Steam’s recommendation engine, despite the unholy treasure trove of data they have on what everyone plays, is total arse. Even the new discover queue is a hit and miss affair; weighted extremely heavily towards the last handful of games you’ve played. I’d know too as I got recommended dozens of visuals novels after playing Dream Daddy and not a single other visual novel game (I don’t count Pyre in that genre, for what it’s worth). Suffice to say I don’t have a lot of trust in it and there’s not many games from there that I end up buying. Katana ZERO is an exception to this rule however as it popped up as a recommended game for me and was bought shortly after. The videos were just enough to grab my interest but its solid mechanics, great artwork and perfect game length is what makes it one of 2019’s more interesting titles to date.
You are a samurai assassin, blessed with the gift of precognition. This allows you to look into the future and plan out your moves, ensuring that no target is outside your reach. However you know nothing of your past, save for the fact that you were involved in a great war some time ago and you’re haunted by nightmares from your childhood. Your therapist is helping you though and thankfully the dose of the drugs he gives you is going down. So you keep doing his bidding, taking out targets that he gives to you after each session. Still though something feels off, time seems to flow strangely every so often, the past, present and future mixing together until they all coalesce back together. Although that can’t be right, time always flows forward right?
Katana ZERO has some of the best pixel art I’ve seen in recent times, seamlessly mixing in modern elements that give it a really nice visual flair. This is made all the more impressive that it’s created in GameMaker, something which has a reputation much like Unity for having a certain kind of aesthetic for all titles built with it. The frame rate was also consistently high, something that I’ve definitely not seen done a lot with other GameMaker based titles. On top of this Katana Zero has a great original sound track, one that’s available in ogg format in the game’s base directory should you happen to want it. Overall I’m very impressed with Katana ZERO’s level of craftsmanship.
Mechanically Katana ZERO is a kind of beat em up puzzler as every level is about planning out your moves, figuring out what triggers what and how to overcome seemingly impossible scenarios. You have a couple key mechanics at your disposal: roll which makes you invulnerable, the ability to slow down time significantly for a short period and your usual array of 2D melee combat mechanics. You’ve got one life and a single hit will take you down so you’ll have to plan your attack route carefully. There’s no upgrades, items or inventory to manage; all you have to do is make it to the end of the level by laying waste to everything in your wake. Of course that’s much easier said than done but Katana ZERO provides ample challenge without being unnecessarily difficult. A fine line to walk in this age of Dark Souls clones who are trying to out compete each other in brutality.
The combat is incredibly satisfying when you’re able to clear a stage in a single section, giving you that lovely feeling of being the badass ninja assassin. Of course there’s certain levels which have the “fuck you player” mechanics in them, I.E. things right at the end of levels that’ll kill you instantly and the only way to know about them is to play the level. The boss fights could also prove challenging for some as they all have very particular mechanics that aren’t particularly straightforward. Still Katana ZERO’s combat feels a lot more forgiving than other, similar titles that I’ve played in the past and I think that’s one of the reasons that it didn’t feel like a complete chore to play through to the end.
I only have minor gripes about Katana ZERO which says a lot about it’s quality. Every so often the game would lose its capture of the mouse which meant that it’d shoot out the side of game window and onto my browser running on the second monitor. Clicking would then minimize the game and, most often, lead to a death. The game can also be quite visually confusing when a lot is happening on screen, something which can make it rather hard to understand exactly why you died at one particular time. For me it always seemed to be the shotgunners because, despite being able to reflect the projectiles, it appears you can only reflect one of them. Given there’s like 20 of them coming at you it’s pretty much guaranteed death, even if you hear the ting of the reflected shot. Other than that Katana ZERO was pretty much solid.
The story of Katana ZERO is really what brings it all together though as it’s well thought out and given ample time to develop over the course of your playthrough. Initially it just seems like another typical super soldier story but it quickly starts morphing as you uncover other elements that I can’t discuss without spoiling it. I’m not quite sure how much control you have over the various elements but there was definitely enough freedom of choice to make me feel like I had some control, which is probably all you really need in the end.
Katana ZERO will go down as one of my big surprises for 2019, coming out of nowhere and providing an experience that is just well done all round. The art, music and mechanics are all on point, providing ample amounts of challenge without making it difficult for difficulty’s sake. The story is engaging, well written and appears to give you just enough influence to make you feel like you’re in control of what’s happening on screen. I could go on but realistically if your interest is piqued I don’t think you could go wrong by giving Katana ZERO 4 hours of your time.
Katana ZERO is available on PC and Nintendo Switch right now for $21.50. Game was played on the PC with a total of 4.6 hours playtime and 16% of the achievements unlocked.
These days you’d be hard pressed to find a first person shooter that doesn’t resort to the current norm of cover based, infinite regenerating health standard. It seems the days of searching out med kits and carrying ridiculous numbers of weapons is a thing of the past, a part of the first person shooter heritage that will be left behind in favour of current trends. Still there are some who dare to flirt with the old ways and the developers behind Hard Reset, namely Flying Wig Hog (consisting of many people who made Painkiller), are just those people. Whilst Hard Reset isn’t strictly an old fashioned shooter there are some throwbacks to the old ways with some of the new mixed in for good measure.
Hard Reset throws you into a post-apocalyptic world where humanity has been driven to the brink of extinction, pushed back into a single city called The Sanctuary by an enemy of their own creation: the machines. Inside the Sanctuary is a repository of billions of human identities, ostensibly those who were killed in the war that resulted in humanity being in the state that it is in. The machines want to assimilate those memories into their core matrix and as such have been assaulting the Sanctuary relentlessly. You play as Fletcher, a member of a team called CLN who’s job it is to protect humanity from the machines. Things start to get hairy when the machines break through the barrier and begin assaulting the Sanctuary directly.
The setting in Hard Reset is most aptly described as a cyberpunk’s wet dream, being a combination of post-apocalyptic drab combined with dazzling neon colours with Japanese characters littering the landscape. It’s definitely not the most pretty of games, especially when compared to other recent releases like Rage and Battlefield 3, but it’s far from being visually boring like many other generic shooters tend to be. Trouble is that many of the enemies in the game are also visually similar to the world that surrounds them which can make it somewhat frustrating at times.
Combat in Hard Reset is a mixed affair swinging between the dizzying highs of laying waste to hoards of enemies and the frustrating lows of replay a section over and over again because of some surprise tactics that will one shot you. You’re given 2 weapons to start off with the CLG, a typical machine gun weapon, and the NRG, a futuristic energy weapon that streams out balls of plasma. Both of these weapons can be upgraded to become another type of weapon (which you can change on demand) with the CLG being projectile based (shotgun, rocket launcher, mines, etc) and the NRG being energy based (shock field, railgun and a “smart weapon” which I’ll touch on shortly). You can also upgrade your combat armour giving you other abilities like a radar or additional damage resistance.
Now here’s where I’ll admit to finding Hard Reset and absolute chore to play until I got the smart gun upgrade. You see the initial incarnations of your weapons are ridiculously weak with even the weakest of enemies needing a thorough thrashing with them before they’ll keel over. The NRG upgrade that creates an electric shock field mitigated this somewhat but it was still extremely tedious to set up the field, wait for it to off all the enemies inside it and then wait for the next wave to arrive. The smart weapon, an upgrade that shoots projectiles that home in on your enemies and can shoot through walls, took much of this tedium away as I could simply scan around for incoming hostiles and launch volleys at them before they could get to me. This became very helpful in the later game when boss fights (like the one pictured above) when it would lock onto the places I needed to shoot at. Granted they were pulsating orange so I wouldn’t of had trouble finding them otherwise, but the knowledge that I was guaranteed to hit the right spot made those somewhat tiresome boss fights a lot easier.
The story itself is rather thin on the ground, with the majority of it being told in slides between levels when the game is loading. There’s a little interaction between your character and some others in the game, but they’re just through poorly animated avatars in the corner of your HUD. As a medium to carry the game along it does the job adequately but it’s rather loosely strung together and the game cuts off abruptly with the trademarked “oh there could be a sequel!” cliff hanger ending that I always groan about. Then again if you’re expecting Mass Effect level of interaction and immersion from a $30 shooter than I’d be questioning your sanity.
Hard Reset is a bit of an oddity, showing many signs of the polish I’ve come to expect from much bigger budget games but also dragging with it some of the troubles of being an independently developed game. At just on 5 hours of straight up game play (with no multi-player) it was a somewhat enjoyable diversion whilst I was waiting for Christmas glut of AAA titles to start dribbling in. If you’re into the cyberpunk genre and love your action over the top then Hard Reset will be right up your alley.
Hard Reset is available right on PC for $29.99 on Steam. Game was played on Hard with a grand total of around 5 hours play time.
It’s been a long time since I played a good point and click adventure, but probably not as long as you think. It was only 5 years ago when Dreamfall: The Longest Journey was released and many of my friends told me that I had to play its predecessor, The Longest Journey, before I played through its sequel. I’ll admit at the time I wasn’t enthralled with the idea of playing through a point and click adventure that apparently had well over 40 hours worth of gameplay in it (rivaling that of traditional RPGs) but the plot hooked me enough to keep me playing right through until the bitter end. Gemini Rue brings back the point and click adventure and caught my attention due to its close resemblance to another sci-fi point and click adventure, Beneath a Steel Sky. With little more than a few screenshots and a recommendation from a friend I bought the collector’s edition of the game (which I’m still yet to receive) and dived right into this neo-noir world.
You start the game as Azriel Odin, a Boryokudan (a large and brutal crime syndicate) ex-assassin looking for his brother who’s been taken captive. Your quest starts on the planet Barracus, a mining planet that’s fallen under control of the Boryokudan, waiting for one of your former colleagues Matthius Howard. When he doesn’t show you begin your search by attempting to track him down. Simultaneously you also play the character Delta-6, a man trapped in a facility where everyone has had their memory erased including his own. Everyone is also subjected to training under the watchful eye of The Director, a disembodied voice that only speaks to you through the center’s PA system. You can switch between either character for most of the adventure although I chose to follow both as far as I could before it forced me to change.
The first thing that Gemini Rue should be commended for is its brilliant pixel art renditions of the various places you’ll visit. Whilst it might be a far cry from the graphics that computers are capable of generating these days it speaks volumes for a game when its able to invoke a certain mood and feel about an area when working in such a limited space. I’ll admit this could very easily be my sense of nostalgia doing quite a lot of the work for me but still the menu screen of Gemini Rue invoked that same sense of foreboding that I got when I first started up Heavy Rain.
The gameplay itself deviates slightly from the traditional point and click adventure genre. Whilst most of the interactions are your typical affair of finding which bit to click on or what item goes with what there’s a few elements that have been added in to break up the monotony of playing hunt and peck for hours on end. Most notably is the inclusion of combat and the potential for your character to die. There are several gun battles in the game and failing to execute them correctly will see your character dying, sending you back to the last checkpoint or place that you saved. Additionally there are a couple points where should you not complete a task quickly enough you will also end up loading up from your last save point. These both serve to add tension to an otherwise blasé genre that’s usually content to let you take as much time as you need without the threat of imminent demise.
Thankfully Gemini Rue avoids the traditional trap of point and click adventures that suffer from inventory overload. Whilst there are many occasions where you won’t be able to progress without a specific inventory item you’ll never find yourself at a point where you have to backtrack or reload a previous save in order to get an item you missed on your first pass through. Additionally the inventory is quite small with the most items I was carrying at any point in time numbering in the single digits. The communicator is also a nice touch as well, basically serving as a portal to other characters whilst also automatically picking up on critical pieces of information when you come across them.
Even though Gemini Rue deviates from the point and click formula of old I still think that fans of the genre will still find a lot to love in this indie title. Many of the puzzles require lateral thinking and there’s enough easter eggs¹ in the game to keep you coming back to the same locations again to see if there’s an unexplored area that you might have missed previously. Of course there are also the traditional frustrations of the genre as well sending me to look up a game guide on 3 occasions when I just couldn’t for the life of me figure out what to do next. Most of the time though it was just not mousing over a certain location to see an item was there, so I’m sure the game could be easily completed without the aide of a guide.
Of course the real hook to this entire game is the story. As the game plays out and more information becomes available to you the story begins to take twists and turns that you just wouldn’t expect. Things I was certain of early on in the story began to change rapidly as the story progress with everything ultimately turning on its head as the story rampaged towards its final conclusion. Whilst I only played the game in fits and bursts over the first few days the last 3 hours of the game had me firmly planted in my seat, anxiously clicking my way through. The end is satisfying whilst still leaving it open ended enough should Wadjet Eye games consider making a sequel to it.
Gemini Rue is one of those games that uses its chosen medium expertly to deliver an extremely powerful cyberpunk story. Whilst the point and click adventure might not be as popular as it was a decade ago this game shows that it can still be used to deliver a compelling game. If you’re a fan of the neo-noir cyberpunk worlds like Bladerunner and Neuormancer then you’ll love the dark futuristic world that Gemini Rue lays out before you.
Gemini Rue is available right now on PC for $14.99 from Wadjet Eye Games. Game was played entirely on the PC with around 7 hours of total play time.
¹My favorite of these was the Cowboy Bebop easter egg. Which is rather fitting considering the setting of this particular game 🙂