Masocore games and I have gotten quite chummy over the past few years, from humble beginnings beefing up with Meat Boy to cathartic climbs up Mount Celeste. Dipped in the spicy sauce of nostalgia, it’s a genre rarely made for the faint of heart, rewarding only those with the perseverance to push through the pain of dying over and over again.
The latest foray in fun and frustration to cross swords on Switch is Katana Zero — a stylish, no-frills action-platformer I can’t stop gushing over. Though there’s more to this retro romp than meets the eye thanks to its unique approach to storytelling that’ll have you on the edge of your seat from start to finish.
CUT TO THE CHASE
The premise behind Katana Zero seems deceptively simple at first, but quickly (and excitingly) flies off the rails the deeper down the rabbit hole you go. Players wield the sword of a memory-deficient samurai blessed with time-altering abilities, whose sole job is to assassinate first and ask questions
later never. As one would imagine this isn’t very sustainable from a mental health perspective. Eventually, the nightmares start to creep in, and while bleach does wonders in washing out blood from bathrobes, the stain on your psyche will need something a bit stronger. Fortunately, your handler moonlights as both a therapist and pharmacist (convenient!), eager to help get you back on your feet and killing with conscience clear via the miracle of an experimental drug called Chronos.
The poster child for dysfunctional relationships, it comes as no surprise when things slowly spiral out of control. Memories return, authority is questioned, and body counts rise as our would-be assassin becomes more and more unhinged. Just how much information you uncover is explored through Katana Zero’s interactive approach to dialogue. Eschewing genre conventions of the passive bystander, conversations play out more naturally with limited time to select responses.
What you say has consequences, too, shaping the way characters interact with you well beyond just that singular moment, which is pretty dang cool (and largely unheard of) for an action-platformer. For example, a conversation early on with a hotel clerk gives you the chance to nerd out about anime. If you choose to indulge, they’ll assume the blood on your clothes at the end of your rampage is simply part of your cosplay, which saves you from an unnecessary confrontation with the police.
Most intriguing is the option to abruptly (and more often than not, rudely) interrupt conversation mid-sentence anytime a character is speaking. Sometimes this produces hilarious results, like when I repeatedly hung up on my handler in the game’s opening chapter only to have him colorfully cuss me out. Other times it merely hurries along the narrative, which comes at the cost of missing crucial information that would otherwise help in understanding the mysteries of your checkered past. The point is that every choice, big or small, has rippling consequences, which increases personal investment in the narrative as it unfolds.
When it comes to gameplay Katana Zero bleeds Hotline Miami with every stab of the sword. When not soaked in story it’s blood, as you slice and dice your way through room after room bursting with baddies itchin’ for a stickin’. Outside some broken bottles, statues, and other tossable junk lying haphazardly around stages, you’re pretty locked in to the cut of your katana; but that’s not so much a problem given the weapon’s versatility.
Like any hitman worth their salt, precision and mastery of the one-hit kill is key to survival, though be warned that you’re just as vulnerable. Fortunately, our supernatural samurai’s hopped up on a drug called Chronos — known side effects of which include dry eyes, itchiness, unrelenting nightmares, temporal meddling, and immortality. As you would imagine, those last two prove quite beneficial in battle. Dodging and deflecting bullets is a breeze when you can slow time down to a crawl, with each accidental death sending you back to the start and serving little teachable moments to learn from.
Chronos is more than just a flashy way to rack up your kill count, too. Much like the majesty that is Celeste, Katana Zero seamlessly weaves gameplay and story in a way that would make Madelyne herself weep. Time-bending abilities aren’t just some cool gameplay gimmick added for fun, but rather a key component of the narrative explained and experienced by its characters.
Despite being a 2D side-scroller, platforming comes secondary to combat. Each section of a stage is basically a tiny puzzle to solve thanks to a multitude of enemy types and stage hazards blocking the exit — from guys with guns and shield-wielding SWAT teams to deadly laser beams shooting through corridors. In most cases, carving out the perfect path requires more than ridiculously fast reflexes, but also a good deal of memorization and improvisation to persevere.
PRETTY IN PINK
Katana Zero is a beautiful game that absolutely nails its ‘80s neo-noir aesthetic — from eye-popping pixels and neon-lit locales to a synth soaked soundtrack that’s too legit to quit. The nostalgia’s laid on pretty thick, too, as VHS-inspired menus and visual effects pepper throughout the murder and mayhem splashing on screen. My personal favorites — the rewind feature upon death, the black and white security cam feed showing replays, and flicking on a Walkman to initiate music at the start of each stage.
Sadly, there’s not much in way of replayability, save for revisiting chapters and experimenting with dialogue options. There are no hidden collectibles or secret pathways to discover, nor are there multiple difficulty modes to test your mettle with. While these are by no means essential, the lack of any discernible bonus mode is odd given how stages are practically tailor-made for speedrun challenges. Something as simple as being able to toggle on a timer and save replays of your most impressive feats, even if just for personal use outside an online leaderboard, could have went a long way in keeping interest in the game for years to come.
However, there is an intriguing bonus chapter that unlocks after the credits role, filled with unknown treasures and locked doorways I’m not sure how to access. Do you need to beat the game under certain conditions, like with limited deaths or complete abandonment of precognitive abilities? Is it simply a placeholder for future DLC? To theorize further might veer into spoiler territory. Suffice it to say, I’m looking forward to unraveling the mystery alongside the Katana Zero community.
YES, THAT SHOULD WORK
Katana Zero is an addictive, bloody affair — one hit and you’ll be feeling waves of withdrawal when torn away from its acrobatic display of death and destruction. Its gritty neo-noir narrative, stylish ‘80s synth soundtrack, and tactfully twitchy gameplay play off each other perfectly, culminating into a flurry of fast and furious fun that’s not to be missed.
Sharpen your swords, pour some herbal tea, and summon your inner samurai!
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System: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: April 18th, 2019
Categories: Action, Arcade, Strategy, Platformer
Publisher: Devolver Digital