The PSP gets a great platformer at last.
Sidekicks are doing it for themselves; standing on their own two feet, or occasionally crawling on all fours in this case, and starring in their very own platform adventures.
Yep, Daxter's back, minus his big-eared blonde friend this time, in a new PSP game from startup development studio Ready At Dawn. But have no fear, J&D fans - just because there's no Naughty Dog logo on the box, doesn't mean this is another Crash Bandicoot: Wrath of Cortex. See, as you'll know if you read our recent feature, RAD's president was a Naughty Dog for four years, and ND's influence is clearly apparent in Daxter.
Happily, it's clearly apparent in all manner of good ways - namely an intuitive, fluid control system, inventive and varied level design, great graphics and plenty of neat little extras. In other words, Daxter is the game PSP-owning platform fans have been waiting for.
It's set between the end of the first Jak and Daxter game and Jak II, just after Jak has been arrested and chucked in jail. So what's a sidekick to do but strike out on his own, taking paid employment as a bug exterminator while he works out a way to free his friend.
So, Daxter is fairly linear in terms of how you progress through the game - you're told to travel to various areas around Haven City and squish all the bugs you can find, essentially, collecting all the gold nuggets they drop.
In that sense, it's very much a traditional platformer. But it's also a traditional platformer of the Jak and Daxter / Ratchet and Clank / Sly Raccoon variety - which means that although, yes, there's lots of running and jumping to be done, there's also plenty of variation between levels, and enough fun stuff to make you want to keep on playing.
Take the puzzle solving, for example. At the start of the game, Daxter's only weapon is a bug spray, which can be used to stun enemies before whacking them and to hover over short distances. But later on, you get a flamethrower attachment - which means you can reach higher up places, blast enemies outright and melt blocks of ice. That last option comes in particularly handy in the level set in the fish canning plant, where you have to use the flamethrower to move ice blocks around and melt them down to useful sizes. There's also a sonic boom attachment, which is used for breaking down walls of boulders.
So we're hardly talking the kind of puzzles that will have you scratching your head for hours on end, but they break up the pace of the levels neatly. And there are certainly plenty of pace changes in Daxter; one minute you're trying to work out the best route across a series of lily pads as you attempt to cross a lake, the next you're jumping roof to roof across a series of speeding trains - make the wrong move and you'll be sent crashing down to the electrifying track below, left to start all over again.
Well, not quite all over again. RAD has been very generous with the checkpoints here - you'll rarely find yourself trekking for ages through areas you've already explored just because you missed a single jump, and it feels quite easy to make quick progress through the game.
That said, you'll frequently come up against a section that's fiendishly tricky - but never to the point where it feels impossible to complete. There's always a sense that with just a bit more concentration and precision timing, you can pull it off; the end result being that there's a great sense of satisfaction when you finally do.
It helps that the control system works so well - Daxter does what he's told even if you've opted to use the analog nub rather than the directional buttons, unlike with some other PSP games. He has a wide move set - he can crawl on all fours to sneak through gaps, climb ladders, zoom down zip lines and, of course, perform double jumps. When it comes to attacking, you can link moves together to perform neat combos. Plus Daxter also gets a neat little scooter for hooning around the streets of Haven City, and for completing the various vehicle-based missions.
You can also unlock extra moves by playing the six mini-games. These are unlocked by collecting precursor orbs - there are 1000 littered throughout the game, but mini-games start at the bargain price of just one. Each mini-game can be accessed at any time by visiting Osmo's shop (Osmo being the inevitable wise old buffer who guides you through the game and chucks you a handy new gadget every now and then).
They all star Daxter as a movie hero - Neo from the Matrix, for example, or Indiana Jones - and basically involve bashing buttons in the right sequence to destroy enemies before they can get to you. Winning the bronze cup in each game earns you a bonus, such as an upper cut attack move or an extended health bar, so they're well worth the effort. And simple though the mini-games are, they're still strangely addictive, and they're ideal for when you just want a quick bout of button bashing while you're between tube stops and the like.
Other extras include the option to hook up your PSP to your PS2 and, if you've got a copy of Naughty Dog's Jak X: Combat Racing, unlock new drivers and vehicles plus secret features in Daxter. Then there's the multiplayer mode, which involves something called bug combat. As you work through the single player game, you can collect these bugs, which are essentially a bit like Pokémon - they vary in terms of how much health they have, and how good they are at pulling off different attack moves. There are also lots of pickups to collect which enhance their abilities.
Then it's a matter of choosing your bug, facing off with your opponent (you can play against an AI enemy if you don't have a friend to hand) and choosing which attacks to use in which order. Claw moves do the most damage, but if your opponent has chosen to use a trap you'll come a cropper; traps can be avoided by spitting, but are no defence against a claw attack. So once again, it's all fairly basic stuff that's unlikely to have you hooked for hours, but it's a nice addition all the same.
The real attraction of Daxter, though, lies in the single player game. It's just great fun, pure and simple - whether you're splatting bugs all over the place, linking moves together to take them out with one big satisfying hit; or working out how your latest gadget can be used to solve a puzzle; or chasing a giant wasp on your hoverbike; or simply running and jumping through yet another new area - it's almost always a joy to play.
Nor does it feel like you'd be having a better time if you were at home with a big console and a proper telly. There's plenty to do in Daxter, and plenty to see - environments are vast and detailed, and the game is just as good looking as something you might see on PS2. Better looking, in fact, compared to some of the rubbish we've had to put up with of late.
Then there are the cutscenes, of which there are more than half an hour. They're beautifully animated and very well scripted, with some genuinely funny lines, and generally well up to the standard of the cutscenes in the console J&D games. Daxter throws out plenty of his trademark wisecracks, but thankfully he keeps his gob shut while you're actually playing the game. In short, he's a lot less annoying and a more endearing than in previous games.
If you wanted to nitpick, you could argue that the streets of Haven City feel rather empty - there are only a few other vehicles flying around, and no wandering NPCs. But frankly, if that's the price you pay for a PSP game that has no loading times, we're not complaining. True, occasionally you'll have to wait a few seconds while a door mechanism unlocks and the game pretends it isn't busy loading the next area - but it's never more than a few seconds.
In short, Daxter is a highly polished game that, for once, really does set a new standard in terms of what we can expect from future PSP titles. When it comes to gameplay, this isn't a title that's offering anything spectacularly different from other platformers of its kind - but that's not the point. Daxter is platforming at its best; it's a game that stays true to the genre's roots and doesn't muck about with vehicular combat, gritty urban environments, baddies called Tyrone Cokedealer or any of that nonsense. If you're a fan of the other J&D games, or even just platformers in general, you won't be disappointed.