After talking my way past the receptionist at a grotty hotel in Katana Zero, I stand in the elevator at the entrance to a heavily guarded floor, watching goons patrol back and forth. One’s got a shotgun, another a knife, another a pistol. I formulate a plan, then burst through the doors, slicing through all three of them with my sword before another rushes me and knocks me over. Shit. Try again. This time I’m shot by a stray bullet. Again. Dodged too soon. Again. Mistimed a sword slash and got punched to death. Again. Again. Again.
In Katana Zero, one hit kills both you and your enemies. The goal is to slice through all the goons in each compact area without taking that hit, making your way through nightclubs, warehouses, hotels, and casinos to wherever your ultimate target is hiding. They might have guns, but you’re a cyberpunk ninja. You’re quicker, deadlier and, after a few attempts at the same level, basically prescient. You know where your target is going to be and what they’re going to do. This lets you be creative, setting traps with explosives or using throwing knives to trick enemies into coming running.
Katana Zero, a 2D action-platformer out today for Switch and PC, revolves around a time-manipulation idea that cleverly envelops both the story and the way you play. You play as a bathrobe-clothed samurai in a grimly pessimistic future city, a contract killer dependent on a drug dispensed by a sympathetic-seeming psychiatrist. The drug gives you the power to see forwards and backwards in time, letting you rewind after every death and slow down time to deflect bullets, but also prompts distressing hallucinations. After your grisly assignments you return to your crappy, filthy apartment with its perpetually partying neighbours, drink a cup of herbal tea and pass out on the couch.
I love Katana Zero. It’s as if Hotline Miami were redone as a side-scrolling action-puzzle-platformer, with a touch of Gunpoint’s clever enemy manipulation. It tells an unexpectedly compelling future-noir story with a dead-eyed, stylised, nihilistic violence that reminds me of the movie Drive. Its combination of detailed, excellently animated pixel art, retro-futuristic neon and a VHS tape filter is inspired. After you clear every room, you see a security-footage replay of your murder spree on a black-and-white tape. Each successful run is the product of several failed ones, so when you play it back, it makes you look superhumanly good, as if you’re able to anticipate each bullet and strike before it happens. Which, of course, you are.
Without getting too specific, as time goes on your samurai becomes more and more unmoored in time, prompting him to question the origins of the drug he depends upon. At one point you’re glitching back and forwards in time so much that it becomes confusing and unsettling, which is exactly the intended effect. When you’re not slicing dudes up, you can manipulate time in conversations, too, trying again until you get past a nosy receptionist or goad a boss into a reckless move. I didn’t expect there to be much talking in this game, but it’s got a fresh twist on conversation. You can interrupt characters mid-sentence, or listen to them longer to come up with different questions or responses. As you find out more about the drug the plot takes several disturbing turns that left me squinting at the escalating, occasionally grimace-worthy violence.
I devoured Katana Zero in a day. It’s clearly the first in a planned series – the story ends on a cliffhanger, and leaves plenty of questions unanswered – but I didn’t feel short-changed. There’s a lot to digest. My sole problem with it is the story’s use of children for cheap emotional impact, a cyberpunk trope I’d quite happily see die. But hey, at least it’s not full of dead or brutalized naked women (I’m looking at you, Altered Carbon).
The way my life is now – small children, demanding job, etc. etc. – games like Katana Zero are the dream: interesting and provocative, smartly put-together, memorable and challenging, and conquerable in a few evenings. Get acquainted with it now, before it starts appearing on best-of-2019 lists later in the year.