The Askiisoft pixelated action game Katana Zero hasn't exactly flown under the radar since its launch, with 100,000 copies sold in its first week on the market, and we have to say that the success is well-deserved. After charging through the game, we were left in awe of what the developer had accomplished with this simple yet uniquely fantastic little experience.
The player follows the game's tough protagonist, a samurai assassin of sorts who slices through mobsters and other bad guys in a gritty, neon-clad city. When we spoke to Askiisoft's Justin Stander, he explained how the game was inspired by Korean revenge-thrillers and we can definitely see the source of his inspiration shine through when slashing our foes through city streets, gritty nightclubs and run-down cell blocks.
The protagonist, who seems to be mentally unstable in some way, talks to a handler who appears to also be his psychiatrist and tells him about dreams he's having at night, letting the player choose what he wants to tell him, how much of the truth he'll share, or if he wants to share anything at all, and the choices alter the dialogue throughout the game. After each chat, the player gets a mission briefing that, once read, needs to be burnt.
Your task, on almost every mission, is to take down all of the mobsters in your path with very few exceptions but there's fun mechanics at play here that make what sounds like a tedious objective feel unique. Of course, you'll be running, crouching, sliding, slashing doors open, attacking and throwing items at your enemies, however, you also have the option to slow down the action on the battlefield. This ability is somehow linked to the drug the handler pumps you full of between missions. When time is slowed down, you have a short window to take down all the many enemies in sight and have an easier time deflecting bullets back at your attacker (or attackers) with your sword. You'll still die a lot, trust us, and at the end of every encounter, you'll get the option to check your many tries to find out what you did wrong in each.
The playable character dies in one hit, meaning that Katana Zero is all about trial and error and developing muscle memory to get through each room. If you die at the end of an area, you'll have to start all over and while that can sometimes be frustrating, it's incredibly rewarding to nail a perfect run. Every victory is a flawless one - it has to be.
Enemies aren't the only source of danger either; you'll be faced with lasers, turrets, minecart level gaps to jump across, stealth areas where you have to make sure you're not in some enemy's line of sight and more. Our favourite task was ending the life of famous DJ Electrohead at his club as the club floor had plenty of stealthy moments as well as enemy patrols, lasers and turrets to slice through without dying, making for a well-varied mission. Also enjoyable is the fact that lasers can be used against enemies if you find the lever that controls them. We were also introduced to steam valves that you can either slice open or throw an item at, making the valve explode, covering the room with steam and thus blinding your opponents.
Katana Zero doesn't have a super gripping narrative but it is interesting enough to pull you in. You end up filling in a lot of blanks yourself and with that, you can shape your own narrative in a way through dialogue. We stopped trusting our psychologist/handler early on, after the DJ assassination mission in fact, when he told us to not talk to the target who we were told was a pathological liar. Of course, we talked to him anyway because we're samurai rebels, and were told something interesting. When confronted his dialogue text started to shake, which we found to be a neat detail, and when interrupted his dialogue text shattered. You only have a few seconds to answer each question, if you want to answer any at all, but you do find out new things the more you listen, of course.
What the game lacks in narrative, it makes up for in gameplay, visuals and audio. Katana Zero looks incredible with well-varied environments that all have a futuristic edge, and the audio design is impeccable. Throughout the game you'll get the name of the song playing and its composer in the lower left-hand corner and it's not hard to see why it's there, we wanted to sneak online and have a listen to the amazing soundtrack the second we heard the first tune.
Katana Zero is a short experience with very little replay value since the entire game revolves around trial and error to begin with but it's also, without a doubt, one of the best low-profile games we've played in recent years and you shouldn't miss it.
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