Katana Zero: Do Ronin Dream of Synthwave Sheep?


Tell me again about the men in the masks…

Katana Zero was a title that, all things being honest I wasn’t entirely certain I wanted to purchase from the trailer alone. When I initially saw it I thought to myself “Fluid visuals, interesting soundtrack” but admittedly I weighed it against so many others in the genre, Mark of the Ninja, Shadowblade, to a lesser extent even Flint Hook and though the comparison may seem strange, Phantom Trigger. On the Nintendo Switch I own a lot of stylish, high-speed, slash/shoot them before they slash/shoot you limited health and resources titles.

Katana Zero’s trailer looked interesting, but I thought to myself “Do I need another one of these games?”

Another matter, I’m thoroughly soured on the “What happened? WHO KNOWS?! Debate amongst yourselves” and “Everything is darkness and misery and despair and there is no hope nor light and we’re all just monsters inside” manner of indie that is so thoroughly prevalent across the majority of offerings on tap. So, when I saw Katana Zero’s gameplay and a narrative that promised to be confusing and likely depressing from the trailer, I decided “I’ll wait for it to go on sale”.

Then I made the second best decision I could’ve made regarding the game. I watched a half hour of story on youtube and was hooked. Then I made the best decision; I bought the game. And let me tell you, I did not regret that decision in the slightest.

How best to describe Katana Zero? I’ll begin by saying the trailers don’t do the game justice. I don’t believe you can properly showcase Katana Zero, even its stellar combat, in trailer form. It’s the sort of game that’s difficult to describe because going in blind and following the protagonist on his journey is half the fun. But, if I were to sum it up, I’d say mix Blade Runner with John Wick, but give the hero a sword.

Katana Zero is a moodie cyberpunk-esque neo noir positively dripping with atmosphere, from the heavy rain and melancholy piano at the title screen to the very first kill. Katana Zero is an exercise in stoic loss with threads that call to mind The Man From Nowhere with a whisper of Lone Wolf and Cub. From the start you understand the protagonist known as The Dragon is a man detached from the world around him, a buoy adrift a pitch black sea. The protagonist is no mere killer, rather he is a force of nature, and like nature itself moves in an unfeeling manner obliterating whatever is unfortunate enough to find itself in his path.

The combat in Katana Zero is nothing short of pure excellence. As an assassin, the protagonist turns the eradication of his foes into a work of art. Perhaps it is here that I’ll point out, Katana Zero is obviously not a game for kids. Whether in the mature themes it discusses, the vulgar language some star players revel in slinging about or the ultra violence throughout both narrative and gameplay, this isn’t a title I’d play in front of the little ones. That being said, Katana Zero is not a game that revels in mindless gore for the sake of gore, either.

Moving on, the game employs a mechanic wherein all enemies die in a single swing of the protagonist’s blade (save some certain few…), however the same fate befalls our wayward samurai. As a result, the protagonist envisions exactly how he’s going to perform his kills; these take place in the form of your actions. Should he die, he simply concludes that his present plan won’t work and that he must decipher a new approach.

The plus side is that death is only the beginning, and it’s easy and quick getting back into the action. The downside is that no matter how long an action sequence is, failure means redoing that entire room. Katana Zero demands perfection from you, but only because it gives you the tools to attain it.

You will die. You will probably die a lot. But, what is brilliant about the game is that I cannot recall a single death that I felt was due to cheap design or poor programming. When you get shot, stabbed, exploded or disintegrated, it truly is simply because you need to play better. Now, with enough practice you can slash your way through like a whirlwind in the night, but our superhuman samurai (…cyber squad…I’ll see myself out…) is not without his tricks to make it easier on you. The protagonist is able to slow down time for handfuls of seconds and is completely invincible when rolling. Additionally, no matter how fast the bullets fly he’s able to reflect them back with a swing of his sword, and makes use of myriad weapons of opportunity in his environment as well.

Once you fall into a steady rhythm of dodge, slash, parry, riposte, and begin to understand which enemies will parry your blows you’ll settle into a beautiful dance macabre, rending the gangsters before you as chafe to be separated from the wheat of society. If I wax poetic regarding Katana Zero’s combat, it is because it truly is art in motion.

The only segment I truly felt was unfair was a stealth mission that required me to use a mechanic that I had never previously been introduced to, one that was not introduced in that level either. After spending around two to three hours failing this segment, I realized I could crouch under tables to render myself invisible as well. It made for a fun “aha!” moment, eventually, but I was more frustrated and ready to move on than anything.

So, let’s swing back to narrative. The story makes clear in the very first mission that our protagonist is suffering from amnesia as well as ambiguous nightmares of days long past. The day after each mission, after a mug of tea and some optional time watching the news, our protagonist will see his psychiatrist to discuss his nightmares and his overall state of being. During these segments as well as during cell phone calls while on mission you have the option to choose how you respond.

The game doesn’t feature a clear cut “paragon vs renegade” system, rather allows you to lean into the feel of things more than anything. In my past segments on intentional design and building a better morality tree in gaming, I mentioned that I feel the biggest problem with titles like Mass Effect and Dragon Age is the arbitrary “Kiss a baby or punch a kitten” options laid out before you. As a designer myself I’m constantly considering how to design better, more intentional and emotionally vested/interconnected systems. Ask my sister; I’m obsessed with design theory. One game I played a few years back that missed the mark but came close to manifesting this principle was Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters. The game is broken up between visual novel segments and tactical paranormal combat. In the visual novel sections it employs something of a “sense/feel” system; you’re rarely told to pick an arbitrary response, rather you pick what part of your body you wish to respond with and how you intend that response to be felt.

This could mean a popular girl is cruel to you and you can gaze hatefully, speak tenderly, even react with physical volatility. The problem with how the game employed that system is that not unlike Bethesda’s Fallout 4, what you said you wanted to do versus what your protagonist did often felt very disconnected. I remember one particularly mortifying moment where I used what I thought was “Speak/Friendly” only for my protagonist to interpret it as “Lick her face”…

Yeah, that didn’t end well.

Katana Zero employs something of a “how do I feel” more than “what will I say” sort of system. True, you pick from several pre-ordained responses, but each invokes more of how your protagonist feels about himself, the world around him, and the people he interacts with. This will at times alter the game in subtle ways while you feel locked onto the same paths as before, but other times will have grand, sweeping changes to the protagonist’s personality and how he deals with different individuals.

Katana Zero is home to a number of chilling scenes, whether in the ultra violent display of the protagonist punching a begging man in the face until he stops moving or in time slipping away for a second as you watch him do something else unspeakable even when you chose not to. Through careful decision making you’ll see that perhaps some of those events can play out differently. Other times however, you’re a stomach churned passenger on his dark descent into madness, because one thing Katana Zero never shies away from is the darkness its protagonist rallies against and struggles with each passing second.

One thing in design theory I adore is when gameplay informs narrative. I recall one moment that had me holding my breath in terror early on. I’ll speak in very broad strokes to avoid spoilers. Through gameplay I’ve seen my protagonist is able to kill without remorse. Through gameplay and choice I’ve tried to make him a better person. Through gameplay and narrative I had just witnessed him doing something horrible after through gameplay and narrative I’d made him do something merciful. And then comes a little girl onto the scene who bumps into him and insults him, and I held my breath with absolute fear thinking “What is he going to do? Just let her go home!”

I won’t spoil the scene, but I will say I was pleased with its direction, and as someone who has lost a child the narrative didn’t go in a direction that disturbed me, at least my two playthroughs didn’t.

But, I will say that Katana Zero is brilliant at building moments like that. And, there was one little scene when I watched the half hour of gameplay before purchasing this title that cemented my purchase. The player went through the simple routine, therapy, mission, tea, go to bed. Only when the protagonist went to lay on his couch time slipped for a moment and he was standing by the couch again. He goes to bed and the video ended.

That was the moment that I knew, truly knew, Katana Zero was going to be something special.

It’s extremely rare for me to purchase a title that draws me in and captivates me from start to finish. It’s even more rare that I buy a new title; as a Christian gamer it’s pretty hard for me to find games I want to endorse, and as a niche gamer I’m not wowed by 4K graphics and elaborate set pieces on switches and event blocks. As someone who adores redemption stories, noirs, punk aesthetics and synthwave however, I enjoyed how Katana Zero told the story of a man broken and falling into chaos and despair, having to make the choice are you going to be a better person and live outside of yourself, or are you going to become a monster?

Such is the question that faces us all.

Before we wrap up, a few more things. Katana Zero is excellent at making you believe it’s going to go one way, then wrenching you off in another direction. There are more than a few moments that had me going “Wait, what? Wait, who?! Waitaminute what just…NO WAY!” which is very rare for me in a game.

Additionally it is a title that has numerous whammies that will not only make you reexamine everything you’ve seen up to that point, but will also make you eager to play a second time as you begin piecing together the mystery and debating the reality of certain individuals and circumstances. I think I’ve put it all together, the story so far, but the upcoming DLC will prove whether I’m right or way off the mark. And amidst the warfare and trippy traverse through the mind and soul, there are quiet, tender, dare I say even loving moments of respite as well, depending on the kind of person you choose for your protagonist to be.

All I’ll say is “movie night” and leave it at that.

Last but not least, you cannot discuss Katana Zero without discussing the stellar soundtrack by LudoWic, Bill Kiley, Justin Sander, DJ Electrohead and Tunç Çakır. The moody synthwave, dour piano and mournful brass fits the game like a glove, and if you have the option of playing with headphones on I highly encourage it. As an artist I’m not that fond of being compared to other artists (it’s a personal pride thing, I don’t want to be the next so and so, I want to be the best me), but I will say from a place of complete praise that Katana Zero needed these artists the same way Blade Runner needed Vangelis; they go hand in hand and are part of the complete whole that is this beautiful neo noir that has you eagerly hitting retry, coming up with new strategies, wondering what horrible mistake you just made narratively speaking, relishing the quiet, tender moments, cringing at the darker ones, and staring at your screen echoing Louis Belcher saying “And then more? AND THEN MORE?!?!” when the credits roll.

Katana Zero is available now on the Nintendo eShop for the Nintendo Switch, and Steam for computer gamers. I played the game from start to finish twice on the Switch varying between docked with a pro controller and in handheld mode. I can’t recall any (unintentional) slowdowns of any note, nor did I experience any glitches or crashes the whole way through.

Do yourself a favor and take a walk on the synth side; Katana Zero will do many things in the five or so hours your initial playthrough will take you, but the one thing it won’t do, is disappoint.

-Eugene the Author