Some people love a punishingly hard game. I don’t. I appreciate a challenge when it’s given to me straight. But pure video game masochism presented as difficulty has never struck me as anything except self-indulgent, for both the game and the kind of player who enjoys it.
So with my opinion brazenly written on my sleeve, let’s talk about Katana Zero.
Being vaguely aware of the game as a member of the ultra-fast, ultra-violent, ultra-pixelated school attended by titles like Hotline Miami and Dead Cells, I picked it up on sale for the Switch. (It’s also available on the PC.) And based on that description, I got exactly what I was expecting…up until about the last third of the game.
Measure Twice, Disembowel Once
Katana Zero is a side-scrolling, hyper-fast 2D action game. You play a guy with a sword. The game is incredibly pleased with itself in terms of the story. I am less so, so I’ll spoil the setup for you: he’s a former soldier who was experimented on with some crazy perception-altering drugs, so now he has both precognition and enhanced reflexes. In gameplay terms: you can instantly redo a level because you’re just “planning it out” until you win, and also, there’s a slow-motion meter.
Now he assassinates people at the whim of a shadowy organization that orders him around via his psychiatrist-slash-drug enabler. Also, there’s some slice of life stuff before and after every mission—prepare for strangely insistent button prompts to drink herbal tea.
Each stage is a set of interconnected rooms, wherein you must kill each bad guy to progress. One hit kills the baddies, and one hit (from guns, swords, fists, etc.) also kills you. It has that instant respawn mechanic popularized by Hotline Miami and Super Meat Boy, and the dodge-roll-bounce-strike feel that a lot of side-scrolling, combat-focused games do. There are only a handful of enemy types—your standard bruiser, slasher, rifleman, shotgunner, shield dude—but each one requires a different approach. After a couple of missions, nearly every room has combinations of enemies that mostly require a careful plan and some serious twitch skills to get through. And if you don’t, a re-do is just a second or two away.
When you’re in the thick of it, the combat feels good. A highlight is the ability to deflect bullets back at shooters, which is tough in real-time but easy in slo-mo. That slow-motion mechanic can get you out of a scrape or two, but if you’re overwhelmed, you’ll soon find yourself low on psychedelic drugs and heavy on unwanted ventilation. You can slash in any direction, with a bit of momentum to add to the platforming, and a handful of additional items like remote bombs, smoke grenades, and throwing knives mix things up with a single use.
The game excels in its midsection, like a yoga instructor with a crippling addiction to situps. When you’ve got a handle on the movement mechanics, enemy types, and geography, combat can flow smoothly from one section to the next. Get the timing down, and you can start flinging bullets back at bad guys Jedi-style without even needing to use slo-mo.
A Tongue-Twister You Can Play
It’s more than gratifying enough to get you through to the next bit of story, where the game slows to a crawl to deliver a bit of exposition on a supersoldier-altered perception-amnesia-government conspiracy plot that’s been cobbled together from a handful of very recognizable tropes. Katana Zero sticks it all in an extremely pretty pixel art game with the now-familiar “graphical glitches represent crumbling sanity” trick, which even casual gamers will recognize as worn out. Aside from a level that integrates a chase scene with a fun (and much less punishing) throwback to the vehicle sections of Battletoads, the story never engaged me at all.
And that wouldn’t have bothered me much. The stories of Dead Cells and Hotline Miami failed to grip me, too. I’d have been fine with just playing it out if the last third of the game didn’t rely so heavily upon the conclusion of a dull story to keep you going…because the gameplay doesn’t have any new tricks at that point. Eventually, there are no new enemies, and Katana Zero just stretches out its one-hit-and-you’re-dead levels to insane lengths to up the difficulty. It spawns tons of overlapping bad guys and throws in rather contrived instant kill lasers and smashing columns, things that would be more at home in Sonic the Hedgehog, as blatant stop signs to your progress.
By the end of the game, even the level geography seems to have given up, and you’re just fighting an increasingly lengthy series of linear rooms, repeating the same actions until you can perform them all perfectly. It’s the gameplay equivalent of a tongue-twister that goes on for an entire page, and you can’t turn it until you’ve nailed every syllable. I realize some people see this kind of punishment as a plus, but I’m not one of them.
Sheath the Sword
After about five hours and a shamelessly cheap “final” boss, I concluded the story. “Final” is in quotation marks, because there’s a new area that opens up after the credits, and a little Googling tells me there’s a real ending I haven’t seen yet.
Frankly, I don’t care to. I’d wrung all the fun I could out of the admittedly fun combat, and I sincerely doubt I’ll get any more fulfillment by upping my frustration enough to grind past an even cheaper last challenge. Call me a quitter if you like, but I’m a quitter who has more fun games he can be playing.
I paid a tad over ten bucks for Katana Zero, and while I won’t go so far as to call it a bad game, I’m glad I didn’t pay any more. Difficulty and the enjoyment thereof is a subjective topic in games, especially these days, when “git gud” is a hardcore badge of honor. But I think there’s a fine line between a satisfying challenge and a repetitive slog, where the game shifts from testing the player’s skill to testing their patience. Katana Zero crossed that line.
Here’s What We Like
- Great slo-mo 2D fighting
- Beautiful pixel art and animation
- Chill music that doesn't distract from combat
And What We Don't
- Slow, uninspired story
- Little enemy and room variety
- The finale of the game drags on and on