While wandering around a convention like PAX, you'll sometimes find some great gems that you didn't expect. That's how I felt about Katana Zero from Adult Swim Games. Tucked in the corner of the booth, near the game I was told to check out, I found what may have been my game of the show.
Katana Zero places you in the shoes (is he wearing shoes?) of an assassin who has been betrayed by... somebody? Look, that's not important, just like it's not important to know who the bad guy is in the latest Fast & Furious or Mission: Impossible film. The real point here is your assassin character has previously taken a drug that speeds up his reaction times, allowing him to plan out moves in a split second.
Katana Zero feels like a side-scrolling Hotline Miami on the surface. The assassin enters a room full of people that want him dead and he has to kill them first. The katana is the easy way to do it; run up close and slash them to death. (Our assassin is an Iaido practitioner, so the sword goes right back in its sheath after a disembowelment.) The problem is many these opponents have guns. That means you need to approach them from a blind spot, hit them with a vase or other object to stun them, evade their attacks with a dodge roll, or time your slashes so you can hit their bullets back at them. Goddamnthisgameiscool.
So we have the basics down. Enter room, kill everyone. Again, the parallels to Hotline Miami are rather clear. If you don't have the best twitch reflexes, Katana Zero ups the ante by allowing you to slow down time. This ability is governed by a glowing meter in the center of your screen. Hold the left trigger and things slow to a crawl, allowing you to make tactical decisions. That guy sees you: do you dodge roll or take your chances hitting his bullets back at him? Death can come real quick in Katana Zero, so the slowdown makes the game a bit more accessible to the average player.
If you fail in a run, your character says "No, that won't work" and rewinds to the beginning; slight shades of Prince of Persia: Sands of Time here. That's because the part you're playing is actually your assassin working out the best path in his head. Each failed run is simply a failed plan.
Once you do a successful run, the game actually shows your run in real-time as a security tape. It cuts out the slow-motion and presents it as the monster assassin slicing his way through the hired help. You can fast-forward or rewind these tapes, but the overall effect of these sections is they make you feel really cool, even after 5, 10, or 20 failed attempts. Hotline Miami gave you that feeling of satisfaction once you completed a hard level, but Katana Zero says "This is what you did. Don't you feel awesome?"
I do, Katana Zero. I do.
This is all backed up by some great 2D pixel art and animation. We still love pixel art right?
I get the feeling that this demo was just the beginning of Katana Zero. It's only three rooms, but I find myself excited by the possibilities of the game. Unexpected fun is why I find myself going to conventions and Katana Zero was the most fun I had that weekend. It's the kind of game that I played and then immediately became sad because I won't be able to play it again anytime soon.
When is it coming out? No clue! It's so early publisher Adult Swim doesn't have an official screenshots or trailers. It's so early, the only video I could find is someone else's branded video, something I really really really hate offering up in my articles. But I did it anyway, because that's the only way I could show you Katana Zero. I liked it that much. Maybe you will too.