Going all in to earn that Mature rating with style.
The Nindie revolution on Switch has many advantages, one of which being a steady stream of titles we would never have seen on a Nintendo platform otherwise. Katana Zero earns its Mature rating proudly, featuring no shortage of blood splattering across the screen as well as frequent and heavy drug use. The vulgarity is not without purpose. It’s unique experience and successful capturing of the spirit of the 1980s has it stand out of the ever growing eShop catalogue.
What exactly is going on at any given time during Katana Zero can be a complete mystery. Each of the 11 stages plays out in a similar fashion: a little bit of story is revealed, the katana-wielding maybe-samurai assassin kills a whole lot of people, and a little bit more story that’s dependant upon your actions completes the level. Multiple playthroughs are needed to get a good grasp on what happens since so much is vague and many of the levels have multiple endings. Mysteries remain by the end, which are perfect for water cooler discussions but if you’re someone who hates loose ends you’ll likely be left disappointed.
Although Katana Zero has a similar look to some recent popular 2D action-platformers, the feel is decidedly unique. Each stage is broken down into individual sections that require the assassin to kill all the enemies without taking a hit. An assortment of moves are at your disposal to take out the bad guys: a large sword to slice down enemies and reflect bullets, the ability to roll to dodge projectiles, a wall jump to take the high ground, and the power to slow down time for easier reactions. In a unique one-off mission, a second assassin also features the ability to cut down baddies in a straight line, a power that is so fun to abuse you’ll wish the character was featured in more than a single level.
Thanks to the use of a drug that allows the assassin to predict the future, whenever an enemy lands a hit the section of the level is reset for another attempt. This mechanic gives each area the feeling of solving a puzzle. If a particular enemy continues to get the upper hand you have limitless attempts to figure out a winning strategy. Once you’ve defeated the enemies the sequence is then replayed, representing the true reality. The replay is necessary for the storytelling aspect but becomes an annoying delay that I found myself skipping at the end of each section.
In addition to the over-the-top combat, a unique dialogue mechanic is employed to create multiple storyline branches. How the assassin reacts in a conversation is your choice. Dialogue with NPCs can be cut off entirely with the option of cursing out characters mid-conversation. Sometimes it just feels good to tell off your enemy instead of engaging with them and helps provide incentive to replay missions in order to see all of the endings.
The aesthetics are quite pleasing so long as flashing lights and blurred images don’t result in headaches. Each mission can be replayed by selecting the corresponding VHS tape in the main menu. The timelines of the level feel like you’re watching them on an old TV, especially since transitions are reminiscent of changing channels on a CRT screen. It’s a neat feature but can wear on your eyes during long play sessions or if you’re sensitive to jarring transitions and flashing neon colors.
Completing each of the 11 missions only took a few hours but my playtime increased dramatically trying to earn each of the different endings. In so many aspects I was left wanting more. I want to play more as the secondary character, I want to understand the story better, and in so many cases I just want to know what the hell is going on. Katana Zero is such a wild drug-crazed adventure that I just can’t get enough of and I will continue to be getting my fix of it for weeks to come.