This week, Yahtzee reviews Katana Zero.
I do enjoy spending the week trying out new indie games on Steam; brings back nostalgic memories of my childhood when I used to dive into the part of the canal near the sewage runoff pipes, and then have to spend the afternoon combing turds out of my hair. But every now and again, amidst the turds, I'd find a real treasure, like a used condom; the sperm bank would pay a whole 50p for one of those, once I'd finished chewing it. Man, it was great growing up upper-middle-class!
So it's mostly been a pixel art jamboree this week; first, I tried out Forager, a 2D pixel art twist on the survival crafting grind-'em-up genre that presently occupies the bed of gaming like a giant farting horse that won't stop hogging the blanket, which I played until I realized that being in a small environment smashing rocks is what you do when you're in a prison, but without the possibility of forbidden romance. Then I tried out Dark Devotion, another 2D pixel art twist on Dark Souls to add to the pile, which discovered that once you take the majestic scenery and sturdy level design out of Dark Souls, all you have left is a game moodily blatting you in the face with a rake for eight hours. Finally, I settled on Katana Zero, a 2D pixel art twist on hideous psychedelic violence; also, it's published by Devolver Digital, obviously, because the phrase "2D pixel art hideous psychedelic violence" is to Devolver Digital what the word "Walkies!" is to an under-stimulated dog with poor bladder control.
In fact, I was thinking about listing the features of Katana Zero as part of a hilarious "Games Published by Devolver Digital" bingo card, until I realized I was just writing down features from Hotline Miami. Pixel art and hideous violence, check. That's the given; that's the bloodstained arugula forming the base of the "Horrible Devolver Digital" salad. A colorful retro aesthetic particularly themed around retro forms of media in a way that would give Quentin Tarantino an even bigger priapism than the one he gets from his morning bowl of discontinued breakfast cereal, check. High-speed gameplay where you can reload and try again before your death rattle has even gotten six inches past your tonsils, check. Emphasis on soundtrack, check. Somewhat obscure plot full of hallucinatory moments strongly implying that the main character is on enough drugs to fill out one of Michael Jackson's average weekly prescriptions, Cinnamon Chex with sausage on the side!
So to put it bluntly, Katana Zero is side-on platforming Hotline Miami, but there's also a bit of Gunpoint in there, and a bit of Mother Russia Bleeds, if only because that, too, is another strong contender for "Devolver Digital: The Game". But does it have any ideas of its own? Well, in Katana Zero, you play a complete loser with a Japanese sword, as referenced by the title; you spend your days hacking up assassination targets given to you by your psychiatrist, because I guess punching a pillow wasn't doing it for you anymore, and you keep taking a magic drug that gives you the power to see the future, but which is probably also turning your brain into blancmange. It's the kind of plot where you're a small piece of a larger intrigue, and none of your manipulators ever tell you anything; it might take more than one playthrough to fully grasp it, so it's just as well that the gameplay kicks arse... mostly.
Your precognition means that your failed attempts are all framed as possible futures and also gives you a slow-motion power, so at the end of the level, you see a replay of your successful run as the timeline that actually happens for realsies, and all the slow-motion stuff plays at normal speed. I've often thought games with slow-motion could use something like this; doing something in slow-motion isn't that impressive because I can see how the game has slowed down and extended the wheelchair ramp to let my masturbation-addled thinking keep up, but when the game then shows you how what you just did looks from an outside perspective, you can go, "Oh, OK, I'm a fucking badass. I mean, I suspected as much; I do masturbate to a heroic degree, but it's nice to see it confirmed."
Every enemy dies in one hit, and you can dodge and deflect bullets, so on a successful run, you sweep through all resistance like a red-hot knife through a knife-hotness inspection, and it generally kicks arse; just a shame there's so much plot in the way. And now, all the game developers will throw down and stamp their baseball caps they got free at GDC and cry, "He's officially impossible to please!" Sorry. I do like narrative; it's just, I think this is the SUPERHOT and Quadrilateral Cowboy problem, where they came up with a lovely little original gameplay loop, but refuse to let it breathe properly and keep killing the pace for the sake of story moments. Press "Right" to walk over to the fridge, press "X" to eat up leftovers for tea. Was this necessary, game? I'm happy to just assume my character picked up drive-thru on the way home from the murder spree.
Then there are a couple of gameplay "asides" that fit into the core combat about as comfortably as a hypochondriac into a vat of assorted cattle guts; one of your assassination targets flees on a motorbike and we give chase on a second convenient motorbike, and suddenly, we're playing an arcade shooter from the early 90's where we dodge slow, predictable missiles that move like they're on wheelchairs when, five minutes ago, I pressed the dodge button two frames earlier than I should have done and my knackers were shot clean off right into someone's martini.
And then there's a "stealthy" bit, because that's just what a high-speed drug-fueled katana bisect-a-thon needs: a bit of hiding in a cupboard with a sushi roll up my arse waiting for a gap in the guard patrol routes, MULTIPLE SARCASMS. And it's flat-out fucking broken, because sometimes, the guards' positions reset in such a way that there are no gaps in the patrol routes and you run out the stage time limit waiting for the fat gits to stop farting visibility cones at the only door.
I say "stealth section"; you're perfectly free to give everyone a wazikashi (sic) prostate massage, but my transparently evil handler told me not to kill anyone, so obviously, I tried to do that, 'cos otherwise, the level's completely fucking trivial, and a game without challenge is like fucking your own dog. Where's the thrill of sexual conquest? He's right there and, up until this point, trusted you. But I did a second playthrough to see what consequences occur if you don't stealth it up, and the answer was, "bugger-all"; your transparently evil handler just calls you a naughty boy which, depending on your tastes, might be considered a reward.
This is far from the only time the game's story implies that you're making a significant choice that swiftly proves to be nothing of the sort; there's this one choice you have to make that the game builds up across, like, three of its interminable fucking dialogue trees, but when you finally get to make the choice, it comes down to, "Do you want to continue playing this game what you paid money for, or do you want to die, and then quit, and then, I don't know, stick your head up a fish?" So let's tot up the main points: Katana Zero is a game with heartbreakingly good pixel art and animation with a neat core gameplay loop that's just crying out for some kind of infinite challenge mode so I can get it clamped nice and tightly around my nipples, but it needed to ease off the story pedal a tad. It's not awful; it's just got too much setup and not enough payoff, like a wet t-shirt contest where they all left their bras on.
- Catarrh Hero: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- See when my psychiatrist told me to murder people he later explained, under oath, that he was being metaphorical
- The author does NOT condone putting sushi rolls up your arse