Released on April 18th for Nintendo Switch and PC. Katana Zero is a 2D action platformer from developer Askiisoft and publisher Devolver Digital featuring fast-paced, time-bending shenanigans with a sword.
Its self-described neo-noir aesthetic strikes me as a futuristic neon version of Gunpoint, and while that’s essentially reiterating that it’s “neo-noir,” I think the comparison gives a strong sense of the artistic direction of the game. The violent content and use of neon also lead to heavy parallels to Hotline Miami.
Each stage opens with the character putting in headphones and the music starting. You then plan your approach. The level structure encourages thinking about each stage or combat encounter as a puzzle, taking multiple attempts, and learning how the events progress so as to better plan a next attempt. This takes the form of a 2D action-platformer, rewinding when you make a mistake, until you complete the stage. Then security camera footage shows how events actually panned out. The ability to slow time means that this replay in real-time can look truly impressive (and make you feel pretty awesome).
On release day, the developer ran a stream of the game through Steam, which culminated in discovering a “bug,” and the entire stream rewinding to the start, using the same graphical coding as the time rewinding does in the game when you fail a stage. This was some top-notch meta-textual advertising, and made me even more excited to pick up the game when I had time over the weekend.
I played on a controller, and only had a few issues with precise aiming, though it was very forgiving most of the time. It also allows complete control re-mapping and a number of other useful accessibility features that can help with response times. The mechanics are solid, with neat interactions between enemy types, and gives rise to some great encounters that play out more like puzzles leaning on bullet time and planning than like outright fights. While I was able to do most encounters without slowing time, I was always better served by being more patient and planning everything than by precision combat.
The other major aspect of the game is the conversation system, which gives the opportunity for impatient responses using a response timer segmented based on the conversation flow. This leads to some interesting interactions, where certain people will get thrown off by being repeatedly interrupted, especially when you use time manipulation to mention things you couldn’t have known about.
I went into this game expecting stellar mechanics, and I was not disappointed. What I did not expect was for the narrative to be woven so expertly to give weight to your actions and make you feel terrible for what you do while still being certain that you aren’t actually the bad guy. It becomes clear early on that people are lying to you, but not entirely clear what they’re lying about. Unraveling these mysteries takes you through a winding plot that makes sense the whole way through, but isn’t fully predictable.
And now for a section most games don’t require: heavy content warnings. This game is about a bunch of bad people, and prominently features gratuitous violence (against gangs and police), drugs of various kinds, descriptions and depictions of war crimes. This includes commentary such as, “we could have won the war if they hadn’t objected to child killings,” and a scene where the protagonist bashes in the head of his psychiatrist (or perhaps handler).
This game is gruesome, but enthralling, fun, and even funny. I recommend it wholeheartedly, but know what you’re getting into, at least at the surface level.
All pictures and artwork courtesy of their respective owners.