Katana Zero made a memorable entrance with its release date trailer in the spring Nindies showcase, as a stylish and brutal action game coming just around the corner. Though it is a tense combat game where every moment could mean certain death, it was the moments outside the combat that proved the most surprising in a hands-on at PAX East 2019.
The bulk of the game is the moment-to-moment combat we saw detailed in the reveal trailer (above), in which both you and your enemies are so deadly that a single hit means death. Stages are segmented into unique combat scenarios, with a rewind mechanic that starts you over. Within the fiction of the game, these various combat runs are your assassin’s sense of precognition, carefully planning which murder-chain will work. The subsequent security camera footage that shows your successful completion is capturing what actually happened.
It’s a gameplay loop familiar to fans of games like Hotline Miami or Ape Out, where each unsuccessful run is both a failure and a learning experience to build your knowledge base for a better one. The combat feels breathlessly fast, but I never found the deaths unfair. The action constantly compels one more try, a little faster, and with a little more insight.
You have a variety of tools at your disposal as well. The demo featured the standard swordplay as its main tool, as well as the ability to throw objects across the room, slam doors against enemies, and even cleverly use traps like lasers against enemies. One stage set in a dance club allowed blending in to the crowd to avoid guards. Enemies came in several varieties as well, from brawlers to fellow katana-wielders to security personnel with guns. In each case, a single touch means death.
Outside of combat, though, the game pleasantly surprised with story vignettes. The Dragon may be a deadly assassin, but he lives in a crappy apartment with noisy neighbors. He regularly speaks with his employer (and de facto therapist) about recurring nightmares in order to receive drug treatments. These story segments were a standout, because they added a darkly humor flavor and enriched the world.
What made these dialogue sequences even more refreshing was a time-based branching dialogue system. Allowing someone to finish speaking will often open dialogue options, which can help steer the story. Skipping dialogue is always an option, but it will mean you interrupt another character, which has its own consequences.
For example, to test the system I interrupted a receptionist constantly until she got angry. After completing my assassination contract, she was there waiting for me with a SWAT officer. I hadn’t smooth-talked my way through the interaction, and so when gunshots broke out in the stage, I had immediately become a prime suspect. After dispatching the officer, my employer told me the receptionist had been killed for my lack of discretion.
Game creator Justin Stander says the game is full of these branching dialogue options, and when you consider that merely interrupting a speaker to speed a scene along counts as a choice, the possibilities become shockingly complex. I was able to make choices that seemed to have impact when talking about the nightmares, which impacted the perception of the next one. Stander said that at one point another character can borrow your sword, leaving you to make do with found objects for part of the next stage.
Those narrative hooks are likely to keep me coming back and exploring different avenues, even as I struggle my way through its challenging combat. Sharply difficult games with a retro aesthetic aren’t usually known for their narrative punch, but this could be one to break the mold. It’s coming to PC and Switch on April 18.