It may have taken a while, but the PSP is heating up. No one could have been more surprised than I was that Sony's handheld sputtered so profoundly and so long out of the gate with its serious lack of quality software, but those days appear to be over. Among a recent burst of excellent games comes Daxter, heir to the legacy of Sony's high-profile platforming franchise. Not only is it an excellent PSP game, it's at least as good as (if not better than) most of the competition on any of the home consoles.
Taking place between Jak & Daxter and Jak II, Daxter's story explains what happened when everyone's favorite foul-mouthed ottsel went on the lam as series hero Jak went P.O.W. It's nothing very deep or illuminating, but the effort to tie it in to the main storyline was appreciated because it feels like a true entry in the series rather than a cheap offshoot.
Since the lion's share of the hopping and bopping was historically done by Jak, Ready At Dawn studios made an excellent choice in creating a mostly-new set of mechanics for Daxter's solo debut rather than copying the formula already established. That's not to say that it's all brand new; familiar elements such as riding hover-vehicles and collecting Precursor orbs are still here. A number of familiar characters return and the whole adventure is set in Jak's Haven City to boot too, so fans will instantly feel at home.
However, Daxter is not Jak. This becomes quite clear early on when Daxter receives a bug-swatter crackling with energy and sets out on a part-time job to exterminate insects infiltrating the area. This new occupation takes him double-jumping and ledge-grabbing through a number of environments, the developers using the first few levels to ease players into some content most similar to the other games.
This formula on its own would have been good enough, but it's not long before Daxter adds a new element and reveals its unique personality—once access to the bug-sprayer tool becomes available, Daxter comes into its own.
Used to shoot paralyzing gas, flames, or explosive pellets, the bug-sprayer seems like a Ratchet & Clank-ish firearm addition, but this is not the case. The sprayer can also be used as an impromptu jet propulsion system to make extended jumps and boost up to unreachable heights. Controlling Daxter in the air is smooth and effortless, and the level design is excellent—these engaging aeronautical maneuvers are the core element of the Daxter experience.
It's an unorthodox idea, but genius, really. The sprayer has a limited supply of fuel, so the player must balance its use between knocking out arthropods and keeping enough juice in reserve to blast over to the nearest platform. Fuel is always readily available so it's never frustrating, but this mix of conservation, attack, and agile flight helps keep a pleasant level of tension up.
The rest of the game is just as smooth and polished as its main idea. The graphics are phenomenal and could easily be mistaken for software running on a PS2, quite possibly being the most attractive portable game on the market today. The game's voice acting is excellent, and humorous cutscenes prove that Daxter as a character is more than capable of carrying out a starring role. Loading times are nearly nonexistent (just a second or two as the player moves between environments, masked while walking through long hallways) and the camera is almost never an issue because the level designs are laid out to provide constantly unobstructed views even though transitioning between different elevations is common; this is a lesson more developers could learn from.
Every aspect of Daxter screams quality, and Ready At Dawn studios deserve an ovation for putting together such a masterful platforming experience. Not only is it solidly enjoyable (and a much better game than Jak II, quite honestly), this project is even more impressive when compared to the PSP's current software—Daxter rockets straight to the top and puts the competition to shame.