The time upon us, fellow gaming addicts, to witness the release of the game that will more likely than not break the back of the AAA gaming industry. I’m of course referring to Cyberpunk 2077, which somehow still has a massive-yet-wearied hype train attached to it, as the game has been infamous for its release date being pushed back just before it comes within reach. Whether or not CD Projekt Red will make good on their promise of providing us all with the long-anticipated future murderworld simulator feat. Keanu Reeves just in time to act as a heat sink for our post-election holiday rage that won’t suck, remains to be seen. Unfortunately, I am poor, and have no way to access Cyberpunk 2077 at this juncture, so for now I’ll just have to comb through the literal hundreds of games I have not yet played instead of joining y’all in Night City.
Fortunately, the timing couldn’t be better to get into cyberpunk gaming, if you haven’t already. The past few years in particular have yielded a wide array of games released by major studios and independent developers alike. So, before the collective consciousness of these games finally combines into a slurry of played-out science fiction tropes, achieving self-awareness and wreaking havoc on us all, I’d like to share the intel I’ve gathered on releases that may or may not have slipped past you. You know, just in case you just can’t get enough of the old ultraviolence and need a little something to get you through if Cyberpunk ain’t doing it for ya.
And, as it turns out, ultraviolence is the name of the game in Askiisoft’s Katana Zero, published early last year by the always-stellar Devolver Digital. Placing you in the role of a precognitive assassin in a decaying, war-torn mafia state, Katana Zero delivers fast-paced gameplay and mindfucks at every turn in a style that bears more than a passing resemblance to Hotline Miami. While that means it’s not the most original game in the world, it definitely takes the formula that Hotline Miami cemented way back in 2014 and gives it a breath of fresh air. The story follows a nameless samurai working for a clandestine organization, stylistically hearkening back to the VHS era as you play through his daily life and witness his struggle with an addiction to a drug known as Chronos. As the name implies, Chronos alters the user’s perception of time, allowing them to see any number of possible futures, but ultimately trapping them in a time loop if they don’t redose before the drug wears off. Your mission as the samurai is to get Chronos off the street, despite being a slave to it yourself, but as you delve more deeply into this criminal underworld and your own repressed memories, you soon begin to unravel the mysteries surrounding your employers, your past, Chronos, and how they all tie together.
Having waded through a mire of mediocre simulators and clunky shooters prior to picking up Katana Zero, I found it very difficult to put down my controller throughout its roughly-ten-hour campaign. I often rage-quit games if I find them frustrating in a punishing way; while Katana Zero can provide difficult obstacles to overcome at times, I found myself more often challenged by my losses as the reel rewound and erased botched timeline after botched timeline, because few things are more satisfying than getting through a level and watching the replay of your sword-wielding hitman carving through room after room of trenchcoated goons. The gameplay mechanics are fluid and graceful, so any mistakes made are yours and yours alone.
Furthermore, the cutscenes in Katana Zero are particularly well done. Each interaction with other characters is timed, so your responses feel much more natural and in tune with how meatspace-you would react in the same situation. For instance, the character you interact with most is a doctor that serves as your only route of communication with your employers, which gives you many opportunities to toy around with the dialogue mechanics. However, in the game’s third act, as I was searching for answers, drugs, and a way to stop my mind from eating itself from the inside out, I found myself growing more and more demanding, cutting off the psychiarist’s feeble excuses before they could roll off his forked tongue. Alternatively, in another scene where I was so shocked by a scene I burst into that I was stunned into silence. These key aspects of the gameplay–combat and dialogue–contribute to a smart synthesis of immersion and the cinematic.
On top of all of this, Askiisoft seemed very style-conscious in the development of this game. Boasting an energetic synthwave soundtrack featuring music by Bill Kiley and LudoWic, the visual style reflects this through garish neon struggling to put those dirty alleyways and corners into better lighting, and a late-80s VHS aesthetic that Askiisoft cleverly folded into the gameplay and storytelling. In addition, the game features an abundance of internet/pop culture references, which was actually rather unnerving to me, because the first two references I came across were for IPs that I had only recently discovered beforehand. Baader-Meinhof phenomenon be damned, I want to know how this game read my mind.
I first learned about Katana Zero in 2016, when it was in development. While the initial projected release date was for sometime in 2017, I’m very glad that the creators took their time to develop the gameplay. While perfectionism is an unattainable goal, Askiisoft has exerted a firmness in their game’s identity and made every moving part fit accordingly. Most importantly, I found it compelling, so my biggest gripe concerns the ending: Katana Zero leaves off with a cliffhanger, so as with Axiom Verge, I’m stuck waiting with bated breath for the sequel. God damnit.
Katana Zero – 9/10
Cyberpunk is many things, but clean ain’t one of em, so why not trick out your digital equipment with original works by Buried Antenna? With some of the gnarliest line and ink work we’ve seen, Buried Antenna is bringing you punks FREE cyberpunk wallpapers, Facebook covers, and phone lock screen images of his original art straight to your inbox. By subscribing to his newsletter you’ll be kept up to date on all his latest works and special shop offers. So sign up to Buried Antenna to receive free original art now!
If you enjoyed this article, please consider dropping a buck or two in the tip jar over at Ko-Fi. Every donation helps a lot.
Want to write for Neon Dystopia? Check out our submission guidelines for all the details on how!