Mass Media provide a sloppy porting of Naughty Dog’s seminal PS2-era platformer that manages to outshine any performance niggles to be a worthwhile recommendation.
World-building & Story
Jak & Daxter takes place in an un-named world and follows the titular characters on a quest to restore Daxter to his human form after he falls into a tub of ‘dark eco’ which transformed him into a weasel-otter hybrid named an ‘ottsel’.
World-building is front and centre in this title and remains by far the most interesting aspect. This is a fantasy land governed by sages who control various types of ‘eco’ – coloured energy which bestows different effects on whoever it touches. It’s a land full of ancient ruins; magically-lit caves and rolling green vistas, which makes it an absolute joy to explore.
As you venture through the various areas of this planet, the game slowly explains a number of secrets about its history. Yet while some things are resolved, even more is left to mystery – such as the precursors, ancient beings whose relics become the main collectable in the game. It’s obvious this is meant as the first title in a series, but I don’t feel the game really suffers for this as you’ll end up using your own imagination to fill in any blanks.
The actual story itself is standard fair – a modest beginning that leads to a ‘save the world’ plot, but where it shines is in characterization. Even though every character is drawn with a broad brush – Daxter is the chatty sidekick; Samos is the grumpy elder, it’s hard not to love the cast after spending time with them. There’s a real sense of camaraderie between the team and you’ll quickly care about the fate of each of the main cast. My only criticism is that the antagonists – Gol and Maya – are grossly under-used and barely pose a threat throughout most of the game.
Presentation & Sound
As an early PS2 game ported over to the Vita, Jak & Daxter could have been a visual disappointment compared to current-gen titles but you really couldn’t tell its origins by looking at it. So many elements of the presentation hold up so well today that it can genuinely hold its own against native titles.
For starters, character models all choose an exaggerated cartoon-y look which is instantly recognizable. What is most impressive about these is the animations – Keira struts as she walks around; Daxter nearly flies off Jak when a spin attack happens etc. This extends to enemies, who all move in a unique and amusing manner which really adds life to the game.
Even interactive objects in the environment feature a similar attention to detail – collectables such as power cells glimmer and rotate; plants spit out precursor orbs with force when hit; eco jump pads shimmer when activated to entice you over to them etc.
The most stunning part of the presentation – for me – was the environment itself. Particularly the early chapters features some stunning vistas with incredible draw distance that were just a joy to look at – frequently I would just stop and admire these (and take many screenshots!) Unfortunately the latter part of the game features more confined spaces which aren’t as impressive, but still have plenty of visual quirks that make them fun to navigate through.
It’s also worth noting that Naughty Dog employ a spectacular use of colour throughout the adventure. This is an incredibly vibrant game – right down to the use of primary coloured eco as your powerups. The developers ensure you’ll journey through beautiful green fields; white snowy castles and foreboding red lava tunnels. This is all par for the course for platform games but somehow the landscapes remain memorable here thanks to some beautiful design.
Sound is similarly high quality – while music is mostly just background noise and nothing too spectacular, both sound effects and voice acting remain impressive. There’s a definite noise for every action in the game, whether it’s a spin attack or hitting a crate – each as exaggerated as you’d expect, but this adds character. Similarly through the voice acting – whether it’s Daxter’s enthusiastic whelps or Samos’ grumpy dismissals, every character is brought to life by the VA (aside from Jak, who remains a silent protagonist).
Gameplay & Content
A classic 3D collectathon platformer through and through, Jak & Daxter still employs a few tricks which set it apart from even modern titles. Most notably, the games impressively boasts zero load times once you’re in the actual world – although a few clever tricks are used to mask transitions between areas. It’s still mighty impressive to witness a world you can run end to end without ever waiting for a bar to load, especially in an early PS2 title.
Core gameplay consists of every platforming element in the book – the duo can jump and double jump; spin kick and charge punch and any combination of the above in order to clear certain obstacles in the environment. Throughout your adventure you’ll gain powerups through coloured eco which give you abilities such as increased speed; strength or the ability to shoot projectiles and the level design will change to encompass these skills.
And in general, level design is extremely tight – each zone is designed to be as open as possible to allow you to explore at your leisure, yet intricate enough to hide specific challenges around every corner. This means that you’re able to hone your skills in each of these areas yet if you’ve ever had too much, you’re usually able to backtrack and undertake a different route to progress.
As with any great platformer, there’s a smattering of items to collect. The game’s main currency is precursor orbs which can usually be found throughout the levels as well as in every hidden nook and cranny. Less common are power cells – the items needed to progress forward in the story, which are awarded for completing certain challenges or bought from locals (which happens far too often in the late game – possibly the result of a rush to get the game to shelves). Finally there are scout flies – hidden in boxes which must be smashed to collect, with 7 awarding a power cell.
To mix things up, Naughty Dog inject other elements into the gameplay at regular intervals – be it mini games such as catching fish or shooting rats to flying on a futuristic zoomer. While these range from incredibly frustrating (fishing) to tolerable (riding vehicles), they achieve their objective in adding variety and provide a fun distraction for the most part.
All of these elements to combine to create a challenging – but fun – 3D platformer. Your reflexes and occasionally wits will definitely be challenged here, but for the most part I found Jak & Daxter to be a fair game in terms of difficulty. What adds to the challenge more than anything, unfortunately, is the results of the porting process by Mass Media.
Make no mistake – this is one of the lowest quality ports on Vita, plagued with issues from graphical bugs to musical glitches which have never been fixed. What’s most frustrating here is the framerate – which is unstable and low throughout and can sadly impact gameplay as button commands don’t always register. One thing worth pointing out is that things definitely get better as the game progresses – the framerate in Sandover Village in the beginning is much worse than the spider cave from a later zone for some odd reason.
In spite of all of the issues listed above, I’d still recommend the game on Vita if you’re a fan of the genre, as Jak & Daxter’s strengths far outshine these weaknesses, but it’s definitely something to be wary of and something that did frustrate my playthrough.
In terms of content there’s a fair amount to do here, but I was able to knock out the platinum trophy in a weekend and there were some moments in the game that I felt were cut back due to time constraints (such as a pair of diggers in the final zone who you can buy a total of four power cells from).
Based on the stories I’ve heard about its development, it’s quite possible Jak & Daxter is a game simply too ambitious for Vita thanks to PS2 technical wizardry pulled off by Naughty Dog. While the technical shortcomings are there and undeniably impact the experience, the game is still a fantastic platformer full of fun gameplay, beautiful scenery and some real heart that make it well worth trying in spite of its flaws.