Developer: Double Fine Productions
Publisher: Majesco Entertainment
Genre: Platform Adventure Hybrid
Although the release date given in the details above is 2005, Psychonauts actually didn’t get over to England until the year after, where it stayed in the shops for about 10 minutes before vanishing without a trace, making it a nightmare for anyone who actually appreciates interesting and unusual games to get hold of a copy. And then there’s complaints that it didn’t sell well, despite being critically well received, proving once and for all that game publishing companies are often made up of complete idiots. How do they expect anyone to buy it when they release about one copy per city to the shops and don’t give the game any publicity?
All of the above is a big shame, because Psychonauts is one of the more original games to come out in recent years, not to mention one of the most fun. It comes from the mind of Tim Schafer, the man who had previously worked on the Monkey Island series, Day of the Tentacle and Grim Fandango, some of the best adventure games ever released. The game is set at Whispering Rock Summer Camp, which is really a government facility for training kids with psychic powers. Enter Razputin (Raz for short) who has run away from the circus, and his father, to try and become a Psychonaut.
The basic concept behind the game is that each section of the game takes place within the mind of a different character, with the summer camp acting as a hub to go between levels. This leads to a wide variety of surreal environments to explore, as well as some fairly diverse gameplay. Each mind offers a different set of challenges, and completely different feel and a whole lot of weirdness. The first few minds you’ll explore belong to the various trainers and each one will teach you a different aspect of the game. For example, the first thing you’ll do is to be sent into the brain of a strict sergeant type war veteran, where you’ll be sent through a military style obstacle course gone mad. Another trainer, a young hippy-ish woman, has a mind set out like a dance party, where you’ll learn how to levitate. But it’s after you’ve finished the training and started investigating the actual plot that you get to the more interesting levels.
The gameplay is basically the standard platform style at its core, but it has a lot more to it than that, mostly due to the plot and character development. The controls for the platforming gameplay are reasonably good and should be familiar to anyone who’s played a third person action game before. There can be occasional problems where it’s hard to judge when you’re above the platform you’re trying to jump to, but other than a rather annoying jumping sequence towards the end, you’re never forced into too much complex jumping all at once. That’s because there’s several other elements to the game. Firstly, you’ll gain several psychic powers throughout the course of the game, which makes sense since you’re training to become a psychic agent. These comprise such things as levitation, telekinesis, pyrokinesis (burning stuff), and even the ability to see through the eyes of other characters. Interestingly, the latter allows you to see how each of the other characters visualises Raz, and each one sees him in a completely different way, leading to some amusing images.
On top of this, this is much more story based than most platform games. All the characters, including all the kids that are at the camp with you, have a distinct personality, making up much of the games humour. And the game is one of the funniest to come out in recent years, as you’d expect from the man behind Day of the Tentacle. But despite the comedy, the game does have a surprising amount of depth to it. On top of a few things you can do in peoples mind’s based around puns (cleaning out mental cobwebs, sorting emotional baggage, collecting figments of the imagination) you can break open vaults to view a slide show revealing something of the character’s past that they keep locked away. These can be surprisingly dark and sad at times, making this far more than a standard comedy game. In the case of later levels, where you’re exploring the minds of asylum patients, they give insights into exactly what it was that led to their breakdowns.
Of course, the level design is important, and since I only mentioned a couple of the training levels before, I’ll briefly mention a few of the other levels to give an idea of how diverse they are, hopefully without giving too much away. The mind of the conspiracy theorist is a twisted (literally) suburban neighbourhood where every person is a barely disguised secret agent spouting hilarious attempts at sounding like they’re genuine. The mind of an ex-actress has her past viewed through a series of plays, with the whole level being like one big puzzle. At one point you’ll even end up as a giant stomping around a city, Godzilla style. In another you’ll help someone win a military board game by shrinking down to the size of the pieces, and then even further to try and recruit new pieces from the buildings. Ultimately, there’s more imagination in Psychonauts than in the entire Top 20 best selling games of any average week put together.
There are surprisingly few flaws in the game, although obviously it’s not completely perfect. As mentioned earlier, there can occasionally be problems with judging the jumping between platforms. The save system is also not as good as it should be. You can save at any point, but when you reload you’ll be at the most recent checkpoint, although any progress you made in completing objectives will be saved, so you won’t have to redo anything, just run through the level to where you were. Since the checkpoints are spaced quite closely together, it’s not too much of a problem, but it’d be nice to save your exact position. The game also features an equivalent of the old “lives” system which seems quite pointless. In the game, they are layers of mental projection, and each time your mental health runs out, you lose one layer. When you lose all the layers, you’re kicked out of the brain, and when you re-enter, you’re back at the beginning. As with the saving, all progress you have made is still saved, but you’ll sometimes be back at the start of the level and could have a bit of running to do to get back where you were. Of course, you could just reload a save game when this happens and avoid the problem, but the flaw is still there. Finally, as I briefly touched on, near the end of the game you get a complex platforming sequence, and although there are several checkpoints along the way, each short segment of it can take quite a lot of attempts before you finally manage them. It’s the only really frustrating section of the game, and it’s not too long, but it’s disappointing in such a good game, especially coming so close to the end.
In the end, all those flaws pale into insignificance when weighed against the sheer level of imagination and quality in the rest of the game. Psychonauts is one of the most original and funniest games of recent years, as well as being one of the cleverest in concept. And most importantly of all, it’s a lot of fun the entire way through, and the diversity means you’ll never become bored of the game. The biggest tragedy is that thanks to the poor sales there’ll probably never be a sequel. But I live in hope. For now, I’m just happy that the first one exists. If you get the chance, get hold of a copy. It doesn’t matter if you don’t usually like platform games, get it anyway, and you’ll almost certainly enjoy it.
Save System Review: You can save anywhere but are sent back to the most recent checkpoint when you reload, albeit with all progress saved. Checkpoints are very regular and the game isn’t too difficult for the most part, so not too much of a problem, but not the perfect system.
Graphics: The graphics feature the same off-kilter cartoon style of Tim Schafer’s earlier games, meaning that while they might not be the greatest technically and won’t have the highest polygon count, the style works perfectly for the game. The characters have a Tim Burton-esque style to them, which can’t be a bad thing.
Sound: As with everything in the game, the sound is well designed. The sound effects are fitting and the voice acting is universally good, including voices from Armin Shimerman (Quark in Deep Space 9) and Dwight Schultz (Murdock in The A-Team). The soundtrack is a perfect blending of recognisable tunes and styles that give the right feel for each area you’re in.
Bugs: None that I found.
Gameplay: Diverse gameplay involving elements of platforming and adventure games, as well as several other bits and pieces to keep things from going boring, Psychonauts is one of the most fun games around.
Storyline: Hilarious dialogue and a brilliant, intelligently written storyline keep you interested all the way to the end of the game.
Arbitrary Final Score:
Does the review drive you out of your mind? Should the score be nought? Tell us what you think on our forum!