The neon-soaked hallways and dirty streets of Katana Zero do a great job of sucking you into its broken world. Gangsters operate unhindered as society is still reeling from a devastating war, one whose loss has littered the streets with homeless war veterans and bars with resentful and drunken citizens looking for a fight. You are that fight–a ruthless sword-wielding assassin with the ability to slow down time–and Katana Zero gives you delicately designed scenarios to slice and dice your way through. Its abrupt ending is an unwelcome surprise, but the riveting action is complemented by an intelligently presented narrative with a variety of captivating themes that is difficult to pull away from.
Katana Zero puts you in the shoes of a nameless assassin haunted by the fractured misdeeds from the past war. This war forms the backbone of Katana Zero's central mystery, which does take time to unravel. What starts out as straightforward assassination missions ordered by a shadowy organization slowly unfurls to encapsulate themes of post-traumatic stress, war crimes, and government killings. This plays out across multiple acts, comprised of small side-scrolling stages containing violent and thoughtful combat throughout.
Genetic experimentation and drug use are central to both Katana Zero's story and gameplay. Thanks to a steady supply of a blue serum, you're able to augment your simple sword slashes with the ability to slow down time. This lets you pull off some incredibly stylish maneuvers and experiment with a malleable dynamic to the otherwise straight-forward combat. Slow-motion rolls can be combined with precise movement to quickly close distances, and your sword is not just for close-quarter slashing–it can be used to perfectly time a bullet deflection back to its sender. When combined with stage-specific items that can be used as long-range projectiles and security systems that can be transformed from a deterrent into an environmental weapon, Katana Zero doesn't struggle to keep its combat exciting.
It helps that each stage is thoughtfully compact given how dangerously fragile you are. A single hit will send you back to the beginning of a stage, with fast respawns making the transition almost instant. This not only avoids the sting of detrimental progress loss, but also gets you back into the engrossing action quickly. There are a few stages that feel excessively long and end up being frustrating, but they're thankfully few and far between.
The variety of enemies keeps each encounter from feeling repetitive, gently introducing more dangerous foes that will force you to change up your comforting strategies. Enemies with shields will push you away before swiftly firing at you on the ground, while knife-wielding gangsters can stagger you and delay your attacks for a brief (but deadly) moment. The ways levels combine these different enemies turns each of them into clever combat puzzles, where your twitchy instincts need to be supplemented by thoughtful planning and careful consideration of who to target first.
Katana Zero doesn't shy away from telling its story through scenes of unsettling torture and vivid violence, yet it successfully contrasts this with delicately quiet character moments and some heartfelt relationships that help ground a protagonist that would otherwise be impossible to empathize with. It works incredibly well thanks to a creative approach to character conversations, which are often just as important as your violent exploits outside of them. Instead of just being given choices for responses, conversations allow you to interrupt characters to alter both the tone and direction of the scene. Characters react intelligently to your manners during an exchange, expressing disgust at your audacity to cut them off or surprise at your unexpected courtesy.