System: Switch (eShop)
Release date: April 18, 2019
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Maybe Katana Zero didn’t immediately stand out to you on the eShop. Perhaps it’s because it’s seemingly just one more pixelated indie game, or because you’ve already preloaded a certain other stylish indie action game releasing on April 18. Or maybe it’s because you’re like me, and expected Katana Zero to be yet another pretty, but ultimately forgettable indie experience. And you know what, these are all reasonable expectations to have.
But Katana Zero is a game that thrives on defying expectations. From the moment I first saw its neon-drenched title screen to the time I reached its crushing conclusion, Katana Zero left me breathless with its fluid combat, breakneck storytelling, and gorgeous visuals. It’s a game that fully realizes its world building and provides an incredible gameplay experience to match-make no mistake, Katana Zero isn’t your average indie.
Narrative is one of Katana Zero’s most important characteristics. You are put in the role of The Dragon, a bathrobe-clad, katana-wielding mercenary as he executes various assassination missions throughout the broken city of New Mecca. This fallen metropolis exists in a world of desolation and isolation, plagued by crime and drug abuse as it still reels from the aftermaths of a seven-year-old war. The Dragon himself is a veteran of this war, and even though he has lost his memory of his war days, he is still haunted by nightmarish flashbacks to his actions during the conflict. He tries to be rehabilitated, regularly meeting with a therapist who gives him some “medicine” supposedly meant to help him return to normalcy. But he still doesn’t have all the answers about himself, and with every one of his nightly assignments, he yearns to learn more about his past and understand the true meaning of his nightmares.
To say much more than that would be to say too much. Katana Zero’s story constantly doles out mysteries and revelations, and The Dragon’s ceaseless search for the truth about his past gripped me the same way a well-crafted suspense film would. Additionally, the way the story seamlessly blends into the gameplay and presentation is something special. Even the dialogue is incorporated into the larger gameplay experience through its unique timed conversation system, which allows you to interrupt characters before they finish speaking or wait until they’re done to choose a dialogue option. This simple mechanic makes the entire narrative feel personal – not every conversation choice is hugely impactful, but its presence alone still makes the storyline feel like it’s in the player’s control.
Another admirable part of the story is how it uses the game’s overall presentation to its advantage. Between its dark synthesized soundtrack to its character art, Katana Zero is soaked in colorful neo-noir aesthetics. Beyond that, from the respawn animations to its level-select screen, the whole game is framed as if it’s being played off a VHS tape. When you choose a level, it loads from VHS tape popped into the TV; with each death, the game rewinds to the beginning of the room; when you pause the game, blue lines cross the screen, reminiscent of pausing an old VHS recording. These appearances are utilized to great effect throughout the game’s narrative – in ways that I can’t talk about without spoiling their ingenuity.
Aside from its contextual presentation, Katana Zero’s visuals are top-notch. Pixelated indie games are a dime a dozen on the Switch eShop, but Katana Zero stands out simply by how beautifully-executed its pixel art is. Many other retro-inspired games feature choppy animations, low-detail environments, and limited visuals in an attempt to cash in on nostalgia or retro aesthetics. Katana Zero doesn’t limit itself like this. Instead, it takes the medium of pixel art and pushes it to its fullest potential, creating some truly beautiful character designs and environments. Likewise, all animations are incredibly fluid and well-realized, giving each character ample personality and heightening the drama of each scene exponentially. The sheer amount of love and care that went into the visual department is obvious.
This is not to say that Katana Zero is all style over substance; rather, its moment-to-moment gameplay is precise, fast, and thrilling, a perfect complement to its engrossing storyline. With each of your varied assignments, you’ll have gauntlets of grunts and obstacles to overcome before reaching your objective. Thankfully, The Dragon didn’t earn his title for nothing. His movement is swift, nimble, and just weighty enough to give you a healthy feeling of control as you slice, dash, and jump through the obstacles in your path. Beyond these basic capabilities, you have additional tools at your disposal as well. With a click of ZR, you can roll through any obstacle in your path, granting you momentary invincibility – particularly useful in narrow corridors full of swords, fists, and flying bullets. And if you find yourself in an even more hectic situation, you can hold down ZR to slow down time itself for a moment, giving you ample opportunity to respond to oncoming threats – even letting you slash enemy bullets back their way.
That may sound like a lot to keep track of, but Katana Zero does a good job at naturally teaching you its mechanics. Once these techniques are mastered, the game settles into a brilliantly satisfying loop of acrobatic pixelated violence. However, combat isn’t always so fast-paced. Even though Katana Zero describes itself as an action-platformer, there were many times when it felt like a puzzle game as it focused more on methodically working out the best strategy for clearing a room rather than frantically cutting down enemies. You’ll need to stop, assess the enemies in front of you, and consider everything you have in your arsenal before tackling a room; the stakes are high, since a single hit will send you back to the start of the room. As tedious as that may sound, respawning is swift, and you’ll be able to see a quick rewind of your last run to assess your mistakes before you can get right back into the action.
That doesn’t change the fact that the game is hard – very hard. However, its difficulty isn’t cheap, since it arises entirely from the cleverness of its level design and the skill it requires from the player. Katana Zero’s challenges never felt unfair; whenever I died, I knew it was my fault. Perhaps there were a handful of times where obstacles were thrown at me so quickly that I didn’t have time to react, which did make death feel a bit cheap; but considering the ease with which you can respawn and the short amount of time before you get back into the action, these issues didn’t affect my experience too negatively.
Forget whatever first impressions you had about Katana Zero. Beneath its retro aesthetics is a tight action game wrapped in an engrossing narrative and beautiful presentation. Few games have left me as utterly engrossed as Katana Zero has with its intoxicating mixture of fine-tuned gameplay and a well-told story. Whether you’re looking for the next great indie darling or the latest example of the power of storytelling in games, then yes, Katana Zero should work for you. It’s among the most remarkable experiences I’ve had the pleasure of having on Switch.
Katana Zero review copy provided by Devolver Digital for the purposes of this review.