Once again I find myself needing to make the Hotline Miami rant. Many indie games want to be Hotline Miami. I don't blame them. It had amazing gameplay, style, and art direction that combined into one super impressive package that can't easily be imitated. Hell, even the developers themselves couldn't manage it considering the game's iffy sequel. My first moments with Katana Zero (the new neo-noir action platformer from Devolver Digital) had me worrying that I had just started another Hotline Miami wannabe. Thankfully, I wasn't just proven wrong. I was completely blown away by how good it is.
Katana Zero has you playing as a mysterious samurai who's given the nickname of "The Dragon" by the media. Addicted to a dangerous drug, given assignments to kill various high-profile targets, and seeing visions of two men in masks, Dragon finds himself in some rather strange situations. Surprisingly captivating, the story manages to pull together the perfect level of mystery and drama to make paying attention well worth it. Dragon is far more interesting of a character than I had originally thought, and the supporting cast is equally great. With a cast that includes Russian gangsters, electronic DJs, angry super soldiers, and a little girl that loves monster movies, there's a bunch of characters I could connect with.
Manipulate Time to Unravel Katana Zero's Story
Sadly, this is also where the greatest blemish on Katana Zero lies. Just as the plot is starting to hit its most interesting moments, Katana Zero pulls a Halo 2 and abruptly throws "To Be Continued" on the screen. It didn't feel like a natural conclusion that was built up to, it felt like the game just stopped. While I hope there will be sequels to continue things, the story as presented here is simply not finished. In fact, none of the plot strings are. By the end of the game, I had answers to very few of the mysteries started here. Further down the line, if sequels do get involved, it may not matter, but on its own, it's a noticeably terrible ending.
There's a hoard of armed and trained enemies between Dragon and his targets, and all Dragon has is his sword. Thankfully, he also has one ability that helps him through the levels. The Dragon can see the future. What you're playing isn't actually what he's doing, but one of the many paths he could possibly take, and upon successfully completing a zone you'll get to watch your playthrough back. Is it just a story excuse to have checkpoints and a rewind aesthetic? Yeah, totally. However, it's an excuse that works well, is visually appealing, and makes sense with the Dragon's skills.
Katana Zero's Dealer of Instant Death
Oh, man, does he have skills. You have a single attack that slashes in front of you, and this will instantly kill any normal enemy in the game. You can also use this to reflect bullets back at enemies, something that never ceases to get old. In addition to this, Dragon can pick up items in the environment to throw at enemies. For a while, these just serve as single-use one-hit kill ranged items. Later on, you're given options like remote mines and smoke grenades. Dragon also has a dodge roll that he's temporally invincible during, and the ability to slow down time for precision work. All of this combines into a skill set tailor-made for slaughtering enemies left and right.
Dragon has just as much vulnerability. A single shot or smack is enough to strike him down. Early on enemies will only come at you with fists and pipes, but as Katana Zero advances you'll be seeing assault rifles, shotguns, and shields as well. You have to be smart in how you take out enemies, utilizing the environment to assist you. Dragon can kick doors open to surprise or kill enemies, and more than once I found ways to lure them into laser traps. The latter always made me smile. No matter how you plan and execute your strategies, you're going to still die quite a bit. Thankfully, respawning is lightning fast and zones are rather short, so this is never frustrating.
Katana Zero's Fast-Paced Boss Encounters
There's also the occasional boss fight, a welcomed addition to the proceedings. One has you dodging a giant man who swings an ax around, requiring you to wait for it to leave his hand so you can hit him. Another has a woman with a laser gun, jumping in the air and taking sweeping shots at you. They're frantic fights, and some of the personal highlights for me. I had a great time with each and every one. In fact, one of my few regrets is that Katana Zero only has a handful of these encounters at best.
Whenever I start worrying about gameplay getting stale, Katana Zero changes things up in interesting ways. One level saw me playing as a different character who could perform a dash that doubled as an attack, cutting everything between two points like a dramatic samurai movie. Another had me driving down the highway on a motorcycle, avoiding cars and slashing at other motorcycles. They're not all winners, the stealth segment isn't great but at least it isn't mandatory, yet I had fun with the vast majority of them. Overall, it took me in the range of 5-6 hours to finish Katana Zero and the game never felt stale in that time frame.
Katana Zero Review | Final Thoughts
It was also always beautiful. The absolutely fantastic pixel art gives characters and backgrounds a ton of detail. Everything comes together with fluid animation that absolutely sings. At times I would just stop to watch little events. I'd marvel at just how great the expressions and body language were on each character. Fantastic, mood-setting songs fill Katana Zero's killer soundtrack. The fact that every level tells you what song is playing is a boon since I want these songs on my playlist as soon as possible.
For the first time, it feels like a game has seen Hotline Miami, decided to try their hand at a unique spin on it, and succeeded. Instead of direct imitation, Katana Zero takes the style and some cues from the gameplay and spins them off into an entirely new beast. It's fantastic, a joy to play and behold. There are enough good ideas that the game could easily have added a few more hours to its runtime and I would still love it all the same. If you're looking for your next high adrenaline frantic gameplay fix, then this is the game you've been looking for.
TechRaptor reviewed Katana Zero on PC via Steam using a copy provided by the publisher. The game is also available on Nintendo Switch.
- Great Characters
- Awesome Boss Fights...
- Fantastic Central Gameplay Loop
- Great Variations to Gameplay
- Beautiful Graphics and Soundtrack
- Story's Abrupt Ending
- ...But Not Enough of Them