Publisher: Devolver Digital
Release: April 18, 2019
Reviewed on: Switch
What’s the most terrifying thing about a samurai assassin squaring off against a room full of gun-toting goons? The sword. Out of all possible deadly weapons, the samurai chooses a blade that requires unerring precision and close range, even when facing a hail of bullets. That choice conveys a lot about the efficiency and confidence of the assassin; we all know who is walking out of that room alive. In Katana Zero, that’s you.
Despite a focus on frantic swordplay, this side-scrolling action game isn’t as chaotic as it first appears. Using just a blade (and a little help from time manipulation), players have the speed and power to clear out entire enemy strongholds unscathed. Each screen presents a puzzle-like arrangement of enemies, requiring calculated movements and careful attacks. Katana Zero is not about improvisation and reaction; if you try playing it like Hotline Miami, you won’t survive.
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Making plans and refining them through trial and error is the most entertaining part of Katana Zero. You open a door, but a guard immediately shoots you, so time rewinds and the screen resets. On your next attempt, you use your limited time-slowing power as you kick the door open, allowing you to slash the bullet and deflect it back at the guard. Except now you’re facing an enemy with a shotgun, and you can’t deflect that blast with your sword. Can you quickly roll past and slash him without alerting another guard? Or knock him into some lasers? Or lure him to a more vulnerable position? You die often as you find the answers to these questions, but respawning is rapid, so the deaths don’t feel punitive. When you finally clear a tough screen, Katana Zero makes you feel like a genius assassination architect, overcoming harrowing odds and emerging as the lone survivor.
The thrill of those moments propels you through the levels, but frustrating design can make it difficult to reach those peaks of joy. For example, executing your plans depends on repetition and precision, but guards don’t always go back to the same default positions after a screen reset. This randomness occasionally prevents you from mastering familiar sections quickly to get to the tricky bits, which feels like a pointless hurdle that only eats up time.
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Jumping around, slowing time, and deflecting bullets is fun, but your options never expand (apart from one exception that I won’t spoil). That static moveset isn’t a problem by itself, but after exhausting its repertoire, Katana Zero struggles to present you with interesting ways to use your powers. Enemy configurations get harder and the stages get more elaborate, but using the same strategies to progress gets old. A motorcycle chase, a memory-based enemy gauntlet, and a handful of boss fights are attempts to vary the formula, but they fall flat just as often as they succeed.
The other main disappointment is the story. It has fascinating hooks involving a mysterious drug, your dumpy apartment complex, and your shady psychiatrist. The first couple hours had me thinking, “I can’t wait to see how all of these cool concepts come together.” Unfortunately, most of them just cryptically meander without reaching any crescendo. The game also lays the foundations for big moments that never come, like a foreshadowed choice that feels completely meaningless, and an abrupt “to be continued” ending that left me with a sour impression as the credits rolled.
When Katana Zero is in top form, it is a satisfying and stylish action/puzzle hybrid that rewards your patience and persistence. But the longer you play, the more the effect diminishes. The assassination scenarios start blending together, and the cutscenes stop inspiring curiosity. That tipping point is what stops Katana Zero from reaching its full potential, but it doesn’t negate the pride that comes from a well-planned and perfectly executed sword-slashing rampage.
Summary: Katana Zero can be a satisfying and stylish action/puzzle hybrid, but the effect diminishes the longer you play.
Concept: Strategically slash your way through an army of bad guys, with a little help from time-altering powers
Graphics: Retro-styled visuals and a VHS aesthetic make the side-scrolling action look great
Sound: The music fits the game’s tone, serving as an effective background soundtrack whether the scene is brutal or quiet
Playability: Controls feel precise and responsive, though hit detection is sometimes inconsistent (which can work for or against you)
Entertainment: Katana Zero starts strong on all fronts, but it doesn’t evolve or cohere in ways that sustain the excitement of its early stages
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