‘Katana Zero’ Mobile Review – No, That Shouldn’t Work, but It Does

Just like with Hades, I’ve enjoyed revisiting an old favorite of mine in Katana Zero (Free) from Askiisoft and Devolver Digital with its new mobile release through Netflix Games. Katana Zero did soft launch recently on mobile already, but the full worldwide rollout should now be live as of this writing. I’ve been playing it early through a pre-release build from Netflix, and I’m shocked at how good it plays with touch controls, but there are a few issues. Before getting into the review, for those new to Katana Zero, the title is a reference to a line used in the game when you finish a section of a stage.

Having enjoyed and beaten Katana Zero multiple times before on Switch and PC, I was well aware of how difficult some stages are, and also how annoyed I was for specific bosses. In the translation to iOS, Katana Zero has lost nothing, and I’m quite surprised by that. It almost makes me want a port of Hotline Miami from Devolver, but I digress. As with my other port reviews, I’m going to also cover how the game on mobile compares to other platforms I’ve played said game on, and help you decide which one you should get.

Katana Zero is a stylish action-platformer with stunning pixel art, mesmerizing animations, and superb music. While most games in the genre have a story that gets the job done with a focus on gameplay, Katana Zero is the rare game that punches (slices?) well above its weight in every single category. It is very much a once in a generation experience, and I don’t say that lightly. After every few stage sections when you get used to a new mechanic or enemy type, Katana Zero throws something new at you. This could be with a brand-new stage type, boss fight, story moment, and more. Expect to take about 5 hours or so to see Katana Zero to its end, but it took me a lot more during my first run through it on Switch back in the day.

The core gameplay in Katana Zero involves platforming, attacking, dodging, jumping, stopping time, and more. You end up using a combination of all of this to make it through a stage section. You can keep playing through a specific section if you die until you manage to clear it. If you hadn’t caught on from the title screen and the opening, Katana Zero wears its synthwave and VHS vibe proudly. When you die, you get a VHS-like rewind effect. In fact clearing a section also has you ejecting a tape.

Speaking of the length, Katana Zero feels like it is built for speedrunning. It has a few settings that save your time, like being able to skip the VHS rewind animation on death and almost instantly restart. I recommend enabling this because it does get annoying when you make a mistake a few times in a row on a specific level and see the same animation play out.

Given the structure and difficulty, there is a lot of trial and error as you learn a specific level segment before moving to the next one. This may or may not be an annoyance for you. I expected it given the genre, but there are a few bits that annoy me to this day. When watching Katana Zero trailers or gameplay, you’d think this is a very fast-paced game, and you’re right, but there’s a lot more to it. While the opening levels feel pretty straightforward, there is a lot of depth and strategy at play in Katana Zero. Each level, enemy placement, point of interest, object, and more work together to make you feel like a puzzle solving samurai genius with one of the best soundtracks in gaming.

If you played Hotline Miami, the addictive one more chance style action is at play here. You will die often, but every death is a learning experience. This aspect might turn some players off, but outside of maybe a handful of deaths, I’ve never felt like my time was being wasted in any level of situation. I will say that some of the boss battles are frustrating, and that’s really my only complaint with the core game. It is a sublime experience, but I never really enjoyed some specific moments in my Switch or Steam playthroughs. Those aren’t fun when experienced on mobile either as you can expect.

On Switch and PC, Katana Zero plays perfectly with a controller. On iOS, you can of course use a controller, but I was more interested in seeing how the developers adapted the game for touch controls. On the controller side, I tested using a Backbone One on an iPhone 14 Plus and my 8BitDo Pro 2 on iPad Pro. It all works well. On my iPhone 15 Pro, I used touch controls, and found them to be very good outside one issue. The action buttons and interaction button can all be resized and moved around. The analog stick for movement has three settings, but none of them let you properly fix the joystick including the fixed setting. I have to imagine this is a bug or a mislabelled setting. If you aren’t used to playing platformers on touch controls, this will take you some time to get used to, but I think the team has done a fantastic job with the controls on iOS.

Katana Zero looks brilliant on iOS. It has some border artwork on iPhone 15 Pro during gameplay, and has black bars in menus and interfaces. On iPad Pro, there are just black bars around the 16:9 gameplay. It looks crisp though, and performance has been very good on my devices. Katana Zero is capped at 60fps on PC so I didn’t expect support for more on iOS. I did notice a variable frame rate in some parts on iPad Pro (2020), but performance was excellent on my iPhone 15 Pro.

If you’re new to Katana Zero and have a Netflix subscription, I’d definitely try it out on mobile before buying it on another platform. If you don’t have a Netflix subscription, I’d recommend getting Katana Zero on Switch or Steam Deck to play on the go with the latter being the best version with no performance issues at all.

I mentioned the soundtrack being great, but it really is one of the best game soundtracks in many years with it touching quite a few genres through its runtime. This is definitely one to own on vinyl. If you have no interest in the game and have somehow made it this far into a review of said game, at least listen to the soundtrack. You will not regret it.

While I’m not sure I’d say Katana Zero justifies subscribing to Netflix if you don’t have an active subscription, it is immediately one of the best games on the service, and a fantastic, and near-perfect, conversion of a magnificent game. If you have a Netflix subscription, drop everything else and play Katana Zero right now. It is that good. Replaying it has not made the wait for Katana Zero DLC easier.

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