That’s A Lot Of F’ing Blood
HIGH Incredibly fast-paced action, compelling story.
LOW The story isn’t complete, too much backtracking upon failure.
WTF …Did I show a child a snuff film?
Katana ZERO is a brutal experience from start to finish. Like its namesake weapon, the experience is all about speed, precision, and extreme violence. When it’s not spilling gallons of pixelated blood across the screen, it ruminates on the nature of memory, war, atrocities, and human emotion that make each cutscene a gut-punch. It’s an unforgettable experience, but not one that should be undertaken lightly.
As the story opens, our hero (or is he?) is tasked with eliminating drug traffickers and thugs at the behest of an enigmatic therapist who also provides the assassin with doses of a substance known as Chronos that allows him to manipulate time.
As the story unfolds, the assassin learns more about his past, his various deeds and misdeeds, and encounters enemies and friends in the unlikeliest of places. The tone is dark, with moments of humor and warmth coming few and far between.
Those scarce moments of light center primarily around a child living next door to the protagonist in a filthy apartment complex in one of the worst sections of the city. But who is this mysterious child? Why does she haunt the assassin’s dreams and memories? There are far more questions than answers during Katana Zero‘s brief playtime, and almost nothing is as it seems.
Unfortunately, the story doesn’t come close to anything resembling a satisfying conclusion. Normally a non-ending like this would incur annoyance and a lower review score, but given how compelling the rest of the content is, I have to give the developers the benefit of the doubt and hope that a potential sequel will tie everything together.
Gameplay initially seems standard for this side-scrolling action title. The player uses the left stick to move while performing attacks with the X button. Our protagonist has the ability to pick up and hurl objects with lethal force using the B button, and can perform simple dodges with the right trigger.
However, things get unconventional when players implement the Chronos-fueled slow-time feature. While not a new concept, its seamless implementation into every facet of Katana Zero‘s combat is a thing to behold.
By pressing the left trigger, the assassin can slow time to the point where he’s able to deflect bullets and assault seemingly-invulnerable foes by performing pixel-perfect dodges, jumps, and traversal techniques. The narrative justification for this ability is that exposure to Chronos grants “precognition,” which is a neat way to handwave all of the time-slowing and respawning when the player botches a level. The hero didn’t actually die, but rather one potential “plan” didn’t work and no true action occurs until the level is successfully navigated.
I love fourth-wall breaking meta-elements like this, but I wish getting “killed” didn’t send me back to the beginning of each level. Some sequences require quite a bit of planning, memorization and dexterity, despite all the time manipulation, and it can become frustrating to repeat long stretches, especially when one is tantalizingly close to completing a section. Later boss battles are especially arduous, making them less satisfying to conquer in a “I’m glad I never have to do that again” sort of way.
Between battles, the assassin converses with memorable characters including the precocious child neighbor and an anime-obsessed receptionist. I enjoyed that dialogue can be interrupted by the flash of a katana’s blade, causing the captions to scatter like arterial spray.
Katana ZERO is relatively short action experience, but the fast, brutal, and provocative play left me wanting more — and that’s about the highest praise I can give it.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Askiisoft and published by Devolver Digital. It is currently available on PC and the Nintendo Switch. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 6 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: This game is rated M by the ESRB, and contains Blood and Gore, Strong Language, Suggestive Themes, Use of Drugs,Violence. The game is very bloody, with the protagonist not only killing human enemies, but causing various forms of dismemberment as well as beheadings. There are also scenes of graphic torture. The F word is used liberally throughout the game, as well as other vulgar terms. Despite pixelated graphics, this is in no way designed for children either for playing or for viewing.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: All dialogue is in text form. All audio cues have a visual and/or force feedback component. Subtitles cannot be resized, nor are there any font color choices.
Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls.