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Katana Zero fixed my biggest problem with John Wick’s gunfights

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Explaining an unstoppable assassin

Askiisoft/Devolver Digital

Askiisoft has been developing Katana Zero, a garish, violent, 2D action game, for a very long time. But maybe the team saw what was coming in the future, and wanted to make sure they executed every step of the game’s release perfectly. I had to learn to do the same thing when I played a recent preview version.

Katana Zero presents time and perception as malleable objects, which is almost a cliché for hyper-violent action games at this point. But Askiisoft created a combat system that puts me in a comfortable rhythm of attempt, failure, and iteration that keeps everything moving while also explaining why my character is unstoppable. Enemy placement and action that might be unfair in any other game turns into opportunities for study and adaptation.

And that shift in how the game deals with what actually happens versus what is imagined or predicted makes all the difference. It’s cinematic, in fact: You can argue about inspiration between video games and film endlessly, and it often moves in both directions, but Katana Zero “fixes” one of my biggest issues of action choreography from live-action movies like John Wick by using video game logic, and does so with style and grace. This is how it works.

Why John Wick’s choreography had to cheat

John Wick features an assassin who can’t be stopped by ordinary means, even if you throw dozens of armed individuals at him. His ability to destroy targets at will, no matter how distracting or crowded the environment, makes for some of the best action scenes in modern cinema.

This setup only works if you accept the initial idea that John Wick is basically supernatural, and you can see the seams in the choreography if you watch the movie enough times.

Gunshots are loud, and attacking enemies have the advantage of only having to kill a single target. Someone would eventually be able to shoot Wick in the head while he’s busy with everyone else, even if that person would have to spray the entire room with bullets to do so. Why worry about friendly fire when Wick is already in the process of killing everyone else in your gang?

This never happens because each fight scene is choreographed like a dance, and Wick always seems to know exactly where everyone will be at any given moment. More importantly, he also knows where someone will be a few seconds in the future. Watch this moment from the club shootout, and notice how Wick seems to intuit that a shooter is going to come through the back door and is able to get into position to take him out.

I know I’m being silly, and the real reason no one is able to kill John Wick is because it’s written with comic book rules and no one can kill the hero. The entire point of the movie is the fun of the circular logic and the ridiculous reason he goes back to work: He’s good because he’s the best, and he’s killing everyone because they killed the dog given to him by his deceased wife. This doesn’t change the fact that the fight choreography sometimes has to cheat things a bit to make sure Wick always comes out on top.

Which brings us to Katana Zero.

How an indie game turned me into John Wick

I play as the Dragon in Katana Zero, an assassin with nightmares, a traumatic past, and the ability to see into the future. Each mission is divided into a series of action scenes, in which I have to kill the enemies, evade lasers, and jump from wall to wall to get to where I’m going. I can slow down time if I need a moment to come up with a plan to take out a crowd of enemies.

The action is fast and brutal; think Mark of the Ninja by way of Hotline Miami. Dying isn’t a big deal, since I can instantly start again by pressing a button. Failure doesn’t mean I did something wrong — it just means I’ve gained a little more information about what does and doesn’t work.

The twist is that I’m not doing anything in the game’s world until I successfully finish each section. The Dragon can see into the future, so each failed attempt takes place in his mind. I’m running through different scenarios to see what would happen if I were to try each one. An enemy kills me by popping out of a random door with a shotgun, but now I’ve learned something important: There is an enemy behind that door with a shotgun, and I need to turn and take him out once I get up to the second floor.

The run I create that’s successful, the one that gets me to the end of the section — that’s the only attempt I made that actually takes place in the physical world of the game. I’m rewarded with a playback of the successful attempt that looks like it was shot by a security camera, and shows a series of kills that looks — that’s right — choreographed.

The reason that I, like John Wick, was able to turn around and get ready for the enemy coming through the door is because I knew he was coming. I had seen it before.

Katana Zero sets up a world in which no one can ever get the drop on me, because any failed attempt at moving forward never actually happened. But each mental practice run teaches me more about how they’ll come for me, and it’s my job to make sure I’m ready.

Katana Zero is coming to Windows PC and an unspecified console in March of this year.