The '80s was a decade that modern media seems to be overly enamoured with, to the point that it becomes almost tiresome to see yet another game or movie that makes its '80s influence a big selling point. Often, these works merely pander to nostalgia, going after the low-hanging fruit in an effort to widen the demographic that much more. Katana Zero is not one of those games. This is an excellently paced, continuously exciting, and endlessly stylish experience that proudly flaunts its '80s trappings without letting them overshadow the excellent action sequences and intriguing narrative, delivering yet another must-have experience for your Switch.
Katana Zero follows the story of a samurai assassin with a mysterious and fragmented past, employed by a shadowy organization that pays the assassin not with money, but dosages of a drug called Chronos, injected straight into the veins just prior to starting another assignment. Initially, things are normal as you follow a grim but consistent routine in which you’re administered the drug, issued a target, and kill the mark and everyone that gets in your way. Soon, however, new players enter the plot with ties to the samurai’s past, specifically to a Vietnam-esque war he took part in, and your perception of what’s real and what isn’t becomes diluted as the drug and your withdrawals from it make it increasingly difficult to separate the past from the future.
The plot is exceedingly well-paced and genuinely surprising at many turns, and this is due in no small part to the active role that you take in just about every cutscene. When a character is talking to you, a small bar quickly fills up either as they talk or just after, and you have to choose a response in that limited window of time. If you’d like, you can usually cut characters off mid-sentence, but every response will have a bearing on how that character views you and ultimately change the direction of the plot. For example, an early scene sees you stuck talking to a secretary on the way to a mark and you can either be nice to her or stonewall her and pursue the mark single-mindedly. However, a later scene during your escape involves her once more, and depending on how you treated her, the level unfolds differently.
It’s rather impressive just how powerful the emotion behind the narrative can be, too, which stands as a testament to both the excellent writing and animation. Encounters with homeless veterans, little girls, innocent bystanders, and sadistic lunatics ensure that your character is given a wide range of experiences in which he can be the bad guy or the good guy, and given your active role in how he responds, the consequences can be surprisingly hard-hitting. We especially appreciated how often the game manages to turn a seemingly predictable encounter on its head, or how it artfully selects certain scenes in which you’re not given a choice and are forced to do terrible things.
Though the gripping narrative is an enormous part of the overall experience, much of your playtime will be spent in side-scrolling action portions that end up feeling like a cross between the style of The Messenger and Hotline Miami. Every level is comprised of multiple screens, and before you can move onto the next screen, you have to kill everyone on the current one. You do this by doling out cold vengeance with the edge of your blade, but your samurai is far from invincible; he’s the very definition of a glass cannon. In just about every case, if you get hit once, you have to do the entire screen over again from the start, constantly trying new tactics and approaches until you get it perfect.
Given the number of enemies you face, and the fact that most of them are armed to the teeth, this single-minded focus on perfection would seem to be too tall an order, but it’s perfectly balanced out by the Chronos pumping through the samurai’s veins. A big plot point throughout the narrative is how Chronos grants its users the gift of precognition, so every level you’re playing is actually the samurai gazing forward through time and planning out the perfect murder route through scores of guards. Bearing this in mind, you can slow down time at any point by holding down either of the left triggers, bringing things to half speed and giving you a lot more breathing room to block bullets with your blade, dodge roll past enemies, and the order in which you dispatch a room full of goons. This ability is limited by a bar that slowly refills when not in use, resulting in each stage being an exhilarating dance of jumping between slowed time and normal speed as you carve a bloody path through each stage.
Naturally, more enemy varieties and stage hazards are introduced as you move forward in the narrative, and though your samurai’s ability set remains static throughout, it’s quite satisfying coming to grips with the controls and becoming capable of surviving incredibly difficult enemy encounters. A big part of your survival is dependent on throwable weapons and items scattered throughout each stage – such as lamps and firebomb grenades – and as you encounter new level designs and enemies, you get a much better feel for when to throw an item and who to throw it at, along with the most efficient places to slow time. Despite the relatively simple control set and straightforward combat encounters, Katana Zero proves itself time and again to be on the bleeding edge of style and tight design; every level is a heart-pounding rollercoaster of action and thrills, punctuated perfectly by well-directed cutscenes that keep the plot moving forward at a brisk pace.
It bears mentioning, too, that there are a handful of immaculately designed boss encounters at key points in the narrative that prove (unsurprisingly) to be among the most memorable segments of Katana Zero. Just like the rest of the game, these battles demand no less than absolute perfection but having to endure lengthy brawls against foes with diverse, multi-phase movesets and a comparatively deep health reserve can be a harrowing experience, not to mention the story implications that these duels often carry. While it may be that we would’ve loved to have seen a few more boss fights in Katana Zero, every boss encounter here is meaningful, challenging, and sure to motivate you to replay long after the credits have rolled.
We’d be remiss to not mention the audiovisual presentation of Katana Zero, which stands among the most stylish and memorable that we’ve seen yet in a sidescroller of this ilk. Katana Zero is heavily inspired by '80s imagery, with neat touches like how the screen believably warps and jitters like an old VHS tape at key moments, or how 'PLAY' appears at the top of the screen when the game ‘replays’ every successful clear of a screen. On top of this, the sprite work is second to none, featuring neon-infused, detailed and colourful sprites that convey a surprising amount of emotion and animation considering the limited canvas being worked with. And though the environments you fight through are generally all summed up as being dimly-lit hallways, we appreciated the ways in which levels shook up the visual imagery, with standout sequences such as a contract in which you stalk your way through a lively nightclub, or a job that has you cutting your way through various sets at a movie studio. There’s even a minecart level, for all you Donkey Kong Country enthusiasts out there.
Katana Zero also features an absolutely stellar collection of synthwave tracks that all but steal the show in places, infusing the razor-sharp action on screen with electrifying and pulse-pounding beats that perfectly match the vibe. It’s not too often that you hear a soundtrack that’s both so focused and so willing to experiment with obscure genres, and we appreciated the composers’ willingness to go to new places with this soundtrack instead of falling back on the easy and cliché chiptune music that dominates the indie scene these days. And though much of the music is fitting to the action-heavy hallway fights, there are plenty of slower tracks that match the more emotional or intense story moments. Much like how the samurai pops in a new cassette and dons his headphones at the outset of every level, we’d encourage you to play this one with some earbuds in; it’s well worth it.
It bears mentioning that Katana Zero, while stellar in its action and style, does clock in at a relatively low runtime; this is about a ten-hour game on the high side. However, we’d argue that this is something that actually works to the game’s favour; every level is so expertly laid out and carefully crafted that the high quality remains consistent throughout, to the extent that there aren’t any notable dips or lacklustre sections to be seen. Katana Zero is a game that’s all killer and no filler, and given the focus that many contemporary games place on padding out the experience to be as long as possible, it’s refreshing to play through a game that gets right to the point and knows when to quit while it's ahead.
If you haven’t gleaned it already from reading up to this point, Katana Zero is unmistakably a game that you need to add to your Switch collection at earliest opportunity. The tough, hair-raising action sequences, gripping narrative, and impeccable sense of style elevate Katana Zero high above many of its peers, cementing it as a modern classic that sets new standards for what a side scrolling action game can be. This is the kind of game that you’ll blindly play through once and soon find yourself wishing you could have that first-time experience again; there’s nothing else quite like it on the eShop and we can’t recommend it enough.