I am stuck in a time loop. Katana Zero, the hyper-stylized new Indie for Switch and PC that can best be described as a glorious amalgamation of the punishing insta-death mayhem of Super Meat Boy, samurais, and, oddly enough, the movie Drive, has somehow enveloped me in its central mechanic even when I’m not playing it.
In the game world, you control a former military top secret project turned assassin who is dependent on a wartime drug known as Chronos and some killer fighting moves for survival. The Chronos provides you with precognition abilities that allow you to test out endless approaches to getting through rooms of goons until you work out the best plan that ends with walls in desperate need of cleaning and you being the last man standing.
In the real world, I faced far more merciless time loops to overcome. At first this game that seemed perfect for me with its pixel art on acid aesthetic, insane 2D punishing difficulty, and the always welcome liberal use of samurai was leaving me feeling strangely underwhelmed. Sure, I was enjoying the gritty time-bending world, but I was simply brute forcing my way from one death trap filled level to the next death trap filled level. It was fun, but it all felt like a somewhat watered down version of 2012’s excellent Mark of the Ninja. Then, one night while starting things up following a version update, a peculiar thing happened. I received a prompt that my save file had been corrupted and the only way to play would be to reset it. I was now facing a crucial decision. Should I cut my losses at two hours, accept defeat, and move on to something else, or should I double down and recommit to the process by starting anew and relying on my knowledge of what was to come to drive me to a more successful second attempt? Fortunately, I chose the latter.
Almost immediately, I was drawn into the game world more than I had been over the previous several days of play by the most seemingly innocuous little detail. After clearing out an early room of baddies much like I had done with countless prior ones, only a lone cat remained on-screen. Instead of dashing off to my next deadly trial, I noticed a button prompt to pet the cat. Which I did. Repeatedly…. Suddenly, I was all in on the game and was eager to uncover all the other neat little details the developers had included for me to find. The update may have blown away my progress, but that tiny interaction it now allowed strengthened my resolve to sit back and enjoy the ride.
As a samurai unstuck in time, your skillset is relatively limited featuring slashing, rolling, wall climbing, item throwing, and slowing down time, but they all meld together seamlessly to provide one of the most definitive feelings of unstoppable bad-assery I have come across in a game. Whereas I was emotionlessly slogging between levels on my first go around, I found myself tapping into the skills I had been developing on my second playthrough, transforming the game into something transcendent. Each increasingly brutal room is an intricately designed order of operations puzzle demanding careful planning of every last movement. Perhaps the best course of action isn’t to instantly take out the foe directly in front of you. Maybe you would be better served by rolling past him, subduing the gun-toting fiend behind him and then immediately going into slow motion to deflect the bullets raining down on you from above before finally turning around to dispatch the first guy. By ignoring these aspects my initial time through, I had deprived myself of realizing just what a special experience was in front of me.
The genius of these puzzle rooms is only surpassed by some truly brilliant set pieces that are utterly thrilling and demand the utmost perfection from you. Included in these are an exhilarating motorcycle chase sequence rivaling that in Final Fantasy VII and a Chronos-junkie vs. Chronos-junkie final boss fight that is among the greatest skill checks and tests of dexterity I have endured in a game. Every death along the way felt meaningful as they were helping me build up the expertise required to take down the biggest challenges.
Aside from the amazing gameplay, the spot on soundtrack (which I had playing while writing this), intriguing relationships with your psychiatrist and your precocious kid neighbor, the central mystery surrounding your assassination targets, and increasingly absurd never-before seen uses of pixel art provide plenty more to love and keep you never wanting to turn away from the screen. I mean, I never thought I would have the option to cut lines of pixelated cocaine with a katana at the behest of a crazed Russian in a video game, but here we are. Note: I chose not to do this. My blade is sacred.
Combine all this with a gut-bustingly hilarious random sub-plot revolving around a character named Strong Terry (truly an all-time top Terry moment that’s up there with the Terry Crews Old Spice commercials), and the results easily catapult Katana Zero into my early list of Top 10 games for 2019. For the five or so actual hours of my committed playthrough, it seemed like every cyberpunk filled pixel was bursting with new insanity to discover. I couldn’t escape the time loop, and I’m glad I didn’t. Hell, even when writing this post, I managed to encounter a strange WordPress crash that resulted in me having to restart from scratch. The Chronos’s pull was just too strong. I would have to try again with a better plan, so I pet my cat and re-entered the fray.