After more than three years in production, Daikatana, the first game developed entirely in-house by Ion Storm, has been released. And it's pretty bad. Ironically, Daikatana's biggest failures are due in large part to both a lack of imagination and poor design choices - in short, the very principles on which Ion Storm was founded.
Daikatana is a cross between a first-person shooter and a stat-based, story-driven role-playing game. But you get the feeling the game isn't going to tread any new narrative ground early on. Daikatana's opening scene is five minutes of dense, tedious exposition delivered as a virtual monologue by a character who stands still while the camera makes swooping motions around him. At some point in his speech he apparently gets killed but then recovers just enough to deliver another minute of exposition in the classic dying-guy choked gasp. In a sense, the segment does set a mood: Since you realize that Daikatana is supposed to be story-driven, you'll find that the numbing lack of creativity displayed in both the structure and writing of this first scene acts as an ill omen of things to come.
The plot is advanced through periodic in-game cutscenes that are usually shorter than the opening cutscene but equally inane. It's as if whoever wrote the story wasn't aware of the game going on between the plot points. At one point your character Hiro is spooked by the appearance of a ghost after having just dispatched two hundred reanimated skeletons in the previous level. At a later point, characters debate walking through a graveyard. One of them says he has a bad feeling about it, while another chides him for being superstitious. Meanwhile, they've both forgotten that they were battling an entire army of zombies moments ago and that the time for healthy skepticism is over. This sort of disparity between the plot and the gameplay is frequent and gives the story a cheap, threadbare quality that works against any atmosphere the game attempts to build.
The role-playing elements are a wash as well. Hiro has attributes for speed, rate of fire, vitality, power, and jump height. You gain experience by killing monsters, and when enough points are accrued, you can raise one of the attributes a notch, up to a maximum of five per attribute. The problem is that the level raising has little noticeable effect on gameplay. In fact, the entire system could simply be removed from the game, and the experience of playing Daikatana would be virtually unchanged. The Daikatana itself can gain up to five levels if you use the weapon to kill enemies. By the fifth level, it's arguably the most powerful weapon in the game, but it's distracting to carry around because it bisects the screen and has animated blue energy lines flickering around it. It's probably the biggest weapon in shooter history. The sword has a little more effect on the game than Hiro's stats, but it's still ultimately a gimmick that seems more like an afterthought than a tightly integrated feature.
Even with its nonsensical story and irrelevant RPG trappings, Daikatana could still have emerged as a good shooter if the action parts had turned out well. Unfortunately, the action portions of Daikatana frustrate more often than they entertain due to a combination of inconsistent level design, a poorly realized sidekick feature, and an unforgiving save system.
The sidekicks are by far the biggest problem and effectively ruin the experience of playing Daikatana. For much of the game, you're accompanied by up to two computer-controlled companions. They fight alongside of you, give you bits of information, and arbitrarily do things like scream "wazzzzzup?!" more times than they probably should. If either of the sidekicks gets killed, the game is over. Unfortunately, they have a tendency to get lost, shoot you, walk into your line of fire, get crushed under doors, fall to their deaths, get stuck running toward walls, and generally cause you grief. The sidekicks are a burden, and managing them is a chore. Yet unlike the story and statistics, they are a nontrivial part of the game that cannot be ignored. You can give them the same basic commands you would a dog, such as come, stay, back off, and fetch, but they won't always listen to you. It's especially frustrating when your buddies refuse to grab much-needed health packs sitting atop even the gentlest incline.
Daikatana's save system complements the sidekick problem. Eschewing the save-anywhere feature used by virtually every modern shooter, the designers have implemented a system whereby you must find "save gems" in order to save your progress. You can carry as many as three gems at once, which can then be traded at any time for an opportunity to save your game. Progress is also saved at level transitions. In theory, it's not a bad system. It builds tension by creating an actual penalty for death. If death in Daikatana were only caused by your own lack of skill, there would be no problem with the save-gem concept. However, since death is often the result of a failure of the game logic controlling your sidekicks, a save system that could have built tension instead creates acute frustration. In addition, the placement of the gems is inconsistent. Since you have no idea what lies ahead of you or how long each level is, it would have been nice if the designers had placed the gems in such a way that you could infer some meaning from their position. Sometimes the gems are located in a perfect spot for saving, and sometimes they're placed five feet from a level transition. A few of the boss battles that occur in the middle of a level also could have used a gem right afterward.