Katana Zero - Review

Author: Davide "Shea" Mancini
Date: 2020-07-30 17:03:18
Katana Zero presents itself as the classic title designed to have the blessing and the precious Devolver Digital label. She is a creature born after six years of obsessive obsessiveness on the part of her deus ex machina, Justin Stander, supported by the artistic collective Askiisoft, and proposes the union of frantic action with a retrowave aesthetic, for a cocktail that smacks of Drive, Hotline Miami and John Wick, mixed, with ice and served in a side-scrolling variant. A mix that, however pleasant it is on the palate, has that very small contraindication that if the individual ingredients are not perfect, it risks having a flavor that is not particularly original.

Fortunately, very little is needed to feel the uniqueness of Katana Zero, despite a start in medias res which serves to generate an almost destabilizing adrenaline and which does not allow acute reflections. Justin Stander's concept of side-scrolling action stems from an interesting assumption: what makes the heroes of action movies lethal and invincible? The ability to always be aware of one's body and enemies, to have a clear sequence of moves to be made to avoid a tragic fate.

There are those who do it through training, some through supernatural qualities, but the result is always the perfect choreography. In video games, this concept often clashes with the traditional trial and error loop, the path of necessary passion that the videogame player takes in search of the clear path. Katana Zero solves this contradiction by resorting to a simple narrative stratagem, which is not original in absolute terms, but effective: the protagonist of the game, following events that become clear during the course of the adventure, has an altered perception of time, and is able to to fathom the future to analyze the behavior of enemies and find the best way. In this way the different attempts become only possible futures to be discarded, while the perfect execution is the only viable reality. The result, in the aesthetics of the game, is a continuous flash forward and rewind effect of VHS from death to death, with a replay of each level after completion.

On this assumption Katana Zero can allow herself to build a gameplay with a particular structure, where the individual levels (within twelve larger chapters) are real schemes of the past where you have to get rid of the enemies in a limited time. To accompany the crazy rhythm of the action there is an incredibly intuitive immediate response control system to master, which in a short time allows you to dance among the enemies dispensing slits, rejecting bullets and exploiting the (many) elements of the scenario as occasional repairs or ranged weapons. The altered perception of time is also useful for slowing down action, a fundamental resource for unraveling some levels that require the expertise of an action game and the painstaking planning of a puzzle game.

The result is that soon you enter into total communion with the protagonist, in an emotional and almost lysergic trance that allows you to reach almost unexpected results initially, to be enjoyed in the replay in all their plastic scenicity. There are almost echoes of SUPERHOT in the way we begin to memorize patterns and draw perfect trajectories, between light trails, neon to find the perfect harmony, while a soundtrack of gargantuan beauty, which brings together synthwave in a non-trivial way, dubstep and more melodic episodes, it gives a perfect comment entering the scene with a simple and familiar gesture, or the pressure of the play button on the protagonist's walkman, an initiatory rite to kick off the carnage of each chapter.

If in the basic elements the gameplay of Katana Zero is that of a refined action with solid principles, it is in the details that Askiisoft has built a much more complex and layered scaffold. After the first mission, in fact, the rhythm drops hand in hand with the music and you enter a whirlwind of different nihilism, built with the writing of the cutscenes and the dialogues that go beyond the gender clichés to tell a surprisingly human story, made of post-traumatic stress, empathy and a sense of helplessness, well represented by the psychoanalytic sessions that we are required to live with the protagonist.

The dialogical system is one of the fluid ones, which give a short time horizon to interrupt the interlocutor or to respond between different alternatives. The choices do not drastically change the course of events, but are sufficient to shape the personality of the protagonist and the perception of the story based on our ideas. Then let's be clear, Katana Zero does not lose too much in chatter and the scenario is the brutal, dystopian and depersonalizing one of a generic cyberpunk made up of corporations, class society and extremely unscrupulous characters. Yet in the six hours of play (necessary to finish everything 100% and see the two endings) one remains glued to the screen also to discover some more details, to get answers and to build a relationship with the only non-player character who it seems to guarantee a minimum of mental peace to the protagonist's psyche destroyed by war and drugs.

If the cut scenes are the moments when Askiisoft's VHS travels in slow motion, the structure of the twelve chapters is a sudden escalation of surprises and complexity that draws a curve that is never too steep and capable of guaranteeing a constant challenge. There are many variations on the theme, ranging from the intelligent use of depth of field in a couple of circumstances, to levels where platforming, stealth or even pure arcade spirit elements emerge (level on the spotted motorcycle!). However, it is the relative freedom with which each scheme is faced that always gives a lot of satisfaction, given that the search for creativity far exceeds the frustration that can occasionally appear in some situations where the way out is mandatory and requires perfect timing. Only towards the end the design of Katana Zero loses a shred of refinement when it relies on the classic hordes of enemies of increasing difficulty, but also in that case there is the effort, appreciated and not required, to justify everything through writing.

Paradoxically, it is the story driven nature that penalizes the game to a minimum. The experience is designed to be lived as a single narrative journey, where action and storytelling are balanced in their own way. Once the adventure is complete, however, there is no real reason to replay the individual levels, if not to look for some keys to unlock weapons other than the katana. The variation is certainly nice, but it is not accompanied by any form of score or change of difficulty. In short, given the elegance with which the game normally rewards the creativity of execution, there is a bit of a lack of a time attack or similar mode to have further reasons to return to the unhealthy, but fascinating, world of Katana Zero.

Despite this, the title of Askiisoft is a splendid example of how hyper kineticity and violence can be contextualized in a refined and rigorous way at the same time, and how even the classic genre elements can be easily reversed thanks to original reading keys and brilliant writing. For the rest, the obsessive attention to detail, a sufficiently personal artistic style and an absolutely perfect price (€ 14.99) give further prestige to an impeccable work.

I played Katana Zero thanks to a Nintendo Switch code provided by the developer. It took me about six hours to complete the main story and recover the bonuses to unlock additional weapons. During my experience I have alternated the portable and TV modes without experiencing major differences, preferring the one in mobility despite the readability of some situations is sometimes not perfect. The game is however also available on PC, via Steam.