Katana Zero

Katana Zero is an indie game where you play an assassin clearing out entire buildings full of mysterious shady underworld types for the sake of an employer whose motives you don’t fully understand whilst in a drug-fueled haze that distorts your ability to properly perceive what’s going on. The only differences between it and Hotline Miami are that it’s a side-view instead of top-down and that the drug-fueled haze is explicit and the driving force of the plot rather than it just kind of being implied that some guy killing a building full of people in 1980s Miami is probably on cocaine.

Katana Zero even has similar gameplay, in that you’re a one-hit-point wonder taking on multiple enemies by constantly replaying the same level until you’ve built up enough understanding of the building layout and enemy behavior to know how to get through the level, plus the muscle memory to pull it off with no mistakes. You’re an anime samurai instead of an 80s anti-hero, but that’s probably the biggest difference.

Katana Zero looks really nice, and it invests a lot of time in its story. The cut scenes conveying the story look good, but they irritate me on two counts:

Firstly, it ends itself on a cliffhanger. This game came out in 2019 and there’s still no sign of a continuation. A three year delay between installments in a game series isn’t unheard of, but it’s starting to look pretty grim. The story does at least wrap up the big mystery of your amnesiac protagonist’s identity by the end, but the final boss (not counting the secret boss) is clearly a sidekick to another, more important villain, and it’s still not really clear what exactly you were doing in the present or who exactly your employer or enemies are. You vaguely understand that your employer is trying to cover up the government-created super drugs you’re high on, and one of the villains is very definitely working in service of their own personal vendetta, so that doesn’t need any more explanation. It’s not clear if you’re working directly for the government, though. Wouldn’t they have better alternatives than an amnesiac murder-cocaine junkie for doing their dirty work? They’re definitely not super satisfied with your erratic performance and behavior.

Secondly, towards the end it really leans into the “do you enjoy killing people?” throwaway line that totally overshadowed everything else in Hotline Miami only because, as far as I can tell, it happened to come out near Spec Ops: The Line and the conversation surrounding the two games blurred together. You get dialogue options which, for the most part, change nothing except the immediate reaction of other characters, which is fine. It gives you a chance to define some details of the protagonist even if that protagonist’s motivation and goals are chosen for you. But then, faced with perhaps the biggest opportunity to do this sort of thing yet when another character asks you if you like killing, the game gives you a fakeout choice. If you pick a dialogue choice other than the “yes I like killing” one there’s a little glitch-y animation and the game selects the “I like killing” option anyway.

It comes off like a bunch of indie game tropes being smashed together with no understanding of their purpose. The game’s UI changing its behavior to reflect the mental state of the protagonist is, at this point, a fairly common indie game trick, but what mental state is being reflected here? Apparently the protagonist is incapable of saying they don’t like to kill people? This doesn’t happen anywhere else in the game, so there’s no point of comparison that might help us figure out what this moment is supposed to say about the protagonist. Like, even if they do really like killing people (not that this character trait ever informs the story), it’s still totally unexplained why the protagonist is apparently incapable of even claiming they don’t enjoy murder. Why they tried to say one thing but said something else instead. And since the protagonist has motivations to pursue the plot independent of how much they enjoy the act of killing mooks itself, there’s no reason why the game couldn’t let you characterize the protagonist a bit here by deciding whether they find combat to be a thrill, an ugly necessity, or a chore they’re by now numb to.

The climax of the story involves the protagonist being assigned to kill everyone in a building and then, after mowing through all the combatants, not killing a couple of unarmed people deep in a bunker (presumably related to the guy who owns the place), and there’s another UI bit wherein all your dialogue options are to kill the bystanders, but then you don’t anyway. Is the implication supposed to be that something is trying to force him to kill, and also I guess to claim he loves killing people? This ties into the cliffhanger thing above, where it’s hard to know whether these unanswered questions are intentional loose ends or just poor design, but without knowing when (if ever) the DLC that’s supposed to wrap up the story will be released, it’s poor design for the game as it is now.

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