Katana Zero review – from zero to anti-hero

Time-bending ninja action channels cool cuts and cooler slices. Our review of the corking Katana Zero…


 

Deadly individuals have a knack for looking a bit ridiculous. Think Javier Bardem and his awful haircut in No Country For Old Men or the realisation that Ryan Gosling in Drive sports a seriously tacky jacket.

Just as well then that early on in Katana Zero, someone makes an observation that your samurai protagonist is in fact just wearing a bathrobe, even if the only type of bath you’ll be running is the bloody kind.

In a story spanning ten days, Askiisoft’s 2D action platformer has you playing as an assassin tasked with bumping off a number of high-profile targets. Getting to them, however, will require clearing multiple rooms of armed henchmen, whether by slashing them up with your katana or improvising by hurling the nearest vase or kicking down doors – and of course, you can also slow down time, which comes in handy for timing a bad-ass bullet deflection.

While the presentation may have you immediately thinking of Ninja Gaiden – albeit with modern stylish effects like screen shake and grainy video filters – the brutal one-hit death of both you and your foes makes proceedings more akin to publisher Devolver Digital’s other hit, Hotline Miami.

The added twist is that you have precognitive powers, so the gameplay unfolding is actually you planning your future actions until you’ve killed everyone, whereby your protagonist remarks, “Yes, that should work.”

Each level’s like a fast-paced action film sequence where you’re charged with nailing its violent choreography – the successful end result then plays back as a black-and-white videotape (which does lose its novelty, since I eventually skipped them and moved to the next challenge).

The action’s stylish and polished enough by itself, but what elevates Katana Zero is that it’s equally engaging when you’re not being a cold-blooded killing machine. The way the story unfolds – as you gradually discover how you’ve come to be blessed (or rather cursed) with your time-bending powers, and what it is you’re getting routinely injected with after every job – offers genuine twists.

The seemingly straightforward Hitman-like structure of a new contract each day also goes off the rails, such as when you drop into one mission only to find everyone already mysteriously massacred. Although it’s not exactly a branching narrative game, there’s nonetheless some inspired use of dialogue choices – including the option to outright interrupt NPCs mid-sentence – though its tendency to highlight key words in multiple colours does seem like overkill.

This year’ s proving to be a vintage one for mainstream action games, and while the likes of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice and Devil May Cry 5 arguably provide more mastery and replayability, the taut and varied set pieces in Katana Zero makes it a hi-octane pixel blockbuster you shouldn’t miss.

Highlight

Even with just pixel art and text dialogue, Katana Zero has an incredible sense of cinematic atmosphere. Incidentally, the electronic score plays a major part in soaking you in its 1980s neo-noir. It feels like a nod to the stylish – and similarly ultra-violent – movie, Drive.

Verdict: 76%

Katana Zero balances slick combat set pieces with atmospheric storytelling. In short, yes, that definitely works.

Info

Genre: Action platformer
Format: Switch (tested) / PC
Developer: Askiisoft
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Price: £13.49
Release: Out now

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