Another well-regarded game that has made the transition to Xbox One and straight into Xbox Game Pass has arrived, this time in the form of Katana ZERO. Having received plaudits on PC and Nintendo Switch, it has arrived day one on Game Pass. Is the hype worth it?
Katana ZERO plays a lot like Hotline Miami, at first glance anyways. It subverts the top-down view of Hotline Miami into a 2D side-scroller view, but it still has you running amok through levels, killing anything in your sight. It is also set in a neo-noir world, but New Mecca has a much more explorable backstory than its inspirations.
Very little is known about the protagonist you play as when you first jump in – so much so that my primary worry during the first couple of missions would be that each mission is a copy and paste just with a different target. You play as a katana-wielding assassin – who when anyone asks is dressed in cosplay – that undertakes contracts to take out people. Usually that will involve arriving at a destination and despatching a lot of gang members too, but it is nothing you can’t handle.
Your katana is your main weapon; it can slice and dice but also deflect bullets with a well-timed swipe. You can even pick up your own projectiles to throw at enemies. These can be bottles, axes or, later on, a Molotov cocktail. Katana ZERO does a good job of targeting the one you are intending to throw it at too.
You have the ability to slow down time and dodge roll incoming attacks. There doesn’t seem to be anything peculiar about these abilities, but they fit into the plot of Katana ZERO expertly. Everything in this game has an explanation, and for a 4-5 hour game – at least on the first playthrough – it is incredibly fleshed out.
Early on, you will discover your protagonist is prescribed a drug called ‘Chronos’ that not only allows him to slow down time, but also predict the future. This comes in useful, as you will die a lot.
Everything in Katana ZERO is a one-hit kill, both to you and your opponent. It creates a trial and error approach to levels; if a plan doesn’t work, the only penalty is that you need to try it again until you get it right. But of course, a perfect performance in a room where you kill every adversary was down to the fact that you can “predict the future” and knew what was going to happen beforehand.
It isn’t just to avoid enemy attacks, being able to predict the future. It is utilised in a variety of ways that keeps you second guessing what is coming next, in the best way possible. You could be trying to get information in an interrogation scene – where you are the one being interrogated – or predicting the winning outcome at a casino. It all works, and it all fits in with this dark undertone.
Zero – our protagonist – records every contract he undertakes with a VCR; they take no pleasure in the killing, it is to analyse and learn from.
When not on a contract, Zero will head home to their apartment in a rundown part of the town. Their neighbours on one side are constantly partying, whilst on the other side lives a little girl. Katana ZERO features real-time conversations that you can partake in with other characters, but there is usually an option to interrupt them if you are in a hurry. Or just want to be rude.
Zero also suffers from some crippling nightmares and discusses them with a psychiatrist – the same psychiatrist that administers their Chronos and hands out contracts.
All these plot elements fit together in a brilliant story. As a tale, it is constantly leaving you second guessing what is occurring. The best example I can think of is that bit in Batman: Arkham Asylum where it crashes and reboots itself, but this time the Joker is delivering Batman to the asylum. Katana ZERO is that exact moment but repeated a dozen times, each time leaving you more intrigued than before.
Accompanying all this is a truly gorgeous synthwave soundtrack (which Zero listens to on a cassette when doing their killing sprees), and amazing pixel art. This is not necessarily present in the character sprites so much, but the environments outside of the level areas – places such as the bar, video store and Zero’s flats – are exquisite.
Much like Katana ZERO’s story, many of the game’s 22 achievements are shrouded in intrigue and mystery. Indeed, many aren’t for reaching certain parts of the story, and are instead for discovering things off the beaten track. Thankfully though, there is a level select where you can replay areas and sections of the game once you have completed them for the first time.
Katana ZERO on Xbox One and through Xbox Game Pass offers another simplistically violent video game at first glance, but before long the game starts playing with your perceptions, and by that point you are invested until the conclusion. And with several different endings and speedrun abilities to unlock, you could find yourself coming back more than once. All this combines to ensure that Katana ZERO is another brilliant addition to Xbox Game Pass.