Katana Zero (PC)

I’ve become somewhat notorious over the years for my dislike of art games, specifically games that use their artistic pretensions as an excuse for crappy-to-nonexistent gameplay. But let me be clear, if someone made a God Hand 2 with the same quality gameplay wedded to a woke storyline, wonderful! By all means, bring your SJW politics into my videogames, as long as it plays well.

Katana Zero (Steam)seems to be a developer’s intentional attempt to stretch my art game philosophy to the breaking point. Because Katana Zero has really good gameplay, but its arthouse pretentions threaten to smother that completely.

Fast-paced action swordplay!

It’s a 2D side-scrolling action platformer take on the Hotline Miami formula. You and your enemies can instakill each other in one hit, so death comes suddenly and often, but lives are infinite and respawns quick. However, this game is easier than Hotline Miami for two reasons: one, you have an invincibility roll, and two, you have a fast-refilling bullet-time power that allows you to, among other things, slash enemy bullets right back at them. Once you get the hang of it, tearing through the game’s levels is a thrilling ride as you seek the most time-efficient way to sail through a particular gauntlet of death.

But no sooner have you finished the first level than you find yourself slowly strolling through your crappy apartment drinking tea, then having a nightmare, then sitting down and having a long conversation with your shrink about said nightmare, and holy crap what happened to the fast-paced exciting gameplay?

Wait, what? Did I load the wrong game by accident? Where’s the “skip cutscene” button? What do you mean, there isn’t one?

This is the game’s loop. Fast action gameplay that’s over way too fast, then the pacing lurches to a halt for timed conversation trees that require you to wait a few seconds before making a non-rude answer. And even sometimes if you want to be rude, the game still won’t let you skip the talky parts, you get stuck in a “but thou must!” loop. Then the game shakes you awake for more action gaming that goes by too fast, then it’s back to talking. And as the game goes on the talking gets longer, the action shorter, and dream sequences start interrupting the action. It’s as if the designers wanted to make a visual novel but were dragged kicking-and-screaming into making an action game.

Now I don’t want to oversell the action parts of the game. They’re very good, but other games have done this kind of gameplay better. The game uses Abuse-style WASD-mouselook controls, but aside from the occasional one-use projectile pickups it’s a melee-centered game, so the mouse aim does nothing but unnecessarily complicate the controls. The presence of an invincibility roll kinda makes the bullet time powers redundant. If you roll immediately when you encounter an enemy, no matter their attack you’re probably safe and now they’re wide open, (this could be the reason the action parts seemed too short to me).

At least the talking parts look and sound good. The synthwave soundtrack is excellent and there’s an incredible amount of love put into the animations and sound effects in the game’s many cut scenes. Screenshots do not do this game justice.

But in my opinion the plot wasn’t compelling because, like the pacing, the tone is all over the place. One minute you’re listening in on conversations between enemies that lampshade they’re all clones of a handful of archetypes, the next minute the game’s exploring the depths of PTSD. So weird to pour so much love and work into a trashy pulp storyline that can’t decide on a tone.

How can you go from goofiness like this…

…to seriousness like this?

And that’s Katana Zero. A perplexing mix of fast gameplay and unskippable virtual navel-gazing, ping-ponging between the two extremes more and more frequently as the game goes on. It’s what I’ve always asked for in art games and proves the monkey paw nature of my wish at the same time.

Let me finish with some suggestions of games that did Katana Zero’s gameplay systems better:

Bleed 2 is an Abuse-style mouse-WASD platformer with bullet-time powers and deflecting (some) bullets with a sword, but doesn’t trivialize the powers with an invincibility roll, instead requiring you to weave your way between bullets with a triple air-jump/dash.

Dead Cells is a fast-paced 2D action platformer with an invincibility roll that works and a strong sense of momentum, with lovingly rendered animations and a great soundtrack.

Finally Heat Signature is a take on Hotline Miami with bullet time and other various time control and teleportation powers but featuring a wide variety of enemies and environmental obstacles that make all the powers in your toolkit absolutely necessary to survive.

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Mischief Maker