Pros: Quirky, unique platform fun
Cons: Collecting hordes of crap is so 1998
For a game with such an impressive pedigree, Psychonauts sure had a difficult time reaching store shelves. The debut project from Double Fine, founded by Tim Schafer, who brought titles like Grim Fandango and Full Throttle to the PC, carving Lucasarts a piece of the gaming pie aside from endless Star Wars releases, was originally to be published by Microsoft and thus be an Xbox exclusive. With the Xbox low on platformers and Double Fine being a young developer looking to make a name, it seemed like a win-win for both sides. But despite the can't miss potential of Psychonauts, MS unceremoniously dropped the game and it was in limbo for quite some time until fledging publisher Majesco took charge and picked up the rights (and produced a version for PS2, which many believe was allowed by Double Fine merely to stick it to Microsoft for dumping their project), and finally this year, Psychonauts found its way to store shelves. Though the game is a platformer at heart, Psychonauts goes beyond, thanks to an absurdly funny storyline, a great cast of characters, imaginative level design, and a horde of psychic powers to mix things up. After playing through Psychonauts, I was left with just one question why in the hell did Microsoft dump this?
Psychonauts puts you in the...uh...goggles of Rasputin, a circus performer and one possessing advanced psychic abilities, but his father forbids use of his powers, much to the confusion of Raz (his nickname...certainly done to avoid being compared to that wacko who almost destroyed Russia a century ago). One day Raz runs away from his circus troupe and finds himself at Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp, where psychic-sensitive youths train to become Psychonauts, a secret agency who use psychic powers to solve problems. Raz's goal? To become a Psychonaut before his parents come to get him from the camp. Of course, all sorts of things go wrong, and all the students at the camp have their brains removed, and thus wander around pretty much aimlessly, like zombies (I only ask...how do they live without a brain? Ah, for the love of disbelief suspension...). As such, Raz not only must get all his merit badges to become a Psychonaut, but return everyone's brain to their head and get to the bottom of this...by going into the heads of others. Along with his lone ally, old-timer Psychonaut Ford Cruller, who is summoned by a piece of bacon, Raz will enter heads of sane people, insane people, and even his own head to rescue the other students and prevent a catastrophe.
Psychonauts is split into two worlds the real world, and the mental world that Raz dives into. Much of the real world is spent on the campgrounds, where you usually begin the next mission, though as you move along, other locations open up. Whispering Rock is pretty large and intimidating, until you find the hidden rail system that Cruller uses to get around; you learn fast that Ford is a master of disguise as well as a master of psychic powers. However, the field map is the most irritating; much of your time will be spent collecting crap the bane of platformers. The main form of currency, arrowheads, can be found around the camp, some on the surface, others you can't find until you buy a dousing rod with your collected arrowheads. In addition, you must find PSI Cards, that, along with a PSI core, let you create PSI Challenge Markers that rank Raz up and increase the potency of learned powers, or teach all new ones. The campgrounds also have a small scavenger hunt sidequest, which entails even more collecting! Not cool. At least the mental worlds are devoid of most of these annoyances. Even later in the game when the camp is not the main 'field', you still must collect things, though in this case you collect the stolen brains and return them to their bodies. It's a shame you can't mix them up and mess up these psychic kids even more.
The mental worlds are based upon the consciousness of whoever's mind you've dived into; and this is where Psychonauts' level design shines, with bizarre worlds perfectly crafted for the personality of your host. The always-cool Sasha's world is organized into a square, thanks to a well-balanced mind, while the psychotic Milkman's world is as absurd and insane as the host, and...well...Lungfishopolis is just classic that doesn't need any unnecessary spoilage. Thankfully there's only a few things you need to collect in the mental worlds; the figments that serve as 'figments of your imagination', and tags that match up with 'mental baggage.' The rest of the time you'll be platforming it up with the best of them and solving the riddles of the various mental universes, whether it's puzzles or just use of Raz's powers. Whatever you do, don't let the boring campground portions get you down; once the game takes off it becomes a thrill ride that few platformers have been able to pull off in recent years.
Like many platform games of this generation, Psychonauts isn't 100% platforming, though it does contain a lot of jumping, climbing, hanging, etc. - more than many games in this genre in recent years. It's the addition of psychic powers that make the game unique. Psi-Ops fans will recognize a lot of aspects; pyrokinesis, clairvoyance, using your mind to heave crap all over the place, those are powers that've been used in psychic-related games before, but not in the same way as Psychonauts. There's new powers as well, such as levitation and confusion, that make your enemies do weird things due to their minds being mixed up. As you progress and rank up, newer powers open, and learned abilities grow stronger and more effective. The only snag is how you use them; you can map powers to 3 buttons on the Xbox controller R trigger, white, and black. There's really no 'quick select' if you need to use a power not mapped to a button, you can only enter the menu and remap a power to a button, making for a juggling act if you come across a need for an unequipped power. Equipping various items works the same way, yet another thing that could have been fixed a bit with a quick select. That's about the only control snag in Psychonauts; everything else is perfect and intuitive making for a game where you're really in control of the action.
Though many of these powers are used to move around obstacles and solve puzzles, they're also used to deal with the enemies in the game Censors. Censors 'stamp out' things that don't fit in the mind you're exploring...and you're that thing. They run around in their suits and you have to take them out fast before they kill you, and they come in tougher varieties the farther you get into the game. You can just punch them out, but stronger versions require the numerous skills to take out. Every single boss fight requires some sort of power, usually the newest one you've learned. Every single ability Raz learns has a vital place and will be used frequently, unlike many games that use them as novelties. Usually, when you're stuck, one of these powers is likely the key to getting past it. Unlike a lot of platform games these days, you actually have 'lives' in the form of astral projections. As your mental health diminishes by getting hurt, you can lose a life or astral projection, and once you lose them all, you get booted out of the mental world and back into the real one. The farther you get, the more health and lives become available, but still you should acquire dream fluffs at the camp store with loose arrowheads, as they automatically restore your mental health (like Rations function in the first two Metal Gear Solid games) once it expires which saves a life. Though Psychonauts is not a brutally difficult game, there's going to be instances of deaths, after all this is a platform game where mistimed jumps will kill you in a hurry.
It's the style that helps Psychonauts stand out amongst the crowd. The platform aspects are common, and the Psi-power thing has been explored in a few games since Psychonauts went into its state of flux, but the quirky style, characters, reserved yet absurd sense of humor make Psychonauts special. Had this been just any other platform game, it wouldn't be too interesting, but it has an addictive quality that keeps you going, despite the few flaws the game has. The endless collecting is really irritating at first, but as you get going, it becomes a bit more transparent and it comes naturally rather than a forced treasure hunt (only getting the cobweb duster was a chore since it costs so many arrowheads). Raz as a character has potential to become huge, but that all depends on whether or not the game picks up from its lackluster sales thus far. It'd difficult to describe what makes Psychonauts so special and really, I wouldn't want to, since so many of the great moments and levels are meant to be experienced first-hand without any prior knowledge. When you see Lungfishopolis or the Milkman stage, you will understand. Though the last little bit of the game is a cliched drag, the previous 10 hours or so are near-perfect bliss, a brilliant mix of action, adventure, platforming, and if you want to get technical, RPG.
Due to its age, Psychonauts technically looks dated compared to newer Xbox games, but has an artistic style like none other. The characters are the goofiest things you can imagine, something straight out of an Adult Swim cartoon or something, each unique from the next. Raz himself is a big-headed dude with a little body, but not like the usual 'big head' Japanese-designed characters. Though the main campground area is fairly generic, the levels themselves are all really uniquely designed and full of character & weirdness. It manages to maintain a solid frame-rate as well, always a good thing in a platform game where timing is everything. However it doesn't have that 'wow' factor that many newer Xbox games have had. On the audio end, a booming, awesome soundtrack looms, performed in a cartoon-like style to match the goofy style of the game. Various sound effects loom depending on the level, and on the campground early on, you can hear conversations from other students when they still have their brains. Speaking of, the voice acting is absolutely top notch. Every voice fits their character, and delivery is perfectly wacky to boot. This all rounds out into a superb presentation to go along with the outstanding gameplay.
The Last Paragraph
When Microsoft dropped Psychonauts from its lineup, many feared they dumped it because the game sucked (yet they went ahead with some crap like Blinx?). After playing it first-hand, the reasons for MS's decision become even more curious, since Microsoft could have promoted this one far better than Majesco can. Regardless of the name on the box, Psychonauts is most definitely the best platform game to come to the Xbox in its 4 year life, though arguably that's not a real accomplishment given it's not one of its strongest genres. The quirky humor, great gameplay, and unique stlye make Psychonauts a special breed of game that will draw fans of platform games, action games, and adventure games together. Do yourself a favor if you haven't yet and give Psychonauts a try; it perhaps won't rewrite the book on the platformer genre but takes what's been done before and tunes it into one of the most enjoyable games so far in 2005.