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ICYMI is GAMINGbible's simple way of highlighting a game that's not quite brand new, maybe as much as a few months old, but that we've been playing and loving, and we really want to tell you about it.
And yet: it's so much more. Headlines are there to grab your attention, and if you're reading these words now, hurray, this one worked. And yes, Askiisoft's Katana ZERO, out now on PC, Mac and Switch via publishers Devolver Digital, does share some gameplay similarities with one of 2018's most outstanding titles. It does so with its one-hit kills and quick-restart gameplay, its delicious pixel art and slick soundtrack (though this one's a little less Mother Nature, and rather more Neuromancer).
Let me explain a little more. Katana ZERO's makers describe it as "a fast-paced neo-noir action platformer, focusing on tight, instant-death acrobatic combat, and a dark 80s neon aesthetic". Which certainly sounds cool as all hell (wait, hell is hot, but you know what I mean). But in practice, what does it mean?
In short: a tense trade-off between careful forward planning and frenetic twitch-reaction combat, on each and every new screen. Die, and the game 'rewinds' to where you entered said screen. Don't, and there's a message - "yes, that will work" - and it's onto the next line-up of bad guys to spill the guts of.
Your character can remove heads from shoulders with their blade, grab items like plant pots to distract attentions, toss machetes into skulls from afar, and use environmental elements - smoke from a broken pipe, dancers in a club - to hide from enemy eyes (when stealth is essential, they have vision cones). Oh yeah, and they can control time.
Or at least, that's how it appears. Squeeze the left shoulder button on the Switch - I've been playing this on my daily commutes - and our protagonist enters a limited-duration state of super slow-mo, making parries easier and bullet dodging possible. Combine this time manipulation with a roll - the right shoulder button - and for a brief window the player is practically invincible.
Interactive cutscenes - still in this beautiful retro graphical style (not that consoles of old could actually handle something this meticulously detailed and buttery smooth in motion) - flesh out the story of who we are, who we were, and why we're going about our hitman-for-hire business. That time slowing thing? It's drugs, man, specifically something called Chronos that we call into our (presumably very expensive, looking at his office) doctor between missions to get dosed up on.
You're given a selection of responses when in conversation with NPCs - from said doctor to hotel receptionists, via nosy neighbours and even your marked-for-death targets - which can be at times very funny, and at others really quite shocking. Suffice to say: we are not very well, and all the herbal tea we drink back at our dingy apartment isn't going to change that.
But it's the every-split-second counts gameplay that shines brightest in Katana ZERO, and sticks in the short-term memory with the sting of a pointy end in your privates, demanding you return to scratch the itch again. Every level, every hit, necessitates a lethal racing line of utmost precision to carve through; and there's nothing quite so galling as getting to the last enemy of any given screen only to mistime a blow and be cut down. Then: rewind, start over, try to learn from where you just went wrong.
And, like the challenging platforming of Celeste, you will learn. Like Hotline Miami, like Super Meat Boy, like VVVVVV, this is the action game as a puzzler, in a way, where spilled claret and shattered glass is but decorative detritus as you bring about each level's endgame by cracking its very particular code. That you solve each poser by building up a bodycount that'd make Kratos green with envy is by the by: Katana ZERO is a super-cool sequence of killer conundrums, set to sumptuous synthwave beats, to test even the sharpest tack.
Katana ZERO is out now for Mac, PC and Nintendo Switch.
Featured Image Credit: Askiisoft/Devolver Digital
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