Katana Zero, released on Nintendo Switch in 2019, Developed by Devolver Digital
“To give, when there’s nothing to give,
To die, so that honour and justice will live…”
– The Impossible Dream (The Quest)
Videogames are built on giving the player an often simple, but clear sense of purpose. Super Mario, Pac-Man, even modern gaming icons such as Master Chief are not troubled by the clarity of their mission.
Some games have in recent years attempted to try and play around with this concept and make a player ask questions of their in-game behaviour.
Take the Arkham series of Batman games, which tells an audaciously well put together story that flirts with the idea of playing a hero battling for the greater good, all while seemingly losing his mind.
But videogames, even in their shiniest, most state-of-the-art and open world iterations, seem to struggle with creating a meaningful sense of being an unreliable protagonist. a Character that makes the player question their actions, or even feel they are an individual losing their grip on reality or certainty.
Deep down, the player knows exactly who Batman is and what he must do in the Arkham Knight game. The player is there to stop the bad guys. Your higher quest for peace and justice is never in doubt, because the player is fully in control of Batman’s actions, even when the in-game character isn’t.
It may be a surprise then that a seemingly simple, 2D-hack and slash ninja title, one with retro graphics and mechanics, is perhaps one of the most effective and disorientating games to tackle themes of addiction and mental collapse.
This is Katana Zero, a game that is a mix of action movie staples that borrow the look, feel and even sound of John Wick, the Matrix and Drive. At the same time, the game also tackles more existential themes such as the fragile nature of honour, moving beyond past traumas, as well as the interconnected nature of dreams, memory and identity.
This side of the game touches upon literary sources such as Don Quixote and more cerebral storytelling mechanics from the critically acclaimed 2004 movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
When starting the game up, the player is introduced to what appears on its surface to be a highly stylised take on classic platformers such as Ninja Gaiden – released on the NES some 30 or so years ago.
Soon after, Katana Zero introduces some simple, but satisfying combat mechanics, where carefully timed swipes of your sword can rebound bullets as you flip into slow motion balletics to dispatch thugs, criminals and a range of individuals. Many of these characters are very much on the morally grey side of life.
So far, so good. But one of the more unique features is the game’s framing device, where each of the player’s missions are broken up with trips to a psychologist’s couch for guidance and your ‘medicine’.
Early on in the game, a non-playable character you speak with can confuse our ninja protagonist as some sword carrying cosplay character from an anime movie, or even just some guy “dressed in a bathroom”. They see an oddball, rather than the ninja assassin that the player has assumed the role of in the game.
The player knows differently, having already hacked and slashed their way through dozens if not hundreds of bad guys by employing stealth, extreme violence and bullet time acrobatics where you flip between slow motion and rapid fire to eliminate gangs with either blade or lamps.
But the game is able to play around with these well worn tropes of a classic side scrolling ninja action game, raising the possibility that the protagonist may well be just a maniac in a bathrobe after all… or perhaps something worse.
Wanting to be a ninja in the game, does not necessarily make you one. Why not then play the game with your own code, murdering your attackers while retaining a sense of honour. The player is in control after all.
Stylised sword battles are just one component of the wider game, which requires you to interact and choose how you impact the lives of those around you, from noisy neighbours, to a small lonely child next door.
Alongside the bullets and gangsters, some challenge and tension comes from how you simply talk and interact with the in-game world. This seemingly simple task is complicated from a real world sense of disorientation resulting from the in-game character’s blackouts and violent dreams that may either possibly be flashbacks, hallucinations driven by addiction, or a mixture of the two.
As the player’s need for in-game answers and special medicine intensifies, your choices during gameplay can be cannily distorted – if only for the briefest of seconds – to manifest as temper tantrums, murderous, violent outbursts, or a complete loss of identity.
In between a brutal battle with police or raid on a hideout, the player may find themselves suddenly waking up in a gutter, as if the early part of entire levels are some delusion or daydream?
Dialogue is also a vital part of the game that is controlled by the player, with a number of potential options to flirt, argue or charm your way to an objective. The player can answer immediately in a rash and assertive manner, or take a few more seconds to think of a response that is more measured or manipulative.
The protagonist’s past in the game’s narrative and their seeming inability to grasp reality add a whole new dimension to the idea of being a man in the dressing gown.
Katana Zero becomes at times disorientating, but in a way that is both intended and vital to the game’s narrative, about self-control and identity. If you are not really a samurai, is it therefore more important as a player to ensure your actions would be befitting of a noble warrior?
The game’s missions are delivered by a psychologist figure that seeks to guide the player and help you make sense of each new mission, as well as your successes and failures.
It is up to the player how much they want to ask questions about their targets and why a specific character must be assassinated. It is quite possible to take your employer at their word and think no more about whether a character may deserve to die.
This requires an individual to decide what aspects of their mission, or elements of their in-game dreams, that they wish to share with this mysterious psychologist that dispenses your special medicine that may or may not be linked to your incredible time distorting abilities.
In subsequent playthroughs, the depth of choices the game seems to afford can come off as being an illusion, rather than a valid gaming mechanic. At times, these choices can lead to the same outcome regardless of how angrily or passively the player comes of.
Yet the metagame of replaying the same missions in different play throughs becomes highly compelling in line with one of Katana Zero’s key themes about reliving and rewriting our memories and experiences. What if next time, you were just better? What if the other characters didn’t have to suffer in the next ending and you did exactly as you are told by your shadowy employers.
Is it the player’s fault for not shutting out the innocent people around you, or doing more to keep them secret from your psychologist sessions between missions?
What would happen if you played ball with some awful gangster in their request to team up in one level? Might there be a better outcome if the player had came out on top in some seemingly impossible high speed sword duel. What if you’d taken an offer to sacrifice your life for the peace of others?
This stylish 2D ninja game creates a sense of weighty and monumental choices with unpalatable consequences that arguably outshines some more recent open world games. Thus, a moral connection is created between player and their digital avatar.
Even as gamers find themselves unsure as to who or what exactly their character is in Katana Zero, the game encourages you to battle and rage on against the seemingly inevitable outcomes of a violent life – to refuse to succumb to madness itself by embracing the idea of being a noble ninja in an imperfect world.
Why Katana Zero’s satisfying, if somewhat limited combat mechanics may begin to feel samey after a while, it is much more interesting as a game when asking tough questions about the role of a hero, and whether you are a noble samurai, or a thug in a bathrobe.
It is arguably at its most effective when making you realise that both interpretations may be equally as valid.