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Katana Zero Review: Tight, Mature Action Platformer That's A Hell Of A Good Time (Switch Version)


All I knew about Katana Zero was what I gleamed from its Nintendo Switch launch trailer. It looked like a beautifully-pixelated, action-packed adventure—and that sounded good to me.

Turns out Katana Zero is that and more.

I found everything I expected in this game. Lots of high-paced fights, a great soundtrack, and wonderful sprite work. But it was the things I didn't expect that impressed me the most from this game. So let's dive in and see why Katana Zero is a cut above the rest.

Gameplay

To me, gameplay is the most critical part of a game. You could have something with terrible graphics and a lackluster plot, but if the experience of playing the game is fun it will still be great. The best NES games prove this with Mario's timeless control scheme, or more recent classics such as Minecraft. On the flipside, a game with clumsy mechanics is likely to turn me away from the best stories.

And oh boy is Katana Zero fun to play. I mean, just look at this trailer.


You play as a sword-swinging samurai facing up against pistols and shotguns. Each stage involves dispatching every enemy on screen. But here's the kicker; there is no health bar. Neither for you or your enemies. One hit kills

Don't worry; you are given an incredibly satisfying set of moves. You can swing your katana in any direction, giving you a little dash forward. You've got a dodge roll that is invaluable since a single hit is lethal. If your timing is good, you can deflect bullets with your sword (bullets move just slow enough that this is tricky but doable). You can pick up objects and fling them at high speeds.

My favorite move of all is the ability to slow time down to a crawl. Your character is also slowed, so it's not like you get a crazy boost of speed—but the "bullet time" effect gives you the chance to react to very tricky situations. It has a charge meter that slowly replenishes, so you can't use it all the time. In the beginning I didn't utilize this much, but as the difficulty ramped up this became my saving grace.

Speaking of difficulty, to me Katana Zero strikes the perfect balance. The controls are tight and fluid, so when things get tough I don't feel like I'm fighting the game itself. A few levels in I thought to myself, "Man, this game is fun... I bet it's gonna get hard as heck later." A lot of games do that, and that isn't always a good thing—I've put down games that got less fun as the difficulty rose. But here the opposite was true; the harder the levels got the more I enjoyed it! It forced me to be more tactical and rely on my time-slowing powers, and it made me feel more like a badass for completing it.

This game does get hard, but not very punishing—which I think a lot of games could learn from. Dying "rewinds" time to let you try again, and the whole process is fast and fluid. There isn't even a loading screen after death, so you jump straight back into the action immediately. Combine that with fair checkpoint spacing, and I genuinely enjoyed the kind of challenge it presented. Dying doesn't break the flow of action, keeping your adrenaline pumping until you finally clear that impossible section.

I literally never stopped having fun from start to finish playing Katana Zero, and that is exceptionally rare. It's neither a long nor short game, taking about 5 to 6 hours to complete. But with how immensely fun these levels are, I'll be getting a lot more play time than that as I go replay it several times. 

Graphics & Sound

Put simply, I love when good pixel art blends with modern design. Games that are purely "retro-style" are great, but when you add screen effects and some 3D elements to it you get the absolute best of old and new. Katana Zero hits that mark, with smooth and fluid animations, well-crafted environments, and lots of special effects (so much so that they warn you to turn them off if you get motion sick or are sensitive to flashing lights).

The soundtrack is fantastic as well. The heavy synth beats match the flow of combat. In fact, I'm jamming out to some choice tracks as I write this review, and hearing it gets my heart pumping and reminds me how much fun I had playing. The sound design also does its job well; the sound of your blade slicing through enemies is satisfying, and the thud of an object hitting a wall feels weighty.

There's not a lot to say in this section, other than it's really good.

Story

Now this is where things get interesting. I don't really know what I expected from a game where you play as a time-manipulating, bullet-deflecting samurai, but I guess I thought the story would be as over the top as the concept was.

I was not prepared for a very mature psychological thriller filled with murder, torture, drug use, and lots of swearing.

Mind you, the plot is really good. It is constantly twisting and turning, and I soon found myself moving forward as much to continue the story as to keep up the action. But before buying this game, keep in mind the subject is very mature in nature. Not just blood and gore, which is fairly common in games like this. There will be heavy swearing, discussion of uneasy subject matters, scenes of torture... basically it felt like a really gritty R-rated movie. It makes you uncomfortable, and I think that's the point.

If you can stomach something much darker than the pixel graphics lead you to believe, the story here is really intriguing. I'm not going to spoil anything—except that it ends with a "to be continued" that leaves me desperate for a sequel. Not just for more action, but to see where this story goes. I have many unanswered questions that would make a sequel ("Katana... 2?" "Katana 1?") an instant buy for me.

Switch Performance

There's even less to discuss here than on the topic of graphics and sound. I played Katana Zero on the Nintendo Switch, and although I can't compare it to other platforms I didn't notice any issues with this version. Combat was fast fluid with all the effects cranked up, suffering no noticeable framerate drops. I played both docked and handheld (actually beating the really tough final boss in handheld mode), and couldn't tell any difference in performance.

The Switch version of this game is as good as you'll find anywhere. If you have a Switch, that's where you should grab this game.

Final Verdict

Katana Zero is a fast-paced action platformer with tight controls and satisfying abilities. It is challenging but forgiving, keeping the action going even when you die. It looks and sounds great with gorgeous pixel art and effects. However, the story is very mature, and definitely isn't for everyone. But if you can stomach a plot that warrants a hard R rating, the story packs plenty of twists and intrigue right to the very end. Although great on any system, the Nintendo Switch compromises nothing while allowing you to take this game on the go, making it a smart choice if you have the console.

I enjoyed every minute I spent with Katana Zero, so if this sounds interesting to you I highly recommend getting this game.

Have you played Katana Zero yet? What do you think of it? And what are your thoughts on games like this having a gritty, mature plot? Leave your opinions in the comments below!

Comments

  1. I've never heard of this game, but everything you described sounds great. I love when developers sort of experiment with platformers. I may just have to check this title out for myself.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, this definitely feels experimental—and one that works out very well. As long as you don't mind the mature tone, this game is very worthwhile!

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