It's been awhile since Jak and Daxter teamed up for a proper adventure. The last true team-up was Jak III in 2004, then there was the "WTF" kart racer known as Jak X, and then the Ottsel struck out on his own in 2006's portable Daxter. After those titles, Naughty Dog ditched the PS2 and moved on to Uncharted on the PS3 while Ready at Dawn took its PSP skills to God of War: Chains Olympus. For awhile, Jak and Daxter drifted in the darkness.
Now, High Impact Games is bringing the duo back in Jak and Daxter: The Lost Frontier, a platforming/dogfighting tale landing on the PSP and PS2 this week. For the most part, the title's a return to the simpler days of double-jumping through Jak and Daxter: The Precursor's Legacy (i.e. No Dark Jak), but some technical hitches hold it back from being a completely awesome experience.
Watch Jak get the bad guys in our video review.
The Lost Frontier picks up with Jak, Daxter, and Eco Sage-in-training Keira on the outskirts of existence. Seems the Eco of their world is in an alarmingly short supply, and our trio is trying to get to the bottom of what's going on. Soon, their trusted Hellcat plane is shot down by sky pirates, they meet an old dude with no memory, and Jak starts learning nifty new abilities.
See, because the Eco is all out of whack, Jak can't assume his Dark Jak form -- that all-white monster from previous games. However, throughout your journey, you're going to run into Precursor idols that will grant Jak amazing abilities. He'll be able to slow time, create a bubble shield, generate massive pillars, and create a glowing orb that explodes when shot. These moves play into one of the three main parts of this game -- platforming.
Yes, just like the first Jak game, there are a lot of platforms you need to leap to. There are poles to swing from, switches to throw, and so on. By the end of the game, Jak will have a small arsenal of weapons, but those take a backseat this time around to jumping from one ledge to the next. For the most part, this focus was great. I loved the original Jak game, so there were a couple of moments in here -- namely the puzzles that required me to make a shield, teleport, and think -- where I was able to sit back and just take in how much fun I was having and how much I had missed it.
Trouble is, the PSP is a crappy place to put a platformer; yeah, I said it. The lack of a second analog stick for camera control usually leads to issues, and that's exactly what happens here. Plenty of times the camera was locked to a position where I couldn't see how much room I had to make a jump. Other times, it was way too zoomed in and I couldn't see where the edge of a ledge was. Another drawback is the inability to lock on to bad guys or strafe. This means that I was often surrounded by baddies and just had to run at the screen shooting in hopes of hitting the enemies I knew were somewhere out in front of me.
These issues make The Lost Frontier frustrating when it doesn't need to be.
The next third of the gameplay pie is dogfighting, and it's actually pretty cool. In the beginning, I climbed behind the controls of the Hellcat and found it a bit too sluggish for my taste, but there's this solid customization element to The Lost Frontier that let me make the plane faster, stronger, and all-around more kickass. There are five planes to unlock by playing the missions or purchasing straight up. Each of these planes has weapon and ability slots. You can fill these slots with armor, machine guns, lock-on missiles, speed increases and so on, but you can also unequip the boosts and move them to other planes.
This is an awesome idea. There's a computer terminal in your pirate hangar where you can buy upgrades with the scrap metal you've earned in the sky. Now normally, I'd be very scientific about when to buy wing armor vs. when to buy lasers, but seeing as how I could put anything I wanted on one plane and know that I could remove it and add it to whatever other awesome plane I was going to get later, I just bought whatever sounded good at the time.
In the air, things feel good. The plane is easy to maneuver and the D-pad's special moves such as barrel rolls and immediate 180s are welcome additions. Occasionally, the fighting can get a bit lackluster as you 180-degree flip behind yet another fighter and take him down, but the ability to launch Daxter at planes for a quicktime mini-game where he strips the plane of parts breaks up the monotony of bringing down the normal bad guys.
One issue that applies to dogfighting (and a little bit to platforming) is pacing. It seems the developers just didn't know when to quit designing fights. At one point you have to take out a turret defense system guarding a coastline. This is a gigantic wall made up of three different sections of guns firing like mad. You whittle down all the guns of one of the areas, they fire a missile, Daxter jumps on and takes forever to hack it, and then you pilot it back into the control grid to blow up that section of defense.
The biggest staff wins.
The first time I did this, it was fun. The second time, it was getting a bit long. The third time, Daxter lost his grip on the last part of the missile and I had to do the whole section of taking on the final turret defense again. The fourth time, I was ready to be done with this mission forever and write mean things about it on the Internet.
Without spoiling too much, the final fight in the game is much like this as well. Three things happen over and over and over again until you win. The first few times are fine, but there came a point where I was rolling my eyes as the fight entered another
Piggybacking a bit off of pacing, the story is kind of all over the place in this one. You team up with some sky pirates early on, meet someone who will be important but is pretty forgettable, I didn't know what was going on with the Jak and Keira relationship until the very end of the game, and so on. It's just not an enthralling tale. Now, does it need to be? No, I don't remember the original Jak having much going on in terms of the story and I was confused as all hell by the ending to Jak II. What I do remember about those games is that they were a blast to play. The Lost Frontier isn't as good, but it does provide you with those throwback moments to the platforming era gone by.
The third and final gameplay type we need to touch on is Dark Daxter. Yes, in this game our orange friend gets dosed with a bunch of Dark Eco and mutates into an 8-foot, spiky backed version of himself. He talks like the Hulk, can hurl Eco balls, and can smash through pretty much anything in his tornado mode.
I make no bones about it: I hated Dark Daxter when I'd preview The Lost Frontier because of his crappy dialogue, broken puzzles, and lame visuals. To its credit, High Impact Games fixed a lot of that in the final version of the game. Daxter's dialogue has been touched up to not be so annoying, the puzzles you're in work and are pretty easy to fly through, and tossing a spider on a hole to make a web bridge doesn't look all that bad. Don't get me wrong, I still think that this is the weakest part of the game and found the parts where Daxter's sliding down sewer pipes laughable, but there are very few instances of having to play as this behemoth and when you do, it's not all that bad.
Probably one of the neatest things The Lost Frontier has going for it is a handful of good ol' fashioned side quests. For every city or area you pilot your big pirate ship in the sky to, you'll find someone willing to pay you to help out. There's a bartender who needs you to jump-slam nails into the ground, a pirate radio DJ who needs you to take down an incoming caravan, and more. These missions can get repetitive -- pretty much all of the pirate radio ones had me flying off to a similar spot to blast similar-looking ships -- but their rewards of scrap metal and Precursor orbs (yup, you can trade the eggs for all sorts of game-changing unlockables, like big head mode) are welcome if you're looking to upgrade your fleet or Jak himself.
Even though Jak can't transform into his other self anymore, he is still collecting Eco from fallen foes. He can take this goo to Keira and upgrade his health, his moves, and so on. My initial playthrough took me a little more than seven hours, and I was only able to buy all of the upgrades in two of the four categories, so there is a reason to replay the game if you have some fun -- especially because after beating the title you can play through on Hero mode, a tougher difficulty that brings over all of your items, powers, and upgrades.
Outside of the gameplay issues, one letdown for me is how empty the world Jak and Daxter exist in feels this time around. When I was stomping through the underground pirate town, it was pretty much just my footfalls I heard. There wasn't any ambient cave noise, chatter from the groups of people in the bar, nor was there any sign of life other than people standing around statically. Once in a while, I'd pass a pirate and hear him say something to the effect of "And a bottle of rum," but this was even more jarring because it seemed to be the only line recorded and it didn't get any quieter as I moved away from him. The game is pretty in parts with rich graphics and some good detail, but the majority of environments look the same and none seem to be alive.
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