Katana Zero Hands-On Preview – We’ve Met Before, Haven’t We?

“Look at my face. We’ve met before, haven’t we?”

Ominous words, spoken by an enigmatic, perhaps ethereal, being in a rubber chicken mask ring truer now than ever, as the pulsing heart of Hotline Miami has carried on in a new vessel. This vehicle of ultraviolence, stylised murder and pulsing synth beats is called Katana Zero, and it’s a familiarity is welcome to someone like me, who enjoys hurting other people a whole lot. It’s also published by Devolver Digital who is fast becoming one of my favourite publishers purely for their unabashed willingness to make literal blood money with these fetishised killing simulators.

As the neon signage settles onto the screen, Katana Zero doesn’t even try to mask the identity of its muse. It’s not here to pretend that it didn’t draw inspiration from the blood-soaked ballet that is Hotline Miami, though it doesn’t copy-paste the whole formula as Justin Stander’s samurai slasher does quickly forge its own identity. While Hotline Miami rendered the player more of a voyeuristic overseer of the blood orgy being carried out by Jacket, Katana Zero plays like a traditional, albeit punishing, side-scrolling platformer.

It’s fast and unforgiving and it’s a game you play screen by screen, not unlike Celeste. Much like that particular, more wholesome, indie darling, failure is going to come at you thick and fast. But fortunately, dying doesn’t mean being dragged back to the beginning of the chapter, or even the level. True to the game’s kooky home-video aesthetic, it rewinds you back to the beginning of the scene you died on to learn from your many mistakes. As a result of this, nailing any given scenario can leave you feeling omnipresent, gifted with earned knowledge of how to flawlessly navigate the bullet hell you find yourself in at times. Like Hotline Miami, it’s a fun exercise of trial and error though it’s the game’s undeniable neo-noir style that makes having your head blown off for hours bearable.

You assume the role of “The Dragon”, an assassin with quite a reputation of leaving scores of bodies in your wake. You’re tormented by nightmarish apparitions, brought on by significant memory loss, that are kept at bay with help from a shady psychologist who trades medicine for labour as you receive nightly dossiers detailing your next hit. When you’re not testing your reflexes, swinging your katana through narrow corridors, there’s a deliberate slow burn mood to these therapy sessions that is just unnerving. This tension is heightened by a ticking clock plot device that forces the game’s Delphic story along its tracks. As it all unfolds and unravels, Katana Zero reveals itself to be an incredibly intelligent, dark sci-fi that proudly walks the line of ambiguity and, though we’re only able to talk about the game up until its first real boss fight, it offers a mouthwatering prospect for expansion.

Where Hotline Miami was a direct social commentary on ultraviolence and nihilism, it’s hard to immediately spot anything quite so meta in Katana Zero’s plot to this point. Of the characters the game introduces early on, the ones that stick around (read as those who aren’t mercilessly butchered) are wonderfully complementary to our tormented hero. Though he returns to his apartment block each night with red hands, so to speak, he finds unexpected company in the little girl who lives next door. As that faux-paternal bond developed it began to feel a bit like The Last of Us, or even Logan, in that I wouldn’t let a damn thing happen to this girl because, despite hearing his sins listed on the nightly news, we hope our hero has got it in him to get this one thing right, and that’s one of the great subplots in Katana Zero.

Katana Zero adopts a breathtaking pixel art aesthetic that we see quite commonly in games like this and while it’s beautiful, it’s really the game’s slick and razor-sharp animation that help the art style really flourish. Though the game’s levels are often small corridors and multi-floor buildings that allow you to, with some degree of certainty, predict enemy behaviour, there are a handful of levels that open up and offer some truly memorable moments in the early-game. There’s a pulsing night-club level that I found unforgettable that sees you hide in plain sight on the dance floor, under the guise of a party animal, and slip by guards in one of the game’s few stealth offerings. Like Hotline Miami, all of the carnage unfolds to a number of ripper synthwave tracks that really create a fat, dark sound that underpins the game’s core goal of leaving no survivors.

Katana Zero is developed by Askiisoft and is expected to release on Steam in March.