Developer: Ready at Dawn
Release Date: March 21, 2006
What Was Jak Really Bringing to the Table Anyway?
It took Jak’s unjust incarceration to turn Daxter loose in his own PSP platformer, and while that’s too bad for Jak, the hopping ottsel proves quite capable of handling this adventure set before the events of Jak II. Playing as the otter-weasel hybrid, your mission is to exterminate swarms of Metal Bugs infesting Haven City, collecting Bug Gems, Precursor Orbs and surviving many involving platformer sequences along the way to rescuing Jak. The setup is just engaging enough to inject a welcome dose of story energy and interest in Daxter as a character into the basic platformer structure that underlies the game.
Yes, Daxter leaves Daxter without Jak, but he’s not entirely friendless either. Veteran exterminator Osmo hands out missions from his shop, and you meet others, eventually including a sidekick of Daxter’s very own, who help out with equipment upgrades and information to keep you headed in the right direction. More than just simple devices to introduce items like the flamethrower -- useful as it is as both a death-dealer and a jet pack -- the supporting cast is well-drawn enough to contribute to the creation of a full world, a supremely important consideration in a genre as thoroughly explored as the platformer.
The generous investment of imagination in the world of Daxter is first among its many striking elements. With nary a boring level to be found, the familiar pattern of introducing a hover boost or other new move and then forcing you to put it to the test is expertly deployed. Who would’ve thought, for example, that the basement of a pub would be such a complex and treacherous place? Crumbling grates over deadly chasms, flames that pull double duty by letting you ignite your bug spray to get an altitude boost and melt impassable metal-spider webs, collectibles concealed in dusty corners -- that’s what stands between you and righting the wrong of the beer taps having lost pressure. And that’s just a taste of what comes later, when you find yourself leaping from train to train in a subway tunnel and pulling off other high-speed, precision feats. It’s as exciting as Die Hard. Yes, Die Hard.
None of this achieves revolutionary status, but it’s all possessed of a polished intricacy that puts Daxter’s level design in the top-tier of platformer architecture. Levels also benefit in no small measure from detailed, varied visuals that run the course from whimsical to moody and back again. The wood tones of Osmo’s shop give way to metal decks of tanker ship and the frosty innards of fish cannery, complete with fish chunks scattered about. Clumps of purple and yellow and flora rest under crisscrossing boughs in the forest, while convincingly rendered swarms of black bugs threaten to spoil the daydream glow of the fields. When you emerge into the Haven City overworld, it’s full of interesting structures and a-bustle with Zoomers floating overhead.
Daxter himself looks every bit as good as his world. The thoughtfulness that went into making him an engaging character to watch is apparent in every detail, from his ever-present, glowing, electrified bug swatter to the smooth dodging animation that helps him avoid obstacles while suspended from a zip line. It’s the kind of care that reveals a sincere investment in the character as more than just a box-pushing mascot. His metallic enemies fare well, too, as different bugs sport unique attack animations -- the shock-tailed scorpions look so good it’s tempting to let them kill you -- and bosses attack with a great sense of scale, even on the small handheld screen.
Making him a fun character to control, however, seems like it wasn’t quite as high a priority. While Daxter jumps, swats and hovers just fine most often, a few situations -- like jumping onto suspended pipes or between subway cars -- feel like exercises in trial and error rather than control mastery. His combat moves, for the most part, are consistently fun to execute. Even the basic swatting combos remain fun throughout, as does gassing bugs to stun them while you whale away. Stringing moves together to defeat a boss or survive a fast jumping challenge is consistently rewarding, but just expect a few plummeting deaths before it’s all over.
Zoomer controls offer their share of frustrations, too. The rickety-sounding scooter clues you into the minor struggles that await behind the wheels of hovercrafts and the like. Piloting Ol’ Betsy through Breezy Creek seems in the first few seconds to be a pleasant trip through the meadow, but the controls soon become the biggest challenge, making a single too-wide turn an error of start-over proportions in an otherwise fun timed mission. Yes, the nature of a hovercraft is that it hovers, but the softness extends to other vehicles as well, and can be more of a problem when you’re trying to chase Jak’s prison Zoomer than it is when you’re just hosing bugs. If you don’t have much patience for all things floaty, a few missions will test your endurance, but even so, such issues remain a tiny annoyance in an otherwise slick experience.
The basic platforming action is so satisfyingly executed that alternate gameplay sequences and other extras risk diluting the fun, and indeed, some of Daxter’s extra content comes off as interesting but not-so-crucial. The dream sequences are the most successful of the lot. Both challenging and substantially rewarding, completing these minigames unlocks moves and extends your health meter. Their only downfall is their iffy sense of humor that turns on tired parody (three words: “I know Kung Fu”). Bug Combat, a turn-based rock-paper-scissors mode, is a briefly interesting sideshow that you can play solo or in ad hoc wireless matches. It also encourages you (not that you need it) to explore single-player levels more thoroughly, as you can uncover additional bugs and power-ups if you take the time to poke around.
Aside from the potentially aggravating vehicle handling, the only other halfway significant problem with Daxter is the writing. Daxter’s wisecracks indulge too frequently in gratuitous cheese -- the obligatory conversation punctuated by frequent use of “dude,” for example -- and not often enough in straightforward cleverness. The comedy has a packaged familiarity that seems a step behind the inventiveness of the gameplay itself. How funny is it really going to be when Daxter scrambles to cover up Ol’ Betsy with a tarp before Osmo catches on? It’s not so bad that it does Daxter any great disservice exactly, but it does allow the sound design and visuals of both gameplay sequences and narrative cut scenes to easily outdo the quality of the written content they’re designed to deliver.
You Tryin’ to Perm My Tail?
For fans of long-running series, every new installment arrives with some fear that perhaps the time has finally come when a favorite character’s career will hit the skids. With such deep variety of familiar but accomplished gameplay, and visuals that are always immersive and frequently arresting, Daxter easily leaps ahead of the PSP platformer pack to put such concerns to rest. It’s an often-thrilling example of what careful attention to level design, world creation and a mostly respectable treatment of your protagonist can do for the most well-worn of genres.
More articles about Daxter