Katana Zero is a game published by Devolver Digital. That could usually suffice for an intro to this kind of game, but I’ll run through the check-list anyway:
- Pixel art style: Check
- Fast moment-to-moment gameplay: Check
- Hyperviolent: Check
- Thumping soundtrack: Check
- Bizarre story which is intriguing but can easily be a confusing mess: Check
This isn’t to say these elements are bad at all. Hotline Miami is one of my favourite games ever, and Devolver knows exactly what it wants when it picks up these indie properties. So how does Askiisoft’s debut fare among the rest of Devolver’s catalogue?
Slice & Dice – Nice
As previously mentioned, gameplay can be summed up in an elevator as “a side-scrolling Hotline Miami”. However, this is a disservice to the fine work that has gone into this to craft a thrilling action adventure, which leaves very little room for breath among its short set piece levels.
These missions can be thought of as a collection of hyper intense action segments, broken up by moments of admiration for your own work. The gimmick here is that, as you go through these levels, your character (The Dragon) can manipulate time, slowing to a crawl to plan future movements, deflect bullets and avoid security lasers. This makes you feel like a badass whilst playing, but really pays off following the completion of each section at which point your actions are replayed back to you in real-time. This is extremely rewarding, and is what keeps me coming back to the game even after the credits roll.
How awesome can I make this look? What if I rolled under his legs and take out the other soldiers before cutting off his confused, stupid face? Can I throw that Molotov cocktail through the front door, then drop from the roof and clear out the rest of the guards? Heck yes, you can, and you will record videos of the final run for your own personal enjoyment, probably.
These action sections ruled, and as every review will tell you, it feels just like Hotline Miami, which is a massive compliment. There are also different gimmicks to help break up the 8-ish hour long campaign, such as vehicle and stealth segments which offer enough variety from the main campaign to keep things fresh. This means the whole experience flies by and never outstays it’s welcome.
Hold the Phone
The story, similar to the gameplay, is interesting, fun and mysterious. The premise and world which has been built here is one which I want to see explored in future DLC packs, or a sequel, there is certainly potential here. The idea of exploring these neon-soaked streets in further instalments would be awesome, with the addition of more districts, dystopian technology, something really special could be developed.
The issue arises from how the story is delivered. The pace slows down to a crawl, the breakneck speed of active gameplay is cut short by long narrative scenes of being in a psychiatrist’s office or on the phone with your employer. Sure, these contain dialogue choices, but they are of little consequence other than “do you want to play the last level?”.
The story was great, but the delivery is where it stumbled. It feels at odds with the frantic gameplay loop which is established. Perhaps this could have been rectified by the sections being shorter and sprinkled between action rather than having long slogs of dialogue, followed by awesome action, then returning to long narrative sections. It pulls you away from the main draw of the title for just a little too long and becomes quite frustrating.
The soundtrack is excellent too, full of moody beats which really get you into the zone of a ruthless assassin, as you see the character flick on his Walkman before embarking on a killing spree. Something which I hoped to see more of was each antagonist having their own musical style. Certain boss characters cause the entire music landscape to shift when they are on screen, such as the cocaine-fuelled drug-lord V, who is always accompanied by some obnoxious drum and bass track usually reserved for McDonald’s carparks and the underside of public bridges in 2004. It really works and helps add personality to these foes. I hope this is continued if “Katana One” is in development; perhaps bringing in a metal music fan, or an antagonist who favours classical pieces, could be wicked.
Overall the soundtrack is great at providing atmosphere. I haven’t hunted it down outside of playing like I did with Hotline Miami’s offering, but it works and I really dig some of the tracks. A standout for me is Hit the Floor by DJ Electrohead, it’s on Spotify, check it out.
Cut to the Point
The game is excellent by most accounts, but like I have mentioned, the narrative sections can kill the pacing a little due to their length. However, the moment-to-moment gameplay is excellent fun, and for about £14 you can’t really go wrong if you have a weekend free. It is an easy recommendation if you liked Hotline Miami, and I’m excited to see more instalments from this franchise, more music, more action, more time-bending nonsense.