Much to the enjoyment of many of the members of the Level Down Games team, the retro culture, style, and music of our childhood has made a recent return into popularity. TV shows, movies, and video games are returning to a simpler time of pixelated graphics, synth-pop beats, and neon-emblazoned logos against bleak backgrounds. When a Nindies Direct featured upcoming side-scroller action game Katana ZERO from developer Askiisoft, we were all quickly drawn to its beautiful retro theme. Luckily for us, Katana ZERO turned out to be the best game I’ve played this year so far.
Title: Katana ZERO
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Available On: PC, Nintendo Switch
Reviewed On: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: April 18, 2019
Game Purchased for the Purpose of This Review
Katana ZERO tells the story of an assassin working for a shady businessman in a post-war, sci-fi inspired 1980’s-era society. Your job is to fill contracts for your employer, killing targets in locations around the city. How you accomplish your mission is your choice. Your employer will occasionally give you instructions on how to kill your target to avoid complications; whether you choose to follow those instructions is up to you. Story elements of the game change in a satisfying way based upon your play, and decisions you make will be referenced frequently and even alter later missions in some instances. The story is truly unique and interesting, and so little can be said without spoiling its compelling narrative, but you realize quickly that much larger forces are at hand in the protagonist’s tale.
Time is an inconstant variable in Katana ZERO. Much like 2018’s surprise hit Celeste, the center game mechanic revolves around small self-contained rooms that require precise controls, increasingly-difficult timing, and a healthy mix of style and substance. Expect to die a lot in Katana ZERO, as trial and error is essential to completing most rooms and a single hit from an enemy weapon or projectile will bring your demise. Dying is a small inconvenience, however, as you respawn very quickly with nearly no downtime. Each death is not truly a death; your character is simply premeditating possible outcomes of his technique of clearing the room. Only your successful attempts are “reality”, and you’ll get to watch your character perform each stage at completion via VHS-recordings from security cameras, a beautiful and artistic touch.
As stated, if you’ve played Celeste (my personal game of the year for 2018), you will feel comfortable and familiar with the playstyle of Katana ZERO. Attempting a level thirty to forty times can be mildly irritating in all the right ways– completion of a level with quick timing and fast reflexes feels rewarding. Combining multi-directional sword strikes, dashes, jumping, projectiles, sneaking, and momentary slow-motion powers, you will find increasingly stylish and cinematic ways of ripping through rooms full of guards and thugs. The game does a fantastic job of making you feel like a trained, world-class assassin that never makes mistakes – because any mistake will cost you your life.
Every design decision in this game portrays the developer’s affection for the referenced era. Composers Ludowic and Bill Kiley have crafted a gorgeous soundtrack of synthwave tunes that you and your assassin will be jamming to as you slice throw your enemies. Occasionally, before a level begins, you will even see your character extract a small walkman from his pocket, rewind, and play the track for the level. The immersion gifted by this one small action can not be understated.
The graphics and visuals, too, are a love letter to this decade. Pixelated scenery and characters are brought to life with vivid colors and beautifully imagined animations. Sneaking as the assassin is as satisfying to watch as it is to play. Hair bounces and robes flow in a believable sense. More than once, I stopped trying to beat the level I was playing and dedicated a few minutes to jumping around and slicing through enemies just to marvel at the impressive aesthetics.
My favorite new feature, one that I had not seen previously in any game I’ve played, is a real-time conversation system. Talking to characters will usually leave you with between 2-4 replies to choose from, if you make it that far into the conversation. While other characters speak, you will often have the option of interrupting that character, which will end their statement and force them to reply to your impatience. This is a fun option to experiment with, and becomes increasingly tempting as you interact with some bold and insulting antagonists.
My total playtime for Katana ZERO clocked in at approximately 4.5 hours. For the level of enjoyment I experienced, this was well worth the $14.99 price tag, but I did find myself wishing for more at the end. I completed the game in a single sitting (a rare feat for me), and the next day I wished I had more to play. Mind you, the short length of the game is a very minor complaint. The game told a complete and fully realized story without dragging you through unnecessary dialogue or exposition. I was reminded of a short series on television as opposed to a 20-plus episode season, and wanting more is really more of a compliment than a critique.
Katana ZERO is a modern masterpiece with a nearly perfect aesthetic. The graphics are beautifully rendered and animated, the music masterfully composed, and the gameplay tight and satisfying. Almost every moment of this game is used meaningfully and, despite its overall relatively short play time, leaves you with a full story with enough twists and turns that keep you playing to the end and ultimately leave you satisfied. Askiisoft and lead programmer Justin Stander were unknown to me prior to Katana ZERO, but they have gained a new permanent fan. Katana ZERO is a must buy for anyone that enjoys side scrollers, challenging gameplay, synthwave music, compelling storytelling, indie projects, or, really, video games at all. I’m very excited to see a few talented speedrunners get their hands on this. The rest of 2019 has a lot to live up to.
9.5 / 10