Playing Jak and Daxter: The Lost Frontier is a reminder of two very important things.
The first is that the PSP can deliver spectacular home console experiences on the small screen with an effortlessness that would defy expectations on any other handheld platform.
The second is that 3D platforming, furry talking animals and mindless blasting are no less potent a thrill now than they have ever been.
The Lost Frontier proves that we grizzled gamers haven't outgrown or evolved beyond such humble staples. It's just that it's been far too long since the sorts of characters or gameplay found in The Lost Frontier have been carried off on a handheld console with any sort of real panache.
It all boils down to an odd question of semantics. What is referred to somewhat unenthusiastically as the 3D platforming genre has long since gained the new, more exciting and more adult moniker of the third-person action title.
Indeed, Jak and Daxter: The Lost Frontier is the game Disney would make if it was forced to play through both of the (hugely popular and accomplished PS3-exclusive) Uncharted games. Given this franchise’s lineage, though, it’s likely that developer High Impact Games is way ahead of the curve on that score.
But this is more than just a kids game that adults can enjoy. The Lost Frontier knows how to tell a story. It knows how to pace, control, and balance a veritable pick 'n' mix of gameplay styles. And most importantly, it knows itself.
The Lost Frontier is the kind of game that could only come late in a console’s life cycle. Its blinding polish, expertly choreographed set-pieces and breathless abandon for technical constraints speaks of a platform that talented developers really know how to squeeze.
Building on this, there’s a swaggering bravado at play here that only the most self-aware of developers can afford. For example, early on in the game, you are prompted to undertake a tutorial at the behest of a snarky king who is less than confident in your abilities. Just as you have accepted the challenge, Daxter pipes up with:
“Ha, ha, the joke's on them. If there’s one thing we’re good at, it's arbitrary platform challenges, mixed with heavy gun-play.”
It's a laugh-out-loud moment and really epitomises the confidence with which High Impact Games has imbued this three-years-dormant franchise. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
The Lost Frontier begins with a mid-air cinematic that turns things up to 11 from the off. From there on in it feels like no adjoining ten minutes of play are ever the same, as the action skips gleefully between platforming, shooting, aerial skirmish, melee combat and a medley of different upgrading and shopping sections.
Despite this tangled mix of gameplay styles, The Lost Frontier never feels disjointed, achieving instead a frantic sense of pace, packed with bluster, spectacle and explosive set-pieces that suck you in, thumbs first.
The core of the story is a resource called Eco, which is running into short supply, causing untold environmental chaos. Jak, Daxter, love interest Keira and a legion of swashbuckling extras are all bent on finding the fabled Eco Core using a device called the Eco Seeker, so they can put things right - or in some cases, wrong.
Cue a comfortably hokum blend of villainous pirates with English accents, cargo panted pretty boy heroes with American accents, eccentric amnesia-stricken genius hermits, artifacts, temporary alliances, double crosses and so on and so on.
The Eco plotline forms a key part of the gameplay, as Jak is able to tap into different Eco-related powers as the game progresses. These include the ability to summon crystal platforms, explosive orbs and jet propulsion boosts.
Combined with Jak's melee attacks and armory of blasters, you have access to a formidable set of abilities for what proves to be a varied and engaging round of platforming and a simple but effective control scheme.
Daxter gets in on the Eco gravy train, too, indulging in some of those Jekyll and Hyde style Dark Eco transformations that, until this point in the series, have been the sole preserve of Jak (or Dark Jak, even).
These are some of the most chaotic sections in the game, where as a grotesque brutish perversion of Jak's marsupial pal you embark on a bull in a china shop rampage, tearing up Dark Eco and anything else in your path as you go.
Perhaps the game's biggest triumph is its flight sections. With skies positively swarming with enemies, avoiding the blizzard of gun-fire while arcing through the detailed vistas is a thrilling, adrenaline-fueled joy.
The upgrade and currency system is rich, enabling you to enhance almost every character, weapon or vehicle in the game in some way or another. The options are vast in this respect and add an almost RPG-like depth.
As does the semi open-world in which the game takes place, where you can wander off in a number of different directions at will. Given the manner in which the action bounds zestfully between locations, it's more fun to let yourself get carried along for the ride than it is to try and veer off the path, but the option to wander off into the semi-open world to collect more Eco or buy more upgrades, adds a congruity to the game's locations and masks the linearity of the structure.
There are some small niggles. Boss battles invite more trial-and-error than some will have the patience for and those dreaded camera angles that so often plague the genre do occasionally pay unwanted visits. Also, those looking for extra modes will find The Lost Frontier comes up short.
But there are so many other nuanced elements of design that more than parry these minor blips. There are no loading screens for example, even on the UMD version, as everything streams in on the sly while you are busy doing other things.
The music, too, though somewhat unrelenting, is as bombastic and as big-budget as anything you've heard in any of Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean films, which layers a final coat of gloss on an already gleaming veneer.
In combination, all of The Lost Frontier’s charms conspire to offer a thoroughly enchanting, expertly crafted action platformer.
It's odd then that The Lost Frontier is something of a footnote in Sony’s 2009 release schedule, receiving none of the marketing blitz that's accompanied the likes of LittleBigPlanet, also published by Sony. Perhaps that's because Media Molecule's new baby has a larger role to play in the PSP's future than this franchise does.Jak and Daxter: The Last Frontier may not be blazing a trail, then, but i'’s a remarkably accomplished game and also a finely tooled reminder of what Sony has accomplished since getting into gaming all those years ago.