While Jak 2 and 3 remained competent platformers, many gamers were a little disappointed with the direction the series was headed in - less traditional action in favor of maudlin grittiness and an excess of overwrought gunplay. Sadly, it seemed to be but one example of a genre facing an existential crisis. Sales figures seemed to dictate that buyers loved games with a more mature take on their subject matter, but as was the case with Jak (and others, like Prince of Persia) the changes made often seemed a little misguided and, frankly, immature. With the trilogy (plus knock-off combat racer) now over and Naughty Dog and creator Jason Rubin moving onto other things (see our news story a couple days ago), Daxter for the PSP remains the sole shining beacon for the franchise's rehabilitation. Thankfully, at least in terms of platforming and level design, it is without a doubt the best in the series.
Taking place in-between Jak 2 and 3, you play as the furry Ottsel sidekick, Daxter. Transformed into an animal by Dark Eco in the first game and despite his unchecked bravado, the little guy's never been much for combat until now. Jak's in prison after the events of the second game, so Daxter is left to combat Haven City's bug infestation by working for the last remaining exterminator, Osmo. Apparently, some evil force is controlling these insects and most other bug-busters have been forced out of business due to their inability to control it, but not curmudgeonly old Osmo.
Anyway, the plot is the least important aspect of Daxter. It does provide for some humorous moments and interactions with the expected cast of wacky clients and other characters, but this is still a side story, so it's not going to provide any major revelations. Just about everything else, though, is golden. Some audio issues aside (music is extremely low-key and, in some places, non-existent), Daxter stands tall next to its console brethren. The game really looks just as good as a PS2 title and the series' trademark quality animation remains intact. Daxter is even fur-shaded to make his fuzzy exterior seem more realistic. All in all, this is one of the most graphically impressive games on the PSP. If there's one complaint to be made, it's that the areas in-between levels aren't that exciting. While you do venture out into two districts of Haven City and there are plenty of cars whizzing by overhead, it feels otherwise empty. There are no people walking around in the streets and though the areas you visit are micro-sized compared to their Jak 2 counterparts, they're just big enough to make walking around feel like a chore. Thankfully, you get a scooter to tool around in early on, but if you happen to lose track of it, be prepared to spend a few minutes getting to your next destination.
While the outside world may not be very exciting, the actual missions are a class act in level design. Though I've cited Naughty Dog already in this interview, the game was actually developed by newcomer Ready at Dawn, so they deserve all of the props for their technique. Daxter will have to traverse all kinds of industrial and domestic areas to rid Haven City of its infestation. The first few missions start you off in hotels and the basements of breweries, but later on you'll tackle construction sites, transit depots, tankers, canneries, etc. Filled with all kinds of machinery and traps as they are, these locales provide ample possibilities for good platforming and the developers have really put that knowledge to good use. To break it up, there are some more idyllic areas with foliage, streams, and other natural elements. Honestly, it never gets boring because there is always something new and challenging around the next corner. The attention paid to rhythm and design is why Daxter is such a shining example of its genre.
While you'll come across the usual pitfalls, spike traps, and other familiar platforming conventions, there are also some interesting mechanics that feel new and fresh like springs that need to be heated up to uncoil or hopping trains to avoid oncoming utility fences in the underground. Daxter's two main weapons are an electric flyswatter for melee attacks and a short-range gas canister for stunning insects (or killing them when you get the flamethrower/sonic attachments). You can also use gas to propel Daxter over gaps and other obstacles or hit triangle to make him crouch and crawl under them or through tight spaces. The game really keeps the mechanics simple compared to other recent platformers, which is a blessing in this case. There's just enough variety in the level design to justify it while not overextending Daxter's capabilities so much that it becomes unnecessarily complicated. Other series like Insomniac's Ratchet and Clank have suffered from this problem - with each sequel, new gadgets are added in addition to the old ones, meaning that each one is used less and you wonder why they even bothered to include it in the first place. Not so with Daxter, as everything in your arsenal gets some good use.
Not to mention that the controls are quite good, especially considering complaints considering the sensitivity of the PSP's analog nub in other games. Daxter controls like an ace, though, with L and R controlling the camera and the d-pad used to switch gas can attachments and access the first-person freelook. Most people should have no trouble besides the once-in-awhile camera jiggle in specific areas.
The entire game will probably take the average player 8-10 hours, which is satisfactory for a platformer, especially a portable one. The great thing is that besides traipsing around the overworld and the occasional mini-game which can break up the action, it's constantly engaging. Speaking of mini-games, most of them are of the button-matching variety. Hit the correct button as you're prompted on-screen a certain number of times and you win. You'll sometimes find these as parts of actual levels, but mostly they're optional. Each one is a parody of a popular movie like The Matrix or Lord of the Rings and you can access them by hopping on top of Daxter's bed in Osmo's shop. Each one is unlocked after obtaining a certain number of Precursor Orbs and you can play them multiple times for high scores, although completing each once will reward you with a new technique or health increase. After completing all the mini-games, every 100 Orbs you collect after that will give you a secret cheat of some sort. It should also be noted that Daxter features a limited multiplayer mode where you can pit bugs you've captured in the main game against each other in Pokemon style battles that play out a little like rock-paper-scissors with some special abilities to tweak the formula. It's fun for a few minutes, but it doesn't seem engaging enough that most would actually play it with other people.
The PSP seems to be handy platform for reviving down-trodden series like Syphon Filter. Daxter does the same thing for the Jak franchise. It's just a really, really well-made platformer and probably one of the best to come along in quite some time. Ready at Dawn has some talent as a developer and it'll be interesting to see if they ever tackle a game of their own design, but for now they can be commended for their excellent work on Daxter. Fans of the genre really need to pick this game up. Even if you aren't, the accessibility and fun factor make it worthy of anyone's money.
3/24/2006 Cavin Smith