Publisher: Devolver Digital
Release Date: April 18th, 2019
Reviewed on: PC
Available on: PC, Switch
Leave no survivors. Both an evocative phrase and a mantra that Asciisoft’s Katana ZERO is built around. Katana ZERO sees you take control of a sword wielding assassin named Zero. The bulk of the game switches between two phases: mass genocide and unraveling the mystery of your forgotten past. While brutally violent, Katana ZERO manages to deliver an engaging experience that kept me hooked.
One of the key factors that differentiates Katana ZERO from other action games is its emphasis on time manipulation. A limited time slowing ability can be used in each level to enable precise action. This can help with pulling off seemingly impossible frame perfect inputs, which will be played back in a real time recording after finishing each stage. This mechanic has the benefit of allowing for those with a slower reaction time to pull off insane stunts, while also providing a captivating display of prowess upon completing each area.
Time manipulation also plays into how the levels reset. Zero dies in a single hit, but when that happens the level rewinds for you to try again. The story will later imply that this is a deliberate decision by Zero to reattempt something erroneous by using his time powers. Contextualizing resetting helps Katana ZERO to feel less like a video game.
It’s also time manipulating abilities that create a chunk of the mystery within Katana ZERO’s story. How Zero came to have powers and the memory of his past are linked. The delivery of the over-arching story does an excellent job of presenting information that will allow players to piece everything together. I’m a big fan of this method of story-telling as it trusts players will understand the full picture without the need for heavy handed delivery.
While I’ve been speaking to the story elements of the game thus far don’t let that deceive you: Katana ZERO plays fantastically. The controls are tight and the action is intense. A fair dose of screen shake and a keyframe of delay is used to punctuate every time you kill a baddie. It feels incredibly gratifying to slice through enemies chaining each move into the next. The game also uses these techniques to clearly communicate to the player, so they’re never at a loss trying to ascertain what transpired. The result is action sequences that feel as good to play as they look in playback.
Kanata ZERO also has a great sense of pacing throughout most of the game. Each chapter will begin with a calm story bit, followed by a sequence of levels where you ruthlessly kill everything that moves, and then things slow back down again for another calm story segment. Sandwiching the action between two moments of quiet time helps to accentuate the more intense moments making them all the more enjoyable. The later levels tend to pile on a bit too much without giving the player a break, but for the majority of the experience the pacing is top notch.
The music is also noteworthy. Each track helps to sell the story of any given location better than the visual design of said location. Whether its the back alleys of Chinatown, storming a military training facility, or infiltrating a club each has a tune that appropriately represents the area. The music is even great to listen to without the context of the game, and I have even had some of the ear-worm tracks enter my regular rotation of music.
When the game is focused on action it is at its best. Unfortunately, there are a few moments when Katana ZERO deviates from this. There is a limited number of stealth section which don’t work tremendously well given the game is mostly designed around murdering everything that moves. There are also some secrets that can be found across the game, which require you to solve puzzles. Again, this isn’t where Katana ZERO’s strengths lie. Thankfully most of this is optional, and can be largely avoided.
The final aspect of Kanata ZERO that I wanted to bring forward is its length: it is short. I finished the game in under four hours. I believe that is the perfect length for the game, and immediately replayed it upon completion. It lasts just long enough to leave players satisfied without outstaying its welcome.
Katana ZERO is great. My only gripes with the whole experience are minor, and in some cases entirely avoidable. The excellent use of Zero’s time powers as both mechanics and a part of the story, in conjunction with the exhilarating gameplay, pacing, and soundtrack all make for one hell of an experience. Kanata ZERO lasts long enough to impress, leaving a want for more that saw me playing through the game again. Don’t let this one pass you by. Katana ZERO is well worth your time.