5_1How to blow thirty million dollars.

After a convoluted development cycle that endured the departure of most of the original team creating the game and a great deal of internal strife, John Romero’s Daikatana was finally out and good to play. As Ion Storm’s flagship game, it had the weight of the entire company sitting on its shoulders. Nearly three years late and featuring an incredible amount of actual game content, Daikatana was a labor of love for its creators… and a trainwreck for just about everyone else.

Romero was the co-creator of Wolfenstein 3D, DOOM and Quake during his time at id Software. He left because he felt their games started lacking substance. There’s more than a little truth to that, but looking at the uninspired and at times embarrassingly amateurish Daikatana, it’s virtually impossible not to question his role in the creation of those superior early games. Something went terribly wrong down the road here.

Samurai Bored

Daikatana is powered by the Quake II engine, and unlike Raven’s Soldier of Fortune, there’s little new technology to spice things up. On the pure technical side there have been some achievements done by the design team, be it volumetric fog, light flares and wonderfully atmospheric snow effects. It definitely looks better than Quake II, but horribly out of date for a 2000 game.

The game itself is a story-based first-person shooter with a few role-playing elements — namely a well-implemented skill system that allows you to increase certain attributes like your attack rate, power, speed and vitality. If you wield the Daikatana sword in battle, it will receive the experience points that would have gone to your attributes.

As a single-player game, Daikatana is an unfortunate mix of gameplay styles, a mishmash of outdated console conventions and old-school first-person action. It has the frenetic pacing of the latter and the annoying limited save system (“Save Gems” you collect and use) of the former. Structured almost like the shareware games Romero cut his teeth on, it has four distinct episodes set in a different time period, each with its own set of weapons, monsters and architecture. While the gameplay remains stale through all eight million levels, the in-game visuals make frequent leaps between blah and beautiful. Some stages look like an amateur’s first attempt at map-making, others force you to step back and admire the architecture.

Sucking It Down

It all begins in the year 2455 in Kyoto, Japan. You are Hiro Miyamoto, martial arts instructor who, despite his surname and background, sounds like a grizzled American detective. He must save the world from Kage Mishima, an evil scientist who has stolen the Daikatana, a mystical sword forged by Hiro’s ancestors.

8_1Along his journey Hiro will meet allies that are theoretically there to help him, but practically just get in the way. The Quake II engine was never really built to have AI sidekicks tagging along, and they never present themselves as more than slightly retarded AI entities who need to be babysat 24/7. You can give them basic orders via hotkeys; they’ll attack, retreat, or pick up certain items if you tell them to, and climb ladders and crawl through passageways (but they won’t jump). Unfortunately, there are no commands for “Don’t get crushed by the door’ or “Stop humping the corner, retard!”

As you’re playing you can’t help but keep thinking “maybe it’ll get better, one more episode, one more weapon.” But it never does, and it also never seems to end. A lot of the level design relies on “gotcha” moments, those times when you turn the corner and are faced with something that generally will kill you rather quickly. Combine this cheap design trick with limited saves and a constant need to babysit your AI companions and you have a game that forces you to replay levels over and over again.

Altogether, Daikatana was the victim of its own hype, mismanagement and endless delays. If the game were released back in 1997 or even ’98 it would have enjoyed a warmer reception by both players and the gaming press. For a 2000 game it is woefully outdated. If only John could use that replica Daikatana of his to teleport back to the past, and hand over the finished CD to Eidos for that ’97 Christmas sale.

System Requirements: Pentium 166 Mhz, 32 MB RAM, Win95 / NT 4.0

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