Katana Zero is an indie title developed mostly by just one man, Justin Stander and published by Devolver Digital.
The game is set in a fictional, futuristic city known as New Mecca. This dystopian setting is oozing in noir style, with neon lighting bathing the streets lined with skyscrapers. Seven years after a war broke out in New Mecca, you take control of the protagonist Subject Zero who is a veteran of the conflict. However, Zero has no memory of the past and frequently has nightmares of his childhood in a humble village hut. Scientists and soldiers occupy these nightmares and throughout the game, more is uncovered about his mysterious past.
You meet a psychiatrist who treats Zero with medication and tasks him with assassinating various criminals. The plot is winding and surprising, with several conflicting ambitions clashing in a thrilling plot. Perhaps most interestingly is Zero’s ability to predict the future, which comes into play both within the story and the gameplay.
The game plays as a 2D platformer with hack and slash combat as you navigate through the rather short campaign. We rolled credits on Katana Zero after around 5 hours which did feel on the short side compared to some similar titles. The assassinations take place across New Mecca in locations such as a casino, a hotel, a prison and a nightclub. While the game is limited due to the city setting, these levels didn’t quite feel distinctive enough with exception of one or two interesting ones that we won’t spoil here.
Subject Zero has some very cool capabilities with the main one being the ability to slow down time for a short period. Running through the eleven levels while kicking off walls, jumping between platforms and murdering enemies with a single slash is incredibly satisfying. In fact, outside of bosses, all of the enemies you’ll face in the game will die in a single hit, keeping the pace high and resulting in some heart-racing battles since Zero will also die if any damage is taken. Items scattered throughout the game can be thrown at enemies too and you can get creative with environmental hazards to take out your opponents.
Levels are split into individual rooms, which you will need to clear of enemies to in order to advance from. Making use of the environment alongside Zero’s abilities made clearing each section a blast, although the slow-motion mechanic made some fights a little trivial.
Outside of combat, you can interact with NPCs and make certain dialogue choices that result in some unique branching outcomes, even if the overall story is mostly unaffected. We won’t spoil these outcomes, although we did encounter a fight that wouldn’t have taken place if certain dialogue options were not selected, which is a very nice touch to personalize the experience!
There are several difficulty options which change the positioning, quantity and behavior of enemies as well as a speedrun mode that records your times and allows you to skip cutscenes. This was an interesting distraction for a while, but one that will cater to a small group of hardcore players for the most part.
Katana Zero is a very enjoyable hack-and-slash adventure through a beautifully presented neo-noir world. The dystopian city of New Mecca was an interesting setting despite most of the levels not feeling as distinctive as they could have. The mysterious story kept us interested but didn’t feel as fleshed out as the refined combat gameplay, with dialogue choices mostly seeming inconsequential by the time the credits rolled. The action is the driving force here and clearing every room or boss was plenty of fun. One-hit-kills to Zero and his enemies make for some tense sequences, despite the slow-motion mechanic making things a little too easy at times. Katana Zero is a triumphant effort for the developer with a decent story, excellent gameplay and stunning visuals that we just wished was slightly longer.
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