Perhaps the most popular genres for indie games are action and platformer. After all, they are better-suited to smaller teams and pixel art styles than most others. It is little wonder then that titles like Katana ZERO exist, which combines the two. Developed by Askiisoft and published by Developer Digital, it released for PC and Nintendo Switch in April 2019.
At first glance, you might well think this is just another highly-stylized action title. Katana ZERO certainly looks like other tough-as-nails games, with a striking resemblance to Hotline Miami. However, it strives to make its mark rather than stay in the shadow of other games. There are unique gameplay mechanics and an intriguing narrative that set it apart from many of its contemporaries.
The actual premise of Katana ZERO is fairly simple. Taking control of the protagonist Subject Zero, players must wipe out all the enemies in a stage. Once you have done this you move on to your main target.
Right from the get-go, you are given access to all the tools you will need. You have access to a powerful katana blade and the ability to slow down time. Additionally, Zero can dodge out of the way of attacks or deflect bullets with a carefully-timed slash of his sword. Most levels also have a variety of environmental traps you can trigger to kill enemies remotely.
One of the most satisfying things about the game is that you don’t have to work towards unlocking extra abilities or new skills. In that sense, the combat system is very simple. But because you are given full access to it straight away, it gives you a chance to become intimately familiar with each mechanic. You don’t have to worry about upcoming changes that will significantly alter the gameplay. Everything that you need to master is available from the start.
The upshot of this is that you can get to understand the depth of the combat system. With no combos, it really comes down to understanding the timing of your actions. Fighting enemies becomes a sort of dance routine where you get into a rhythm and succeed only if you make the right movements at the right time. It makes for a very gratifying system that is a lot of fun to play.
Upon starting Katana ZERO you know very little about the hero. Other than the fact that he dresses like a samurai and is a soldier fighting in a war, of course. That puts you on an even footing with the protagonist. As it turns out, Zero is suffering from amnesia and doesn’t quite know what his role is. Much of the story involves discovering the truth about the character.
For the first few levels, the narrative is largely left untouched. You might well be forgiven for thinking that this would be just another action game that focuses solely on gameplay. But that would not be a fair assessment. After the third stage, the story begins to unfold.
Impressively, the story manages to intertwine with the gameplay, explaining how Zero’s time-slowing ability is a result of an addictive drug. Cutscenes and conversations with characters during normal gameplay slowly reveal the plot. There are some properly tender moments in a story that deals with drug use, the passage of time, and even mental health.
Pixel art has the ability to look either very good or very poor. Few games manage to fall somewhere in between those two extremes. Fortunately, Katana ZERO manages to pull off an impressive visual style.
The low-fidelity nature of pixel art means that more graphic violence can be shown without it seeming too outlandish or gruesome. In a game with so much over-the-top combat, the chosen style makes it look better.
Moreover, the soundtrack is the perfect accompaniment to the gameplay. The synthetic electronic songs are a perfect match for the visuals.
Unfortunately, some of the more narrative-heavy moments lose something from the fact the characters can’t convey any emotion. The sprites are too small and not detailed enough. Still, this is a relatively minor issue in the grand scheme of things. Especially when you consider the lack of technical or performance problems.
The average playthrough for Katana ZERO seems to last between four and six hours, meaning there is not a whole lot of game. That’s not a problem, though, because of the quality of what is there. You might wish that it went on just that little bit longer, but at least it finishes with you wanting more. This is much better than outstaying its welcome or becoming stale.
Few games in 2019 are quite as satisfying as Katana ZERO. A brilliantly told story, thrilling combat, and a stylish look mark it out as a title that you simply have to play.