Combine Hotline Miami with a time machine and you have Katana Zero, a neo-noir action-platformer that is so much more than it originally appears.
From the good folks at Askiisoft and Devolver Digital, this 2D side-scroller tells the tale of Zero, a samurai assassin who must kill anyone that a higher power tells him to. In essence, you're 'working' - without the pay - for a person, or organisation that arranges contracts for you to eliminate. This person also seems to be your therapist. At this stage, the player nor Zero really knows why. Zero has amnesia, he can't remember a good portion of his life, again, we don't know why. We're led to believe it's due to an accident during the war. Only time will tell. Which is ironic because time isn't really a worry in Zero's life. His amnesia is being 'treated' by an experimental drug by the name of Chronos, instead of helping his amnesia it instead grants him with infinite life and the ability to manipulate time.
In Katana Zero combat is the most important factor, it's fast, fun and somewhat repetitive, but don't let that deter you, it's not a bad thing. It's only repetitive because you can't fail a mission. Die, and you rewind time to the previous checkpoint, taking with you the knowledge of your previous attempt. You see, each and every level is made to be experimented with, which is why each level can be completed in many different ways; whether that be taking a different route or using a different weapon to defeat a certain enemy, the choice is yours. It is completely a trial and error experience and I love it. The game features 'Instant-death' combat meaning you get hit once, and you're dead. No life bar, no second chances. It also means that your enemies die in one hit also, well, most of them do. Zero's main weapon is his katana, which is incredibly fun to use, it slices through people like they're butter but can also bounce back enemy bullets. Extremely helpful when there are 5 baddies with guns staring right at you. You can also pick up secondary items to help you along the way; bottles, lamp shades, remote bombs. Lots of things to help you along your very messy journey. Oh, and what's better? Each completed level is played back to you afterwards on CCTV! Take notes!
One thing better than the gameplay is the way the narrator tells the story. Let me tell you, I was hooked from the get-go. The dialogue is instantly gripping, not only that but you also have dialogue choices for Zero. Do you want to interrupt a character mid-sentence? Sure. Would you rather be completely rude to everyone? You can! Making these decisions also has certain effects on the story of the game. For example, Zero always dresses as a Samurai should. I found myself trying to explain my costume to a puzzled receptionist as cosplay from a very unpopular anime. Why was this important? Flash forward 5 minutes after I have just slaughtered many people, covered in blood and being questioned by a suspicious police officer. Who saves the day? The receptionist! Telling the police officer how only a few minutes earlier I was explaining my outfit to her. The officer let me go. Unlikely, but it happened. That's just one example. The story is brilliant and as you progress, the more you unhinge from reality and the more unreliable the narrator gets. Who do you trust?
As I stated earlier, Katana Zero is very similar to Hotline Miami, in terms of gameplay with the added ability to rewind time. The main difference being, instead of Hotline Miami's bird's eye view, this one is side-scrolling. But the mechanics are the same; the way you throw objects, how you can knock out an enemy by opening a door they're standing behind. It made Katana Zero feel familiar to me and I liked that but it also 'one-upped' Hotline Miami with the added abilities to dodge and manipulate time.
Katana Zero looks like something from the 80's sci-fi era and it looks stunning. It's crazy how much detail you can cram into a 16-bit art-style. You can see facial expressions, blood splatters, shadows, everything really. This attention to detail only made me more captivated to the story. Just like the graphics, the game's soundtrack is extremely 80's, 80's techno to be precise and as you can imagine, it suits it perfectly. It makes all the disgusting violence feel less... disgusting.
Katana Zero is retro to its core. The graphics, the soundtrack, even at points during the story where it feels like you have encountered a glitch. It's great. Selecting a chapter to play through is in the form of VHS Tapes which is then put into the machine. It's the little things that make me happy, I guess.
My one and only gripe with Katana Zero is its length. The initial story is fairly short and can be completed within 4-5 hours. Obviously, there is an opportunity to replay the game to change how you react in your narrative, once you know the main storyline. That's it, the only bad thing I can say. That's pretty good if you ask me.