For about a decade after I originally played it, Jak II was my favorite game. In the run up to its release back in 2003, I spent over a month convincing my parents (especially my violent-media-averse mother) that it would be alright for me to purchase the game, despite the fact that it would be rated ‘T for Teens’ and I would not quite yet be a teenager.
My ironclad arguments included that I had already played the T-rated games Ratchet & Clank and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4; that Jak doesn’t get access to guns until partway through the game; that the enemies in Jak II simply vanish without any blood when killed; and that I had already completed its E-rated predecessor, Jak & Daxter: The Precursor Legacy. Ultimately, I doubt my folks were swayed by any of those arguments. Rather, they probably relented because I was almost a teen anyway, and I had demonstrated so extensively and so annoyingly the depth of my desire to play it.
In fact, I had not simply completed Jak & Daxter: The Precursor Legacy. I had one hundred percented it. And the game did not reward that effort with a chunk of additional gameplay, as had titles that I had previously one hundred percented (such as the entries in the original Spyro trilogy); instead, it simply provided a short, cryptic cutscene lightly teasing the inciting incident of Jak II. This may go some way to justifying my eagerness to play the sequel. Nevertheless, when I did finally get my hands on it, I was astonished by the quality of the game.
None of the many dozens of games that I had played by that point in my life could simultaneously compare to the immersive atmosphere of Jak II’s setting and music, the polished continuity and openness of its world design, the beguiling nature of its characters, and the satisfying challenge of its gameplay. Other titles I had played could boast some subset of those virtues, such as Yoshi’s Island, The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap, Kingdom Hearts, Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, Crash Bandicoot, Super Mario 64, and Sonic the Hedgehog 3. But none of them had all four of those elements in such a balanced package.
As it stands, discounting purposefully repeated efforts like multiplayer games and roguelikes, Jak II is the only game that I have beaten more than 20 times, even though I don’t play most games to completion more than once or twice. And now, even though it’s no longer my absolute favorite, I would like to express why I continue to hold Jak II in high regard to this day, by setting up a potentially unintuitive (and most assuredly somewhat misguided) comparison—then also discussing a far more common comparison that the game endures.
The Virtues of Jak II by Analogy:
Let’s take a step back. Allow me to describe a game to you:
In terms of its gameplay and challenge:
It is a third-person action game with satisfying combat and navigation. It is widely acknowledged as having a higher difficulty than the average game in its genre. Its difficulty chiefly derives from the harsh penalty associated with death, which typically requires the player to repeat a large segment of gameplay in order to make another attempt. It is critically acclaimed, but is divisive among players, both because of that difficulty and because of the darkness of its tone.
In terms of its design and programming:
Except when the player-character dies or warps to another location, it is free of conventional loading screens—opting to hide its loading behind hallways, elevators, doors, and cutscenes. This approach to loading is in service of creating a world that feels large, realistic, and seamless despite being very tightly and precisely designed. It is surprisingly easy for a player to develop a mental map of the world despite its intricacy, due to the fact that forms of ‘fast travel’ are largely unavailable, requiring the player to physically traverse to each target location.
In terms of its story and progression:
The cast of characters featured in the game is relatively small, but contains a high concentration of memorable figures. The lore and backstory of its world are treated lightly in the main story, leaving a fair amount up to the interpretation of the player. Except in some obvious ways, it is more of a spiritual successor to the content of the first game in its series than it is a traditional game sequel. And progress through the game’s campaign is often split across multiple paths which the player can choose to tackle in any order.
The game I’m describing is Dark Souls.
But my reason for describing it, as you have no doubt surmised, is that all of the foregoing statements are also applicable to Jak II. Yes, like just about every game critic and analyst of the past decade, I am falling for the trap of explaining the appeal of a game by invoking Dark Souls. For better or worse, that is the analogy referenced in this article’s title. But rest assured that I’m doing it very deliberately, because, as it happens, despite its marked differences in style when it comes to storytelling, art, and gameplay, the reasons that Jak II stood as a favorite of mine for so long really do have a lot of overlap with the reasons that Dark Souls has become an even dearer favorite of mine. And while I haven’t played it 20 times (yet), Dark Souls is really the only game that has driven me to repeatedly revisit its world in the same way.
If you tear them down into pieces, the differences are numerous and easy to spot. One is an RPG while the other’s a 3D platformer and third-person shooter; one lets you customize a character while the other tells a specific story; one is generally dark and grounded in tone while the other’s darkness is frequently mitigated by comedy. But from a big-picture perspective, it’s equally easy for me to sum up the quality provided by each game that causes me to group them in my mind so readily: immersion. Yeah, I’m really pulling out all of the game critic clichés for this one. To avoid the potential pitfall of retreating into a buzzword, let me spell out exactly what I mean by immersion: I consider a work to be truly immersive when its various design elements come together to create an experience that captivates the person experiencing the work, subsuming their consciousness within the simulated reality described by the work in a sustained fashion that temporarily suspends consideration of reality outside the work.
With the exception of the horror genre (where it is often possible to ‘cheat’ by triggering automatic physical responses), achieving real immersion in any work is remarkably rare. Admittedly, I have been cavalier in my usage of the word in the past, using it to casually communicate the way that games like Terraria and Slay the Spire can draw and hold the attention of a player. But among the hundreds upon hundreds of games that I’ve played, the actual list of games that I consider to be truly immersive numbers fewer than 20 in total—including titles like Portal, Shadow of the Colossus, Half-Life, and Journey.
And what is it about both Dark Souls and Jak II that causes these games to achieve immersion? It’s the way that the discrete elements of their designs complement each other, cohering around a singular experience. Nearly all of the elements in that rather lengthy list of mechanical and thematic designs from both games provided at the beginning of this section enmesh together cleanly to proffer a totality of experience that is greater than the sum of their parts.
Each game features a naturalistically designed and largely unrestricted fantasy world, purposefully avoiding fourth-wall-breaking technical limitations like invisible walls and loading screens wherever possible. The setting of Jak II, Haven City, bustles with life in a manner that is logically and narratively consistent, in addition to brimming over with small details that sell its world (such as propagandistic broadcasts, and alterations to the enemy types present in the city at certain points in the story). Haven City contains logically arrayed districts for everything from agriculture to commerce to sporting to importation, including roadways and accommodations that are distinguishable by the class of their residents. And nearly its entire map, inside and outside of the city walls, is connected contiguously and can be accessed through uninterrupted traversal. Primary gameplay segments take place in missions that are peppered across the map and can often be completed in the player’s choice of order.
Each game is careful in its use of music, varying between more somber and more energetic tracks in order to reinforce the mood of areas and moments in a manner more reminiscent of film scoring than of a playlist. Jak II’s music—which enticingly blends the fantasy-style tunes of The Precursor Legacy with a more industrial feeling—dynamically changes in response to numerous in-game circumstances, including entering or exiting vehicles, buildings, combat scenarios, and guard alerts.
Each game features a high concentration of well-acted and interesting NPCs. The charismatic figures of Daxter and Samos are carried forward from the first Jak & Daxter title, but it’s a group of newcomers to the tale—especially Sig, Errol, Vin, the duo of Onin and Pecker, and (above all) Krew—who tend to steal scenes with their wholehearted embracing of amusing character quirks. These characters are brought to life by some very high-quality voice acting; it’s difficult to overstate how impressive it was to hear well-rounded and nuanced voice acting in a game in 2003, as a person who had previously played a fair number of titles on the Playstation 1 and the Sega Dreamcast (including such failures in this regard as the first games in the Spyro the Dragon and Sonic Adventure series).
And (as I discuss in several portions of my lengthy article on Dark Souls) even the difficulty of each game is a tool that serves each game’s themes, pacing, and atmosphere. Jak II brings forward the checkpoint system from The Precursor Legacy for in-mission progress, where predetermined and invisible checkpoints act as respawn points upon the player-character’s death; but as the game has a higher level of difficulty than the prior game and more sparse checkpoints, this system became contentious among players in a way it had not been previously. As for me, the oppression by the Crimson Guard, the threat of the encroaching metalheads, and the generally dour world of the game were all sold and made concrete entirely on the back of the game’s unflinching approach to challenge—a ludonarrative success! (And, lest we forget, I did manage to complete the game more than once as a preteen, so at the end of the day its difficulty is definitely exaggerated or misremembered by many.)
Alone, each of these would be laudable elements of design. But it’s the way that they work together and enhance each other (a swell of music selling a key moment, a transition between one area and another resonating with thematic details, a difficult task underscoring the importance and threat of the undertaking) that provides the multiplicative effect which can be said to outpace their sum in both Jak II and Dark Souls.
Neither game is without its flaws, of course. Dark Souls runs regrettably thin after warping between bonfires is unlocked, as the game transitions from the incredible interconnection and captivating realism of navigating most of Lordran into the isolated linearity of locations like Lost Izalith, the Tomb of the Giants, and the Duke’s Archives. Jak II, meanwhile, features a hokey and unevenly paced story whose angsty protagonist desperately requires a character arc that he just isn’t given.
Please also note that, despite my insistence on it, I don’t think that the comparison is entirely favorable to Jak II.
The potential immersion of Jak II’s world (and of some of its missions) is harmed by the inclusion of the mini-map, which tends to give new players tunnel vision; the restrained lack of mapping in Dark Souls really lets the level and world design shine from the very first playthrough.
The chaos that the player can induce Jak to cause on the streets of Haven City has no effect on the narrative whatsoever, in stark contrast to the specific penalties and effects that the player-character in Dark Souls can face from choices when interacting with NPCs. (Jak II would’ve been better served in this regard by a revolution system resembling the one in Red Faction: Guerrilla.)
The incredible verticality of the level design in Dark Souls is also far afield from the largely flat layout of the levels in Jak II, despite the fact that its more developed platforming mechanics would’ve been suited to highly vertical designs.
Furthermore, the seeming openness of Jak II‘s mission system falls away on close study and repeated plays, as the game enforces certain story gates which the player is compelled to complete in an order that only varies slightly between playthroughs—and the map doesn’t really feel like it opens up until over an hour into the game. In contrast, Dark Souls has basically just one story gate in the form of Anor Londo, tending to open up more and more on repeated playthroughs as the player becomes increasingly familiar with the world—and feels wide open to the player less than 15 minutes in, upon arriving at Firelink Shrine.
And finally, of course, the themes and story content of Dark Souls are a lot more interesting and focused than the often goofy and occasionally juvenile story of Jak II.
Let me drive this point home without hesitation: Dark Souls is undoubtedly the superior game, and the two are noticeably distinct in many ways. But in terms of the core gameplay experience offered by these two, I see in each game an engrossing third-person action-adventure game taking place in a tightly designed, believably laid out, and largely uninterrupted dark fantasy world where the bleak tone and high in-game stakes of the story are reinforced by a noticeably elevated difficulty in the gameplay.
The point of this article is not to say that the games are on-par with each other. The point is merely to illustrate why a certain type of player—for whom the experience of Dark Souls, summing its exploration, world design, combat, music, atmosphere, and character writing together, seems to them (as it does to me) to be one of the very best experiences available in all of gaming—may be shockingly pleased by the degree to which they would enjoy Jak II, a game whose reputation tends to be that of an awkward, edgy middle child in a disjointed cartoon mascot franchise. And if it’s not short-sightedly discarded along those lines, then the world’s ‘mature gamers’ may nevertheless be tempted to discard Jak II for a related and equally short-sighted reason: that it is supposedly a pale imitation of Grand Theft Auto.
The Relationship between Grand Theft Auto and Jak II:
The most common comparison that Jak II sustains, of course, is not to a dense and mature ARPG that came out nearly 10 years later—but rather to the Grand Theft Auto series. I do not debate the fact that Jak II takes heavy inspiration from the two GTA titles that had released on the Playstation 2 previously (which were Grand Theft Auto III and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City). Jak II wears its GTA influence on its sleeve: most of its overworld is an urban environment that is traversed by commandeering the vehicles of civilians; its campaign progresses through missions that are accessed by approaching symbols placed on a mini-map; and it is a third-person shooter wherein you can be aggressively pursued by authorities when their alert level is raised.
Nonetheless, I would still contend that communicating the experience and appeal of Jak II to new players in the here and now, with a few minor exceptions, is better-served by my contrived comparison to Dark Souls than it is by the more obvious comparison to Grand Theft Auto. I suspect, for instance, that people alleging Jak II is simply a GTA clone have added elements into the comparison (such as a cast of well-acted quirky characters, consistently enjoyable mission content and gunplay, and an atmospheric realization of a dark and gritty setting) anachronistically from later titles like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Grand Theft Auto IV, when in reality those games did not exist yet. Along these lines, I would like to highlight some of Jak II‘s biggest differences from its two clear GTA forebears.
First, the unique districts and levels inside and outside of Haven City in Jak II are more distinct from each other, more colorful, and more interesting than the grounded environments of Liberty City and Vice City in the PS2 Grand Theft Auto titles. Haven’s communities operate more like the segments of a fantasy world—utilizing rigidly delineated and noticeably diverse, yet interconnected zones like those present in both Jak & Daxter: The Precursor Legacy and Dark Souls. GTA III and Vice City instead opt for a fair amount of realism in their settings, which serves the mood, themes, and atmosphere of those games—but has the unfortunate side effect of creating much more bland and forgettable environments that have aged far worse.
Second, traversal in Jak II is not as trivial as it is in GTA. The zoomers of Haven City are considerably more versatile and more fragile than GTA III and Vice City‘s bumper-car-like vehicles. The heavy movement and volatility of the zoomers require knowledgeable, dexterous, and even careful operation to prevent lethal and explosive crashes—and the flow created by darting between hover zones in the tight highways and byways of Jak II is something more finicky and involving than land, water, or aircraft usage in GTA. This makes driving in Jak II more similar to walking and rolling in Dark Souls . . . just kidding! I don’t actually think that this brings Jak II any closer to being like Dark Souls; it just drives another noticeable little wedge between the moment-to-moment experiences of GTA and Jak II.
Third, the GTA games that precede Jak II tell stories that are neither as interesting nor as well-acted nor as memorable as the narratives of Jak II and Dark Souls. In particular, Grand Theft Auto III and Vice City feature ‘gangland rags-to-riches’ stories told through slipshod vignettes and shallow mission pretenses. Their stories feel like bloated and poorly conveyed knockoffs of Goodfellas or Scarface, and they make the simplistic and poorly paced storytelling of Jak II look like the work of Shakespeare. It wouldn’t be until their later releases, such as San Andreas and GTA IV, that Rockstar would start incorporating worthwhile narrative content and memorable characters into their series.
Fourth, technologically, Jak II feels like it’s an entire console generation ahead of GTA III and Vice City. Compared to the work of Naughty Dog, the PS2 GTA titles have more graphics pop-in, more jagged environment and character models, more amateurish voice acting, more cumbersome save systems, clunkier controls, stiffer animations, less cinematic cutscenes, and a massive amount more loading screens. Jak II and Dark Souls, as I’ve already covered extensively in the previous section, are mechanical marvels. And the seamless worlds in the Jak trilogy are nothing short of miraculous when you consider the fact that there were prominent titles on the Playstation 2, like the Kingdom Hearts games, which had to load just to move from one room to another. While not quite as bad as that, the PS2 GTA titles nevertheless pause to load before every cutscene and every mission.
Fifth, the subgenre of fantasy in which Jak II operates brings with it an entirely different set of thematic priorities than the grounded fictional universe of Grand Theft Auto. GTA games have a notable edginess, to be sure, but dark fantasy is its own separate domain of creation—whether in the high-fantasy trappings of Dark Souls or the low-fantasy trappings of Jak II. Dark fantasy has a unique metaphysics and a much stronger relationship to philosophical topics like identity and existence than do other forms of fiction (and even other forms of fantasy). In fact, if I wanted to stretch my comparison way, way too far, I could probably cobble together some kind of comparison between the role of souls in Lordran and the role of eco in Haven City. Even setting aside the fantasy element, though, the genre experience provided by Jak II actually feels closer to cyberpunk than it does to urban realism.
Sixth and finally, the moment-to-moment mechanical gameplay of Jak II is straightforwardly more engaging, mechanically precise, and rewarding than that of GTA—with a more even difficulty curve across its campaign and a greater degree of consistency in the quality of its challenges. The well-developed platforming mechanics which Naughty Dog had honed across the Crash Bandicoot titles and the original Jak & Daxter mix well with the four gun varieties to provide a diverse and fluid combat system, and the player’s mastery of that system is steadily tested to a greater degree as one progresses. It hardly needs to be said (as it may be the game’s single most famous attribute), but Dark Souls is also known for having a ‘tough but fair’ approach to difficulty that rewards careful and capable players, heavily penalizes failures, and noticeably ramps up throughout the campaign. In contrast to this, the actual content within the missions of Grand Theft Auto III and Vice City is wildly inconsistent in content and quality, with incredibly clunky shooting mechanics and a difficulty curve that looks more like a chart of the stock market than a representation of smooth progression.
In summary, I think that the elements which the game borrows from Grand Theft Auto are fairly superficial and shallow. They provide a framework for accessing the game’s content, but describing them does not provide an adequate depiction of Jak II. For the most part, granting that there are a few races and (unfortunately) escort missions, those influences usually end when a mission starts—as the content of the missions by and large has little or no resemblance to the content of GTA.
Jak & Daxter: The Precursor Legacy is a more focused and tight execution of a vision than Jak II, as the second game sprawls outward across genres and tones. Jak 3 has a more emotionally satisfying (if no less shallow) story than Jak II, as the second game suffers from excessively emo writing for Jak’s character, a disconnect between his city-spanning rampage and his ultimately heroic characterization, and more numerous plot holes.
But for all that, Jak II remains my favorite game in the series as well as one of my favorite games period. Where I’ve just said that The Precursor Legacy is more focused in game design—it is nowhere near as ambitious, atmospherically intriguing, or populated with well-written characters as is Jak II. And where I’ve just said that Jak 3 has a slightly superior story—its tone is less focused than either of its predecessors; its gameplay is more gimmicky due to an overabundance of one-off mechanics and missions that abandon the series staples of on-foot combat and platforming; and its added gun varieties, armor mechanic, and defensive Light Jak abilities clutter the core gameplay with redundancy while drastically and unduly reducing the difficulty of the core gameplay.
Jak II had an ambitious vision that outpaced development, a lean and challenging combat system, and a story that’s more about moments of emotional resonance than it is about providing specific concrete character arcs. These are also features of, you guessed it, Dark Souls. Both are games where one can sink into the world and really live there for the duration of a play session. They share noteworthy similarities in terms of atmosphere, tone, genre, worldbuilding, world design, challenge design, and player freedom—which outstrip the similarities (in just world design and player freedom) that exist between Jak II and the two preexisting GTA games.
The many ways in which Jak II and Dark Souls differ are something of a mixed bag, usually reflecting poorly on Jak II. But the ways in which they are similar are some of the best aspects of both games, and I will continue to strongly recommend people to check out both going forward. Although it really pains me to write it (and it’s a bit of an anachronism, since Jak II came first), in the final evaluation Jak II may truly be ‘the Dark Souls of 3D platformers’ . . . and may even be a bit ‘like Dark Souls—with guns.’