series of avoidable and frustrating deaths. Instead of having room to express yourself as you do early on, later rooms feel like they have a single solution you have to master. There wasn’t a satisfaction to clearing these rooms, there was a sigh of relief that I didn’t have to perform such exacting tasks 10 more times.
It’s not the NES-level difficulty that made these a struggle, but the controls that were not precise enough for the task. If you’re playing with a gamepad, Katana Zero‘s controls are anything but that. Sword slashes tie into however you’re tilting your movement stick, making it easy to miss a target or slash in the wrong direction. You can only dodge on the ground, but you sometimes roll out of a jump, a move that only ever killed me in spectacular fashion. You can’t double jump, but it always feels like you should be able to. Early on, combat is freeform enough where most of this doesn’t matter, but the late game difficulty just does not mesh with your running and jumping.
All of this leads to Katana Zero being a tough game to enthusiastically recommend. If you can ignore gameplay flaws and focus on style, you might fall in love with its VHS trappings. However, if you want something beyond style, if you want an interesting interactive tale or a precise action game, you should look elsewhere. Those looking to travel back in time have so many options that hit on the precise itch that Katana Zero does. Even with all the style in the world and brief moments of satisfactory gameplay, it’s just not always worth dealing with this particular set of headaches.
GameRevolution reviewed Katana Zero on Nintendo Switch with a code provided by the publisher.