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Katana Zero and Stone

Before starting this brief review, I just wanted to say that I hope everyone is staying at home playing video games and watching movies, following their countries’ health and safety guidelines; stay safe and healthy.

I always want to like any entertainment I consume, however a lot of the time something that should appeal to you, based on your likings and history with that genre/artists, doesn’t really click with you for whatever reason. Katana Zero and Stone are two such cases; I really enjoy side-scrolling, hard as nails, action games like Katana Zero, and I love narrative-driven games like Stone, yet both of these games failed at keeping me interested or providing me with a meaningful experience.

Let’s start with Stone, because that is the most subjective of the two; a narrative, even a poorly told one, will appeal and satisfy people based on many personal variables, and I don’t think Stone is poorly written, however it is poorly implemented as a game and mediocre at its best. You play as a koala private investigator, who wakes up after a common drunk bender to find his life partner is missing, and after a suspicious call, he gets suspicious and begins to investigate the disappearance. Stone is more comedic and more of an interactive movie than one would expect, but that isn’t something I mind; Virginia is one of my favorite games in this genre and that is essentially an interactive movie where all you are doing is moving forward.  What I do mind though is that I never personally found the comedy to be effective or the lack of interactions to serve any purpose; in Virginia, the lack of direct control over choices and any sort of puzzle solving or collectibles to find, served the purpose of allowing the developers to enthrall you in this Twin Peaks inspired game, to keep you focused on the visuals and the music, to not derail your attention from the symbols and the mystery. This doesn’t happen in Stone; you’re just slowly walking in the environments to interact with the one or two things you can interact with, that either progress the story or are an attempt at a joke, which don’t often work. Besides that, the art style and voice acting are serviceable, and the coolest thing about this game is that you can watch some classic movies in their entirety like Night of the Living Dead, which I did do and it works fine with the caveat that you can’t pause or continue from a specified point. Regardless of that, the narrative is where the game truly falters; although it is serviceable and done well enough, I never felt like there was anything novel or interesting about the story or the characters. I don’t remember any of the names of the characters or the locations, but beyond that, I never felt invested in anything that was going on; that’s not to say that there aren’t any worthwhile twists or themes in the game, but it is to say that none of that is done well enough to warrant a playthrough.

On the other hand, Katana Zero is a bit more complicated as a game and where it succeeds and fails; you play as a samurai dressed assassin, who goes to his psychiatrist to get his medication and an envelope with his next target. It is a lot like Hotline Miami with a side-scrolling perspective and a much more involved storyline; all enemies are one-shot one-kill, but you are that as well; the story is of the “mind-fuck” aesthetic; easy to learn, hard to master, etc. The gameplay is actually very decent; movement is fluid and responsive, every successful kill is exhilarating and every failed attempt is clearly your fault and not the game screwing you over. It even adds context to replaying the same scenario again, as each attempt is seen as in the mind of the protagonist trying to figure out which approach is best suited for the situation and failed attempts are simply contextualized as the wrong approach, which is pretty cool as it also allows for regular speed replays. The big addition to the Hotline Miami formula is the slow-motion ability to counter and dodge specific enemies or bullets, as well as allowing you to pull off some sick stunts, and for the most part this works very well, however this is where the game started to sour for me; their attempts to contextualize that aspect of the game, shape the story so that everything they wanted to do was included, and allow the game’s “mind-fuck” sensibilities to exist, all combine to create something that’s annoying and increasingly complicated to the point where by the halfway point I had zero idea what was going on. Obviously, that’s not such a bad thing, but I don’t mean I know what is going on now but don’t know what is going to happen, I do mean I have no clue what is going on in any tense – past, present, or future. Where this starts to hurt the game is in the choices they allow you to make; often during the dialogues, you can choose what your character says or don’t, as well as having this interesting time mechanic where if you allow the conversation to unfold different things will be learned (or missed) than ending/responding to it earlier on. This is a very interesting conversations mechanic, but it hinders the story and the game in ways that make it difficult to go back to; at one point I had chosen to stop taking the medicine that allowed me to have superhuman capabilities (like slow motion) hoping to get some straight answers on what is actually going on with my character and the story, which lead me to completing a number of levels without slow motion. After going through that ordeal I learned nothing, my character’s personality and history was even more hazy, but I was determined to push through the game without the slow motion ability; then the game decided that was not going to happen and it just gave me my ability back and started giving the protagonist drugs again. That was the last drop; the mechanics of Katana Zero are super interesting and appealing, but the story and execution of specific ideas were too annoying for me to push through.

I can see how people will adore both of these games, but for me they are both games that usually appeal to my likings and found both of them to be skippable; I liked Stone’s art style and relaxed atmosphere, I liked Katana Zero’s mechanics, but both of them have fundamendal decisions made that will either win you over and make those games special to you, or will sour the experience and make those games something that feels like a missed opportunity. I really want to see Katana Zero’s conversation mechanics and commitment to making everything in-game synced with the story, expanded upon, and I also would like to see another stab at another story with Stone – hopefully with more novel ideas and more interactivity – but as they are now, I don’t feel like these games are the best they can be.

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