Let’s talk about Souls-like games. There are plenty out there from developers big and small and it speaks to FromSoftware’s legacy that many teams have tried to replicate the success of the Dark Souls series, with many great games releasing as a result. Whilst it might be seen as copying, it is the nature of truly great titles that they inspire waves of games with their own interpretations of the formula. We’ve seen it with the original Doom, and even recently we’re starting to see how developers have been creatively inspired by The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
That approach is clear in Katana Kata, an indie souls-like in which you play as a katana-wielding apprentice who is sent by their master to hunt down their previous apprentices, fighting numerous enemies along the way across five levels in third-person, slow-paced combat. Each level climaxes in a boss battle against the aforementioned apprentices.
On the surface, there are plenty of presentational aspects that work in favour for Katana Kata. The game fully embraces its Japanese setting, with levels taking influence from all sorts of traditional architecture such as the classic pagoda, numerous sliding doors and even Japanese bath houses, providing a visual sense of authenticity. The best of this comes in the form of the visual effects the game has which, whilst small and rudimentary, are surprisingly good at giving the game a visual flair at points. Water in the lake level is still yet takes on a blue hue, flags ripple in the wind and the game impressively uses torches and other sources of light to create some wonderful interplay of shadows; it is this which is Katana Kata’s most impressive visual feature.
There’s always a sense that the presentation is doing its best at drawing the player into the setting from all sides, with the score also doing a good job of this; strings being emphasised massively in the melodies. The strings do achieve a presentational and auditory serenity that contrasts the other brilliant degrees of sound design. Blades clash with impact, metal crashing against metal with ferocity that gives intensity to the combat. A small detail, but one that does give some genuine intensity for the combat encounters.
So whilst the presentation is doing some nice things, it’s ultimately about the gameplay. This is key for any souls-like and is unfortunately where Katana Kata has some problems; problems that instead of making the game a tense, tactical action affair where combat is intense and rewarding, deeply frustrates and ultimately doesn’t do enough to educate the player. This concept is key in any Dark Souls game – have attackers with specific rhythms, with mechanics such as the lock-on feature, the control of the camera and parry mechanics all giving the player control over how to engage enemies. These games aren’t inherently just hard, they are difficult but give you tools to help you navigate encounters, hence why they don’t feel unfair.
This is something that Katana Kata really struggles with and it is unfortunate because you can tell there’s a great game in there, somewhere. It has plenty of weapons, each with different durabilities which encourages the player to try new weapons and switch up their loadouts. There are even perks to give players an extra slot for a health bottle or bonuses to specific attacks. That is helpful and does give the player something to think about strategically. There’s even a nice Nightmare mechanic where once killed, the player can fight a nightmare version of themselves that respawns with their perks and current weapon.
However, when it comes to actually engaging enemies, it’s innately frustrating. For one, the game does have some bugs in its scenery which can result in enemies being able to hit the player through walls. And there are even enemies that become invisible when the camera is turned on certain levels. For obvious reasons, it can be annoying to not just be hit by enemies through walls, but also when they’re invisible. These bugs can extend to some disappearing walls and music not playing.
Bugs aside though, Katana Kata uses a circular zone which the player uses to engage enemies. Any enemies in the circle are locked on to by the player. This should give the player control over how to engage, but it lacks that. For one, the controls for expanding the circle are not fine, so trying to get the zone to a specific point is fiddly and without any options to change the sensitivity, it doesn’t allow the player to separate enemies effectively. The zone also passes through walls so at times your character will be focusing on enemies they can’t attack, as they approach the desired target.
More concerningly, there isn’t a manual lock-on and your character will lock on to the closest enemy, which can change if multiple opponents engage at once. The lack of control here makes any close-quarters fight far more tricky as the player cannot effectively plan how to fight or adapt quickly when engaged by multiple enemies at the same time. Doing this makes every confrontation with multiple enemies difficult, not through having challenging opponents that test, but through taking options away from the player.
Additionally, enemies come with some attacks that are unblockable which the player must dodge or parry. That is fine and a nice wrinkle to add, however these are signposted with an icon above the enemy which appears inconsistently. This inconsistency isn’t across different enemies with different timings either; it appears across the same enemy and this can cheat the player who tries to block an attack only to see the sign at the last second as opposed to the usual times where the sign appears as the attack animation commences. This extends to boss fights and makes one-on-one boss fights controllable, yet any boss fight with multiple bosses becomes increasingly tricky to navigate as they take place in more enclosed spaces and.
Furthermore, whilst the camera does a good job of removing some interior walls to prevent obstructions to the player’s vision of the action, some objects and infrastructure seemingly don’t. An early bridge on the Lake level and upper ramparts on the Castle level create some items that get in the way; something which hurts a combat system that focuses on timing.
Again, it’s a shame. There’s a strong visual identity to Katana Kata on Xbox and a clear idea here of using weaponry to create varied combat situations. Unfortunately, inconsistent fighting mechanics and a lack of player control really hurt the overall grind, as its moment-to-moment gameplay is more aggravating than awesome.