Katana Zero has good-looking pixel art graphics that are enhanced by a unique pink and blue color scheme that makes every level pop. Combat animations were slick, and dialogue was also cleverly animated to make it feel lively and engaging even without any voice acting. The soundtrack was truly the star of the show, though, with original synthetic beats that ranged from heart-pounding to chill and relaxing and always fit the cool and brutal ascetic every step of the way.
Even in the first thirty minutes of this short game I saw that this game was truly more of an experience and a story than I was expecting. The gameplay was what I expected, a fast-paced, instant-death 2-D action game. But the dialogue options with clever writing and the mystery shrouding the world and every character. The tone of the game was also a lot harsher than I was expecting, so much so that it could be off-putting for some gamers.
The main character, Zero, yields a katana with the ability to slash enemies and deflect bullets, jump, roll dodge, pick up and throw items, and slow down time. The controls are straight-forward, with each mechanic being laid out from the start. The ability to slow down time is completely optional, making intense sequences easier for as long as the limited cooldown bar lasts, but each level can be completed without touching that mechanic.
Each chapter in Katana Zero is a collection of short sequences that only need to be completed once to move on, similar to Celeste. This makes the game a lot less stressful as progress is never lost. Failure after failure at difficult sequences can be frustrating but the game forced me to improve my skills making completing those sequences very rewarding.
Sequences tend to involve moving through a 2-D level and eliminating every enemy along the way in a limited amount of time (I never reached the end of the time limit). In reality I controlled Zero’s plans for completing a sequence and only after completing successfully was “true” attempt shown back to me via a sort of VHS recording of the events. The way this ties in with the story of Kata Zero is very cool.
Levels are designed to give many options and routes to be able to complete them, which makes for interesting thoughts and considerations when failing a difficult sequence. This bit of freedom of choice is interesting and adds to replayability especially for speed-runners.
However, I was disappointed at the end of the game that levels continued to feel the same. Some earlier chapters involve a stealth mechanic or following a rail cart, but the majority of levels simply have more of the same 3-4 enemies in various rooms in a building. The platforming also fails to evolve in most levels which just contain simple jumps, rolling through lasers, and crashing through ceilings which are mechanics that are laid out in the first level. Boss battles do add some more variety to the gameplay, though, giving a break from the same few enemies.
The dialogue system in this game adds a lot to the experience and the mystery of the game. Different dialogue options will still lead to the same major plot points but different truths about the story and the world surrounding were revealed to me as I chose different responses. The fact that the story is so mysterious and that the dialogue options require quick responses truly turn this game into an experience more akin to a thriller film than any video game that I have played.
Even at times when the conversation options don’t matter much, there is always something interesting and humorous waiting at the end of each dialogue tree, and this humor is necessary to cut through some harsh moments.
Katana Zero is linear with no RPG elements to improve Zero along the way. Still, every player will have a unique experience with Katana Zero due to dialogue choices and taking different routes on each combat sequence. There are also a few collectables along the way that will unlock different swords for subsequent playthroughs, and these are definitively worth finding.
It is hard to talk about the story of Katana Zero without spoiling anything, but it is also hard not to talk about the story as it is just so engaging. As I mentioned, Katana Zero is a mystery and the way the secrets unfolds depend on dialogue choices, but the main plot will end the same way no matter what.
I would recommend playing this game in long stretches, though, as I was taken out of it after a break and the constant tension of the story was meant to play out all at once. I will note, though, that the brutal tone, content, language, and plot all could be unpleasant for many audiences, and I would only recommend going through it if you know to enjoy these types of harsh games/movies.
This is a rare game that I began again right after finishing, as I wanted to see what secrets could be revealed by making different decisions. I also wanted to unlock each hidden weapon. I could also see myself playing through this game on speed run mode to challenge my skills. All-in-all it is a very short game that left me wanting more, which is a good thing that not enough games accomplish.
Katana Zero is a ruthless experience that played out like a thrilling film that hinged on the choices of my dialogue. Because of these options in responses everyone’s experience will be slightly different and there will certainly be more about the story to uncover beyond the first playthrough.
The gameplay is tight and fast-paced with satisfying instant kills. I was forced to improve my skills to get through the game and it was rewarding to do so, even though later levels seemed to just reuse elements from previous levels with most having the same few enemy types. The gameplay does not evolve or build on itself as much as I would have wanted, but for such a short experience it is refreshing to get through a game and be left wanting more. If intense, bloody, mature content does not steer you away then this game will certainly be worth your time and I would recommend it highly.
A thrilling mystery
Captivating visuals and soundtrack
Combat and platforming don’t expand much
Lack of variety of enemies
Harsh tone may not be for everyone