FBT is about to make Daikatana his bitch. But can’t without his buddy Superfly.
Daikatana is shorthand for “gaming fail”, but that’s as much it’s pained development as the actual game. It never had a chance; reviewers were gleeful in their takedowns after all the hype and baiting that came out of Ion Storm – 18 years on and contemporary reviews still include clumsy rewrites of Masters of Doom’s final chapters. It's true, the development and the game are so linked it’s like playing Ion’s self-destruction but does it need that context now? Can you ignore all that baggage and play Daikatana purely on its own merits?
In the 25th Century the world is a disease-ridden place run by a single dictator, Mishima. Our hero, Hiro, is a sword-master (they still need swords in the Buck Rogers era?) is visited by an old man who explains Mishima wields a magical Daikatana and has been using it to alter history to his advantage. Why didn’t he just go back and buy a load of Apple shares if he wanted to rule the world? Hiro our hero is one of the few who could wield the Daikatana, so it’s off to fix the past and save the future, and maybe end up killing his own grandfather or something equally paradoxical.
At its core, Daikatana is great. The characters, twisting time-travel plot and the changing locations make for a great situation to find yourself shooting through. It does bear a resemblance to Quake; the changing time-zones and situations, but whereas Quake had only a quick “why we’re here” pep-talk for a narrative, Daikatana has a rich story experience; it really works as one of those post Half-Life era transitional shooters where we left Doom’s “find the red key” behind in favour of a story you wanted to see through.
Hiro must recover Mikiko, the old man’s daughter who disappeared in Mishima’s offices while searching for the Daikatana herself – problem is, Hiro has no idea where she is - but there is a guy who does, and he is one bad mother -*shut yo mouth*- talkin’ about Superfly.
Superfly Johnson is basically Isaac Hayes with a shotgun. His voice is so bass it vibrated my speakers. And that’s not a euphemism. He is the ultra-cool, hip, honeyed-voice of reason, the ‘heart’ of the gang and the first to point out “what the hell” when things happen. And a lot happens. Once we recover the more taciturn Mikiko, who’s all business, it’s Daikatana time - but no sooner have we recovered it when Mishima rocks up and has it too, from an alternate timeline. Because both swords existing in the same timeline could cause the universe to implode if they touched (just like that Van Damme movie), Mishima can’t risk battling Hiro so uses his sword to bounce them around time, while Hiro learns how to wield its power.
Our first stop is Ancient Greece to battle Medusa before heading to the Dark Ages, where curing a plague is in order, before Mishima’s stronghold in the 2030s for a final showdown because, presumably, Mishima ran out of time-periods. Oh there’s also the ghost of that old man knocking about who helps Hiro master the Daikatana. Or maybe it’s not him; I was distracted looking for my buddy Superfly.
Superfly and Mikiko are perhaps the most derided sidekicks in gaming, more so than bloody Natalya. Yet, they have their own backstories, impact and presence; the way they and their motivations are threaded into the plot is better done than most modern games where sidekicks just tag along or act as our Hypeman; those guys are invested – Superfly to deliver a can of whoopass to those who wronged him, and Mikiko to avenge her father and put right her ancestor’s legacy. A tremendous amount of effort has gone into them, into making them a critical part of this adventure. And then the cut-scenes end and …
Once Superfly and Mikiko are free it all goes to hell. If we could get there. They pay you no attention, wander off, stop moving, get lost, fall off things or get stuck in them, walk into obvious dangers, refuse to take orders and even take off when the fighting starts. Then they come skulking back when the coast is clear. Having one errant sidekick is bad enough, but two? It’s impossible to corral them. You have four basic commands but they don’t really work and you have to switch between sidekicks so by the time you’ve stopped Superfly walking off a cliff, Mikiko’s disappeared. If anything, this game has given me a new appreciation of games like Mass Effect and how they managed sidekicks. Mikiko? Stay there, I'm just gonna go look for ...
... you don't even get a warning they're under attack, just a Game Over (not that you'd be able to find them in time...) They misbehave too; they'll promise “I’ll wait here” and when you return - they’ve gone. And they can go for miles – which leads to the biggest issue and one that surely must have occurred to the Devs at the time. You can’t pass through a loading screen without them, getting “I can’t leave without my buddy Superfly/Mikiko”. If they're there, they'll take their sweet-ass time to reach the exit, but if not ... it’s backtrack time; it’s not an overstatement to say a quarter of my time was spent trying to find them. Daikatana is like a FPS Hide and Seek. Worse, you might have Superfly but not Mikiko so you go look for her, get lost, find her, walk her back only to find Superfly’s now gone … Shooters rely on quick thinking and quick moving. You can’t be in shooter mode and protect mode; I have a new-found respect for parents with toddlers, you look away for a second and they’re gone. Daikatana is one long escort mission and that overwhelms the fun. Fan-made mods remove or alter them to make it easier but come on, they're ruinous. Oh, this level looks interesting, let's ...
So the sidekicks are a major, game-breaking problem. But the huge variations of creatures, weapons and time-periods make up for it, right? Sure, but first we have to deal with frogs. Frogs!? What were they thinking? But they’re cyber-frogs. Okay. Cyber-frogs?! What were they thinking?! Why would a super-villain even think about wasting R&D time inventing Borgified Frogs? And then it’s mozzies dive-bombing you. Those things are worse than Fallout’s Botflies. Why is the first level just looking up at the sky or down at the ground?! To hide the fact that the opening levels are a murky brown, green, yellow as we push through a … I don’t even know where we are. I thought we were headed for Mishima’s building? You went via a swamp and the sewers? Can’t just find a side entrance Hiro?
Mishima’s building is fairly standard corridor shooter stuff, but throughout there’s NCPs that do nothing but blurt nonsensical lines and run screaming. There’s so many it’s like Serious Sam in reverse and the noise of their collective shrieking is deafening. Plus we meet scientists doing horrible experiments but they disregard Hiro even when I shoot a couple. Why do the janitors run screaming but the guys we’re more likely to be interested in ignore us? Then there’s the level design. It’s incredibly uneven. Some levels work quite nicely, others are a complete mess of backtracking and illogical layouts. And it doesn’t look great either. The art design is basic like you’re on low settings and the cut-scenes are jerky and ugly; I was never a fan of the Quake engines, finding the 3D actually made the world less vibrant than Doom or fluid like the Build Engine, but Daikatana is a game I imagined would have an energy to it, detail, but it’s often got a ‘fuck it’ look to it.
Ancient Greece is more like Ray Harryhausen’s Ancient Greece. We battle giant spiders, skeletons, iron gladiators - it’s by far the best episode, more open, interesting and experimental, and while Dark Ages is bleak and fantastical, the final sequence is largely a reheat of the first with more repeating NCPs and similar fights. The game had 24 levels all in, split between those 4 locations but they all outstay their welcome by 2-3 levels. If Mishima had just managed to squeeze in one more trip it might have flowed better. The main problem is they’re effectively reskins. While each is a different look and has its own set of weapons and nasties, your experience never varies – had Greece seen us doing swords only, Dark Ages had a bit of magic and the final base all sci-fi or facing the horrors that were implied in Mishima’s first headquarters it might have gotten interesting; or have the areas impact Hiro in some way so he’s prepared for his Shogun Showdown – not that it would matter, yo're too busy looking for Laurel and Hardy anyway.
Like the Daikatana, I’m split on how I feel about this game. It’s both brilliant and frustrating. From a distance, Daikatana is pure genius; but when you get into it, nothing works; the cutscenes reveal a great story but go on for huge amounts of time draining any drama. The trio of heroes develop dynamics but never really build on them, the creatures are interesting but because of the level-sizes they get repetitive and each time-period is great to get into then dull mid-way through. And as a shooter, it’s effective but spoilt by the brats wandering off or getting their skulls split.
As much as I hate to admit it, Daikatana just isn’t very good. It reminds me of SiN - a well-intentioned failure that tried but didn’t quite land it, but Daikatana just crashes.
Although I said I’d ignore the development (and not rip off Masters of Doom) there are elements to Daikatana’s background that should be repeated more often; the game was made by kids Romero hired after playing their Doom WADs; for a Triple-A Development Studio to hire kids whose only skillset was killing it at Doom is huge (okay, maybe it was a folly, they had no idea what they were getting into, but neither did Romero when he made Doom) and many of those guys went onto great game careers. But most importantly, it shows that Romeo’s Ion Storm was all about the gamer in a time when the tech was becoming the most important thing. We care how it looks and how it plays, but what we remember is why we were there and what we did; one of my fave games is Indy and the Last Crusade (1989) and it’s not because of how it renders the fine leather jackets I'm selling. It's the soul of a game you get, and that’s what Romero shot for – maybe we’d have less reskins and reheats if more Devs took his lead.
Daikatana, if I’m honest, is an awful game, but it’s heart was in the right place – and nowadays it seems there’s no place for heart in gaming. Ironically, games could do with more Superfly.
2000 | Developer Ion Storm, Publisher, Square Enix
Platform; Win (Steam)