Katana Zero Review: Addictive 2D Action with a Heart

If you're looking for a game to touch your heart and challenge your thumbs, check out Katana Zero...

Release Date: April 18, 2019Platform: Switch (reviewed), PC Developer: AskiisoftPublisher: Devolver DigitalGenre: Action Platformer

Sometimes, when you try a game for a couple of minutes, it makes an immediate impression and the decision to seek out the full experience is made right there on the spot. This is what happened when Den of Geek tried demoed Katana Zero, the 2D action platformer from Askiisoft and Devolver Digital, at London’s EGX Rezzed last month. And, at the risk of spoiling the end of this review, it’s safe to say we’re glad that we did pick up the full game.

Katana Zero has an art style that quickly catches the eye on a showroom floor, with a neo-noir sort of sheen that’s slathered on top of a simple 2D cityscape. The game plonks you in the black bathrobe of a legendary assassin known as The Dragon, who takes out hits on the orders of his mysterious employers. These backroom benefactors dose up The Dragon with a special drug called Chronos, which allows the user to alter time as a way to avoid death.

The Dragon also has a surprisingly engaging homelife, where the player has the option (using a decision-driven conversation system) to befriend a lonely youngster in his low-rent apartment complex. If you’re only interested in action, you can choose the quick way out of each conversation. But if you’re keen to up the emotional ante, you can engage in the game on this whole other level. We’d encourage you to delve into this optional element because it’s where the game really shows its sizeable heart.

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These disparate facets of the game jell together nicely, creating a cyclical feeling, which makes the experience more like real life than a series of random acts of violence. First, you get an assignment and chat to a therapist-like character that deals out the Chronos drug. Then, you undertake the mission, trudging through as many tries as it takes to get the job done. And finally, you return home, chat with your neighbor and have some herbal tea. Then you fall asleep and have a nightmare before waking up and going through the routine again. It’s mundane enough to feel human, but not dull enough to switch you off.

The core of the game, where the most action takes place, is in the assassinations themselves. We played the Nintendo Switch version, where you use a left shoulder button to pause time (using your Chronos-powered abilities) and a right shoulder button to roll along the floor. These options help you to evade enemies, but you’re going to have to think very tactically to take them all out before your time-skewing abilities run out. The missions you’re given are really varied, from a blood-splattered prison to a busy nightclub, the latter of which allows you to hide among the dancing revelers to avoid being spotted by security.

There are also a couple of segments that mix up the style of the gameplay significantly, by giving you a different character to control (with slightly different abilities) or by moving the action onto a motorbike. For a game from such a small developer, there’s an impressive amount of depth here.

Working your way through each level is a mostly enjoyable experience, and it’s particularly rewarding when you find the exact right combination of actions that will get the job done. For instance, you might need to kick a door down, pause time, and then throw a bottle at someone to avoid being killed. One misjudged moment, allowing an enemy to get a single attack in, and your character is dead. Knowing how much you’re going to enjoy perfectly completing each area, the game even shows you a VHS-quality replay every time you’ve cleared a room. Trying to ace each area can really become addictive, too.

However, it must be said that there are points in the game where it stops being fun and instead becomes frustrating. As the levels get harder, Katana Zero gives you fewer clues about how to complete them, and it is possible to retread the same area tens of times in anger. Playing on the go sometimes becomes a bit worry-inducing because you’ll have to contain your frustration if you screw something up. There were a couple of boss levels near the end that we had to switch off, take home, and battle through in solitary confinement (lest we scare commuters with our rage). Needless to say, your mileage will vary based on your skill level.

Aside from this handful of segments that test the barrier between challenging and annoying, Katana Zero is an absolute marvel of an indie title. The visuals are never short of excellent, the level design forces you to think creatively, and the emotions are so easy to engage with that the game leaves you gasping for more content as soon you reach the end. It has a bit of a sequel/DLC-baiting conclusion, but it’s easy to forgive that when you’ve enjoyed the game so much.

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Also, as an added bonus, it’s not too expensive, either: Katana Zero is $14.99 on the Nintendo eShop and Steam. So if you fancy supporting a smaller game studio without breaking the bank, and getting a game that will challenge your thumbs and touch your heart, you could do a lot worse than checking this one out. Katana Zero may cause fits of anger, at times, but it’s a gorgeous game with plenty of depth that will keep you occupied for hours and stick with you long after the credits have rolled.