What pops into your mind whenever you think of cyberpunk? A futuristic metropolis? Body augmentations? Government surveillance? Underneath a lot of neon luster, Katana Zero has all this and more.
Playing as a samurai assassin Zero, you’re tasked by a mysterious employer with eliminating various targets. To put it simply, any given level involves killing a bunch of goons, finding the target and neutralizing him or her accordingly. Katana Zero may as well be considered a spiritual successor to the Hotline Miami series. After all, both games share the same publisher: Devolver Digital. It follows a similar formula: all enemies die from a single hit. But so do you.
If you’ve never played Hotline Miami, then this might scare you off. Don’t get me wrong though, you’ll die a lot, but not nearly as often as in Hotline Miami. The prospect of dying from one hit forces you to continuously improve and study your enemies. Better yet, so long as you learn from your mistakes, the game never reaches a level of frustration.
Throughout the whole game, Zero wields only a single weapon: you guessed it, a katana. And surprisingly, it doesn’t make gameplay feel repetitive in the slightest. To assist you even further, Zero has the ability to slow down time which gives you an opportunity to dodge enemy attacks, evade incoming shots or even deflect them with a swift swipe of his curved sword.
One common scenario involves kicking a door to kill the enemy standing on the other side. With a quick swipe of the sword, you can kill a goon right next to the other and then slow down time to deflect a bullet at an armed soldier rushing to check on the other two. Some enemies are armored and carry riot shields, making them impervious to frontal assault, and you will keep dying unless you learn how to circumvent them.
Objects scattered around often give you the upper hand in such instances. Pick up a smoke grenade, throw it at a group of enemies and kill them all while remaining invisible. These instances require finesse, but ultimately, it’s all about trying, dying, learning and trying again; it’s about perfecting your execution. Everything happens fast, and by the time you’re done, the walls are covered in streaks of blood and you’re in disbelief that you actually killed everyone.
There’s also a countdown timer to further incentivize quick movement, but you don’t really feel its impact on gameplay until the very last few levels. Katana Zero is a brutal trip through flesh and blood, but what makes it truly stand out even more is how masterfully it implements some of its gameplay features – especially time manipulation – into the story.
In most games, the ability to try again is a simple convenience. But here, Zero keeps coming back because of a certain drug. After each assignment, he visits his psychiatrist who injects him with a drug known as Chronos. This drug gives him the ability to not only slow down time, but also reverse it, effectively making Zero immortal. As appealing as it sounds, recurring nightmares and reality glitches lead him to question his true identity and purpose.
Is he really who he thinks he is? Do the nightmares have any truth behind them? Can Zero trust his psychiatrist? His dedication to find answers eventually leads to an encounter with a Russian mobster by the name of V. Tracking down and questioning V becomes a priority as he seems to have close ties with another group comprised of similarly superhuman individuals. Is Zero somehow related to them? Once these events begin to unravel, you realize that storytelling is, in fact, the game’s strongest asset.
Conversations in Katana Zero are dynamic no matter who you’re talking to. During most conversations, you can interrupt the speaker, triggering a different response. And if you tell a building receptionist that you’ve come to take a shower (and not murder a bunch of people), then make sure your story remains consistent when dealing with cops later on. How and when you respond affects how other characters react and even outcomes of certain interactions
Integrated into gameplay is also the exceptional synthwave soundtrack which isn’t just convenient background noise. Zero carries an old-school Walkman with him and before each stage chooses his favourite track and hits play. And boy oh boy, some (most) of these tracks will make you wanna jump into an imaginary Porsche 911 and drive straight into the future.
Each track captures the tempo of each level and provides Katana Zero with a uniquely dark and futuristic vibe. During boss battles, the music strikes a perfect balance of making you feel like an invincible samurai while also emphasizing the imposing nature of your opponent.
Sometimes, music plays against you, too. Zero’s neighbours are assholes who listen to loud music and abuse drugs every night. His own apartment looks like a relic of a bygone time: simple furnishings, decorations of antique swords and sets of armour. It’s like the samurai is stuck in a different era and refuses to let go. Imperfect as it is, it’s a safe haven, and while there, you can take a break by drinking a steamy cup of herbal tea or listening to the latest news on TV. More often than not, you’re the topic of these newscasts.
Eventually, you meet and befriend a little girl living next door. This new relationship leads to unexpected and often comical situations. During one of the encounters, she claims that one of her toys is missing and that the samurai is definitely hiding it in his apartment. Who would’ve thunk, it was under his couch all along. Another instance sees them spending time on the rooftop of a building, gazing at the neon-lit metropolis in the distance.
These interactions are a pleasant break from the massacre and vaguely reminiscent of the relationship between the killer and Mathilda in the French thriller Leon. Bonding with the little girl and caring for her becomes an obligation. And knowing that your profession could lead her to harm makes you become protective of her.
Katana Zero is first and foremost about killing people. And sometimes, the action is so swift that you can’t take a breath until the sword is sheathed and the level complete. But while the main plot initially seems like a mundane premise, there’s actually a lot more to it than meets the eye.
There’s little I can talk about without spoiling it. It’s as much about killing as it’s about exploring the human psyche, the consequences of decisions that we make. It’s about accepting who you are as a person and coming to grips with your own sins. And for all of its futuristic fantasy flair, it delivers these ideas in a surprisingly grounded manner.
Katana Zero’s secondary plotlines are often even more enthralling. They make you contemplate the motivations of each character even after the ending credits have rolled. All of it is wrapped in a sleek cyberpunk aesthetic and you won’t forget its mesmerizing soundtrack anytime soon. Mark my words, Katana Zero is set to become a cult classic within a decade.