Few games go through four years of development and two publishers, and come out smelling of roses. Psychonauts is a game Microsoft no longer wanted as part of its first-party portfolio and despite positive word of mouth and much interest from the gaming hardcore, Tim Schafer’s debut console project looked to be in trouble. Fast forward a few years, chalk off a few delayed starts in Europe, and it’s finally arrived, courtesy of THQ and, thankfully, it’s just as good as everyone hoped it would be.
You play as Razputin (or Raz as he likes to be called), a young boy desperate to become part of the mysterious Psychonauts – a group of superheroes that fight inside people’s minds. Raz gatecrashes the training summer camp run by Psychonauts operatives and after making a strong first impression is allowed into the training program. Despite the initial ‘training’ sections, the game and story develop effortlessly into a mystery surrounding the removal of the brains of fellow camp members. What seems to be training is in actual fact a slowly building plot, culminating in the outing of an evil agent and your mission to retrieve the stolen brains.
Your main contact within camp is Ford Cruller, an old Psychonauts legend who now spends most of his time in his underground lab, but takes on various disguises and appears all over the camp to keep an eye on the children. Cruller can be called on at any point (strangely by using bacon, which he loves) within the mental realm, offering advice on the current situation if you ever become stuck. For the most part the game is relatively straightforward, but some of the later puzzles frustrate slightly and his help is much appreciated.
The summer camp is home to a huge number of quirky characters, each being involved in some aspect of the story, and the camp itself acts as a hub to the main stages of the game. During the game you’ll enter the mind of most the main characters, plus the odd giant fish and deranged milkman, and it’s these levels that are the stars of the show. Set inside the minds of partially to fully deranged characters, the levels are simply insane. You’ll see everything from a fully functioning city populated entirely by speaking lungfish, a white picket fence suburban town that seems to defy gravity, a bright luminous painted village with tight streets and a rampaging bull, and a whole lot more.
Each level sees you attempting to set things right within the mind of the person, helping them get over a fear, making them happy or simply sorting out the mess they’ve gotten themselves in to. Going into details would ruin much of the game, but expect plenty of bizarre, humorous and troubled characters. Every single character exudes personality, through their brilliant design to the perfect voice acting that fits every character to a tee. Raz himself is perhaps the best voiced, delivering his lines so perfectly that it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing that part any better, but you’re bound to have a few other favourites.
Strip away the layers of whackyness and the gameplay is remarkably traditional, but still polished. Raz can perform the usual 3D platformer moves, including the double jump, gliding, basic hand-to-hand combat, shooting laser beams, and all the rest, but, being the game Psychonauts is, you also learn to set things on fire, read people’s minds, turn invisible, cloud people’s minds, and more. Add in the numerous items that can be bought from the camp store (manned by Cruller in one of his many disguises) and you have a platformer so full of moves and new ideas that you’ll never become bored.
Collectathons are frowned upon by many platforming fans, but in Psychonauts it just doesn’t feel like a chore. Throughout each level is an abundance of arrowheads and psi cards that can be combined in Ford Cruller’s lab to increase your psi rank. Doing so unlocks new powers and enhances those that you have already acquired. Collecting figments (holographic images inside each mind) also helps increase your psi-rank. I haven’t even mentioned the mental cobwebs that can be cleared up using the cobweb duster, the emotional baggage cowering in each mind, or the memory vaults that need cracking open. Psychonauts is so full of ideas it’s impossible to cover all of them.
Artistically no other game, this generation or next, comes close to Psychonauts. The whole game world is simply stunning, looking something like a Tim Burton directed Pixar animated movie. What’s more, it’s technically superb too, at least on Xbox and PC. Both version run at a great frame rate and feature high poly counts and some superb effects. The PlayStation 2 version suffers a little all over, running at a substantially lower frame rate, lacking some detail in characters and missing a few of the nicer visual effects, but the wonderful design still shines through. I’ve already mentioned the voice work, but it’s worth mentioning again, alongside the musical score. The whole sound production is exceptional and plays a huge part in the game’s quirky feel.
Everything’s great then. Well, almost everything. If there’s one thing that could hurt your enjoyment it’s the targeting system. The lock-on targeting simply doesn’t work as well as it should. Bashing enemies with your fists usually works a treat, but if you want to take them on from a distance, the lock-on will often refuse to do its job, frequently resulting in Raz being surrounded by enemies and a rapidly reducing health meter. It can get downright infuriating at times, but thankfully these sections aren’t regular enough to upset things too much. You could also argue that, at twelve or so hours, the game is a little short. It doesn’t really feel like a short game, but because what you’ve played has been so good, you’re left wanting a lot more. Collecting all the items scattered around (including some well hidden treasure hunt items) will keep you busy for a while longer though.
It’s no secret that Psychonauts failed abysmally in the US sales charts, but it’s got absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the game. Whether you own an Xbox, PlayStation 2 or PC, you’d be doing Tim Schafer and the whole team at Double Fine Productions a huge disservice if this wasn’t part of your collection. Lack of originality is often cited as a potential cause for a future slump in the industry, but if games like Psychonauts are anything to go by, our industry is safe. The real slump could come when no publisher is prepared to take a gamble on an original idea, forcing the real creative minds in the industry to disappear for good. Buy Psychonauts and hope it isn’t the last of a dying breed.