Naughty Dog, Insomniac, and Sucker Punch have become a triple-threat for Sony after having created a trio of trilogies for the PS2. Naughty Dog's Jak and Daxter first set the bar for great platform gaming on the system and very few releases have topped it, with almost all of the series' competition coming from sister companies Insomniac and Sucker Punch. While the Jak series has thrived on its excellent design, humor also plays a large part of its success, most of it coming from Jak's sidekick Daxter. The little orange Ottsel has thus far only lent a helping hand to his buddy, but now the little guy gets a starring role in his own game on the PSP, the aptly and simply-named Daxter.
One thing about Daxter that I welcome with open arms is its strong adherence to old-school platform gaming. While Sony's own Jak, Ratchet and Sly franchises have inched more and more toward straight-up action games with each release, Daxter's gameplay is almost wholly based on platforming. Sure, there's quite a bit of fighting, but it plays a second, drowned-out fiddle compared to the game's platforming aspects.
It's not just the simple return to skillful jumps and level navigation that makes the game so damn good and refreshing, though -- it's the overall design of almost every aspect of Daxter that puts it a tier above most everything else on the system. This is an extremely polished game through and through.
Like its granddaddy Jak series, the game features extremely refined controls. It's an absolute pleasure moving Daxter around the world, as everything from the refined acceleration and deceleration when stopping and going again to in-air movement, input response and essentially the entire control mechanism has been fine-tuned to no end.
Daxter's movement ties directly into his animation set, and this too is rather phenomenal. Every facet of his being moves in some way during every action; from his ears flopping a bit while he runs to his tail wagging to and fro as he scurries about, Daxter's animation set is on-par with his own on the PlayStation 2, which is to say it's some of the best in the industry. The first time you climb a wall and notice the almost lizard-esque subtleties in his body movement, you'll be sold.
Speaking of climbing walls, key to Daxter's gameplay is its level design, and developer Ready at Dawn has created great set pieces to test the little guy's abilities. The level layout really is paramount to any platformer's success and Daxter features areas that not only work great from a gameplay perspective, but they make sense in the scope of the world as well. While things start out rather simple with gaps you need to jump over, or a series of ledges you need to navigate to progress, things get more complicated (and better) as the game goes on. For example, during one section you need to heat up springs that hold platforms in order to rotate them into position, and then hop onto and off of them before the spring recoils to move on. In a fish factory, you'll need to both create and melt large blocks of ice in order to create platforms, making for a bit of puzzle-solving.
One of my favorite areas of the game is a train station sequence where you need to hop from train to train as they speed along, dodging obstacles while picking up Precursor Orbs as you go. It's cool from a gameplay perspective but it's also a visually exciting scene as well.
There are a few, albeit rare, sections of the game where your route is hidden from view, maybe unintentionally so, especially early on before you know what you're looking for. Quite a few areas in the game are connected via air ducts that you need to crawl through, and some of these are situated in areas that are rather hard to spot, like at the top of clothes cabinets and such. I found that it was harder to spot some of these at the beginning of the game than the end, maybe because I'd learned to search for them if I didn't see an obvious way out of an area, but more likely because some of the early placement is a little awkward.
Aside from his skillful jumping and climbing abilities, Daxter's most important asset in the game is the bug spray canister he acquires near the start of the game. Aside from stunning enemies, Daxter's light weight allows him to use it as a propulsion device to reach new heights and float over large gaps. A flamethrower attachment later on turns this into a more deadly device and one with a little more kick for flying, but its original form is equally useful throughout the course of the game. There are plenty of sections where very large gaps separate you and your destination, farther than a single boost could carry you, but picking up green blobs of bug spray refiller mid-air will keep you afloat for longer. The catch here is that you'll find Precursor Orbs along the way, so you'll risk gravity's wrath if you stray to nab them.
One thing that's a slight bit disappointing, at least for the experienced gamers out there, is that Daxter is a little on the easy side for a fair bit of its length. Up until about halfway through the game, I was cruising through areas will little to no problem. Things pick up mid-way and you'll find some challenging moments here and there, but it's nothing that anyone who's been gaming for a while will have any problem passing. That's not to say that it's not fun 100% of the way through, as it is, but the game does feel as if its challenge was toned down a bit to cater to a wider audience.
One thing that makes the game fairly easy is its checkpoint system. You don't have a finite number of lives so you can try a task over and over again until you pass, and the checkpoints in the game are so close together that you'll really only need to cross a small section before you've hit another. But, there's a very bright side to this as the close checkpoints allow you to pick up again from anywhere in the game thanks to the ability to save at any time. There are autosave areas just to make sure you're set, but you have the ability to manually save, restart the game and then pick up again a very short distance from where you left off. This is incredibly nice considering that we're talking about portable gaming here.
Being able to save anywhere is also important because there aren't really individualized "levels" in the game per se, as the entire world is connected and streams as you roam about. Indeed, Daxter is essentially load time-free once you're in the game. Loading areas are sectioned off by doors, so sometimes you'll have to wait a few seconds for a door to open, but a series of moving cranks and gears helps fake the fact that the door is simply in the process of opening rather than that you're waiting for the UMD to spin a few more times. Great stuff here, no question.
Daxter's use of streaming is hardly its most impressive technological aspect, however. This is one tremendously great looking game, and its audio is certainly no slouch either. From a distance and on the PSP's little display, the game mimics the look and feel of its console brethren extraordinarily well. Granted, there aren't passersby roaming about the streets like on the console, nor are there nearly as many vehicles chugging along through the air, but the environments themselves look fantastic.
Rolling out into one of the outdoor missions, you'll find foliage effects for grass, very detailed trees, running water and more, all drawn well off into the distance. Daxter himself looks pretty damn good for what's capable on the PSP, and I've already talked about the animation quality so you know that's top notch. There are occasional moments of slowdown, but these usually only occur when you're progressing through the city as things load and you're only moving from point-to-point, so it never actually hinders any of the action at all. Really, Daxter is just a great looking title and one of the prettiest on the system so far.
And as mentioned, its audio is stellar as well. Sound effects are great for everything from footsteps to the sound of Daxter's electronic fly swatter pounding on robotic bugs. Bass is aplenty and will test your headphones' ability to reach deep into the tactile area of the low-end. The best aspect of the game's audio however is its soundtrack, which is stellar. Matching the feel of the scores from previous games in the Jak series while putting a slight comedic spin on things, Daxter's soundtrack is just cool. It fits perfectly into the game's metallic world while keeping most of the instrumentation to the analog variety and out of sampled synthesizers. Awesome stuff.
Though the Jak series has always had a fairly strong and involving storyline, Daxter has intentionally taken a different approach to things and its story comes off rather underwhelming. After boasting (read: lying) at the local bar about his heroic exploits, Daxter is convinced to squash a few bugs after promise of compensation. This starts him off on his adventures as an exterminator, and that's about as deep as the story gets for most of the game. You're simply sent out time and time again to get rid of a bunch of bugs, and that's it. Now, there are bigger things behind all of this, and the game does stray a bit to culminate in Daxter's rescue of Jak that you see at the beginning of Jak II, but most of the game is simply a series of bland tasks set ahead of you. Doing the job of smashing bugs is great fun, but the bulk of the story really isn't all that compelling.
Though the game is certainly very linear, there are a few asides that mix things up a bit, like Daxter's various dream sequence mini-games. By collecting Precursor Orbs throughout the game, you'll unlock dreams that Daxter can "partake" in by sleeping. Each of these mock some pop culture film, from the Matrix to Indiana Jones to Lord of the Rings, and they're worth a chuckle or two. They all essentially work in the same fashion where you time marked button presses to get rid of incoming enemies, and they sort of wear thin after a while, but you do earn unlockables for beating each one, like an extended health bar or new fighting moves. So, they're cool in short bursts and it's nice that you earn stuff by completing them, but I doubt you'll be trying to top your best scores for very long.
Another diversion is the multiplayer-capable Bug Combat. Throughout the game you'll find hidden bugs for use in Bug Combat, as well as potions and enhancements that you can use on them to boost their attributes. The game works something along the lines of paper-rock-scissors meets Pokemon as you're able to essentially breed a stable of beasts and then use one of three combat types to take down your opponent. It's a reasonably interesting mini-game as the three attacks work in a cyclical fashion (claw beats fire, fire beats shield, shield beats claw), plus you have the ability to change your attack choice at the last second, allowing you to overtake your opponent. You can play this either against the computer or with a friend via Ad Hoc, where both players can bring in the bugs they've earned and upgraded throughout the game.
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