It’s usually pretty difficult to get into the flow of things when demoing a game on the show floor; chances are you’ve been on your feet for a long time, you’re tired, and there are hundreds of sounds assailing you from every which direction. So when despite all those obstacles a game just ‘clicks’ immediately, you have something special on your hands. Such was the case when I played Katana Zero at PAX East this past weekend. The way it presents its setting, the way every movement flows effortlessly into each other, and the way it puts on a performance all added together to leave one of the most lasting impressions of the show.
Death is a Hair’s Breadth Away
Katana Zero is a 2D action-platformer where you play as a samurai hitman. Every enemy dies in one hit, but so do you. The demo consisted of three stages, each with a “target” to be assassinated or rescued in the end (I wasn’t quite able to finish the third stage within my time limit). Each stage is made up of a series of rooms that has to be cleared of all enemies, then safely traversed in order to progress.
The moves at your samurai hitman’s disposal are simple, which contributes to the intuitive nature of the game. You can jump, slash at foes, pick up and throw objects at them, and dodge roll out of danger’s way. You also have the ability to slow down time, which is useful to for slashing bullets back at enemies or timing your rolls through the blades of a spinning fan.
While Katana Zero is clearly an action game, it also feels almost reminiscent of a puzzle game. Assessing the best approach when entering a new room then executing on it provides an ebb-and-flow to the action. Failure is an inevitability with how tricky some rooms are, but refining your strategy to attacking here instead of dodging there makes success all the more exhilarating, especially when that hard work is played out before you.
You see, your hitman never actually ‘dies’ in Katana Zero; instead, the gameplay takes place in his mind as he simulates potential outcomes of a room in his head. When you finally clear the room, you’re treated to a sequence of the hitman going through it in that exact way, minus any time slowing you may have used while playing. Every slash has an appropriate weight behind it, and every deflection a satisfying “ping!” that results in a beautiful ballet of death. It’s like being given a tiny trophy for your achievements — but don’t worry, you can skip these sequences if you’re in a hurry. For example, maybe you just want to see what happens next in the story.
Navigating Inner and Outer Demons
Katana Zero is more than just a well-oiled action-platformer. It also has an intriguing narrative told through an interesting storytelling style. At the surface level, you’re simply an assassin living job to job, but there’s a dark past bubbling beneath, which is gradually uncovered through therapy sessions (of all things) in between missions.
The therapist will ask you questions about your life and missions, and you’re normally given three diverse options to choose from as answers. What’s unique about this conversation system is that you can attempt to cut him off mid-sentence at many different points. A red meter fills up, indicating just how long you have to to do this before it progresses to the normal dialogue options.
In my case, I was much too kind; I let him finish his sentences, for which he expressed gratitude before giving the hitman his “medication.” The way the therapist reacts to your answers combined with the effects they have on the samurai’s psyche make it clear that these talks will have ramifications on the plot down the line, and I got to see a small example of this in the second mission.
After entering the hotel where my target resided, I was stopped at the receptionist’s desk as she asked about my peculiar attire. After responding that it was a kind of cosplay, she immediately launched into a resounding speech professing her love for the anime medium. Prior experience with such individuals in my life told me that this could go on for a while, so I tried to cut her off. Her demeanor immediately changed as she became red-faced with annoyance, so I meekly let her finish before I was finally let into the hotel.
When I dispatched my target on the rooftop, I made my way back down to the lobby, where a hostile guard interrogated me, demanding to know why I was covered in blood. When I again answered that it’s cosplay, the receptionist chimed in to agree with me. The guard, while still suspicious, let me pass without any more altercations. In other demos, I saw that the receptionist was “eliminated” as “collateral damage” due to those players’ “lack of discretion,” so your choices have very real consequences on the world.
Talking to the developers at AskiiSoft, they said that Katana Zero started off as a game without a story, but as they began to implement and refine the narrative, it eventually evolved into something they are proud of — despite being the source of their greatest development challenges.
When they discovered a hole in the plot, they wouldn’t simply try to shoehorn a new cutscene in to fill the gap; they would go the extra mile and create new levels and rooms in order to provide context for those new developments. The past two or so years the game has been in a constant state of “almost done” as new plot holes have been discovered and addressed. This level of attention to detail was apparent even during the few cutscenes present in the demo.
With addictive gameplay and the signs of an engrossing story, Katana Zero has all the makings to be an all-killer, no-filler, dopamine-inducing adventure. After finishing my demo, all I wanted to do was keep playing more, which is simultaneously the best and worst feeling to have on a show floor. Fortunately, we don’t have to wait long, as the Katana Zero is releasing on PC and Switch on April 18th.