One of cinema's oldest subgenres is the buddy flick–a film wherein there are not one, but two main characters. From Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Hope and Crosby, and through to the dynamic duos of today like Murtaugh and Riggs from the Lethal Weapon films or the late Chris Farley and David Spade, the buddy flick is a Hollywood staple.
The reason these films never go out of vogue would seem to be best explained through simple mathematics: two characters are almost always better than one. With the inclusion of a second character the dramatic or comedic potential in any given situation is doubled. In comedy, one of the two is generally the straight man (the guy who sets up the joke), while the other is the comedian. In action cinema, one is usually in danger while the other has to save him (or her). This paradigm allows screenwriters and filmmakers to get more mileage out of any given situation without having to resort to obviously contrived set-ups (particularly in comedy, where the straight man is just as important to the duo as the comedian–if theres no one to set up the joke, then the comedian can't offer the punch line).
Over the past few years, gaming has started to notice the value of having a main character duo as opposed to a lone hero. In some games, like Banjo-Kazooie, the teaming up is essential to advancing through the game's missions (players must utilize both Banjo and Kazooie to complete different objectives). Other games, like Naughty Dog's Jak and Daxter aren't quite so ambitious in their use of two lead characters–the mute Jak does all of the work while Daxter provides the running commentary. However, theres no denying that the presence of a second lead character (or even a sidekick) gives these games an edge over their more traditional single lead character counterparts.
While Daxter isn't vital to the platforming elements of the game (he spends all of his time on Jak's shoulder), the inclusion of the character adds a great deal of comedy and character to Jak and Daxter. Without Daxter, this game would be another Super Mario 64 clone–only with a different hero. It is Daxter who gives the game its flavor–more so than the relatively anonymous Jak.
This flavor is ultimately what sets Jak and Daxter apart from a lot of the other platform games out there. The game isn't as cute and innocuous as the Mario games or Banjo-Kazooie even though the core gameplay is very similar. The player must guide Jak and Daxter through a number of levels in search of Power Cells. These cells are essentially large batteries that are needed to power certain items in the game world.
Retrieving the orbs invariably involves Jak and Daxter doing something for someone (like herding a character's Yakows into a pen) or exploring some hard to reach area. After gaining a number of the orbs, Jak and Daxter will be able to fight the game's final boss. It's really rather traditional.
What isn't so traditional is the addition of a flying scooter-like vehicle. Only available in certain areas (including one whole stage where the player must ride it continually), the scooter brings an interesting new dimension to the gameplay. It makes some previously inaccessible areas reachable and allows Jak to complete several mission objectives that would be impossible on foot.
In addition to the scooter, the game also features a Yoshi-like creature that Jak can ride. Much like Yoshi from the Super Mario games, riding this beast will allow Jak to jump longer distances and get to areas he couldn't cover on his own. Its not the most original idea out there, its not all that well implemented into the game (I can only think of two times when I actually rode the thing), and it stands as one of the few areas where the game isn't quite as good as it could've been.
Another area where the quality dips a bit is with the camera system. While the camera is nowhere near as awful as the one in Super Mario Sunshine, it does have moments where it puts the player at a distinct disadvantage. It's surprising that after years of making 3D platforming games, no one has managed to come up with a workable camera interface.
Finally, my biggest complaint with the game is the fact that Daxter is never part of the action. The potential was there for him to be a vital part of the team (adding in some areas that had to be played as Daxter would have been pretty clever), but it's never realized. Ultimately, he's only around to provide comic relief00and while thats generally entertaining, the fact that he does nothing else seems like a missed opportunity. Perhaps Naughty Dog will remedy that in a sequel.
On the other side of the ledger, the controls are excellent. Maneuvering Jak through the games various levels is a breeze thanks to the responsive and natural control scheme. The learning curve for Jak and Daxter is under thirty minutes–even for a relatively inexperienced player. Everything is laid out logically and quickly becomes second nature–allowing the gamer to concentrate on the action onscreen rather than worrying about which button to push and when.
Despite the flaws, Jak and Daxter is still one of the better platforming experiences out there. It never strives to re-invent the wheel, but it does all the things that a platforming game should do and does them well. Featuring nice graphics, solid controls, and a likeable lead character in the form of Daxter, there's much to praise in this title. If nothing else, Jak and Daxter certainly proves that having two main characters is often better than having just one.