A Surprisingly unique spin on a familiar formula
It’s been nearly a year since I received my physical copy of Ruiner from Reikon Games and Devolver Digital. I was immediately drawn to the atmosphere, soundtrack, and incredibly responsive controls, as I murdered my way through all eight of its stages, to free my brother from a corrupt corporation in a dystopian stylized world. After completing roughly nine playthroughs of the game, I began searching for a suitable replacement for the sheer amount of fun I experienced playing through Ruiner, and although I’ve found dozens of games to play since, none really grabbed me quite the same way that slick indie was able to… that is until I played Katana Zero.
Devolver Digital has quickly become one of my favorite publishers, offering some of the most appealing indie titles on the market. Katana Zero shares similar DNA to a previous Devolver Digital release. Hotline Miami released back in October of 2012 on PC (later released on PSN in 2013) to stellar reviews. The game was built on a platform of skill and repetition, rewarding methodical precision, as you cut a swath of destruction through twenty chapters. You play as an unreliable narrator named “Jacket” as you are contracted to take out various gang factions within a pixelated 1989 Miami.
The game presents you with a scenario devoid of real choice for the protagonist, as commissions for murder never stop (the phone calls) until reaching the game’s finale, which then allows you to play bonus levels as another phone call recipient who’s grown tired of the job. With an amazing synth soundtrack, hard but fair combat, and engaging story partially left up to interpretation, the game was one of the most engaging experiences I played that year, earning a place on my list of top five games of 2013.
In comparison, Katana Zero is a side-scrolling hack and slash adventure built on a platform of skill and repetition. It rewards methodical precision as you cut a swath of destruction through eight unique levels comprised of multiple floors and rooms. You play as an unreliable narrator, as you’re tasked with performing increasingly difficult assassination missions for an unknown employer. Sound familiar? Although it is easy to draw a comparison between these two titles, Askiisoft incorporated the play, die, repeat mechanic into the very fabric of their title, tying it directly into the origins of their protagonist. Through a series of nightmare sequences and therapy appointments, you slowly piece together the nature of what you are, and who you are. There is also an underlying political plot rife with intrigue, begging for not only a sequel to the roughly five-hour campaign but also further discussion about the message Askiisoft is attempting to make with their story. There are moments within the game where you begin to question not only your own identity but even the faction you are fighting for.
Katana Zero takes place in the post-war city of New Mecca within District two. You take on the role of Zero, who the media have dubbed “The Dragon” due to “his” reported exploits throughout District, as well as his traditional Samurai appearance. The only weapons you are provided are your trusty Katana, and whatever throwing weapons you can find scattered throughout the levels. These weapons range in their effectiveness from beer bottles to remote trip mines, offering a variety of effects to aid you in clearing enemies. There is no “right” way to clear a level, leaving you free to approach any situation as you see fit. These secondary stage weapons do not carry over beyond the stage section you’re in, and you’re only allowed to carry one additional weapon at a time. This adds an another level of strategy to your combat, while occasionally adding an additional layer of difficulty to your stage runs as well if you choose poorly. Beyond the use of weapons, Zero has the ability to rewind time through his inherent precognition.
This is displayed using a VHS rewind aesthetic, anytime you take a critical hit. For clarity, every hit is a critical hit, yet another commonality shared between Katana Zero and Hotline Miami. After each level you’re able to review your runs through a basic stop, start, rewind, and fast forward mechanic, in keeping with the games use of cassette media. Along with precognition, Zero also perceives time differently, granting him the ability to either bend time to his will or move incredibly fast, depending on how you interpret this power.
These abilities could potentially be game breaking, if not for the toll it takes on Zero, represented by two bars at the top of the screen. The top center bar is the most crucial to your survival, as when it depletes, you’ll automatically be sent back to the beginning of the stage. Narratively this can also be interpreted in two ways. One being the extent of his precognitive abilities, implying that each successful run through a stage is a recounting of events after the fact, based on a successful completion. The other explanation for the bar is the time it takes for whatever is driving your powers to deplete within your system. Whichever camp you buy into, it’s the in-game stage timer that you need to be mindful of, in order to successfully clear a room or floor. The second bar to the top left is essentially your stamina meter for your ability. It enables you to dodge roll out of danger, roll behind guarded enemies, and deflect bullets, while it’s useless against shotguns Ultimately Zero is the perfect weapon, giving the player all the tools they’ll need to survive the game from the very start.
Unlike Hotline Miami, Zero is given a handler with whom he can interact with from the very first chapter. Unfortunately for the player, your handler also happens to be the very therapist you’re seeing to treat your amnesia and night terrors. During your therapy sessions, you’re provided with a basic form of agency over how you choose to interact with your therapist, as well as how you choose to perform the missions he tasks you to complete. At the end of every therapy session, the therapist provides you with an injection of an unknown drug that creates a distortion effect that implies freezing of time. The nature of the drug plays a significant role in the plot of the game while providing the motivations for two other central characters you’ll encounter once you progress to the second half.
As the game progresses and the story unravels, the player begins to learn the true nature of the missions they’re tasked with completing and what is providing their power. Along the way you’ll meet a host of characters, all representing different factions within the central conflict. At its core, Katana Zero is a cold war story, with each faction silently warring over a substance known as “Chrono”. Zero is unknowingly tasked with eliminating all members involved with the creation of Chrono, as well as any civilians who may stumble across its existence. This knowledge can be gathered through the branching dialogue options during your therapy appointments, and character encounters with four of the games antagonists. From the very first chapter, we are introduced to “V”, a psychotic drug abusing hitman, who serves as the central antagonist for the majority of the campaign. The faction he’s aligned with remains shrouded in a mystery that’ll surely be unraveled in the next subsequent story-driven DLC, but it’s made abundantly clear that V answers to someone. Although he occasionally appears bumbling he’s formidable in combat, representing two challenges standing between you, and the completion of the game. Working alongside V is “Snow”, a mysterious female swordsman who appears to be as skilled as Zero himself. She appears to be higher ranking than V, answering directly to the shadowy figure commanding them both. Upon reaching the later portion of the second chapter, we are introduced to the third faction in the game. It’s upon meeting them, that the truth about Zero begins to come into focus, as a new mysterious swordsman with a personal vendetta, and ties to Zero’s past enters the story.
After a showdown with V in one of the more unique set pieces in the game, we are greeted to a cutscene that sheds light on one plot point that was earlier left ambiguous. I personally found it to be a cool introduction to the second playable character. I found the story reveal to be rather intriguing, and a second playable character to be a welcomed break from the familiar player mechanics we’d been given up until that point. Conversely I feel the game could have benefited from a branching path after the identity of the character was revealed. It could be argued that the inclusion of such a deviation would have taken away from the story Askiisoft was attempting to tell, but it could have easily been a fun post-game addition to foster replayability.
While Zero relies on dodge rolls, freezing time, and several throwable weapons, our mystery swordsman possesses a unique omnidirectional teleport to add to his arsenal. He also appears to have additional stamina when using his abilities. The spacial teleport was a joy to use and added an additional layer to combat and platforming that really set him apart. Unfortunately, this ability remains exclusive to “him”, giving you only a single isolated level to enjoy this new power. The level presented a few challenging obstacles not seen up until that point in the game and utilized enemy placement and verticality in a manner that truly made the level stand out. While we are also introduced to another character who appears aligned with our new mystery swordsman, “she” is presented as an obstacle for completing the game, as well as the final test before reaching the games “True” final boss. Unlike previous bosses, her motivation appears to be that of self-preservation, as she shares a similar predicament to that of Zero and the mystery swordsman. This boss battle although challenging at first pales in comparison to the true final boss of the game, that remains hidden unless a particular sequence of events is triggered during your playthrough. In regards to the end of the game, it can actually be achieved without even facing the bosses if you select a choice to do so. That choice is provided at the end of the seventh chapter. One might question why you’d even have the option of ending the game before encountering the final bosses, but this too is a narrative-driven choice, based on morality, and the protection of others. There’s truly a surprising amount of choice to be found in this rather linear indie title, and I find that overly refreshing when weighed against similar offerings.
Beyond the two completely optional boss fights, Katana Zero offers you a rather beneficial easter egg hunt, in the form of hidden keys. These keys can only be acquired by meeting certain conditions within the levels they are hidden. These conditions vary, and occasionally present extra challenges to already familiar runs, along with a rather questionable moral decision. Once these keys are obtained, they’ll enable you to unlock new swords with additional attack abilities that add variety to combat that’s rather lacking by the later chapters. You’ll need to complete the game beyond chapter seven in order to use these keys, and obtain the government access key that’s “hidden” within one of your last encounters to unlock a hidden stage. Here you will find a panel that coincides with the keys you found, along with a door that will remain locked, until Askiisoft provides us with new story missions. While I find all five of the new swords fun, only one of them is truly a game changer, and will probably be the preferred sword for future speed runners. As for the “True” final boss, I recommend completing your first vanilla playthrough, before attempting to take it on, as this boss will challenge your mastery of all the mechanics of the game.
Katana Zero offers a wonderful soundtrack to guide you through its murder and mayhem, that’s delivered to you in what I’m assuming is a nod to 2017’s “Baby Driver”. Zero drowns out the screams of agony from those he kills by selecting songs from his walkman’s playlist. Every song fits the feel of the levels they play in, adding an additional level of cool to an already awesome game. The songs vary between synth blends, and jazz fusion, while remaining retro enough to fit into the stylized throwback world you reside in. It’s not often that I find myself searching for indie game soundtracks, but Katana Zero’s became a priority shortly after completing the game. There are a few standout tracks that’ll surely get stuck in your head long after play, with the mystery swordsman’s theme, and final boss theme topping the list.
I didn’t think a game could grab me quite like Ruiner did until I played Katana Zero. Unlike Reikon Games offering, Askiisoft has promised additional story content to continue the story of Zero, and I’m thoroughly invested in seeing it through to the end. Speaking of endings, it’s rather dark, once you get past the meaning of Zero’s nightmares, and the true natures of those you encounter. In the end, we are left with another impending war, questionable alliances, and many unanswered questions that beg patience. I’m just hoping that after the record 100,000 downloads within the first week of release, Askiisoft doesn’t wait another seven years to answer them. With player agency dictating just how much you get to see and do within this game, I can only hope that other indie titles take note, and adopt some of the same principles into their titles. To see it all, you’ll need at least two to three playthroughs, made easier by the ability to select VHS cassettes of each level you complete from the continue screen. It’s a game that almost anyone can play, but only a few will truly master. Katana Zero is also a game that now sits on my list of best games of the year.