A fantastic handheld spinoff focusing on the loudmouth Ottsel that brings some brilliant new gameplay ideas to the table.
|Developer||Ready at Dawn|
|Franchise||Jak & Daxter|
World-building & Story
Set during the two-year gap between the ending of Jak & Daxter: The Precursor Legacy and Jak II, Daxter follows Jak’s ever-faithful sidekick as he adapts to life in the unfamiliar Haven City and begins to find work and forge new alliances. His ultimate goal is to find and free his best friend though and this forms the major part of the narrative.
Daxter slots beautifully in to the over-arching Jak narrative, filling in an interesting gap in the story that went previously untold. The bits of the plot that do follow his attempts to find his buddy are surprisingly well done, capturing the tone and feel of the second entry in the series – it’s just these sections are few and far between, mostly coming at the end of the game which leaves the overall story feeling rather oddly paced with large stretches of not much happening.
Outside of these sections, the game introduces a new set of characters for Daxter to interact with ranging from the fatherly Osmo to his skater son Ximon, although you are treated to the odd cameo from series regulars like Errol or Veger. The main issue with this new cast is that they’re fairly lacking in personality compared to characters from the mainline series – there’s a woman who helps out Daxter with new weapon modifications, but I couldn’t tell you her name or what overall bearing she had on the plot.
An even bigger problem comes in the fact that these people are never seen again in the chronologically later entries – now that may just be the superfan in me being too critical, but its baffling that Daxter would never mention Osmo again after working for him for nearly two years. Still, aside from this issue the orange fuzzball is as brilliant a character as ever, full of zinging one-liners and bitter sarcastic humour that made him such a hit in the first place.
The world here is as brilliantly crafted as ever too – Haven City is the same overwhelming metropolis as ever, but doesn’t quite have the same foreboding propaganda-heavy feel it did previously as Baron Praxis doesn’t have his iron grip on the area yet. Ready at Dawn have done a fantastic job of taking the same areas from Jak II and compacting them down to fit on PSP, so they feel nostalgically familiar and brilliant without being a drain on performance.
Presentation & Sound
Undoubtedly a fantastic technical achievement for the PSP, Daxter is a gorgeous game that still holds up to this day even when compared to Vita-native ports of the original titles. Expressive character models, gorgeous scenery and beautiful environmental work combine to create something you’ll never tire of looking at.
As with all the other entries in the series, characters are designed to be Pixar-esque exaggerated versions of reality, with cartoon-y animations and reactions. This is fully in tact here – Ximon is a Californian surfer with a laid-back attitude and his backwards baseball cap and baggy clothes emphasise this, while Kaeden is a more stuffy and uptight character in smarter clothes. The animations are what make the game though – particularly Daxter, who swings his bug swatter with gusto and has an amusing idle moveset doing handstands.
The areas you’ll run through are gorgeous, although they are split into two distinct types. The streets of Haven City are as you’d expect – metallic, downbeat and full of sharp edges, but as with Jak II once you get outside the city walls you’re treated to some beautiful places. One minute you might be running through a man-eating plant infested hotel full of bright greens and purples, the next you’re in an autumnal lumber mill which mixes orange falling leaves with the gushing of rivers and water. These are truly a visual treat and particular highlight, especially when they follow on from a more standard dank sewer or mining site.
Sound is as good as ever too – voice acting is spot-on, with the side cast being fitting but Daxter’s VA putting in a brilliant performance as always. Things like the ‘whoosh’ of the teleporters or whirring of a zoomer engine are present and correct too, with new sounds added like the splat of Daxter swatting a bug. Music is probably the least impressive part of the package but it’s never bad – just average, with a handful of decent tracks.
Gameplay & Content
By reverting to the platformer-centric gameplay of the first Jak & Daxter but with some nice new bells and whistles (as well as a couple of additions from Jak II), Daxter strikes a delicate balance that makes it an absolute joy to play.
The plot follows Daxter as he works for an extermination agency tasked with eliminating bug infestations in Haven City. Given a fly swatter, he’s sent out to various locations ranging from swanky hotels to underground subways to help get rid of any critters he finds there – which usually involves some kind of platforming challenge to reach some of the more remote areas. He can jump, double jump and crawl into small spaces, all of which have to be used to varying degrees.
Compared to Jak, Daxter controls similarly but due to his more diminutive nature isn’t able to pull off the same platforming feats – so is given a new set of tools that change the way he plays. The biggest addition is his bug spray – acting as a gun allowing him to stun bugs he encounters, you’ll quickly discover this can also double as a hover pack allowing Daxter to cover large gaps while using up the spray. As the game progresses, you’ll unlock new attachments for the bug spray including a flamethrower and ultrasonic blast, both of which allow him to reach new heights.
Many of the late-game platforming challenges revolve around using these sprays to overcome obstacles and quite frankly they’re all brilliant fun, evoking that classic Jak & Daxter feel with a new twist. Things like making your way through a library full of laser grids by climbing the bookcases and hovering between the gaps in the lasers is smart and enjoyable and even though I died repeatedly, I was really enjoying the challenge and creativity of it all.
Of course, the aim of the game (aside from rescuing Jak) is to exterminate bugs and sadly combat is less enjoyable – the insects you come across tend to move erratically and can be difficult to hit, although once you get the extra spray mods this became less of an issue. They’re particularly annoying on things like the netting Daxter can climb as your movement is restricted during these sections but theirs isn’t – meaning a lot of getting hit from directions you can’t really anticipate.
Every now and again you’ll also come across a boss – a giant bug that needs dispatching following a specific pattern as is common in the 3D platformer genre. These reminded me of the boss battles from the Spyro the Dragon series in that they take place in purpose-made 3D arenas – they’re equally fun too, although a little too easy at times, rarely evolving beyond their initial ideas.
To get around to the bug-exterminating missions, Daxter places you in a pseudo open-world version of Haven City. I say ‘pseudo’ because this isn’t the expansive metropolis seen in Jak II – instead it’s been trimmed down to a few hub areas, which are still mightily impressive for the PSP and are interesting enough to drive around (as well as containing very smartly-done loading screens such as elevators or travelators). You can’t hijack zoomers to get around, but you are given a little scooter to cover distance on the ground.
In fact, vehicles do feature a good amount in the game, with Daxter piloting various hovercraft throughout a range of side missions. These usually involve driving round areas such as forests or waterfalls and taking out giant bugs – although in a nice twist on expectations, you’re tasked with manning a cannon during an on-rails section during a later mission. They’re always fun and serve as a nice reminder of the universe Daxter is now living in, full of futuristic mechanical creations in amongst natural beauty.
As with Ratchet & Clank: Size Matters, the title features mini-games heavily although they’re decidedly better implemented here than in Ratchet. It could be as simple as sliding down a wire and dodging left and right to miss obstacles, or something more complicated such as hacking a security terminal. There are also unlockable ‘dream sequences’ that play like button-prompt rhythm games and are based on Daxter dreaming he’s in various films like Braveheart or the Matrix – these were hilarious and a surprising amount of fun.
As a final note here, some of the levels are just brilliant in their design and really enjoyable to make your way through – the lumber mill is a particular highlight thanks to its branching design, meaning there are a number of routes you can tackle in whatever order you please (something that was common among the levels in Daxter). They reminded me of the best parts of The Precursor Legacy such as Sentinel Beach, which really is high praise.
Length-wise, you’re looking at around 7-8 hours to make it to the end of the game although there is incentive to return to collect all the precursor orbs and golden bug-gems. You can also collect combat bugs which can be battled in ad-hoc mode with a friend, but this didn’t provide the same incentive to return for me.
A shining example of how to make a handheld spin-off of a console IP while still being a brilliant game in its own right, in Daxter Ready at Dawn have crafted one of the PSP’s must-have titles. Story issues aside, the tight platforming, varied gameplay and beautiful graphics hold up remarkably well and turn the game into a true classic.