It takes time to build a perfect assassin. That's something I knew walking into Katana Zero, but I didn't quite expect developer Askiisoft to take that idea to heart as much as it did. Katana Zero is a game that looks straightforward in its presentation. It's a 2D, 16-bit style hack-and-slash action game, built in the vein of another Devolver Digital-published effort, Hotline Miami. However, after spending hours with the story, it's a game with enough twists to make it something wildly unique and mind-blowingly trippy.
Killer for hire
Katana Zero follows the story of a mysterious assassin. He's eventually given the moniker of The Dragon. He's a ruthlessly efficient killer, able to take out a multitude of armed enemies effortlessly. The first thing to note about Katana Zero is that it never wanes from its depiction of its main character. Stages play out in the Dragon's mind, as he meticulously plots out how to proceed to his target. If he dies at any point, his internal monologue will simply state that this method won't work and he'll "rewind" back to the start of the area. So in essence, he only fails in his mind. This is a brilliant storytelling device, one that maintains the main character's mystique throughout the game.
As one would imagine, such a soldier's services are highly coveted, but it does appear that the Dragon is employed. Players fulfill contracts for an unknown organization, one that keeps the main character heavily medicated. This is enough to make one wonder whether they're playing a true "good guy" or if they're playing some deranged psychopath. That would certainly be a compelling, albeit simplistic, narrative. Little did I know how far down the rabbit hole goes.
Without going into spoilers, one of Katana Zero's major plot points involves the Dragon's ability to slow down time with the aid of a drug called Chronos. His path eventually takes him to a clandestine cabal looking to use the drug for their own nefarious means, but that soon paved the way for major reveals regarding the Dragon's origins, ones that has the main character questioning his own identity, in more ways than one.
How much story is revealed largely depends on how players opt to portray the main character. There are multiple dialogue options, but there's also the option to just snap at the other person before they can even speak. The Dragon can be played like an interrupting orange. This will not only affect the amount of exposition provided, but it'll also affect how characters treat and perceive the Dragon over the course of the game. There's the option where you can get the whole story or you can just get straight to the killing, which itself becomes a choice that impacts the overarching narrative.
Path of destruction
Crafting a master assassin means giving the player the tools to live that idea out. Katana Zero does this in spades. One-hit-kills are the name of the game, with the Dragon able to dispatch enemies in a single sword slash or a single thrown object. There are typical tough guy thugs, knife-wielders with pompadours, and shotgun-wielding weirdos to start. As the game goes on, the Dragon's adversaries gradually get more heavily-armed and slightly tougher to dispatch. Sure, one hit still does them in, but players have to memorize how to get the drop on them or how to get around their defenses.
Success in Katana Zero is not about killing everyone in a berzerker rage. To succeed, especially in the later levels, players need to lay out a distinct pattern of which enemies to take out, where to use their dodge rolls, and how to use the surrounding environment to their advantage. And of course, they need to anticipate any surprises, because there are a couple of rooms where something can pop up out of the blue and force you to start the whole thing over again. It's a difficult game and it's not going to be for everyone, but Katana Zero does evoke that Hotline Miami spirit, in that it's entirely doable and it feels invigorating when it's done.
Mixing things up are some enjoyable boss fights. They rely on distinct patterns, but that adds to the sense of satisfaction when taking them down, especially knowing that they can withstand multiple hits and the Dragon can't. It's not just one-on-one throwdowns, either, as Askiisoft sprinkles in some fun vehicle sequences that add some spice to a mainly 2D action environment.
Katana Zero lends itself to more than one playthrough, especially with false endings and multiple dialogue deviations in place. Fortunately, the game is very short. The whole thing can be completed in just a few hours, though it may take slightly longer for those overwhelmed by the challenge.
It should be noted that Katana Zero won't be for everyone. The visual effects surrounding time displacement and the jolting transitions could bring on headaches, if not outright seizures. Askiisoft does post a warning prior to the start of the game, so be wary if you're sensitive to that type of thing.
Overall, Katana Zero is an inspired effort. Askiisoft could have easily relied on the action formula alone, called it a day, and it would have been a solid indie release. However, Katana Zero dares to go bolder, with a story that takes more than one left turn, and an innovative dialogue system that can paint both the story and the main character in a different light. No matter how you opt to play this game, Katana Zero is one of the best Hotline Miami homages I've seen yet.
This review is based on a Steam code provided by the publisher. Katana Zero is available now on PC, PlayStation 4, and Nintendo Switch for $14.99. The game is rated M.
- Solid action and responsive combat
- A story that doesn't go where you might think
- Challenging, but not unfairly so
- Innovative dialogue system
- Could be too short for some
- Visual effects might be too much for some to handle
Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, Katana Zero review: The cutting edge