Jak and Daxter: The Lost Frontier (PSP)
The problem with Jak and Daxter: The Lost Frontier is that I've been playing Ratchet & Clank: A Crack in Time. Which is a pretty unfair thing to do to a perfectly good PSP platformer. Lost Frontier isn't going to hold up next to one of the PlayStation 3's best games. But as an example of what Sony's handheld can do, this is probably about as good as it gets with platformers. And what's more, here's a secret: You get a bit more than just a platformer.
Veterans of PSP development
This iteration of Jak and Daxter was created by High Impact, a studio with plenty of experience taking larger franchises and reimagining them for the PSP. It did both of the PSP versions of Ratchet & Clank, and its experience shows. Lost Frontier looks great and it's well adapted to the limitations of the system. If you want to flex the graphical power of your PSP, this is one of the better games to do it.
You get three different types of gameplay here. The weakest bits are based on the series' greatest liability: Daxter. In case you're not acquainted with Daxter, imagine the most annoying cartoon weasel you've ever seen in a throwaway animated movie. Now cast Joe Pesci as his voice. But since you can't get Joe Pesci for your project, instead cast someone doing an over-the-top nails-on-a-chalkboard impression of Joe Pesci. Now write funny dialogue for him that isn't funny. Then have him mug at the camera to punctuate various unfunny jokes. Voil?! You have Daxter. The Jak and Daxter franchise is actually sitting on a gold mine here. Just make a game, preferably on the Nintendo Wii, in which you beat Daxter to death with a mallet. It'll sell in droves. I'll buy a dozen copies myself.
Fortunately, Daxter shuts up for much of Lost Frontier. There are short segments in which he becomes -- get this! -- even more annoying by getting infected with evil toxin. The toxin turns him into a Tasmanian Devil-type creature, this time voiced by someone trying to sound like Harvey Fierstein. He punches and spits and twirls his way along a tightly scripted point-A-to-point-B path with a fixed camera following the action. You cannot wait to get out. It recreates the feeling of being trapped and needing to escape. Although I'm not sure that's the effect they were going for. Where's my Daxter-beating game already?
Mind the gap
The bulk of Lost Frontier is typical Jak and Daxter platforming, which is a mix of slightly confused combat and very old-school now-you-are-dead jumping. The combat is the series' usual blend of guns and punching. But Jak still can't quite make up his mind whether he's a ranged class or a melee class. It doesn't help that the PSP means there's no second analog stick, so Lost Frontier relies on a heavy auto-aim. This makes gunplay a matter of holding down the fire button and watching the ammo counter. Furthermore, the gun upgrades are strictly canned based on gameplay progression, but you get to purchase melee abilities from a flexible menu as you play. For a guy with such a nifty gun, Jak sure does seem to want you to punch enemies instead of shoot them.
Finally, there is Lost Frontier's overworld gameplay. Historically, this has been one of the series' more interesting aspects, even if it wasn't always successful. Jak II was a sci-fi version of Grand Theft Auto, with a city full of hovercars. Then Jak III did a cartoon "Mad Max" dune-buggy overworld when Borderlands was but a twinkle in Gearbox's eye. Now comes Lost Frontier, which ties everything together with a cool arcade flight sim. I bet you didn't know you were getting one of those.
It's a bit odd how much design went into this part of the game, because it upstages everything else. You collect scrap to buy upgrades for various parts, which you then use to configure your airplanes. You choose different powers, each upgradeable, for different slots. And when you fly, you're actually playing a bona fide arcade flight game that looks great. These parts are thrilling because so few games do this well on the PSP. The closest anyone has come is the space combat in the Star Wars: Battlefront games, but they didn't have anywhere near this much sense of personal investment. A little customization goes a long way, particularly when the gameplay is this strong.
Here there be ? oh, never mind
One of the biggest drawbacks of Lost Frontier is the lack of incentive to do side missions. High Impact has built an attractive place with a degree of freedom rare in most platformers. But all you earn for going through the trouble of running timed obstacle courses, finding hidden nooks, or flying off to explore alternate areas are precursor orbs. These sound pretty cool, but all they do is unlock visual tweaks. It's a step up from, say, unlocking concept art. But the irony of Lost Frontier is that there's really not enough incentive to explore it.
Still, until I get my Daxter-punching sim, this will do nicely as the next step for the series. If you're into platformers, High Impact has you covered for those times you're not in front of your PlayStation 3 with a copy of Ratchet & Clank: A Crack in Time. And that's pretty much what the PSP is supposed to do.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.