You don't need Jak.
The only thing more confusing than the PSP, with its dearth of games and wealth of weird multimedia options, is the nature of its biggest rising star, Daxter. The guy is an elf in an ottsel body, an ottsel being a cross between an otter and a weasel. On top of that, he works as an exterminator.
Confused? Don't be. Daxter's heritage may be a bit tough to understand, but from what we played last week, his upcoming game isn't. Boasting a large, creative single-player campaign with all the humor, surprises and production values of its console kin as well as a quirky multiplayer mode, the self-titled Daxter is poised to be a must-have action-adventure and a great solo debut for Sony's strangest star.
The story covers the two-year gap between Baron Praxis's dastardly elf-napping of Jak and Daxter's daring prison rescue, events touched on in Jak II. At a loss for ways to break his buddy out of jail, Daxter signs on with the Critter-Ridder Extermination Company. As a member of the bug-blasting elite, Daxter will take on missions all over Haven city for money while spraying his way closer to the truth behind Jak's disappearance.
The title's feel and flow should be familiar to anyone who played the Jak and Daxter games for the PS2. Although Naughty Dog is off the case, the new developers at Ready at Dawn seem to have captured the witty essence of the series as well as the dynamic gameplay that made it such an addictive, entertaining ride.
Much of the game works along the same formula found in the console trilogy. Players are given a huge open environment to explore, sans loading screens, plus a mix of quality platforming and wonderfully diverse mini-games.
To go with his exterminator credentials, Daxter wields a pressurized bug-sprayer, which he uses to spray and stun his six-legged foes, then whack them with a trusty, electrified fly-swatter. The neatest aspect of this sprayer isn't its effect on enemies, but rather its effect on the game's platforming elements.
Daxter can jump and use the sprayer to give himself flight for a limited amount of time, which he can extend by collecting airborne bug spray globules. The result is platform gaming without platforms. Instead, you'll fly through the air from one glowing green orb to another, dodging enemies and obstacles before ultimately landing on some faraway ledge. It's an interesting approach that's more fun and forgiving than endlessly hopping from precarious ledge to precarious ledge.
Within this solid mix of platforming sequences and mini-games are nestled two seriously compelling features. After completing jobs for the bug company, Daxter will have the opportunity to take naps, which lead to dream levels. These cast Daxter as one of his favorite heroes in environments that are not beholden to the confines of Haven city or normal Jak and Daxter physics. We've only seen one such level, in which a Daxter-Neo hybrid fought a bunch of agents via a button-press mini-game, but we're excited about the possibilities. Clearly inspired by Psychonauts, Daxter's dream levels should provide interesting breaks in the game's normal action (which is far from static in the first place) to provide you with crazy interludes.
During his waking hours, on the other hand, Daxter will occasionally find a 'Battle Bug." You'll be able to collect these bugs, customize them, then enter them into battle against those belonging to characters in the game as well as other players via the PSP's wireless functionality.
Battle Bug combat is based on rock-paper-scissors. Every bug in the game has the same three attacks, but each can be customized with power-ups scattered throughout Haven city. Before a battle begins, you choose a bug and equip it with three tokens. These are also scattered around Haven City, and allow you to interrupt the battles to make a quick change to your strategy. It's an interesting twist that adds a layer of strategy to a simple but addictive mini-game.
Daxter purportedly goes the extra mile to provide console-sized content on a handheld device by being interoperable with Jak X: Combat Racing. From what we've heard, players who complete 100% of Daxter will be able to unlock special vehicles and drivers, while Jak X vets will open up some new material in Daxter.
With so much content, we expected to see some crunchy animations or framerate hiccups, but encountered none. Daxter hops, hovers and smoothly crawls his way through environments that would be right at home on a Playstation 2, without any hitches or loading screens to bring you back down to handheld earth. They even rendered the furry little weirdo's hair, something they never did on the console version.
Even the series' signature voiceovers are intact, with Max Casella of Sopranos fame reprising the voice of Daxter, and Office Space's David Herman voicing his surfer-elf sidekick. If the writing and voice-acting are as good as we think they're going to be, Daxter will be a very funny game.
Daxter may not be the likeliest champion for the PSP - elves in weird, varmint bodies rarely are - but he's shaping up to be one of the most entertaining. Instead of simply porting a classic series, Ready at Dawn has created a robust new game that demands all of the respect of its console counterparts, if not more. We'll see if it's truly deserved when Daxter weasels its way onto our PSPs this March.