Daikatana – If design is law, then someone call the cops.

Equal parts boredom and hair-pulling frustration are the formula for what is likely to be the last boring title from ION Storm before the developer’s winners, like Deus Ex, start shipping. We put Daikatana in the same category as Dominion: Storm over Gift 3. Slipshod level design, tedious cutscenes, and some of the dullest weapons in FPS history make Daikatana feel like there was an explosion at the cliche factory, and the result is on sale from Eidos at $30 a pop. This game is so far from revolutionary that it doesn’t even make the same weight class as Valve’s Half-Life (which came out almost two years ago); it’s barely up to the level of 3DO’s Requiem. While we didn’t flat-out hate the whole of Daikatana, we found the game to be exceedingly average in scope and execution.

It was hard to see the game in its complete mediocrity, though, because its first scenario (the title is split into four different time periods) is appalling. Everything that was wrong with the demo (see our earlier demo review) is amplified in these horrible Neo-Japan stages. Worse, they go on forever, like spending eternity at the DMV. From there the game is better, though rarely “hang onto your hats” fun, depending on the time period and the particular map. We found the Grecian levels to be the most interesting (if not very good looking), while the short jaunt through Norway was a bit silly. The even shorter end-run through a not-quite-future San Francisco was abbreviated and lame, most of it feeling like nothing more than reheated Duke Nukem maps.

Regardless of time period, there is one constant — Daikatana’s level design. It consists of some variation of the following: the player turns a blind corner/opens a closed door and is immediately blasted by the enemies waiting on the other side of the corner/doorway. Yelling “Surprise!” appears to be the driving motivation in the game’s design and enemy placement. We cannot count the number of times that flying enemies were positioned out of view above a doorway, or rocket-launcher-toting criminals were conveniently placed to the left and right of a closed door with their weapons cocked and ready. This was neither fair nor fun, especially when it became so overused that it was no longer an effective method of shocking the player.

The story has inexplicable gaps that lead us to believe that whole chunks of the game were removed late in the development process. Why does Mishima have a funeral home in his HQ that processes dead bodies into hamburger? Is this supposed to be some type of over-the-top James Bond-ian comic relief, put there just to show that, yes, Mishima is a Bad, BAD Man? We’re sure there was an explanation at some point in the process — now it’s just baffling. There are moments, though, when the story is charming in its comic book earnestness. Unfortunately, it is fueled by cut-scenes that exhibit the worst traits of Saturday Night Live: they make their point, but then go on and on and on.

These long scenes are there, in part, because Daikatana cannot make up its mind whether it’s an RPG, a mindless shooter or a puzzle game. As a shooter, it gets the job done; we never had too much of a problem with ammo and there was always something to blast away at. As an RPG, it falls flat. Interaction between the three main characters is forced and awkward, Mishima is the most two-dimensional of villains, and the occasional NPC is only there to deliver supposedly essential plot points or to be slain. Killing enough enemies will earn players points to be added to their five “stats,” but we found this to be a more interesting element for powering up during multiplayer deathmatches than in the game with.

And the puzzles are simply miserable. Almost without exception, puzzle elements aren’t explained until after the player has already begun finding pieces or throwing switches. This is most notable in the Greek levels, with a puzzle that has players searching for keys to spell the word “Aegis.” By the time players have reached the lock where the keys need to be inserted, and the puzzle is explained, they have already picked up at least three of the keys with absolutely no explanation as to what the hell they’re for.

Other than the opening stages, which are forgivable, and the awkward and incomprehensible puzzles, there is only one element of Daikatana that we would place firmly below “average and dull” and straight into “terrible and aggravating.” That is the cache of weapons which is, hands down, the worst (albeit huge) of any we’ve come across in an FPS. The weapons in Japan are downright horrible, the worst shotgun, rocket launcher and beam weapon we’ve ever had the misfortune to use. We enjoyed the Tron-like Frisbee O’ Death discus in Greece, but found the rest of the weapons to be ineffective. Some of the weapons in the Norway portion of the game were just starting to look interesting — particularly the Wyndrax Wisp staff that shoots out lightning balls, and Nharre’s Nightmare, which summons an undead demon to wipe out enemies — when that section of the game suddenly ended, taking the weapons with it. Oh well.

P.S. — Ultimate Gas Hands. Need we say more?

The Daikatana itself is partially responsible for making the rest of the weaponry look sad. The magic sword is actually one of the few parts of Daikatana that we enjoyed. The sword becomes stronger as it’s used, moving through five progressively stronger levels of force. As the Daikatana becomes more powerful, the sword will change, first earning a glow around the hilt and eventually becoming a flickering, glowing light saber of a katana. In its final stage, the Daikatana gives off its own ambient blue glow, flickers with electricity, takes up nearly the entire center third of the screen and wipes out even the hardiest of enemies with two or three whacks. By the end of the game, we had fully powered up the Daikatana and used it almost exclusively.

Superfly and Mikiko, the renowned AI buddies, started strong but end up being the most underused asset of the game. This could have been a brilliant device, but instead serves, most often, as an annoyance. The player is never given a reason to empathize with the sidekicks, as the development team had originally hoped, simply because they’re more often in the way, or confusing the action, than they are interesting. In fact, if we had been able to turn off the buddies and go through the game without them, we probably would have finished Daikatana in two or three days. At the beginning of the game, the two sidekicks seem very smart, knowing when to back off and how to follow the player, but by the end, they were constantly wandering off, running into traps and getting stuck. Babysitting the two caused numerous restarts, as they would be killed by closing doors or by jumping at the wrong time and plunging to their deaths, or because they weren’t bright enough to heal themselves on certain levels.

In fact, Daikatana’s AI on the whole is pretty weak. All enemies react to the player’s presence in the exact same manner. Upon sighting the characters, every enemy will begin running in a straight line toward them, without making any sort of effort to find cover, duck, zigzag, call in reinforcements or exhibit any of the other types of behaviors that we’ve seen in other Quake II-powered games. Some of the enemies are too big to fit through openings in corridors or doorways and are not bright enough to bend or twist themselves. As a result, a huge rocket-launching monstrosity that might otherwise pose a problem for the player will essentially become “stuck,” allowing the player to stand back and pick it off at leisure. Even the “boss” enemies proved to be ridiculously stupid and simple to kill, from Medusa all the way through the final battle with Mishima.

The game’s artistic style is primarily made up of heavy black lines and Golden Age comic art (like Jack Kirby). Thick black lines surround every outline of a character model, from their futuristic monochrome armor to their bizarre, ropy muscles. This effect is not helped by the Quake II engine’s limitations on character animations. The combination of the art and stiff motion make the various models move about as realistically as Gumby. Daikatana’s poor appearance (such as the Grecian level’s tendency to be flatly or overly lit, or the eye-watering greens of the beginning swamp levels) can likely be chalked up to the fact that, when it began life almost four years ago, it was originally intended to run on the original Quake engine.

As amateurish as the art is, it is only surpassed by the particularly horrible choices in sound effects. As we noted in our summation of the demo, it’s as if the development team went out of its way to find the most aurally unpleasant sound files to use for every aspect of the game. Daikatana provides one of the most unsettling listening experiences in the history of games. We literally cannot imagine playing this game with headphones on.

If this game had come from a small group of developers who had never before worked on a videogame, it would not have surprised us. The impression that Daikatana left on us was that of a young team with a fuzzy goal in mind but no real idea how to get there. The fact that the game was released by a developer with as much collective experience as Ion Storm is deeply unfortunate — exactly as unfortunate as the release of Dominion. Daikatana is a meandering, pointless comic book with very few redeeming features, but perhaps its saddest legacy is that a year from now, we’ll have forgotten about it entirely.