I've been playing Katana Zero in various forms since PAX West was still PAX Prime, back in 2015. And every time I've played it, I've turned to developer Justin Stander and asked, "When is it coming out?" Finally, here it is, the full, completed version of Katana Zero. Time to see if it lives up to the promise of all those demos.
Katana Zero is the story of a nameless assassin (referred to as The Dragon early on, but...) set upon the world by an equally nameless organization. A former soldier, you're hopped up on the drug Chronos, which gives you the ability to think ahead and play out combat scenarios in your head. It's kind of like DC Comics' Midnighter: your assassin has already run through the fight a thousand times in his head before finding the best way forward. It's all plays out in the form of a 2D action game.
In-game, this works out vaguely like Hotline Miami, a previous game from publisher Devolver Digital. You enter a room armed with your sword, a dodge roll, the ability to pick up and throw objects, and your Chronos-augmented brain, which lets you slow time. That doesn't seem like much, but Katana Zero is all about playing with those scant toys, making beautiful murder music. You kick down one door, dispatch a gangster with a slash, grab a vase, throw it at another target, and then slash a third target's bullet back at them. If you die, you rewind to the beginning of the room. If you succeed, you'll see the entire run in real-time, no Chronos slow down, in the form of CCTV footage.
Each room is a puzzle you have to figure out. Do you dodge roll first, or grab that item? Is it better to kill the first target or throw a smoke grenade for cover? You will die-many times in the latter levels-but eventually you'll feel that rush of triumph when you go blazing through six or eight guards. This is the core of Katana Zero, making you feel every bit the samurai super-soldier that you're supposed to be.
On top of that core, which has been apparent in nearly every demo I've played, the developer has thrown in a ton of variety. You'll start with simple enemies that punch, who are easy to dispatch. Then enemies with swords. Then guns. Then shotguns, laser grids, turrets, drones, riot shields, and more. The enemy variety is there to trip you up: you might get used to easily batting bullets back at gun-wielding targets, but that becomes less apt once riot shields are there to soak up those bullets. You have to engage and improvise with all these various targets, making a deadly ballet of blood in the process.
You'll rely on slowmo early on, but as I got better I found I could actually accomplish many of Katana Zero's feats in real-time. Not everything, because enemies in the later game shoot entirely too fast for any but those will well-honed reflexes, but I'm looking forward to speedrunners proving me wrong.
There's also a good amount of level variety that wasn't shown off in previous demos. There are sections where you'll have to stay hidden, either in crowds or in the dark. There's an entire level on a movie set, with a whole minecart section. You'll chase your assassination target on motorbike, hitting bullets back at enemy riders while you dodge oncoming traffic. And there's even a host of boss fights, switching things to pitched one-on-one combat. Katana Zero doesn't let you rest with the same overall style of play for too long and there's even some extra-level stuff I don't want to spoil.
Katana Zero also bleeds style all over the screen. The pixel art animations are great and there's a fantastic use of colors across the entire game, with shaders and lighting making the art look far more vibrant. The Chronos slowmo effect adds cool neon blue afterimages to your character, and Stander plays around with video effects, like the rewind, digital artifacts, and various glitches. And it's all set to a great synthwave soundtrack composed by Bill Kiley and Ludowic, that sets the mood properly: it's partially played out in-world as tracks the main character is listening to on a music player as he plans his moves.
In-between all this stylish action there's also a story being told. Katana Zero also shares a weird sensibility with Hotline Miami, where you're not quite sure what's happening and what's real at any moment. As part of the narrative, withdrawal from Chronos traps the user in their memories forever, a purgatory of the mind. As you finish missions, you'll head back to a therapist-like figure who gives you missions, talks over your nightmares, and gives your daily dose of Chronos. You'll also visit your apartment, with some quirky neighbors, and your nightmares, where you'll try to piece together your past.
Katana Zero has a dialogue system that lets you engage with the supporting cast as you will, and even offers up various choices at certain points. You can interrupt to speed conversations along, or just to be a dick if you want. And later in the game, there's a fairly major choice you're posed by the twin masked figures of Comedy and Tragedy. It's a trippy, winding tale that loops back around itself and jumps around the confines of your assassin's mind. It's honestly more than what I expected from the game. Warning: this is clearly supposed to be neo-noir, so there's a few f-bombs and rather hard scenarios within this game.
At the end of the day, I wanted more of Katana Zero as it just... ends. I need more levels, challenge rooms, a map creator, and any number of additions to extend the experience into forever. But Katana Zero does end, and when it did, I felt that the developer had given all that he had. I wanted more, but I was still satisfied. I have a few other review games I've been playing lately, but nothing has engaged me, white-knuckle late nights of frustration and elation, like Katana Zero has. It's might not outright be the best game I've played this year, but it is the one that has me reaching for my Nintendo Switch for one more run.
If you enjoy reading about great video games, you'll find a neat collection of more in our ever-growing list of the best games of 2019. It's easy to lose track of new releases, so use this list to make sure you don't miss the games we think are essential.
Be the ultimate badass and kill your enemies in slow-motion. There are a lot of games that try to be like Hotline Miami, moving from area-to-area murdering with sheer ruthlessness, but few games match the execution and style like Katana Zero. Great pixel art, a wonderful use of color, and fantastic synthwave soundtrack. From start to finish, it's a fever dream worth having.