Every Friday, several A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
“Hotline Miami has a lot to answer for.”
That’s the thought that kept filtering up, repeatedly, during a recent playthrough of new indie twitch-platformer Katana Zero. We’ve seen a glut in recent months of titles aping Dennaton Games’ neon-drenched 2012 opus, whether in form (Ape Out), style (Katana), or just by literally saying “Hey, wasn’t Hotline Miami good, you guys?” (the execrable Travis Strikes Back). None of these games have managed to tap with full effect into the paranoid, anxious groove that Miami subtly trances players into with such deceptively apparent ease. But Katana Zero is the closest we’ve seen to date, what with its lurid colors, blink-and-you’re-dead gameplay, and a reliance on the aesthetics of a dirty VHS tape that’s had its tracking all shot to hell.
In brief: There are bad guys, they have guns, you have a sword. Thus, speed, stealth, and merciless brutality are the order of the day, aided by the ability to slow down time in order to land the perfect “reflect the rifle blast back into the face of the guy who fired it at you” strike. Your many (many, many, many) deaths are all written off as “planning,”empowered by a fantastical drug that allows you to peek into the future and find the perfect route through the games’ numerous mazes of traps and thugs. (Said drug is both an obvious conceit, and also the core of the game’s distorted, intentionally obtuse story about the nature of memory and regret.)
What Katana Zero does best, though, is something that Hotline Miami had pretty much null interest in: Talking to people, rather than cutting them in half. As with the various Telltale adventure games, Katana frequently forces players to pick dialogue options while a timer ticks down. What’s different here is that you also always have an option that pops up before the other person is done speaking, which allows you to abruptly cut them off mid-sentence. Literally blasting their dialogue off the screen, it turns the game into one of the finest “interrupting asshole” simulators ever conceived by man.
It’s hard to overstate how satisfying this one little tweak to an otherwise conventional dialogue tree can be, as you blow off your condescending psychiatrist, rudely dismiss the feelings of your adorable little neighbor, and blithely storm past the ranting and raving of your next victim with an interjected “Sorry, time to die.” It’s like having the Mass Effect option to deck that annoying report, but all the damn time. Katana Zero deploys a lot of clever tricks to make your character come off as a blood-drenched, kill-crazy sociopath, but nothing sells it better than the ability to be pointlessly, endlessly rude to an entire city full of helpful people who just want to ask you about your awesome samurai cosplay. For anyone who’s ever shouted “Oh, just shut UP!” at a cutscene as you jam your finger on the “skip dialogue” button, it’s the ultimate thrill of the kill.