Neo-Noir Bathrobe Samurai in Justin Stander’s Katana ZERO

Get in, do the job, get out — and maybe die a few dozen times. Katana ZERO, the stylish new cyberpunk action game from Justin Stander and Askiisoft by way of Devolver Digital marks a few familiar check-boxes like one-hit-kills, darkly atmospheric club tunes, and buckets of blood, but mixes in novel storytelling methods and an impressive amount of polish. I spoke to Stander ahead of the game’s release later this month about the development process, narrative, and John Wick.

Bathrobe Bushido

Let’s get it out of the way: the comparisons to Hotline Miami — a watershed game where insta-kill hyper-violence rules the day — feel inescapable, though Stander sees it more as a matter of shared DNA: “…surprisingly, it wasn’t a direct inspiration. We both have an aesthetic inspired by the 80s synthwave, neon-soaked violence of 2011’s Drive, and we both have frenetic, instant kill mechanics,” adding that for him, that “die and try again” mentality is just an extension of the punishing instant-death level design he’s been using since 2009’s Tower of Heaven.

That game was an early Flash project, and likely where many players first encountered Stander’s work. Utilizing a Game Boy color palette for a highly challenging platformer whose cumulative rules became more restrictive, level by level, Tower of Heaven hit Newgrounds soon after release and slotted in nicely besides other brutal, bite-sized, buzz-saw-filled games of its ilk.

It would be a few years until Stander began putting together Katana ZERO, which is his largest project to date. “Katana ZERO started as a short game idea I had in 2013. The game would begin with the main character tied to a chair, surrounded by armed guards — and the player would have to figure out and execute a plan to kill everyone and emerge unscathed.” More than six years later, the game’s preview build peaks at this exact chair-bound scenario, which finds the player incapacitated and staring down their impending death, before knocking over their chair to escape the room.

This results in plenty of deaths, and Katana ZERO leverages a quick restart option for its combat encounters — in addition to a time-slowing ability that is all but required for its toughest sequences. Dodging bullets, returning them to sender with a slash, and tumbling through hostile territory feels empowering during slow-mo, which also coats the world in a pulsing hallucinogenic hue.

How To Talk Dirty and Influence People

Aesthetically, Katana ZERO makes for blissful fare for Hotline diehards, though the design and fidelity of the game approaches refinement in a decidedly different way than Dennaton’s nauseatingly gorgeous duology. The ferocious “neon-noir” quality is present, but the pixel art is more painstakingly dense and detailed, full of dramatic lighting, environmental effects, and carefully shaded backgrounds ready for ruin by arterial blood. The pumping soundtrack features the return of collaborator Bill Kiley, a musician who previously worked on Stander’s free flash game Pause Ahead, while Dutch electronic artist Ludowic fills out the rest of the thumping murder-mill bass-heavy jams. It feels built for players who love to strap on a pair of headphones and die a lot, nodding their heads the whole way.

Beyond the eye and ear candy, Stander’s game features a complex and thoughtful narrative. The pre-release “Therapy Session” trailer reveals our hero seated for his appointment in an elegant therapist’s office. Bookending the action, this room becomes a locus for a robust yarn involving government conspiracy, nefarious military experiments, PTSD, time-stream shenanigans, and warring criminal assassins pushing the main character onward towards his “baleful end.”

The plot progression is satisfyingly unpredictable, and its time-sensitive dialogue choices — where players can often interrupt another character or choose their own contrasting responses to derail conversations — makes command of the narrative wonderfully central to the Katana ZERO experience. “The ability to interrupt people as they speak is both a skip feature and a full game mechanic,” Stander says, “as interrupting someone’s dialogue can sometimes open unique paths in a conversation — though usually it’ll just annoy them until they don’t want to talk to you anymore.”

We’ve seen these kinds of dialogue mechanics in BioWare RPGs and the like, though rarely in a comparable action game. It offers players some authority to carve their own path, combined with some additional possibilities that are revealed in combat as well — for example, an early target opts to jump to his death rather than be killed, though quick reflexes might interrupt his  ambitions.

“The storytelling in the game is my attempt to fix the pacing and interactivity issues I see in many plot-driven action games. Usually, agency is taken away from the player during cutscenes — making it feel as though the story is being fed to them at an arm’s length, rather than allowing them to experience and influence it firsthand. Also, many games seem to dump information on the player at the beginning of the game before they even care about the story or the characters. To fix these issues, I made the plot of Katana ZERO slowly unfold from the action — appearing in small, tantalizing bits at first, until it becomes an integral part of the experience.”

Inspirations Outside of Florida

Stander’s love of Drive is evident here, but he also mentions a few other pertinent touchstones like “Oldboy, The Man from Nowhere, Sin City, Leon the Professional, Tarantino films, and John Wick.” Although Keanu’s action hit released well into Katana ZERO’s development, Stander says that “[Wick’s] invincible-yet-human character was just a refresher of how I wanted the game to feel.”

Stander also briefly played the 4-player party game Samurai Gunn and noted its crisp combat and movement, and drew from the indoor cross-section 2D perspectives presented in Gunpoint, as well as the much lesser-known Trilby: The Art of Theft game by Zero Punctuation’s Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw. The former is keenly felt every time your blade connects with an enemy, and each level presents an engrossing amount of background art and little references/tips of the hat, as when Stander tweeted a screencap of an enigmatic Polybius cabinet earlier this month.

Playing through Katana ZERO, these connecting points certainly come into view, but there is an idiosyncratic sense of presence and characterful yearning that feels all its own, and an omnipresent sadness and loneliness. The chewy contrast of its hack-and-slash combat with the more downcast notes of the story make for a unique experience.

This density of detail is felt in every single katana slash, with an assortment of searing euphonious sound cues that aligns magnificently with the menacing soundtrack. It’s a synergy linked to the involvement of Erica Hampson in mid-2018, a sound effects designer who notably worked on another hit game in Devolver’s stable, Dodge Roll’s acclaimed action-roguelite Enter The Gungeon. Hampson made over 700 sound effects in the final few months of development, including vibrant selections like the snap-suck of a syringe plunging drugs into an arm, the strangely squeaky clang of a deflected bullet, or the explosive crash when you interrupt a speaker and their dialogue text scatters to the floor in shards.

Just Give Me My Medicine

Six years is a considerable amount of development time for a game, but Katana ZERO feels both like a labor of love and a unique plot-heavy action game that’s become much more than the sum of its most apparent inspirations. It’s even got a few secrets that can be found by searching — and conversing — well off the beaten path, and experimenting with the game’s various mechanics can lead to surprises that are sure to be vigorously plumbed in forum discussions soon after release.

For now, that release date is an unspecified day in March, but for a developer who’s been active for over a decade with much smaller projects, Katana ZERO feels like a meaningful arrival and event. Be prepared to clear out some time, find some good headphones, and hit restart until you get it right.