January 20, 2019

Hands on with Katana Zero

It was announced this week that Developer askiisoft were partnering with Devolver Digital to bring Katana Zero to market, with the game available to play at the Devolver Digital booth at PAX South. Devolver was also kind enough to supply myself with a copy of the build, which meant I got to experience the game at my own pace.

Katana Zero tells the story of a samurai/killer, who is taking control of his life, by going to therapy and talking about his issue, kidding, it is a story that tells itself in the most unconventional way possible, via therapy cutscenes and in game cinematics. Each night as you go to sleep, nightmares plague your rest, as bits of your past surface, with more and more being revealed each day. During the day though, you have a mission to complete, usually killing someone, in the most violent way possible, but sometimes, you need to avoid being seen.

The gameplay is fast and frantic and each time I died, which was a lot, I knew it was my fault, because the game requires that you learn how to dodge and attack and if you don’t get that down pat, you are in trouble. Attacking is just sword attacks, but you can also pick up some items in the world, like daggers, glass bottles, large stone busts and hurl them at an enemy, taking them down in one shot. If you come across an enemy that has a sword or baton, they might deflect your attack, which will leave you open for a few seconds, time in which another enemy can take you down. Those dastardly foes that come at you with guns though, can be the easiest to defeat and the most challenging, because you are a samurai, you can use your sword to thwack the bullet back at them, miss time the hit and you are dead.

This is where the game gets a little trippy, because you are not playing the game at this point, you are planning your run on the stage, so when you die, it is like crossing out an option, you then get to try again. Once you make it through the stage, the game plays back your exploits, as if it was captured on a video tape, letting you watch it in one go, it is quite fun. With some of the levels posting enemies in some testing positions, it can take a few attempts to get through most stages, but when you do the result is quite satisfying. But you’re not limited to just your sword and dodging skills, no, you can also slow down time, which can help you out in some of the tighter spots that the game throws at you.

Slowing down time, does not make you move at normal speed, you slow down alongside everything else, the benefit to this is that you can time your attacks and dodges perfectly. The system is well balanced, while you have unlimited slow-down, there is a duration limit on each use, thanks to a meter that slowly depletes, empty it and time returns to normal. As you continue onwards, the meter will refill, letting you slow down time again and again. It does take some getting used to, as other games that have had similar mechanics are more about slowing everything but you down, so the inverse is weird to begin with, but so handy later on.

The game sports a really cool pixel art style, which is not quite 32-bit, but well above the 16-bit fare we have come to know, so think of it as a 24-bit style, characters have great expressions and thankfully, also suit the environments that they are placed in. While a lot of the enemies repeat, there are some very stand out characters, which I won’t mention here, as it spoils the story a little, but for the ones that do repeat, the game has a cool way of explaining why that is. The games audio is really nice as well, at the start of a mission, your guy will don a set of headphones and play a piece of music, with the name of it coming up in the bottom corner of the screen. The menus and effects are all retro VCR inspired and it is done very well, even with the occasional stutter effect on the screen.

Katana Zero is a game that is parts hack and slash, parts retro adventure and all parts fun, whilst I want to explore more of the story, as its unfolding in ways I could not have imagined, that will need to wait, as the game is not due to release until March.

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