Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?
Two years ago, David Lynch and Mark Frost brought the classic television series Twin Peaks back to television with a limited-series run on Showtime. While the original series balanced itself between small-town melodrama and the more curious elements that drove Agent Cooper’s prolonged stay in the city, The Return leaned hard into those latter plot threads, crafting one of the most dynamic pieces of television ever created. It wasn’t always easy to follow, and often times it wasn’t quite clear what was real and what was fake, but when that series wrapped up with Carrie Page’s scream, I knew in my soul I had just witnessed something spectacular, and that I wouldn’t be able to look at other television shows the same.
Katana Zero had the exact same effect on me.
Katana Zero (Nintendo Switch [reviewed], PC)
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Released: April 18, 2019
Talking about the story is a difficult task because while the overall plot doesn’t venture too far off the beaten path of what we’ve seen before, the way it’s told is something every player should discover for themselves. The dream-like nature of the narrative is open to many interpretations. For me, it’s a stone soup of influence, pulling from the works of Phillip K. Dick and Akira Kurosawa. For you, it might read differently.
Most of the game takes place in the Third District of a city reeling from the aftermath of a massive war. The protagonist, an unnamed samurai in a dingy kimono, is a veteran of that war, but in its wake he works as a contract killer. Several of the game’s dozen-or-so missions follow the same set-up: the samurai meets with his therapist, gets an injection of a mysterious drug, finds out who his next target is, completes the mission, then wraps up the day at his shitty apartment. It’s a story structure that works well for what Askiisoft is doing here, but the developers freely and routinely break this mold as the plot becomes more intricate and less grounded in reality.
Part of what makes the story so interesting are the dynamic dialog options. As NPCs talk to you, you have the ability to interrupt them with a curt response or wait until they finish for more reply choices. This isn’t like other games where you’ll have four responses available and you can go through each of them. You only get one shot and depending on your choice, you may learn something previously unknown about the samurai or inadvertently ignite the wrath of whomever you’re speaking with.
The gameplay is a lot more straightforward and unlike the dynamic conversations, offers an infinite number of second chances. The mysterious drug I mentioned earlier activates the samurai’s specific set of skills that allows him to be such a talented swordsman. Basically, he has the ability to rewind time. So anytime he gets hit — and it’s one hit kills in this game — he simply rewinds to the beginning of the portion of the stage and tries again. Every unsuccessful run is just the samurai running a simulation in his head, and every successful run that you watch back from CCTV monitors is the one he actually performed. It’s a neat effect and something the narrative puts to good use as you start to peel back the layers and discover just who this samurai is.
The action combat is fast, fluid, and something that easily injects itself into your muscle memory. The samurai strikes, jumps, slides, rolls, and wall-jumps with finesse. A single hit from his blade will kill most enemies, though some are well shielded. Most foes fight back with guns that can be overcome with the samurai’s time-slow ability. Another effect of the drug, you can slow time to dodge bullets or hit them with your sword to send them flying back at the shooter.
Most missions feature you going through side-scrolling stages that are split up in the small portions, so it’s really never a massive loss if you take a hit and have to start the section over. However, these portions in later missions can be quite complicated with many enemies to deal with and multiple ways to do so. There are several I died more than two dozen times trying to complete and the game adds a layer of difficulty to the process by not resetting everything 100% each time you do restart a section of a level. Not only do the enemy designs change, which is a small touch I absolutely love, but their placement isn’t always exactly where it was before. There’s never a big change, like restarting and finding all the enemies are right at the front door, but it’s enough of a difference to guarantee no two attempts are exactly the same.
What I love about the combat is, like the story, it never came close to overshadowing everything else in the game. The actual gameplay mechanics are quite limited, and anytime it can feel a mission is going on too long, Katana Zero takes a hard left back into the story-driven content. This is a well-balanced game with just enough one-off elements, such as a motorcycle level, a few unique boss battles, and one frustratingly short but clever use of the rewind mechanic, that it’s a fresh experience from the opening salvo to the final crushing twist.
There is far more I can say about how much I love this game, including the audial delight that is Ludowic and Bill Kiley’s soundtrack or VHS visual tricks the game employs as the narrative grows more fractured, but at this point, I’ve already gushed enough. It can be frustrating at times. It made me want to break my Switch in half. But even in its most aggressively exasperating moments, Katana Zero remains bleak, beautiful, bloody, and brilliant.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]