When Duke Nukem Forever finally came out to the waiting pitchforks of critics worldwide, I was reminded of another high-profile, massively hyped, long-delayed FPS that also received a critical drubbing upon eventually stepping, blinking and confused, out into the spotlight. Fans were initially expecting John Romero’s solo album to absolutely surpass everything id had done before. But somewhere between the delays, internal development turmoil, the fans who took issue with Romero’s “rock star” persona, and the people who actually took the “bitch” ad seriously, any goodwill had soured. The community’s pitchforks thus were being gleefully sharpened.
Once again I reference David Kushner’s Masters of Doom – When Romero left id, he intended to break the FPS mold. After seeing project after project scaled down to basic shooter action – dropping stealth in Wolfenstein, a hub-based open world in Doom, RPG elements in Quake – he wanted to execute an uncompromised project that was just as ambitious as its design document. I get that, and I appreciate the attempt. Unfortunately, a shaky final product and some poor management and design decisions (again, read Masters of Doom), meant Half-Life lapped Daikatana handily in revolutionizing the first person shooter. But infamous legacy aside, is the game any good?
First off, this review is done with the 1.12 patch applied. This patch apparently fixes some A.I. pathing, alters the save system, and does some other touch ups. I highly recommend it, and it probably explains why I had a better time now than most reviewers upon its release.
Daikatana casts you as Hiro Miyamoto, a swordfighting teacher in a futuristic Japan run by the monolithic Mishima Corporation. One rainy night, Hiro is approached by a strange old man with a fairly wild tale: Hiro is the last in a line of master swordsmen who crafted a sword with the power to affect time itself (the titular Daikatana). Mishima stole the sword and used it to create the all-encompassing empire under which Hiro now lives. The old man pleads with Hiro to recover the Daikatana from Mishima’s fortress, rescue the old man’s captured daughter Mikiko (whom he has trained since birth to wield the Daikatana), and set the world back as it should be. Hiro, having nothing else to do on a Saturday night, takes the man at his word and agrees to tackle the quest.
This sets off a journey spanning 25 levels in four distinct time periods – future Japan, ancient Greece, the Dark Ages, and San Francisco circa 2050. These periods don’t just cover art and architecture; all weapons and enemies are unique to the time period they’re based in. This means a massive number of creatures and guns over the course of the game (roughly 24 weapons and over 50 enemies by my offhand count). Some non-boss enemies are used only once and then never appear again. Compare this to the 90’s FPS standard of fighting the same monsters throughout the entire game, using the same seven or eight guns, and you get a sense of the variety they’re attempting here.
There’s a basic RPG stats system in place here, adding a nice sense of growth throughout your journey. You don’t have to do anything special – just killing enemies will bestow hidden XP. When you reach the next unmarked milestone, you’ll be prompted to level up Hiro’s stats. Attack strength is an obviously beneficial choice, and vitality will helpfully raise your max health from 100 to 350 if you buy all the bars. The others, namely jump height and running speed, are nice but never required. Since you choose your next upgrade, all the maps have to be designed for a jumper of any skill level to complete. Meanwhile, powerups within the world will temporarily boost their specific stat to full. This can help you through tough spots, and also gives you a preview of that stat’s endgame to let you know if it’s worth focusing on.
The Daikatana does appear within the game, and stays with you once you pick it up. Melee combat in first person is a little wonky, but the sword’s overwhelming power makes up for it. The sword itself also levels up independent of your stats – just keep killing enemies with it and eventually it will gain sparkly effects, more power, and swing faster. Charging enemies will open yourself up to excessive damage at first, but if you raise your vitality and keep sticking with the sword, you’ll be slicing regular guards in one hit and making short work of bosses too.
The other main feature is the A.I. sidekicks. In something very roughly akin to a buddy flick, you’ll be traversing the levels with Mikiko and blaxsploitation mercenary Superfly Johnson (oh, yes) at your side. Remappable hotkeys (or an alternate panel on the HUD) lets you issue basic orders like “follow,” “get,” and “stay.” This allows you to leave them in safety while you scout ahead, but they also do a serviceable job if left unattended.
Their A.I. is actually pretty versatile – they can pick up and use guns, climb ladders, jump gaps, duck to enter air vents, and generally defend themselves and navigate without serious issue. Working with you is a different story, and something this ambitious does indeed run into issues along the way. You have to have both of them in tow to transition to the next map, so the sidekicks are anything but optional.
First impressions count, and Daikatana’s is nearly rotten to the core. Bluntly, everything about the future Japan chapter sucks. Everything. Environments are cliched sci-fi industrial. Enemies are tiny robotic frogs and mosquitoes, which are tough to hit and unsatisfying to fight. The eventual human enemies feel overpowered and explode into ridiculous gibs on their deaths. The ion blaster (your default sidearm in this time period) ricochets off walls and frequently back into your face. The story is worthy of a facepalm, and takes 5-6 maps (I’m counting “parts” of a single level) just to set up and execute that Mishima is stealing corpses and turning them into McMishima burgers (ha ha). Your stats are at their weakest here – in order to set up a clear improvement later in the game – so you pay for it in this chapter. The A.I. pathing is also abysmal (perhaps these levels were designed before the sidekicks were implemented?), and as such, this is where you’re going to spend the most amount of time babysitting. I was absolutely convinced Daikatana would pull no more than 1 1/2 stars once I got around to the review.
The next three chapters are like a different game. There’s variety, the story picks up, there’s some lovely engine effects, and the A.I. becomes competent enough that you can pretty much leave the orders panel alone and your companions will still keep up. I was actually enjoying Daikatana! I don’t know how much of this can be attributed to the 1.12 patch, but there’s an actual game here if you can put up with the pretty horrible first chapter.
Another great part of the 1.12 patch is nuking Daikatana’s limited saves. In an effort to be an “elite” FPS, out-of-the-box Daikatana requires you to collect disposable gems to save your game. Much like Soldier of Fortune, the idea appears to be to eliminate “cheating” with endless quicksaves. 1.12 adds an option in the menu to turn that shit off, and I cannot recommend it enough. Even if every map worked as well as the best ones, the A.I. system is still unreliable. The game is simply too complicated and flaky to rely on limited saves.
And make no mistake – that A.I. will still fuck up on the best of days. They’ll get stuck on level geometry, not react at all to enemies shooting at them, steal your ammo and health pickups before you can reach them, fall into lava pits and die, shoot you in the back, and even fire off a poison-launching gun indiscriminately – harming you and themselves in the process. I absolutely had to reload saves to get past game-breaking issues (as said, your companions must be with you to exit the level, and if either dies, you get an instant game over), so limiting saves is simply pointless here.
However, these issues actually became rare after the first chapter. In fact, the A.I. companions surprised me just as many times as they broke. In one area, I had to do a complex string of jumping to platforms and climbing pipes to get up a cliff. I was amazed when I turned to find Mikiko and Superfly executing the same moves flawlessly. In more than one level, I had told them to wait while I went exploring. When I hit the level exit and got the annoying sidekick warning (“I can’t leave without my buddy Superfly!”), I expected I’d have to go back and find them. Instead, it triggered them to automatically run toward the exit, taking whatever lifts and ladders they needed to get there. I had barely turned a corner or two when I found my two pals running to catch up. Now that’s a nice system. Even when they get stuck or distracted, a simple reissue of the “follow” command usually clears them up and gets them moving again.
So when the game works, it works pretty well. I had fun chucking flying discs at Ray Harryhausen-esque skeleton soldiers in Ancient Greece. There was a fair amount of exploration to be done in the snowy Dark Age village. Puzzles abound, and while you may need a walkthrough to find a hidden keycard or inconspicuous switch, there’s little to bog you down. While the sidekicks never feel like a useful part of the game – not even once – they become much more tolerable once they’re able to stay out of the way. Finally, the four different time periods is very neat stuff. It’s never quite “four games in one,” but there’s definitely variety here, and an endless supply of new murder toys to play with.
One of the most controversial decisions was switching from Quake 1 to Quake 2’s engine, which cost the team years in development time. From my timeless retrospective view, it was worth it. Each of the time periods is well-realized and contains a goodly amount of showcase areas. There’s also quite a few engine improvements here over Quake II. You’ll see advanced colored lighting, ground fog, weather effects like rain and snow, scrolling clouds with independent layers, sliding doors, occasional reflective floors and water, complex triggers. If it weren’t for the lack of shiny textures everywhere, I would think this was the Unreal engine. The game got heat for looking dated in 2000, but I never buy into those kinds of arguments. The technical execution supports the art well, and that’s all I really ask for.
Will Loconto’s music work is pretty excellent, and each appropriate to their time period. Japan sees some high energy techno, Greece sees some horns and grandly heroic drums, the Dark Ages has some string music similar to the town theme in Diablo, San Fran is fairly industrial. They’re all either action tunes or atmospherics (for crypts or caves). They’re also in mp3 format, so you’ve got the soundtrack free if you want it (I’m listening as I write this).
My biggest audio complaint is with the voice work. White people doing corny Asian accents is the order of the day, and the king of this (John Galt, who voiced Lo Wang in Shadow Warrior) leads the way by voicing the entire secondary male cast. But it’s actually Mikiko (Debra Jolly) that comes off the worst. She is astoundingly, unbelievably annoying, and as Oriental as a Ford pickup truck. I was to the point where just one more “Ahh! Wach eet, Hee-ro!” was going to make me puke. Really, people. Voice actors with actual Japanese accents can’t be that hard to find.
It’s time to wrap this up, and as is becoming tiresomely predictable, I’m about to tell you that the much maligned game is “not as bad as you’ve heard.” To be clear, the first chapter is probably worse than you’d expect, but the rest of the game (once all patched up) is perfectly playable. The sidekicks really don’t add anything though, and I wonder if the game would have had more success if it stuck with the four distinct time periods and dropped the rest. Who knows, and Romero himself has said that, with all the development troubles, it’s a feat that the game was released at all. So if you’re curious about this little piece of FPS history, the journey – and it’s strictly optional – at least won’t be all that bad.
It gets better after the first chapter. A.I. sidekicks do a serviceable job of staying out of the way. Four time periods with unique art, weapons, and monsters is indeed impressive.
The sidekicks aren’t really useful in combat, so they’re just baggage to be led around. Nothing about the plot, levels, or overall experience that simply must be seen.
“Son of a gun! He did it! He really did it! He sent us… back through time!” – Hiro