A room full of bloody bodies behind me, I burst into the next room seeking an exit. On the other side of the door in front of me is a heavily armed SWAT officer. I kick it down, leap above his formidable shield and dispatch him with my perfectly honed blade in one swipe. Through the window before me I can see another building across the street. Armed police are visible through the windows but there will absolutely be a way out beyond them. In the street below, an officer with a shotgun guarding my decided escape route; another SWAT officer guarding the building I’m in, awaiting me at the door; and two officers chatting in the middle of the road. I run back, grab a glass bottle I spotted earlier and throw myself through the window. I land on the street below with my katana sweeping through the two conversing officers in one movement. The glass bottle I collected is thrown straight into the face of the officer guarding the other building, taking him out instantly. The SWAT officer has run back inside the first building to investigate the broken window but I’ve already made my way back behind him and I dispatch him with a fearsome leap from the stairs. My foes vanquished, I make my way to the exit. “Yes, that should work”, I think to myself. Then I leave the room full of bloody bodies and burst into the next, putting my plan into motion like a graceful, fatal, ballet.
Katana Zero is ostensibly an action platformer game, but it’s possibly also fair to say that there’s a big puzzle element to its level design, as well. Your sort-of-nameless protagonist has no health bar and most blows he can take are instantly fatal. Flubbing an attack, not accounting for all the enemies around you or just plain rushing in without any sort of plan can stop your progress pretty instantly. But, fear not: this isn’t Dark Souls.
As you “play” Katana Zero, your actions are not actually taking place in real time. The actual gameplay is all taking place, effectively, in your character’s head. They’ll run through every possible scenario, every possible outcome, until they hit upon the one where they survive/win. Much like Doctor Strange reviewing 14 million outcomes until he found the one ‘Endgame’ in which the Avengers can triumph, there’s no limit to the amount of times you can revisit each scenario until you have successfully cut your bloody path flawlessly.
As each level is relatively short, this Live-Die-Repeat style gameplay is the absolute bulk of the game. Some levels can, as you’d expect, get frustrating when you have to repeat them a dozen times. But, on the whole, the tools the game gives you allows you to find the perfect solution pretty quickly, and doing so can feel incredibly satisfying.
Those tools include a katana that will dispatch most enemies in one attack, items that can be picked up and thrown and the ability to slow down time or roll to dodge threats. Slowing down time is especially helpful as it allows you to easily volley gunshots back at your attacker using your katana. This is actually possible at full speed, but unsurprisingly, the timing can be hard to pull off.
Once you’ve successfully completed a level, the game presents you with a taped recording of your character mowing through his foes – all in ‘normal’ speed, if you were judiciously using the slow down effect. This doesn’t really achieve anything other than completing the narrative loop of the game’s in-universe conceit and it can be turned off in the settings, but including it after every single level seems most targeted as subverting your expectations when the game starts messing with its own formula and rules, so perhaps it’s best not to.
The game messing with the replay function – such as completely changing the outcome in the replay despite your actions – is just one example of the heart of Katana Zero’s narrative structure. The game has an initially complicated and confusing story – something it uses to reflect the broken perception of time and memory of the protagonist – but it tells a lot of it by messing with the previously established way that the game works. It quickly becomes difficult to tell what is ‘real’ in the game’s world as the curveballs begin to build up. It all makes for a thrilling roller-coaster ride of a plot that no amount of not just playing the thing could do justice to.
The humour of the game does a lot to bely its gruesome violence and heavy plot, though. The excellent writing is often either outright or subtly funny, there are plenty of neat references peppered throughout and the game isn’t afraid to have fun with itself either. If you take the time to read the conversations in-game (though, if you interrupt them, you get a great visual of their speech balloon popping and the letters collapsing onto the ground below, so, y’know, it’s fun to do that too) one of the identikit goons early on in the game will reveal himself to be called Strong Terry. Later on, characters will continue to angrily relate to your assasination of Strong Terry, despite the fact he was no-one special in the game itself and it would be trivial to miss the fact this faceless thug had a name at all.
Small details like this define Katana Zero throughout. Your choice in how to handle a conversation will have ramifications as much as how you choose to act in a life or death situation. The game itself might not dramatically change, but how other characters respond to you and other story details will. That may or may not be enough to encourage replayability, but the game isn’t shy on content or fun for its budget price and the gameplay is enjoyable enough that you might simply want to have another run at its dozen or so chapters again anyway.
On a final note, the sumptuous pixel art and thumping soundtrack make for a pleasant aesthetic throughout the game. It’s hardly the first indie game in the world to make great use of either, nor will it be the last, but it’s hard not to fall in love with the presentation all the same.
Overall, the entire package is a relatively tight, smart and entertaining narratively-led action game. At parts, you absolutely will be frustrated by having to repeatedly fight your way through the exact same sections, but the rest of the game making you feel like a total badass does a good job of making it worth it in the end.
Katana Zero is a sumptuous game with robust - if quick and simple - gameplay. The game's sheer style and trippy narrative structure elevate the game into something a little bit special.