This article contains minor spoilers for Katana Zero.
In a world saturated with “live services,” loot boxes, and battle royales, something has been missing from gaming lately and now I know what it was: an incredible synth soundtrack and an urban samurai who can see all possible outcomes of any situation.
A side-scrolling action platformer in the pixel-art style of SNES games of yore, Katana Zero pits you as an assassin with a mysterious past. Throughout the game, you’ll be constantly dosed with a drug called Chronos by your psychiatrist slash handler during interstitial interactive cutscenes. While these doses aren’t a gameplay mechanic, they do forward the story as you find yourself without the drug on a number of occasions, causing hallucinations and disorientation. The drug gives you a unique perception of time, allowing you to try a level over and over again when you, inevitably, fall victim to your single-hit lifespan. As well, Chronos gives you the ability to slow down time–but only from your perspective.
Zero Katana frames this time mechanic as “planning,” with each run treated as a failed plan, and the final, successful run played back in real-time as security video. This initially feels contradictory as it suggests that you are planning for the future but then rewinding that plan. However, as the story goes on, other characters remark on your time-hopping and seem to suggest there is more at play than simple planning.
Katana Zero is hard and requires a lot of repetition; I am loathed to make any comparisons to Dark Souls other than speaking to its difficulty. In putting Katana in context of what it feels like, I’d place it somewhere between Dead Cells and Hotline Miami–between the incredible soundtrack and the beautiful artwork, those games come more to mind than punishing difficulty. While the game is, undoubtedly, punishing and difficult, each victory feels satisfying and earned. Each successful run after several failed ones creates a genuine sense of accomplishment and perhaps even a break from the game for the rest of the evening.
The original soundtrack is what brings the Hotline Miami comparison to the forefront, even more than the one-hit-death mechanic that both games share. Katana Zero features 34 amazing retro-electronic tracks that also feel reminiscent of John Carpenter film scores, particularly his early films, like Escape From New York, and that noir style Katana comes from. There aren’t any direct nods to Carpenter in the game, however there is a cute nod to Silent Hill that was fun to see.
The game is great on its own, but the soundtrack elevates Katana Zero to a whole new level. There’s a meta feeling to the music and the game’s retro style, in terms of setting tone and giving you a sense of time and place. There are several artists featured (all of whom add to the numerous reminders that I have no idea what is happening in music right now), including LudoWic whose name appears on most of the tracks featured. Most interesting is the fact that the soundtrack is, for the most part, diegetic, with the bathrobe assassin popping in headphones at the beginning of each level and a song credit appearing on screen. The music establishes the futuristic setting while still cementing the meta elements of the game in the era that it pays homage to, and I don’t know if it would be as strong a game without it. If you’re curious, the OST is currently available on streaming services, but you should just play the game and have the experience that way first.
The other most impactful piece of Katana Zero comes from its hallucinatory nature. So often, retro-style games feel straightforward, but Katana builds on the sense of unease that Hotline Miami featured with its bizarre masks, unreliable narrators, and dream logic. The way Katana demonstrates withdrawal from the Chronos drug throughout the game is disorienting and strange, with effects happening at various stages–including in the middle of gameplay–jarring you away violently into other scenes that you weren’t even aware you were a part of. That same sense that you can’t trust what you find in Hotline is present in Katana as well, played to a new level with tangible paranoia that creeps in. You begin to doubt what you’re seeing as the shifts away from reality become unpredictable. Katana Zero leaves a real sense of unknowing, making it one of the most unique of the new-wave retro games I’ve played.
There is nothing not to love about Katana Zero. Every victory is satisfying and feels well-earned, even after the 30th attempt when you feel like throwing your controllers into outer space. This is the most fun I’ve had with a recent release, so if you haven’t played Katana Zero yet you’re missing out on one of the best of the year.