Time is of the Essence in Katana Zero
A wholly successful murder spree in Katana Zero appears to unfold in one fell swoop, replayed in a high-speed single take with faux-VHS recording embellishments, your character Zero zipping across the screen like a lethal projectile; but it’s not that easy. Nothing in Katana Zero, from mastering each stage to unraveling your protagonist’s fractured psyche tangent-by-tangent is that easy. Katana Zero first appears to merely be an amalgamation of styles. It cribs parts of its presentation from immediate peers Hotline Miami and John Wick alongside gameplay from its scrappy retro ancestors Ninja Gaiden and bizarrely enough Bonanza Bros to produce a reflex-stimulating slashathon caked in neon and depravity. That alone (alongside personal connections drawn to unsung joyride Bruce Lee – Return of the Legend) would make for a decently gratifying upgrade to the sort of side-scrolling thrills where your luck is determined by one enemy hit. Yet, by the time my five-hour playthrough had ended, Katana Zero had long made its case as a uniquely disquieting tale of violence that cuts players and protagonist both ways.
Before that manifests, however, Katana Zero is an immediately striking experience. Core mechanics pan out like Ninja Gaiden NES on amphetamines, kinetic 2D platforming as a vessel for contained chaos. Patience is rewarded in Katana Zero in the sense that no matter how methodical your entrance strategy is, the consequences are immediate. The stakes are high the instant Zero starts cranking the game’s soundtrack on his Walkman and you gain control. The rare examples of side-scrolling stealth games have a tendency to speed up the process, minimizing the dimensions for you to hide within and replacing the tactic with a constant sense of panic informing every tactical decision. Katana Zero fulfills this in one regard, enemies with ranged weapons and riot gear can take you out instantaneously and tend to overwhelm in groups. The persistence of both parties leads players to regularly live out the “unstoppable force vs. immovable object” dilemma. The direct impact of your blade is constantly blunted by enemies serving as human barriers whose weak points must be found in mere seconds. Escape is not an option.
There is, however, vertical freedom replacing the opportunities normally brought by the third dimension. Counter to the limitations of a game like Bonanza Bros, you are enough of a powerhouse to volley over enemies, bounce between walls, and ricochet bullets through the power of the blade. This is compounded with the inborn ability to slow down time, justified by Katana Zero’s dream logic. Though the feature is rarely made integral to the gameplay, it is both yet another metanarrative flourish and a protective measure against the most cutthroat combat sequences.
If at First, You Don’t Succeed, Grind, Grind Again!
Katana Zero’s twitchy gameplay is ceaselessly responsive and allows the game’s difficulty to operate on a gradually unforgiving incline that nonetheless purely rests on mastery of its mechanics. Time ticks away without remorse, with your character effectively on rollerskates yet controlling effortlessly. The mere speed at which you traverse your compact environments builds an unshakeable momentum allowing you to burst through doors (a viable means of taking down unsuspecting enemies) and for a faint few moments be truly unstoppable. Enemies are no strategic slouch however, especially as levels spread across multiple floors where deciding which mob to take down first is just picking the lesser of evils. You will die a lot but failure merely throws you right back into the fire. The unspoken nuance grounding all the rewinds and retries is the concept that all the redos (and the lives taken by them) are occurring in your character’s head. It ought to be inferred that the assassination profession requires meticulous planning from moment-to-moment.
It is in this planning period that your sloppy kamikaze maneuvers and failed risk-taking unfold. Whenever your successful run ultimately occurs, it is put into practice by Subject Zero, exhibited by a replay of the events. In games of Katana Zero’s ilk, the ability for you to make your trained assassin character behave stupidly and die repeatedly breaks immersion and distances gameplay from the narrative. Katana Zero is the rare game that justifies the notion that all of your gameplay attempts (in a single campaign) take place in the same reality. The majority of the game presents itself as a series of brutal fantasies encourages suspension of disbelief and illuminates uneasy tendencies of the character and player’s mindsets alike.
Subject Zero’s mind is a haven for violent thoughts, stimulated by psychoactive drugs and weaponized against a seedy dystopia. In the aftermath of the “Cromag War” (roughly analogous with the Vietnam War), the damage wrought by war is worn as a badge of honor by some veterans but only haunts Zero. Time spent in between missions is often overwhelmed by hellish nightmares, distancing Zero from his time spent in the war or toting his guilt right out in front of him. The implications of Zero’s nightmares are relayed in a non-linear fashion and leave plenty of room for ambiguity, but it thrusts players into Zero’s psychosis first hand.
A dialogue choice system creeps into cutscenes regularly, with an emphasis on timing as much as choice. The decision to interrupt your counterpart’s monologue can be read as assertive or it can get you killed. Other times it gets more playful, dictating the trajectory of conversations with a flirty hotel attendant or the child next door whose bond with you is as pragmatic as it is heartfelt. The dialogue in Katana Zero, unfortunately, is not quite as nuanced as the carefully considered subtext permeating the game. On occasion, it is prone to strangely timed jokes or ill-conceived shock value but it paints a comprehensive study of your character, taken to the stratosphere in the gameplay and visual design.
Katana Zero has a pretty dour perception of its central society, but you wouldn’t know it at first glance. Levels are frequently awash in Cromag tinged neon radiance, enhanced by the careening motion of bullets piercing the air and detailed character animations that never fail to look graceful. It’s the sort of Miami Vice indebted environment where the sun is always either setting or absent entirely, perfect for slinking around and sliding around as if the entirety of Earth’s surface had just been buttered. Highlights are rather frontloaded, peaking with a trip to numerous movie sets containing their own environmental contraptions and contrivances, and climaxing with a full-on motorcycle chase on the highway.
The last leg of Katana Zero settles a bit too comfortably into the architecture of warehouses that are realistically decrepit but stylistically inert, but the road to it is full of style and surreality. Riding a minecart through a movie set is in one breath a little out of place in a tale of cyber soldiers and future narcotics and is in another, an excuse to put platforming capabilities to more scripted use, but as yet another shot in the arm of an ever-unpredictable campaign, it is more than effective. Katana Zero’s gameplay variety is subtly economical always allowing a mix of combat and platforming to shine. As a result, there’s hardly any room for downtime or extraneous moments. For as sprawling as Katana Zero’s narrative is, its gameplay is always in lockstep with its mechanics. Your time spent on a motorcycle curtails any suggestion of stealth in favor of offering intuitive practice for deflecting projectiles. Rewind and slowdown abilities are the foundation for some of the most mind-warping narrative beats in the game.
Integrally, none of this drags down the pace of Katana Zero. Narrative moments can barely get settled before facing potential disruption by drug-addled (or drug withdrawn) hallucinations pushing the color and textural palettes of its visual design. Boss battles are never damage sponges and instead push the capacity of your reflexes and move set. The retro soundtrack doesn’t benefit from the licensed curation underlying Hotline Miami 1 & 2 but is relentlessly pounding and synthetic, constantly propelling you forward. Katana Zero is a breakneck experience that elapses quickly (with an ambiguous ending that avoids coming off like sequel bait and will be followed through with free DLC) but hooks you in for the long run and beckons your return with electrifying presentation and rock-solid mechanics. It isn’t the most original game I’ve seen this year but it is comfortably uncomfortable in the right ways, working within a similar mindset as Hotline Miami and confronting you with supremely different results.
This review is based on the PC version of Katana Zero.
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