Review by Rottenwood

Reviewed: 03/20/06

Now We're Getting Somewhere

(I should note here that I've never actually played a Jak and Daxter game before, although I'm certainly planning on it now. So forgive me if I flub some of the basic facts about the series.)

My relationship with my PSP has been rocky of late. I've only felt the urge to buy one game since my purchasing orgy when it launched, and it turned out to be a dud. (Oh, Death Junior! You could've really BEEN something.) But I've been hurting for a good platformer since I finished up Super Princess Peach, and Penny Arcade (a source I trust) spoke quite highly of Daxter, so I decided to take a chance. And I'm very glad I did. The game doesn't do anything particularly new, but it's a very fun and polished platformer, and it stands as a must-own game for any PSP owner with even a passing interest in the genre.

Little Daxter is apparently an 'ottsel,' which is basically a half-otter, half-weasel hybrid. Like most platforming heros, though, he's a humanoid, and he walks and talks like a very short and furry person would. Needless to say, he's also a smart-ass. Platformers starring sassy humanoid animals are a dime a dozen, but if they're done well, I can't overly complain. Daxter (who apparently has nothing else to do) ends up working for a run-down extermination company, and goes out to eliminate the nasty metal bugs that seem to be taking over the city. Needless to say, the bugs are part of a sinister plot by Evil Guys With Creepy Voices. The game is pretty linear, and you'll mostly be moving from location to location, squashing and spraying bugs. At first, you're given only a hand-to-hand weapon, which sort of resembles an electrified spatula. Later on, you get an exterminator's spray gun, which receives various modifications over time, like a nozzle that lets you hover, and the beloved flamethrower attachment.

You get these various knick-knacks from a girl named Taryn who shows up from time to time, and seems to have a vested interest in wiping out the bug problem. Following the laws of Modern Video Game Design, she's very curvy and scantily-clad. Apparently, low-rise jeans and a thong are the ideal protection against vicious metal insects. Please don't get me wrong: I am certainly not opposed to scantily-clad hotties, as a rule. On those very rare occasions where I've found myself entangled with a curvy girl in a thong, they've been highly recommendable experiences. (But remember, kids: be safe about it! And don't take drugs unless you're ABSOLUTELY sure you know the dealer's first name, and can therefore trust him.) But in a game where a cute little ottsel is smacking bugs with an electro-spatula, Taryn seems wildly out of place. Maybe she missed the Dead or Alive Volleyball try-outs? Did the developers think the game would be enhanced by seeing a frisky weasel flirt with a full-sized human? All it did was remind me of those eerie rumors you hear about celebrities bringing gerbils into the bedroom with them. Half-naked bimbos certainly have their place in video gaming; I just don't think that family-friendly platformers are one of them. I know it's a tough business, but I think that software companies need to lower the brutal number of hours they dump on their employees. Giving those poor buggers a little free time to meet women might make everyone feel better all around.

Any minor character-design sins are quickly forgiven, though, once you dig into the gameplay. I'm still not a huge fan of the PSP's analog stick, but it works well enough here in Daxter. The little guy moves quite smoothly, and all of his moves - crawling/sneaking, the obligatory double-jump, melee combination attacks - feel just right. I especially enjoyed the hovering maneuver, where Daxter shoots the extermination gas straight down to push himself off the ground and glide around. The in-air controls are very fluid, and because the game gives you tons of gas refills, I found myself hovering around even when it wasn't necessary, simply because it was fun. If you look at the truly great platformers, like Super Mario World, you'll notice that the simple act of controlling your character can be a pleasure in of itself. (Who doesn't like the simple elegance of cape-flying in Super Mario World?) Daxter enjoys the same feel. There are also occasional vehicular missions here and there, which feature simple flight controls and are relatively easy to beat. Depsite the low challenge of these levels, you'll still enjoy zipping around on the jet bike thingie. In fact, my only beef with Daxter's handling is that he dies instantly if he lands in the water. Last I checked, both weasels and otters were more than capable swimmers. It's hardly a gamebreaker, but it is a little goofy. It reminded me of the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer game for the X-Box, where Buffy - a girl who could do backflips, punch through walls, and defeat five demons singlehandedly - would automatically drown if she fell into water that was two feet from a dock. Maybe they didn't cover swimming (or even dog-paddling) in Slayer training.

Like most platformers, Daxter features a bunch of little side activities you can pursue, if you so choose. You can search high and low for little golden gem thingies (which are in the possession of bugs who need a good squashing), and the fabled Precursor Eggs, which are just about everywhere. Earning a lot of Eggs opens up special mini-games Daxter can play by hopping into his bed and taking a nap, sending him off into the imagination of his dreams. The games take the form of scenes from Daxter's favorite movies, where he envisions himself as the star. While the games themselves are simplistic and usually just involve hitting buttons at the right time, it's fun to see Daxter starring in parodies of The Matrix, Indiana Jones, and other popular films. The last dream you unlock, a Lord of the Rings parody featuring Daxter/Gandalf (Daxdalf?) fighting off the Balrog, is easily the best of the bunch. The spell and battle animations are really quite impressive, and the tricky counterattack inputs keep you on your toes. Successfully beating these games earns Daxter more health, and new moves to use in battle.

Production-wise, Daxter is a knockout. The game looks absolutely terrific, with wonderful character animations, vivid backgrounds, and just the right amount of icky insect goo. This is the first PSP game I've played that seems to be digging into the capabilities of the hardware. And best of all, load times - the bane of the PSP owner - are virtually non-existent. If you die, you'll respawn at the last checkpoint you passed (and there are tons of them, keeping repetition to a minimum) and be back in action before you know it. Ready At Dawn needs to hold some kind of seminar on How To Develop For The PSP, so we can rid the world of the loading times that hold the PSP back from greatness. (And while they're at it, they can send Daxter over to kill all the bugs infesting PSP games developed by Electronic Arts. They could get four or five sequels out of all that.) The voice-acting is decent, although the stoner guy that occasionally hangs out with you needs a good smack to the head.

I can't finish this review without mentioning one of Daxter's secret strengths - the game just keeps moving. Cinema scenes are brief and to the point, and you're given a little jet-bike thingie to quickly get you from place to place. Once you finish a mission, someone will call in with a new job for you, and you'll be over there in a minute or so, back into the fray. The near-complete lack of down time makes Daxter a joy to play, and it manages a very strict balance of action, jumping/hovering, and exploration. For lack of a better term, the game feels like a REAL platformer, with an emphasis on tricky jumps and light puzzle solving, rather than collecting random crap. Sure, you get a lot of gold gems and Eggs, but they're icing rather than the cake. I much prefer this to Rare-style platformers where you spend most of your time looking under every rock for Joojums, Golden Snarlies, Unga-Bungas, Purple Doo-Dads, Hee-Hoos, Magical Shooftys, and Hurblesnoogits.

For a little extra fun, Daxter offers a side game called Insect Battle (or whatever), where you can compete against other PSPers using the bugs you've collected during the main game. The game uses a Pokemon-esque system of rock-paper-scissors combat, where certain insect types are more (or less) effective against others. It's not something you're likely to get too hooked on. You can also link up to the PS2 if you have Jak Combat Racing, or whatever it's called. I don't have the game, as you may have guessed, so I can't comment on this little feature. Hmmm... Pokemon-style minigame... console/handheld connectivity... looks like someone's been cribbing from Nintendo's playbook. But hey, if you're going to loot, loot from the best.

The release of Daxter marks a major milestone for the PSP. It's really the first game that delivers on the promise of console-esque software for a handheld, that also happens to be a completely original title. The game pairs up addictive gameplay with superior production quality, and what more can you ask for than that? If you enjoy platforming games, pick this game up at your next opportunity.

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

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