Unlike most bad games, I didn’t find Daikatana boring to play through. Around the time the game came out, the bar was being raised every year at an unprecedented rate. Both technology and game design was making incredible leaps, unlike today when things are relatively stable. So when I say Daikatana feels like a game from 1997, that was a bigger deal in 2000 than it would be today to play something three years old. The animation system, combat feel, the philosophies guiding the level design felt like relics when it came out. Even though parts of the game feel competent, displaying the skills you’d expect from an experienced team, the result is something that just wasn’t fated for success when it came out. The world had moved on.
On the face of it, Daikatana isn’t a bad idea. It was inspired by Chrono Trigger, blending FPS and RPG elements, like almost every game does today. Even Doom 4 has RPG elements. It’s a time travel story, where the people of the future discover that their reality is the product of a tyrant who rewrote time the way he liked it. So you travel through Ancient Greece, Medieval Europe, future San Fransisco, and even further in the future Japan to stop him. Every setting has different enemies and weapons, and uses different styles of level design, showcasing a broad range of “level design vocabulary”. This is the most successful aspect of the game, as it shows that you can have both linear levels in the style of Quake or Doom, in combination with hub style areas of Hexen 2 in the same game without any feeling of inconsistency. This might be the last of the truly old school FPS that was released. The way you move, and the way areas are designed feels nothing like modern “old school” shooters like Shadow Warrior, Serious Sam 3 or Hard Reset. They’re of a different school of design, while Daikatana feels exactly like the same tree of evolution as Doom, Quake, Hexen and Heretic.
There’s no doubt Daikatana is a bad game. But it feels like it could’ve been good, had it somehow retained staff for long enough to polish the animations and AI to make fights have some semblance of strategy. But because of circumstances like changing engines to keep up with modern tech, and the scope of the project, it was delayed immensely. Did the people working on it see how other games were moving on, while they worked on something that felt retro, and lose faith in it? Is that why the entire staff changed multiple times? There were periods when John Romero was working on the game all alone at the office. It’s still a fascinating story of mismanagement. And because of the ideas guiding the design still feeling like good ones, I have a lot more respect for Daikatana than something like Aliens Colonial Marines or Duke Nukem Forever, which are bad in a way that’s more loathsome than this. 16 years later, I’m still rooting for John Romero to make a comeback.