Katana ZERO is mind-bending thriller cleverly disguised as an action game. What may appear on the surface to be a retro-inspired side-scrolling brawler from games of yesteryear is actually a narrative-driven experience exploring posttraumatic stress disorder, loss, and time manipulation—thanks to a mysterious drug called Chronos.
Katana ZERO tells the tale of a young soldier named Zero who has suffered injuries after serving in an important war only seven years prior. As the story unfolds, you learn that you are being administered a time-altering drug called Chronos that allows you to see into the future. During your periodic appointments with your therapist, you are given assignments to track down and execute dangerous individuals, turning you into a time-manipulating assassin, armed with your katana—or whatever items you come across—to carry out each mission. As you play through the roughly four-hour campaign, you’ll encounter a number of different areas and enemies, as well as uncover more about your mysterious background.
Gameplay in Katana ZERO is blistering fast and features one-shot kills, both for your enemies and yourself. The sense of urgency coupled with the imminent danger presented by each level lends to exhilarating gameplay. During my playthrough, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a game like Hotline Miami, which was popularized in part due to the same one-shot kill mechanic and breakneck speed. While this comparison is evident from the beginning, Katana ZERO quickly separates itself by adding in its own elements that make it a unique experience, such as superior mobility options and time manipulation.
The gameplay and story heavily revolve around the concept of time. The game cleverly has you “planning” your perfect route to eliminate everybody in a given area. This means instead of actually dying, the game instantly rewinds back to the beginning of that section while informing you that what you did won’t work. Because your character has the ability to see into the future, what you’re actually playing through is all of the failed attempts you’ve made until you can piece together the perfect sequence of events that ends in success. This is a clever spin on death because throughout the game your character never really dies. After you clear an area, you’re shown a replay of the events that just transpired, presented to you as if it were footage from a security camera that captured everything.
Graphically, Katana ZERO features a dazzling array of high-quality pixel art that sticks to a very specific 80’s-era theme. Each area is enveloped in bright neon colors, drawing inspiration from the hit movie Drive’s film poster, according to the game’s developer, Justin Stander. Between the blues, pinks and purples lay a number of other remarkable visual effects, such as realistic lighting that look absolutely stunning. This allows certain aspects of the game to have a three-dimensional appearance, with characters and items almost leaping out of the screen. The rewind effects that take place at the beginning of each section—as well as when you are killed— feel extremely authentic, perfectly capturing that VCR distortion effect you may recall.
The sound design also nails the vibe Katana ZERO is striving towards. At the beginning of each area, Zero inserts a cassette into his cassette player and plays music that is specific to each level. The game features a fully-original soundtrack with tracks from LudoWic, Bill Kiley, Tunç Çakır, DJ Electrohead and Justin Stander. You can expect a lot of heavy synthwave tracks and other electro goodness that sound like they are straight out of Blade Runner. Each track encapsulates the mood of a given area, and when coupled with the rapid action, it’s nothing short of amazing.
Katana ZERO includes some really compelling gameplay mechanics. Because Zero is pumped full of Chronos, you can slow down time at will to allow for more precise actions. This is limited, however, by a meter that has a short cooldown after each use. But, it’s extremely helpful in scenarios where there are multiple enemies as you can more effectively plan your attack order. In addition to time manipulation, you have a dodge roll that grants temporary immunity—which is absolutely critical in the latter parts of the game to escape danger. Zero can also reflect bullets back at enemies with his katana, instantly killing them, which never ceases to be satisfying. Scattered around each level are items that can be picked up and thrown including lamps, plants, knives, and even sticky bombs that can be remotely detonated. All of these elements combine to create unique scenarios for the player that can be approached in many different ways. While there are areas that require a slower, more stealthy approach, most of the time you’ll just be improvising.
While the majority of the story is compelling, it also leaves a lot to be desired. For instance, much of the narrative is delivered through character dialogue, but when you add in time travel and possible alternate realities, things become rather hazy. Much of the game had me questioning what was actually real, and what wasn’t. Unfortunately, Katana ZERO doesn’t fill in a lot of this background information for you. To top it all off, just as the game reaches a crescendo, it hits you with a “To be continued…” which is an extremely underwhelming way to conclude any form of media. After the credits rolled, I was left with more questions than answers I was looking for. Here’s to hoping the inevitable sequel will fill in some plot points and pick up right where the action in this one left off.
Overall, Katana ZERO is a blast from the past, taking a tried-and-true formula and putting its own unique spin on the action. Level design is great, with the vast majority of them requiring numerous playthroughs as you slice and dice your way to victory. While the individual enemy-filled areas are a blast to play through, the boss fights are rather lackluster as they boil down to a trial-and-error approach, learning individual patterns and replaying it until you master a specific sequence of events. Between the outstanding visuals and atmospheric soundtrack, Katana ZERO perfectly captures the retro action film aesthetic it set out to achieve. Gameplay and movement are tight, and really embodies what it means to be a merciless assassin. While my time with the game was short-lived, it left me desperately wanting more. And, based on the conclusion, only time will tell if we ever find out what happens next. Now, if only I could get my hands on some Chronos.