Thursday, April 18

Review: Katana ZERO [Nintendo Switch eShop]


With games that get featured in Nindie Directs it’s always interesting to see how the initial excitement that can be generated from only seeing them for a few fleeting moments translates into success or a letdown ultimately. For as many that deliver the goods when they hit the eShop there are also quite a number that fail to deliver on their perceived promise. Katana ZERO was an absolute standout when it was shown, but given the nature of its gameplay questions began to form in my mind over whether its stylish mix of planning and execution would hold up over a few hours of play. Throw in the intriguing moments after the battle with the character talking to their therapist and it seemed like the game would either deliver something unique and exciting, or at least go down in a glorious blaze of ambition. While an opportunity to spend some time with it hands-on at PAX East were exciting worry about repetition was still in my mind. I’m happy to say that having seen the final credits roll it has made quite an impression on me and if you can hang with its challenging play and craziness there’s a whole lot to love about it.


The most crucial aspect of ZERO is its core gameplay which is often difficult, but is also smart and often creative. You’ll need to get a feel for the rhythm of things, whether slowing down time at just the right moment to save your skin while conserving your gauge for when things get tough, or how to grab an object while you dodge roll and then immediately hit an enemy with it before they get a chance to fire on you. The beauty of the action is that it keeps evolving and throwing different challenges at you, whether that’s a matter of new enemies or level layouts and hazards that reward experimentation. With the possible exception of boss fights I don’t think any stage once you get past the first few has a set way to best complete it. This makes replaying levels and not just surviving but also showing some personal flair kick in hard. You’ll need to work for your successes but that makes watching them replayed in slow motion at times all the more rewarding as you marvel over the insane sequence of individual actions you managed to chain together.


The other key component to what makes ZERO compelling is its very unusual, unorthodox, and at times hard to follow story. Without ruining anything your character is haunted by nightmares, visions, and ghosts of their past both imagined and in the flesh. What can be very unclear at times is which are which. Some of the story is conveyed through sequences both from the past and present, and others afford you an opportunity to make choices that will affect how things play out. Whether you’ll get an easier or tougher path through a level or are taken down slightly different narrative roads will vary, but while you can skip through dialogue I would suggest not doing so as you’d be missing out on a major component of what makes the whole experience unique. Even through to the game’s final moments who or what is real and what it all means are very fair questions, and this seems to be the intention as the door is left wide open for a sequel. I just hope that it manages to help bring clarity to a story that’s as interesting as it can be brutal in its violence.


In terms of concerns I don’t have many, but for specific types of gamers there could be issues. If you’re uncomfortable with excessive violence (albeit in pixel art form) or drug addiction it may be too heavy for you. If you have issues with flashing lights and intense colors the visual chaos in the game at times may also prove problematic. While I’d say everything in the game is certainly beatable if you’re prone to fits of frustration when the challenge gets cranked up just be aware there are spots where it will test your patience. Fortunately you’ll never lose much progress and since stages tend to have a fair degree of complexity your real problem may just be you’ve chosen a bad course of action and should try something else. It’s an excellent game through and through, but there are also elements that won’t make it for everyone.


Katana ZERO is absolutely one of the best games I’ve played this year and I’d be shocked it if didn’t end up in my Top 10 (and those of many others as well) for the year. While it is perhaps a bit too heavy to be a wide mainstream title, its constant focus on changing up the formula and never letting you get very comfortable is quite an accomplishment. Throw in a narrative begging to be revisited in search of greater understanding of all of the story beats and it also has a surprising degree of replayability on that front as well. As a whole it is an experience without a peer on the system and serves up a handful of hours of intense and creative insanity well worth experiencing.


Score: 9.5

Pros:
  • Intense, smart, and creative action sequences that continue to surprise throughout
  • A story that’s consistently bonkers and that sucks you in as you try to make sense of it
  • The characters and dialogue choices have a variety of interesting effects to help make every decision carry some consequences

Cons:
  • If you’re easily frustrated this will push many, if not all, of your buttons
  • The subject matter gets heavy and intense, so it may be a bit much for some people
  • Visually things can get chaotic with a mess of colors and flashes, which may prove problematic for people who are sensitive to such things