At face value, it’s easy to call Katana Zero a side-scrolling samurai take on Hotline Miami. The visceral combat, blood splatters, and ’80s aesthetic certainly call to that. However, to discount it as nothing more would be a huge disservice. This is another stylish and brutal indie hit in Devolver Digital’s pocket.
And it’s no wonder since this is a title that has been brewing for about five years. There’s a lot of polish here that is very apparent in the gameplay and visual style. It’s the story, though, where things can feel a tad overcooked.
A slice of hell
In Katana Zero, you control a contract killer with a penchant for samurai swordplay. In-between missions, you visit a therapist who acts as your handler and drug dispenser. The shots he gives are tied to your slow motion and precognitive abilities. More about the drug you take and even your own past are discovered in the rather intricate plot.
While many of the characters and scenes are really interesting and push things along, the plot is not one of the game’s strong suits. It’s not bad by any means either, but the overall message gets muddied up as you discover more about your mystery man’s background. It’s not unlike the typical trappings of Hollywood movies that share similar story beats.
One cool feature worth mentioning is the way the narrative plays out. Dialogue is presented in an animated style such as red, enraged text when someone is angry or words exploding when someone speaking gets interrupted. Speaking of which, there is an interruption option for much of the dialogue that can have adverse effects in your mission. This is presented early on, but unfortunately not explored fully enough.
A cut above
Where Katana Zero really excels is the action. Not unlike Hotline Miami, it’s very trial-and-error in the sense that death comes easily but you’re back in it to try again immediately. One-hit kills mean you will likely die a fair bit on your first time tackling a level. Luckily, you have dodge-rolling, bullet deflections, and slow motion in your arsenal. Even throwable objects such as beer bottles, explosives, and smoke grenades are used to deadly effect. It’s devastatingly beautiful when you put all these abilities together seamlessly like a bloody ballet.
What’s really cool is that this is framed as the planning phase of your character’s mission. If you die, you’re told how “that won’t work” before the action rewinds back to the beginning. It fits together nicely with the rest of the VHS motif presented in the game (even the pause menu). With that in mind, be sure to check the options for screen shake and crank it up all the way. Easter egg hunters will appreciate it.
Because of how fast you can die, it’s a good thing that the action is equally as fast-paced. Each slice you bring to an enemy feels swift and satisfying. Even clanging your blade against the pompadour goon’s weapon gives off a sound that will bring joy to an audiophile’s ears. That’s if they’re not already bobbing their head to the rad, synthwave soundtrack. It’s not as memorable as Hotline Miami‘s music, but these tracks set the mood appropriately.
The levels in Katana Zero do a decent job breaking up the overall experience. Typically, you will have your sidescrolling levels where you eliminate every enemy to move forward. However, there are some deviations to this formula. Most notably are the mine cart and driving sections sprinkled in. The former adds some puzzle elements not otherwise found in the rest of the game, while the latter is a full-blown adrenaline rush. Even the boss fight at the end will keep your blood pumping.
No slouch here either are the visuals, which again speaks to this game’s polish. Neon colors pop, especially when utilizing slow-mo, and the shaders at work give a gritty, grimy feel to the atmosphere. You may find yourself admiring your handiwork after splattering a goon’s blood on the wall once a level has been cleared. It’s no Picasso, but it’s close in terms of in-game artistry.
This overall experience is broken up even further with quieter moments. One early example is the first time we see our protagonist’s apartment. He readies tea, then turns on the TV detailing the killings by his own hand before falling asleep. Later on, you will meet a little girl who somewhat fulfills the Natalie Portman role from Leon The Professional. It helps keep the overall 4-5-hour play session moving without wearing out its welcome on any one particular thing.
Katana Zero is super cool where it counts with very little faltering it. The action is practically flawless and begs you to learn from every small mistake you will make by throwing you back into it instantly. The story clearly has ambitions beyond this one title. While it doesn’t fully stick in a cohesive manner, I really hope we will see more of it in the near future. With action and style this good, some misgivings can be accepted. Carve some time out for this one.
A review code was provided by the publisher.