Review – Katana Zero

Katana Zero is the perfect example of your typical Devolver Digital-endorsed title: a retro-styled game with arcade elements, fast-paced action and a distinctive sense of humor. After experiencing two disappointments in The Red Strings Club and Weedcraft, I was ready for something more akin to the titles that made the the publisher the indie powerhouse that it is. I most certainly wasn’t disappointed with the end result, even if it features a handful of annoying issues.

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I pity the cleaning lady.

You can see nods to many other games right in the first few minutes of Katana Zero. You can see a bit of Sekiro, a bit of Meat Boy / Celeste, a bit of Furi and a lot of Hotline Miami thrown into the mix. I need to commend the developers for making something that ultimately feels fresh despite the obvious nods to other games. This is an arcade-like twich platformer, but instead of tricky platforming sections and precise jumps, the most important gameplay aspect in Katana Zero is to perfectly calculate when and where to deliver fatal slashes to kill every single enemy onscreen in order to proceed to the next level. It almost feels like a rhythm game at some points.

Given the fact it’s a game inspired by Hotline Miami and Meat Boy, you’ll die a lot in Katana Zero. Your timing and movement need to be pitch perfect in order to kill all enemies onscreen all while avoiding their gunshots and the dozens of traps scattered throughout the stages. A game like this requires pristine controls, and sadly, that’s not the case here. While Katana Zero‘s gameplay is easy to grasp, the game isn’t as responsive as it should be. There will be countless occasions in which you’ll press dodge or bullet time buttons in order to avoid an enemy attack, only for you to get blown to pieces as if you were just standing still, waiting to be murdered by a mob of goons. The slow-motion button was a noticeable disappointment. Those gameplay elements usually allow you to retain hightened reflexes and fast button responses even while you’re freezing time, but that wasn’t the case in here.

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Your shadows will die more than twice in this game as well.

Thankfully, even though there are some blatant gameplay issues, there’s more than enough in Katana Zero to make you want to play the game to the end. The checkpoint system is very generous, as you’ll quickly respawn to the beginning of the screen whenever you die. You’ll die a lot, without a doubt, but it feels inconsequential in here. You barely lose any progress.

The overall presentation is also great. While Katana Zero‘s pixel art isn’t as impressive as other games like The Messenger, it still gets the job done. There are tons of lighting effects in it, on the other hand, and they are all top-notch. The soundtrack is also fantastic. Whenever there’s a lot of action onscreen, your own main character will select a high-octane synthwave tune from his MP3 player. Those tuns are all great, Furi levels of great. Surprisingly enough, there are also some excellent calm ballads in here, especially during some more plot-centric moments.

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That’s just rude.

That’s right, even though Katana Zero is arcadey at heart, it does feature a story, and a good one at that. You’re a samurai assassin, but you also have your life outside of work. That means dealing with noisy neighbors, paying the rent, dealing with nightmares, going to the shrink, and so on. It’s a surprisingly great plot backed by an occasionally hilarious script. The game even lets you decide the outcome of certain situations by providing the player with a dialogue tree.

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Even cold-hearted assassins need to go to the shrink every now and then.

Katana Zero is far from being one of the best and most polished indies released by Devolver over the last few years, but it’s still a pretty good game in its own right. If you can accept the fact you will die occasionally due to the game’s controls not being as responsive as they should, you’ll be greeted with a stylish little title with a surprisingly interesting story, some laughs here and there, and an awesome synthwave soundtrack.

 

Graphics: 7.0

Pretty decent pixel art. It doesn’t stand out but it gets the job done. The lighting effects are more impressive than the overall visuals.

Gameplay: 7.5

The overall gameplay is very fast-paced, and the controls are fluid for the most part, but there are some crucial moments in which it seems the controls don’t respond as fast as they should.

Sound: 9.0

Fast-paced synthwave tunes whenever there’s a lot of action onscreen, as well as piano-driven ballads during narrative-heavy sections. The overall soundtrack is excellent.

Fun Factor: 7.5

Despite some infuriating trial and error sections, mostly due to the occasionally unresponsive controls, Katana Zero is a fun challenge that is best enjoyed in short bursts. The story ended up being a lot more entertaining than I was expecting.

Final Verdict: 7.5

Katana Zero is available now on PC and Switch.

Reviewed on PC.

A copy of Katana Zero was provided by the publisher.

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