Katana ZERO: Run-And-Slash at its Finest


Katana ZERO is a 2D side-scrolling action platformer developed by Askiisoft and published by Devolver Digital. The player controls Zero; a war-torn samurai turned assassin addicted to a drug that allows him to slow down and control time. An entirely single-player experience, you will slash and dash your way through foes on a journey to uncover your mysterious past.

In Katana ZERO, running and slashing is the name of the game. The main draw is its quick, twitchy combat. A basic but exhilarating concept that gives the player a simple but highly effective set of moves to work with. Your primary offensive option is your katana. You’re also able to pick up and toss many objects found throughout each stage. This adds an extra level of variation to the way you can approach every encounter.

In addition, you can also slow down time, which gives you a few extra seconds to react to threats better. Generally, the player must rely on quick reactions in order to clear the screen of enemies. The bullet-time mechanic offers an extra option when facing a large group of foes. To round things out, you’re also equipped with a dodge-roll and a wall-jump. The dodge-roll is your primary defensive tool while the wall-jump opens up alternate paths of engagement and platforming.

Every enemy outside of bosses all die in one hit. To even the playing field, Zero also can only take a single blow. The controls feel a bit slippery at first, especially when jumping and running. After a little adjusting, actions feel smooth and fluid. Levels are split up into sections. Each section houses a number of enemies. It’s the player’s job to clear them all out and then proceed to the next section. If the player takes a hit before every enemy is eliminated, they must restart from the beginning of the section.

Every section plays out like an old VHS tape and will rewind if you die for an instant reset, encouraging the player to quickly try again. Enemy types sprinkled through the stage vary from basic grunts to gun-toting policemen. By the time you reach the half-way point, you will have seen every type the game has to offer.

It would’ve been nice if there were a few more variations to keep the player on their toes. The game makes up for this through its level design and gradually increasing difficulty. Every level presents a satisfying amount of engagement opportunities. Testing your reactions by kicking down a door and slicing guys up in a straight forward manner is just as rewarding as tossing a preemptive smoke bomb and taking everyone down safely in the ensuing cloud. Since you can instantly restart every section upon death, it invites the player to experiment with every option they have available to them.

The difficulty is a high point. Regardless of the low amount of enemy types, tricky enemy placement, stage hazards and the chance of drawing other enemies in the section to you always make you think twice after clearing out a cell. Boss fights are well done also. While they are all unique in some way, some do not amount to an actual fight for narrative reasons. The majority of them come down to learning the enemy’s moves and dodging accordingly before finding your own opportunities to attack.

The style of the game mirrors itself close to the Hotline Miami series. In a neo-noir setting, your character feels very out-of-place but also right at home at the same time. The pixilated style and heavy use of bloom and lighting effects give the game an eye-catching appeal. Light reflects off Zero and other NPCs with all sorts of vibrant, psychedelic colors. All of this is accompanied by an excellent soundtrack that’ll keep you focused and your head nodding. But just because the game looks and sounds pretty doesn’t mean that it can’t get ugly. Every time you or an enemy falls, blood paints the background, leaving behind a gruesome trail of gore in your wake with a satisfyingly squishy slashing sound. It’s a constant reminder during gameplay that the story is a dark one.

The narrative plays out in between stages through semi-controllable cut-scenes and character interactions. When in a conversation with another character, you often have the option of different responses. How you respond doesn’t affect how the story progresses, but it is a nice detail to see how every character reacts to different responses. Although, it can present a bit of a disconnect when conversations create the opportunity for Zero to just be a vessel for the player as opposed to an actual character. Most characters will always react similarly no matter what dialogue selection you pick. Attempts to keep your dialogue as level-headed as possible might be met with reactions that don’t always quite fit with the character you’re trying to portray.

Katana ZERO

Image Courtesy of James Robinson

Zero is experiencing frequent nightmares and confides in a psychologist to try to figure out what’s wrong with him. The psychologist also doubles as Zero’s employer, giving him assassination contracts as well as the time-controlling drug, Chronos, to help him cope with his psychosis. The story is engaging and at several places extremely heartfelt as well as unapologetically violent and vulgar. The world in which you play also has a lively pulse. Details like the talk of different level districts and a news channel explaining the aftermath of your missions playing on the TV give the world a sense of weight. It is all executed very well. Though, the plot does take an obvious turn toward the end.

The writing is very sharp. Every character bleeds personality through what they say, how they say it and how the text is presented on-screen. A handful of colorful characters, each with their own motivations and intentions, make the story an emotional storm with you caught in the middle of it. Some characters play lesser roles than others. Snow is one of them. An interesting character shrouded in mystery. She appears throughout the game very sparingly and her involvement points to something much bigger.

Katana ZERO

Image Courtesy of James Robinson

Katana ZERO is a beautifully crafted action game that has a style in its gameplay and substance through its story. Its biggest drawback is its lack of content overall. There are few collectibles and no upgrades besides a few alternate swords. Even then, the game will take you around 10 hours or so to finish it. Its replay factor comes in finding all the game’s secrets and improving your skill. If you’re up to the challenge of honing your blade and tightening your reactions, Katana ZERO is for you. Even if you aren’t, the game has a lot going for it that at least earns it a play through. Although, maybe not at its price of $15. If you plan on playing it and then quickly dropping it, wait for a sale. Either way, there are few things that disappoint and a lot that impresses in this action, run-and-slash game.

You can pick up a copy of Katana ZERO on PC and Nintendo Switch now.

How did you like Katana ZERO? Leave your comments below!

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