To make a kick-ass Katana pie you will need a cluster of pixels, a bathrobe, a freshly sharpened samurai sword, a shot of Chronos, two spoonfuls of Hotline Miami, one tablespoon of Super Meat Boy and a pinch of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. First, mix the ingredients together and prepare you CRT television to channel AV. Once settled, violently slam the mixture into your VCR until the tracking jilts uncontrollably. When it turns a blood red and piping hot in the middle, cleanly slice and serve fresh with a drizzle of John Wick and a nice cup of herbal tea. Don’t worry if you can’t get it right the first time. You always have the option to rewind and try it again, and again, and again.
Six years in the making, Katana ZERO is the passion project coined by the mind of Askiisoft programmer Justin Stander. Set in a dystopian neo-noir alternate reality, this pixel-perfect cut-throat tale has the player tearing through action scene after action scene, infusing world cinema martial arts with Quentin Tarantino small talk. The goal is simple. Slice down a room full of foes in one take using nothing but a katana sword and whatever props you can find. Every hit you take results in instant death, but while the numbers are against you, your blade is as sharp as a razor to even out the score.
Our sedated protagonist – who’s juiced up to the gills on a mysterious drug called Chronos – possesses the ability to slow down time itself as he chops his way towards eight directions of attack across twelve chapters of murder. This bullet-time mechanic is the main side effect of the drug which enables him to repel slugs back into the gut of his enemies. The only method of defense is a swift dodge roll that holds a few frames of invincibility when penetrating through the ball bearing shrapnel of a shotgun blast. The end result is a tight, albeit simple control system that leads into a trailblaze of satisfying swordsmanship.
The inspiration for the game’s dark, often abstract tones is clear. I saw moments of John Woo classics such as The Killer and Bullet In The Head bleed out across the screen in a sort of 16-bit era fashion. The idle chit-chat between bad guys reflects the Charlie Brown scene in Kill Bill, while callbacks to the scrambled mystery and ultra-violence of movies like Oldboy and American Psycho is heavily sewn throughout the plot. There’s even a shocking milkshake moment dragged straight out of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, all of which are loosely recreated into tiny pixelated squares of vibrant color. The game itself is a combination of both style and substance that resonates well with my own morbid taste of cinematic cultures. The whole chemical reaction of East and West beefens out the experience further to make something that is much more than a simple collection of obstacles to overcome in a Super Meat Boy-style fashion.
The core concept of the gameplay mainly revolves around perfecting kill streaks across dozens of small environments. Failing to do so will instantly pull the player back to the beginning of the area as the action rewinds to the starting point like a VHS cassette tape. Barging through the front door ready to parry the first shot back towards its sender is pretty badass in itself. To then grab a lampshade while rolling past (and ultimately killing) a knife-wielding thug, before the first guy chews on his own bullet, is another fist-pump moment. But launching that same lamp into the kite of yet another brute on the attack, then exterminating a whole building without receiving a single hit… well, that’s just bloody poetry in slow motion.
However, as much as I adored the multi-paths of dialogue choices, fantastic art style, witty humor, and stylish combat, it just didn’t feel like there was quite enough content to fully fill my appetite. The game is rather short with very little to do outside the main story besides collecting hidden key cards to unlock novelty swords. The difficulty only really ramps up during the second half of the game too, reaching a point where Katana ZERO really feels at its best. This left me pining for some sort of dialogue-free speed run option, or some form of challenge mode to truly put everything I learned to the test. Without them, there’s just something slightly missing. Something incomplete outside the cruel cliffhanger that the story left me with. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait too long to see what lies ahead for the future of what, otherwise, is an awesome game. Although, personally, I want to see a survival mode that replicates the tower climb of the Indonesian classic The Raid. That in itself would be the cherry on the top.
Regardless of whether or not you’re fatigued by the slew of pixel sprites representing the indie scene, it’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer quality and art style of Katana ZERO. Every tiny block is intricately placed in a way where the animation and backgrounds flow smoothly and burst with character. From superb lighting effects to the rotating perspective of skidding riot vans, the attention to detail here is certainly top shelf. Add in a wicked soundtrack and the visual filter of a badly filmed grindhouse flick to this, and you have a recipe for something truly special on both the eye and ears.
Katana ZERO may only last for a fist full of hours, but those hours had me rip-roaring into a frenzied dance of crimson in a formidable underworld of conspiracy, confusion, and grime. The cool ways in how the game takes a simple combat system and varies up the formula is something you really would have to see for yourself. If you’re like me and were in awe at watching Colin Firth during that infamous church scene in Kingsman, or that incredible choreography of Oh Dae-Su’s hammer scene in Oldboy, then get ready to go excommunicado and be sure not to leave anyone left standing.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Devolver Digital