What do you a call a goggle wearing, fast talking, half otter and half weasel sidekick? Daxter apparently, the ‘Ottsel’ that has accompanied Jak in the popular ‘Jak and Daxter’ series on Playstation 2. Yet this time Daxter is going alone, debuting on the Sony Playstation Portable. After the disappointing Jak X: Combat racing, can our favourite orange furball redeem the franchise?
To put it bluntly, I was a little sceptical about Daxter. Nearly every platformer I’ve experienced that focuses on some kind of spin-off character has been lacklustre; Shadow the Hedgehog, Luigi’s Mansion, Freshly-Picked Tingle’s Rosy Rupeeland… yeah, I think you get the picture. Yet this title has surprised me, developer Ready at Dawn has managed to pack in everything that made the Jak series so enjoyable on the Playstation 2 and then simply continued to add fresh ideas. The visuals are simply beautiful too, raising my awareness of what can be achieved in gameplay and graphically on a handheld system.
The story starts out between the first and second games, when Daxter’s best friend Jak is captured and locked in prison. During these years in limbo it seems like Daxter has a lot to do though when he is approached and hired by an old man named Osmo. Osmo runs a shop exterminating bugs and before you know it, you’ve been kitted out with your very own electric fly swatter. Yup, for this entire game you’re going to be cleaning out bugs in the heart of Haven City. Perhaps not the most exciting premise, but it’s unique and gives the series a much needed twist. With Daxter in charge there is plenty of humorous dialogue, no longer restricted by the often solemn Jak. Most of it hits home too, I found myself frequently having to stifle a giggle on a busy train journey.
If you’ve never played Jak and Daxter before, the concept is fairly simple. This is a classic platformer, focussed on collecting, timing jumps and exploration. With each mission you will be walking into a new area and given a near identical task; exterminate the bugs, collect all of the yellow gems that they drop and then hunt for the precursor orbs. Sometimes the objectives will differ with hives or queen insects, but at its core this is a very tried and tested affair. For the most part, this works perfectly: new platformers are hard to come by and so to find one of this calibre, without unnecessary combat is rare. The level design is varied and challenging too, taking you from the tops of moving trains to the depths of underground sewers. Finding the next viaduct to crawl through will tease you into taking in the environments, the amount of detail and style jumping out at you from almost every angle. Haven city feels expansive and alive; in no way dumbed down from the Playstation 2 outings.
After a few hours of helping local residents, you’ll be rewarded with your alternate weapon, a spray gun that later transforms into a flamethrower and sonic blaster. This can be used to take out large quantities of foes, but more interestingly is needed to glide across large gaps. The amount of fuel in your spray gun’s tank is limited, so finding the correct balance of double jumps and hovering is crucial to progressing through the hazardous levels. It’s a basic mechanic that feels surprisingly rewarding; I’m an OCD collector in games and finding out how to reach that distant ledge for the last precursor orb gives such a large and simple pleasure.
There are a few alternative game mechanics along the way, such as a riding a ‘zoomer’ scooter to chase after vehicles and bosses. As you collect the orbs you’ll be rewarded with dream sequence mini-games, which require you to perfect a series of quick time events and button presses. They all satire well known movies such as The Matrix and Indiana Jones, giving a short but much needed relief from the main storyline. Completing these with high scores will improve your health or earn new moves, giving a nice incentive to come back and play again.
As I previously mentioned, the presentation in Daxter is simply superb. When I played Mario 64 on the Nintendo DS for the first time I was impressed, but the graphics here are at a whole other level again. The animation of Daxter is fluid and natural, especially when he is scaling walls or crawling through small gaps. He might be an Ottsel, but our hero moves more like a cunning lizard. With minimal to zero load times, the hub city is easy to navigate and never a hindrance to the flow of the game. The engine used here is flawless and should be given as a standard for other handheld developers to learn from.
The sound never particularly stood out to me, but was more than adequate throughout my time playing. Daxter’s voice acting by Max Casella is excellent and the music is fitting/ reminiscent of the other Jak and Daxter titles. The smaller sound effects too, such as a bug squishing or a scooter revving into life all add up to an immersive experience.
Every game must have its flaw though and this one also happens to be Daxter’s biggest strength. The PSP adventure maybe a return to simple classic platforming, but the consequence is a very repetitive nature. Aside from a fairly shallow multiplayer mode involving ‘combat bugs’, the game is linear and forces you from mission to mission with little variety. You can always backtrack through previous levels, but you’ll always have the same objective; collecting, collecting and more collecting.
If you love adventure games such as Ratchet and Clank, Banjo-Kazooie or Sly Cooper you’ll be right at home with Daxter on the PSP. In the absence of a new Jak game this more than fills the void, offering an excellent title that you can sink more than a dozen hours into. It sets the bar for what the PSP is capable of graphically and brings the platforming genre comfortably up to modern standards. I certainly recommend trying this if you’re a PSP owner, especially for those double jump enthusiasts out there.