4 out of 5
Label: Fangamer, Naughty Dog
Produced by: Justin Lieberman (mastered by)
The full soundtracks to Jak And Daxter 1 – 3 were massive; fully scored tracks – 3 to 4 minutes for each level and section, and then, I believe, compressed in some ways to work on the PS2. While there were full CD issues of each, highlights form Josh Mancell’s contributions (the main composer, amongst several) have been compiled onto a 2LP set by Fangamer / Naughty Dog, allowing for a sweet selection of songs to be heard at full length and better-than-game fidelity. Knowing (and loving) the games, this music makes a lot of sense, starting from something more open-ended and paced on the Jak 1 tracks, getting a bit more adventurous and dynamic on 2’s tracks, and then going devious and dangerous on 3’s thrill rides, as that maps to the tones of the respective games. However, if you had no familiarity with the games, and I pitched you the setup of a Crash Bandicoot-adjacent platformer, your mind would go to goofy and you would probably be expecting a very different score. …And then summarily blown away by the dense, beautiful, and patient work Mancell put together.
Jak 1’s tracks are reminiscent of the jungle setting and the mostly laid back platform hopping of a story finding its footing. It definitely does have notes of Crash Bandicoot’s island bop score (note that Mancell and Naughty Dog also worked on that series…), but it’s a bit more sober and less goofy; Jak had Daxter the Ottsel for the whole anthropomorphic thing, but J himself added a Gordon Freeman level of solemnity that allowed Jak 1’s story to contain some darker tones, which come through at the end of the game’s selected songs via an electronic edge to the beats and drums. Even prior to that, though, this is more of a contemplative shuffle than feel good jamz, setting the stage for more complex music (and story) to come.
With Jak 2, onto the B-side of the vinyl, there’s a bump up in orchestration: more layers, some strings. We’ve gone on to an adventure game, exploring a whole world instead of a narrow set of lands, and the music has expanded alongside this scope. In fact, Mancell goes downright cinematic at many points, standing toe to toe with the bombast of blockbuster Marvel scores but with tons more personality (sorry, Marvel scores); Jak 2’s sound is instantly exciting, and immersive. This is still a platformer, but it’s one truly unlike any other, and the music weaves its way through its strange blend of mystery and comedy and what’s-possibly-next intrigue with impressive fluidity.
C-side: Jak 3. While Jak 2 is, by my opinion, the pinnacle of the series, 3 takes the music cake. The game itself is more of a complement to its preceding entry, finishing the story, but it is, definitely, a darker toned tale, allowing the score to take some big emotional swoops and also increase the pace for its most intense action moments. This is the series maturing; having moments from each score side by side shows how Mancell followed that trend musically.
The D-side includes a handful of alternate tracks and tracks from demos / trailers, and they are equally excellent to anything else featured. Because some of this stuff was meant to be used in isolation – the trailer tracks, for example – they are appropriately grabbing, and work perfectly as “bonus” tracks for this reason (a whole slew of alternates and demos can be nice, but feel sort of fluffy at the end of an album).
I recognize I’m bias due to my enjoyment of this series, but I kept thinking how well this music translates to a cinematic experience, which is not really the case for a lot of PS2 era games, where the framing of “this belongs to a video game” is often necessary to appreciate what’s heard. That said, while the tracks appear in order, because they are ultimately only a drop in the bucket from each game’s whole scores, the Jak and Daxter Soundtrack Collection is missing a cohesive sense of story. It works well when considered from start to finish, but knowing that each side belongs to a game, there’s the sense that each side should also have a beginning, middle, and end to the music, which they don’t. These are, as stated, just selections. But the packaging is really bright and charming, and the fidelity sounded pretty great to me, so I’m happy to have this stuff on wax, and Mancell’s work is certainly strong and sweeping enough even in ‘selected’ form.