On paper, Katana Zero is little more than an amalgamation of action tropes we’ve seen countless times before. A secret government conspiracy to train super soldiers. A merciless ninja who lives a reclusive life. Bullet time, rewinding time, stealth sections, protagonist amnesia and 80’s B-movie stylings – the list goes on.
But when Katana Zero can take these familiar constituent parts and pull each of them off with such aplomb that the result is dazzling, who cares?
Almost everyone you meet in Katana Zero is an enigma at first. The shady doctor who administers your ‘meds’ at the same time as administering your next mission dossier; the other ninjas you encounter, all equally as masterful and aloof as yourself; hell, even the little girl who lives next door. You don’t know who you can trust – if anyone.
To cut a long story short, you’re an ex-military swordsman carrying out assassination contracts for your anonymous ’employer.’ The ability to rewind time upon death makes you a formidable warrior. But threads begin to unravel and your grasp on reality loosens as you learn more of your situation – something which, in part thanks to your amnesia, has eluded you.
It’s an engaging premise, with the mystery and suspense keeping you glued to the screen until the very end. In fact, upon finishing the game I was still left with questions. It’s surprisingly well-written, combining a deliberate hamminess with intrigue and moments of brutality and revelation.
There are choices to be made, too, through your dialogue selection and mission conduct. Some of these appear limited in scope, however. In one mission I was instructed not to kill anyone, and whereas I managed to stealth through almost the entire stage, the last section was obstinately designed in such a way that making it through undetected seemed impossible. I was forced to take the lethal route. And a seemingly crucial binary decision results in an anti-climactic non-event upon choosing one option – only one is truly meaningful.
Katana Zero is an action game first and foremost, however, and in this respect it really shines. You’re armed with little more than your sword and superhuman perceptions but these are more than enough for a glorious power-trip. A quick slash of your katana is enough to bring most enemies to their knees, showering blood against the walls. Slow time and you can ricochet bullets off your blade straight back at the assailant. Any objects left lying around, a bottle, a statuette, can be weaponised with a swift throw.
All enemy attacks are lethal, but die and you’ll rewind right back to the moment you entered the room, ready to try again. Levels are inventively designed with a range of close-quarters and armed enemies, turrets, explosives, laser beams and other threats. But with frequent checkpoints, death never steals much of your progress.
It’s worth noting that enemy patrols don’t always reset in the same way. You have to approach the situation each time. This need to be reactive keeps you on your toes, but a sense of rhythm is lost along the way. I can’t help but feel that upping the challenge but allowing for Celeste-like feats of muscle memory could have been more compelling.
In fact, Katana Zero is a little on the easy side, other than the aforementioned stealth section. Levels have time limits to stop you dallying too much, but these are generous and rarely pose an issue. With slow-mo, bullet deflection and an invincibility dodge roll under your black belt, you feel unstoppable.
The pacing is great, peppering in narrative passages that never outstay their welcome, engaging boss battles and formula tweaks and surprises for variety. There’s even a chase sequence, something no action film or game is complete without.
Katana Zero also nails its presentation. It adopts a grungy but detailed 16-bit aesthetic with lashings of 80’s sci-fi neon pinks and purples. It’s very much an ugly beauty, dark and raw and enticing. The synthwave soundtrack is fantastic, too, harmonising with the action while amping up the atmosphere of story beats.
Katana Zero feels at once derivative and remarkable. Cool blade-slicing combat is elevated by effortless style and a narrative uncharacteristically strong for its genre. You may have seen it all before, but never quite like this.
[Reviewed on Switch]
James loves a deep action-adventure game, RPG or Metroidvania. He can often be found in The Indie Game Website’s review section casting his critical eye over the latest indie games.