- Review Price: £29.99
Really, who would be a sidekick? You’re just expected to tag along, risking your neck, while some other schmoe bags the goodies and the glory. Your smart wisecracks fall on deaf ears, and on the odd occasion when you get a chance in the spotlight, it’s all menial tasks – crawl through this vent, flick that switch, open that door. It’s a wonder that the likes of Daxter bother.
And you could argue that the PSP has had the misfortune to turn into the video games equivalent. After an initial run of promising titles, it’s become a dumping ground for afterthoughts. Instead of brilliant, original games, it’s getting a steady diet of lazy, half-assed ports, dropping a month after the PS2 original with half the content clumsily removed, the controls wrecked, and any surviving visual fidelity poorly balanced against ludicrous loading times and ruinous pauses in the action. It’s a wonder that anyone sensible bothers to buy them.
Well, there’s good news for these neglected sidekicks. Daxter comprehensively proves that it doesn’t have to be this way.
Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay Ready At Dawn’s game is that, as with the PSP’s other top titles – Ridge Racer, Lumines, Virtua Tennis, Outrun 2006, WipeOut Pure – you can play it and forget that you’re playing a good handheld game; you’re just playing a great game, full-stop. And also as with those games, a lot of this achievement is visual; the graphics are so damn near PS2 quality that you don’t feel like you’re playing a compromised, cut-down version of a superior home console game. Graphically speaking, Daxter is possibly the PSP’s finest hour, at its best equalling the first Jak and Daxter – itself a groundbreaking title in the PS2’s early years. It has the same sort of bright, cartoon backgrounds, cool lighting and lavish detail. In fact, one level – Breezy Valley – is a vivid green paradise full of rushing waterfalls and lush vegetation that could have been dragged directly across from the original game.
What’s more, character design is up to the series’ usual high standards. Daxter himself is beautifully rendered and animated, his face and body every bit as expressive as in the PS2 originals. It’s a similar story with the long-eared supporting cast as well. Best of all, the game is as fast-paced and fluid as any great console platformer, with loading times kept to a bare minimum and not a pause or stutter to be found.
Daxter doesn’t just look good, but proves he has the stuff to make a decent hero in his own right. That’s mostly because the controls couldn’t be better mapped to the PSP’s odd layout. Character movement is on the analogue nub, with jump, crawl and attack buttons on the face and camera controls on the shoulder buttons. Meanwhile, the additional face button is used for the game’s signature gadget – an upgradable bug-spray which acts much like Mario’s water-jet in Super Mario Sunshine. Introduced as a weapon, it also finds use as a hover and rocket-jump boost later on, and can even be transformed into a handy ad-hoc flamethrower. With just these ingredients – neither too complex nor too simple – Ready At Dawn has given you all the tools you need to complete a thrilling platform adventure.
Now, personally, I would rather have seen something closer to the spirit of the first game, with its exotic fantasy world and lost-civilisation artefacts, and not the sequels where Jak took a more adolescent, dark and industrial path. However, I have to admire the way the team has squeezed Daxter into the existing storyline, with the furry critter moonlighting as a pest exterminator in Haven City during the run-up to Jak II. Early levels see our hero swatting bugs in a grand hotel, a high-rise construction site and a subway system, and neatly set up the basics of the game: a fairy traditional platform formula of daredevil jumps, rail riding and close combat, spiced up with simple puzzles. Before long, Daxter’s also involved in the sort of jet-bike sequences we first saw in Jak I, not to mention dream-sequence digressions into parodies of Braveheart and The Matrix. In later stages, the storyline even sets the stage for Jak II, with sightings of Jak and the introduction of characters who become important in the PS2 sequel. In this respect, Daxter doesn’t feel like a bolt-on, but like a new chapter that adds to the existing story.
As with any good platformer, the key to Daxter’s success is not only the way it steadily increases the challenge level, but in the way it drips out new tools or capabilities, then places you in situations where you’re required to use them. There’s nothing here that you haven’t seen before in Jak and Daxter, Ratchet and Clank, Sly Racoon or any grade-A platform game of recent years, but it’s all done with real wit, elegance and style. The transit system level is an early highlight, with its split-second jumps and train-surfing antics, but later sections in a strip mine or a fish-cannery – where blocks of ice impede your progress until melted with your trusty flamethrower – are just as packed with memorable moments. It’s the gaming equivalent of a good pizza; just because the elements are familiar, it doesn’t mean that they don’t taste fantastic when mixed in exactly the right combination.
Now, I suspect that Ready at Dawn has been extremely clever here in playing to the strengths of the hardware. The levels aren’t as wide and open as they are in the PS2 games, the action sequences tend to take place inside and the design is certainly more linear, yet you never seem confined and there is always enough going on to make you feel like you’re not just rushing from tunnel to chamber to tunnel. The bugs aren’t hugely complicated foes, but that means you can put more on screen while keeping the frame rate high. And while the game can’t quite deliver that old Jak feeling of one, huge, bustling seamless world, it’s not for want of effort. As in Jak II and Jak III, Haven City provides a hub that links the various levels together, and the game cleverly disguises the pause while it loads a new area through sequences involving slow lifts or opening doors. It’s a fantastic example of how a PSP version should be done.
Even more so when you consider how cleverly Daxter has been designed with mobile play in mind. The levels are neatly divided into small, frequently checkpointed chunks, you can save where you like and the switch-on, switch-off resume is practically instantaneous. How many other PSP games can you really say that about?
Of course, it’s not perfect. As with any 3D platformer there are moments where the camera doesn’t play ball, obstructing your view or even switching angle just when you need to make that spot-on jump. But then even Nintendo’s finest have suffered from this. There are niggling difficulty spikes, with an annoying jet-moped chase sequence and a few boss battles that are low on entertainment value, but even these can be conquered with a little thought and effort. What’s important is that, from the cut-scenes to the voices to the overall presentation, this is a polished piece of work that never makes you feel like you’re playing a second-rate side story. So what is it then? How about the best 3D platformer on a handheld to date, and one of the few PSP games that we can fully recommend to just about everyone.
With Daxter both the sidekick and the PSP have come out of the shadows and proved they can kick ass on their own terms. Consider it a PSP essential.
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