Katana ZERO review – engaging but frustrating

I really like Katana ZERO. But I also want to hurl it at a wall.

The central idea is great. You play a samurai-style assassin tasked with taking down various contracts assigned to you by your shadowy paymasters. But the twist is that you have a form of precognition – so you can peer into the future and plan out your moves in advance. In practice, this means that if you die in level, time rewinds back to the start and you try again, but the time dilation also has much weirder implications later on. I’ll get to that in a minute.

Fighting is brutal and quick in Katana ZERO. Most enemies will die in a spray of blood after one swipe from your katana – but they can also kill you in one hit. And as the levels progress, you start to face enemies with guns and shields, and suddenly things get a whole lot more brutal. Luckily, you have a few more tricks up your sleeve. A click on the right bumper sends you into a roll that makes you invincible for a few frames of animation, while holding the left bumper slows down time, so you can react to fast-moving enemies – and even deflect back bullets using your sword. And can I just say, I’ve never felt quite as ninja as when I deflected a bullet with my sword for the first time.

You can only slow down time for a short while though, so part of the puzzle is working out when and where to use this ability. And as the game goes on the levels get more and more complex – they’re essentially massive puzzles where you need to work out the optimum route for taking down the bad guys.

“Right, take out this bad guy by busting down the door he’s standing behind, then go into slow-mo to deflect the bullet from the bad guy across the room, then roll to avoid the baddie coming through the door, pick up the Molotov cocktail and lob it at the barrels to trigger an explosion that kills the dudes on the next floor and… oh damn I forgot about that guy with the machine gun. Start again.”

And here’s the thing. I thoroughly enjoyed Katana ZERO for the first few hours, but at about five hours in – which I think is near the end – it gets seriously hard. I found myself restarting rooms dozens of times and having to memorise and repeat complex series of actions to get through each level. And quite often the very last guy would kill me, eliciting howls of frustration as I steeled myself to do it all again. In short, the game began to really piss me off – and I eventually gave up.

Which is a shame, because I really want to find out what happens in the story. The narrative is brilliant, involving veterans from a Vietnam-style war and a mysterious drug. Each level ends with a trip to see a psychiatrist, who also happens to hand you your assignments, and the mystery of your forgotten past is slowly pieced together along the way. I particularly love the dialogue options, too, and the way if you press to skip while the other person is speaking, they react angrily to the way you interrupt them. It’s a clever idea, and I’d love to see it used in other games.

The game gets really trippy and weird later on, even slightly creepy, and I was glued to the screen wanting to find out where all this is going. But, as I said, in the end my frustration overcame my curiosity. Perhaps those of a more patient disposition – and probably with quicker reactions – will get more mileage out of Katana ZERO than I did.

Still, the opening is fantastic, and I absolutely love the detailed, characterful pixel art. The way the protagonist slaps a cassette into his Walkman at the start of each level is just lovely. And the game can be funny, too, particularly in the conversations you overhear between bad guys. The saga of Strong Terry is one for the ages.

All in all then, a great, beautiful-looking game that just ends up being a bit too frustrating for my tastes.

Katana ZERO was developed by Askiisoft and publisher by Devolver Digital, and is available on Steam, Humble Bundle, GOG and Switch. We reviewed the PC version.

Disclosure statement: review code for Katana ZERO was provided by Indigo Pearl. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.