So, let me preface my first blog post in which I take the piss out of recent indie game Katana ZERO by stating that Katana ZERO is still an awesome game that has awesome and creative meta-narratives, plenty of secrets (We still don't know everything about its story) and if you're willing to shell out the low price of $15.00 for it, it's easily one of the earliest GOTY candidates. Now, it's time to harshly and brutally criticize its every failing.
Also spoilers. I will reserve those for the second half of this.
So, alright, here's the deal: Katana ZERO starts extremely strong. You start as a mysterious samurai who uses a drug called Chronos to slow time. This samurai has memory losses, nightmares, and hallucinations. Luckily, he has a therapist who doubles as his handler. This samurai serves as a hitman who busts up mob hotels to wreck Chronos trade amongst the local mob. The gameplay is much in the vein of Deadbolt or Hotline Miami, but, in an awesome twist, this game actually holds true to its promise that "every enemy dies in one hit". Excepting bosses, every enemy only takes a single proper strike to kill. However, you also die in one hit. This is justified as the samurai using his psychic powers to form a plan of attack before every level.
The samurai is known by the news as "The Dragon". I was absolutely enraptured early on with its trippy story beats, and all the questions it raises. I also adored the dialogue system, which gave the samurai a sense of character that other protagonists, most notably Jacket of Hotline Miami, lack in indie action games. In Katana ZERO, the samurai is not yours to choose, but yours to assist along the way. You can politely con your way through situations, minimizing casualties outside of targets. You decide whether the samurai is a genuine, kind soul outside of a battle, or a heartless madman out for blood. The game actually has a lot of horror influences, and with good reason. The story it's telling is terrifying.
A particular encounter I would name is the obligatory "trailer encounter", clearly designed for promotion, because it offers a level of choice the player does not really receive throughout the rest of the game. This would be the "cosplay" scene, in which the player meets and converses with a receptionist. If you just want to get through, she responds "FINE" and when the mission is over, she rats you out to the police. However, if you play like a sane person (Which will deny you a secret, so, cleverly, you do have incentive to be a bad person) she will have a conversation about anime, and even fall for the character. She shows up again and makes a later encounter simpler as well. This scene is adorable and clever, and it's a shame most scenes aren't like this. Notably, this encounter seems designed to go for a "Completionist vs Speedrunner" attitude: If you just want to speedrun, you'll be punished with the death of a likeable character, and with a more difficult encounter and an introduction to harder enemies early on in the form of the cops.
To especially establish this, after most missions, the samurai meets a little girl. She's a bit bratty, but holy heck, did this child endear herself to me quickly. It's heavily implied her father isn't good to her, which only made me need to be even more caring. I catered to her every whim not because the game forced me to be nice to her, but because I genuinely wanted to help this kid.
Gameplay is top-notch, but the story was more interesting. Similarly countering Hotline Miami's flaw, Katana ZERO actually has a strong villain. This villain doesn't have much more depth than being a hedonistic sadist, but he is also a stand-out character of the game. Also, the art and visuals of Katana ZERO are amazing. Just look at this OST cover. The OST is similarly fantastic, and you should look it up on YouTube.
Alright, so the narrative sets up all sorts of questions, and creates a trippy, non-linear narrative through use of clairvoyance, psychic powers, and the samurai's drugs. Sometimes, things don't always happen the way you indicate them to. The more vicious you are, the more the samurai will fly off the rails when you try to be kind. Also, there are these men in masks who show up as hallucinations, and threaten the samurai with knowledge of the future. So, how do they resolve this narrative?
Spoilers ahead. Do not read if you want to go into Katana ZERO blind.
Well, okay, they don't. At all. Not in the slightest. Instead, about halfway through, the villain, V, is cornered by the samurai, and you receive the sudden reveal that *gasp* you weren't The Dragon, and The Dragon is a completely different samurai. Now, there's reasons for this, but this begins a chain in the game's storytelling. That chain amounts to Shymalan-esque "What a twist!" style moments rather than truly answering questions. It piles on twist after twist, character after character, until the final boss is some woman you've only met once in a cutscene and despite it delivering answers on some things, such as the existence of Chronos, it refuses to answer others.
The questions that remain un-answered by the end include: "Who are the men in masks? How much of the game is real? Who was the homeless veteran? What exactly was the Cromag war? Who is the samurai working for? What's with the hallucination of the samurai as the homeless veteran? Who or what is the therapist? Is the little girl a hallucination? Who are V and Snow working for? Who is Snow?" Again, they built these all as mysteries. Were the Cromag War just a backdrop, I'd deal with it. However, they build so much of the story around these questions and characters that just show up out of nowhere. I respect that style of storytelling, but only when it's combined with proper Show-Don't-Tell establishment. Mad Max: Fury Road, for example, doesn't explain much of the world directly to the viewer, but instead lets the viewer figure out on their own what the Citadel is, who the characters are, and what's important. It never really creates the idea that the plot should focus on these things, unlike Katana ZERO.
Additionally, the worst moment of all in the game comes at the end of otherwise awesome level Chinatown. Chinatown is one of the most badass and interesting levels in the game, with plenty of narrative weight to it. Then, suddenly, the samurai is cornered by a massive police squad. I was rearing to have a go at these guys, and ready to start slicing and dicing.
Then the men in masks rear their ugly... masks, I guess, again. They offer you a choice: You may become the bearer of death to all around you, in exchange for living, or you may die to save the lives of others around you. I chose, of course, to die. I knew better than to assume the narrative wouldn't punish you for your actions, even if said actions were just living. They also imply that the samurai is condemned if he chooses to live, due to taking Chronos, to a prison of his own mind.
Choosing to die meant nothing. It sends you back to the menu screen, questions unanswered, and then forces you to come back and do it again until you choose to live. It goes from clever to Spec Ops: The Line style guilt-tripping, which is unfortunate, because I thought it was written better. Still, though, there's plenty emotional and narrative weight, especially since you now know that the little girl is in danger.
However, the next few levels are, to be blunt, a slog. They are difficult, not unfair, but so hard that they take you out of the moment with annoyance and frustration. Finally, once you're done, you find yourself in a legitimately awesome boss battle with a fellow NULL, another psychic. However, you never catch the real Dragon, you never get answers as to who the men in masks are, you only learn tidbits about the faux-Vietnam Cromag War, and many of the more screwy sequences are left unexplained. You are left on a cliffhanger, as the samurai, now known to be called ZERO, returns to his apartment, only to find that the little girl is missing, and that she may never have existed. He returns to the office of the therapist, and, depending on your ending, either beats him to death, being called a "fucking subhuman" or faces off against a secret boss as the therapist uses war chemicals to light up his own psychic powers and go toe-to-toe with ZERO in a genuinely thrilling, exhilarating fight.
Then... it shows you the "shocking twist" that the protagonist killed innocents and children in the Cromag War... which they pretty much fully confess early on. Then we cut to the men in masks with the little girl, wounded and/or dead. I, at least, have a hard time dealing with this. The samurai isn't in any condition to help, either, dosing up on Chronos in the therapist's office, and possibly entering a locked-up braindead state like other Chronos users.
To reference something that does this better, I will aim to the internet punching bag Undertale. While known for its rabid and often "difficult" fanbase, Undertale established meta narratives and remade them into a respected form. While it didn't innovate everything it has, it redefined them in a way unlike Spec Ops. Undertale permitted you to choose, and only guilted you if you chose to be evil. As opposed to games like Spec Ops and Katana ZERO, where it railroads you.
Now, as a DM, I know a lot about railroading, so I know the second I'm being told to feel a certain way, or act in a way my character isn't meant to. Among other things, the game clearly becomes pretentious after, by refusing to answer even basic questions like, "Who are the children in the bunker" that you find after killing the final boss. It never properly explains who the men in masks are, and leaves itself as sequel bait.
Had Katana ZERO admitted it's Katana ZERO: Act I, it would have solved many of its problems. However, what's worse is how it not only guilts the player, it tries its best to create suspense as the little girl is kidnapped and possibly killed, but also implies she might be a hallucination. It piles so many unnecessary twists onto barely answering the necessary questions, if at all, that it ends up less of a trippy, meaningful narrative, and more like they didn't write an ending.
What was a GOTY contender became one of my biggest disappointments of the year thanks to the writers' tendency to add more mysteries instead of answering old ones, something that many writers do nowadays. It doesn't keep things tense. By the end, implying that the little girl is a hallucination, never properly confirming anything about the districts or city, never stating the samurai's employer, and leaving with the idea that the game will have three major factions at war, and the knowledge that the real Dragon, Fifteen, is also going to die very soon, it never properly finishes its story, and becomes pretentious.
A shame, because it was one of the most engaging experiences in its first half. In particular, I'd like to run through its best moment: The interrogation. The interrogation sequence stands out as the most creative scene in a game that I have played in years. Essentially, V, the villain, has ZERO tied to a chair. At the end of the sequence, he blows his brains out and orders him decapitated. However, each time, since it's a vision of the future, ZERO learns something new, until he finally breaks V with words, forcing the sadist to throw a tantrum and leave like the manchild he is.
It's a shame the game chooses to, rather than use its strengths in the form of its chronological order and roleplaying elements, railroad the player into the role of Villain Protagonist, and leave the player with only the promise of a sequel to tie them over, as it had been promising. Its use of time and messing with game mechanics is beautiful, and borders on perfect, possibly the magnum opus of indie games' creative use of conventional video game storytelling.
Another difficult part to deal with is how far the game pushes "But Thou Must" upon the player. The railroading comes to a head when I, who played as a good person who just had a bad job, was forced to have the samurai admit "When I kill, it's the only thing that makes me feel alive" as if I had played him as a bloodthirsty psychopath who slaughters everything and everyone in his path. The game becomes linear, with few choices. The moment I chose to live and sacrifice the little girl to continue, I immediately tried to send her away rather than go out and get some movies for her, knowing that she could get hurt. She just keeps asking until you say yes. Thankfully, nothing bad happens.
The rest of the game presses on like this. I would have loved the opportunity to continue playing ZERO as a good man, but the game railroads you into playing it as viciously as possible, brutally beating the therapist to death, and not letting you choose anymore. While this has been used well in other games, most notably Undertale, this isn't for any commentary on anything. The game doesn't even really present you with binary choices anymore, merely forcing you through it. You just... lose control of your character part of the way through, and it feels less like it's a choice, and more that it was to save on time. While I firmly believe in directorial and artistic integrity, I also firmly believe in the idea that one should be allowed to criticize, especially since this feels like a haphazard and sudden choice. It also removes replay value, as I planned to do two runs: One moral, one evil.
There's also not much incentive to play evil on a first run. Only after discovering the AKIRA-style secret boss did I try playing evil, and holy heck, is replaying many story sections the same. Other than the receptionist sequence, nothing really changes. I respect that that's meant to illustrate that, but the receptionist sequence is so incredibly interesting that I felt like the game could have used more scenes like that.
Despite all this? Katana ZERO deserves all the praise and 10/10 ratings it's gotten. Katana ZERO is creative. It has flaws, yes, but those flaws are the result of attempting to create a unique narrative. We should have more games like Katana ZERO: Games that miss the mark on achieving exactly what they want narratively, but only do so because they made unique stories and wanted to tell them. Katana ZERO tries very, very hard to tell a unique and ambitious story. In the end, while it may not have worked out, a lot of drive went into the telling of this story and the creation of Katana ZERO. It may not be perfect, but I'd rather have imperfectly unique than perfectly crafted normal.