Jak and Daxter: The Lost Frontier
The Jak and Daxter saga of platformers covered a large amount of territory as one of the PlayStation 2’s headlining franchises. Between 2001’s The Precursor Legacy and 2005’s Jak X: Combat Racing, the series warped from a traditional, cutesy platformer starring a silent protagonist, into a dark story of revolution in a repressed society spearheaded by a much more talkative and angsty lead, and finally…well, into a combat racing game. That strange last PS2 outing aside, the series along with its PSP spin-off Daxter told a satisfyingly complete story. Although fans have been eager for another team-up between the two unlikely partners, I’ve always questioned where they would go from here.
Apparently developer High Impact Games has the answer: to the literal, physical end of the world.
As the first (non-racing) Jak game set after Jak 3, the Lost Frontier needs a major hook to draw people back into the drama. Sure enough, Jak jumps into action as his planet is being ripped apart by a lack of Eco, the powerful (and sometimes deadly) material that transformed Daxter into a tiny loud-mouthed creature in the original game. Jak, Daxter, and love interest Keira grab an airplane and set out in search of Eco. It wouldn’t be much of a game if they reached their goal without any trouble, though. Instead, they’re ambushed by sky pirates who end up damaging their plane, sending them crashing into “the Brink,” the very edge of Jak’s apparently flat world.
At the Brink, players will discover a curious mix of new and old gameplay for the pointy-eared hero. One early mission I got to check out, titled “Seeking the Seeker,” feels like a b-side from Jak 2 or 3. You must explore a lava-soaked cave where the lava continues rising as you climb higher. Early in the level, Jak happens upon a strange statue, a Precursor idol that grants him the Rocket Jump power. Nearby is a cloud of yellow gas. Activate your new power near the cloud and Jak’s next jump will send him soaring high into the air, allowing him to reach a cliff ledge well outside of his normal jump radius.
Jak also receives a power called “Construct,” that can be used in puzzle-solving as well as combat. While exploring, this ability allows him to create temporary bridges made of crystals raised from the ground, allowing passage across gaps that would be impossible to jump over. In one boss battle, the “Construct” ability was also used to block the enemy’s attack, forcing his giant saw to get stuck in a crystal and opening him up for attack.
As in previous games, Jak battles enemies with a blend of spinning attacks and shooting. Of the couple weapon varieties I got to test, the shotgun was highly effective, but the rifle was depressingly difficult to use. Since you cannot lock on or manually aim the gun with the PSP, the only way to target an enemy with the rifle is to line Jak up, leaving him vulnerable to enemy attacks. The game’s meager auto-aim doesn’t make up for the awkwardness of timing these rifle blasts.
Still, for whatever shortcomings it has, several of the levels I played at least hit the nostalgia note extremely well, reminding me of the mix of platforming and simplified combat that I loved from earlier entries. A few other levels, on the other hand, changed the Jak experience dramatically.
It turns out the planes from the game’s intro aren’t just for show. Several levels in my demo involved taking the fight back to the sky pirates, either via old-school dogfights or action-packed chase scenes. Controls for this section are surprisingly easy to learn, with boosting and braking available at the tap of a button and three different weapons at your disposal. During the chase levels, Daxter will occasionally launch himself at the enemy ship, shifting the gameplay into a short rhythm-action mini-game where he slowly dismantles the aircraft and steals parts for your plane.
Then there’s the “Aeropa Sewers” level. Here players take control of Daxter, but not for the same fun platforming you may remember from his PSP solo title. In Lost Frontier, Daxter undergoes a transformation similar to his partner’s, turning him into Dark Daxter. This hulking, beastly revision of the annoying ottsel solves problems with brute strength alone, pummeling enemies and tossing huge balls of Dark Eco at them. He can also pick up baddies and throw them, which leads to some very minor puzzle situations – throw the spider into a hole in the ground to fill it up with webbing, etc. As a last resort, Daxter can also go into a “Frenzy Spin,” essentially turning him into a pinball that bounces around the stage, hurting enemies and breaking doors as his Eco energy drains.
With the slightly goofy new look for the beloved furry character and the new focus on beat-em-up over hop-and-bop, it’s hard not to compare the Dark Daxter gameplay to the ill-advised Werehog portions of last year’s Sonic Unleashed. Luckily, in the demo I played, there seemed to be a lot more of the classic Jak platforming than these newer, still questionable game types. Depending on that balance and whether the new styles of gameplay are put to good use, there’s plenty of room for the final product to delight or disappoint us. But a long-awaited return of an old franchise that introduces brand new gameplay while still pleasing fans? Perhaps that’s the real lost frontier.