Written by  :  Ludicrous Gibs! (40)
Written on  :  Dec 16, 2005
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars

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Absolutely stunning... Schafer does it again!

The Good

Where to begin? Well, for starters, this is bar-none the most imaginative game I have ever experienced. Razputin's ability to enter the minds of others to battle their anxieties and insecurities is the perfect pretense to let Tim Schafer and Double Fine's inestimable imaginations run wild. Psychonauts has ten mental worlds in all; each has an entirely unique visual design, and introduces a new gameplay twist.

For instance, the first mental level (available in the downloadable demo) is mostly straightforward platforming. Double-jumping over chasms, hanging off ledges, climbing ladders, that sort of thing. The difference is that it all takes place in the mind of militaristic, bombastic Coach Oleander, which means random explosions everywhere, gigantic cannons firing at unseen targets, foliage made out of ammo belts, and propaganda movies projected onto bullet-scarred walls.

Despite the unique setting, it would be easy to come away from that level unimpressed, expecting the rest of the game to be visually interesting but ultimately uninspired. But the level design only improves as the game goes on. Within two levels, you're rolling Raz around on top of his thought bubble in a kaleidoscopic 60's dance-party-cum-pinball-machine filled with lava lamps, bubble machines, and go-go dancers. Two levels later, Raz has to navigate a twisted 1950's suburb while looking for disguises to help him sneak past trenchcoated government agents. And still later on, Raz takes part in a gigantic hex-based wargame, shrinking down to recruit pieces before enlarging to move them around the board. The variety in scenery and goals keeps things fresh from beginning to end.

As amazing as Psychonauts' level design is, the game's artistic style is equally great. It's frequently been called "Tim Burton meets Pixar", and I think that description couldn't be more appropriate. The characters are strange-looking yet endearing, and filled with personality. The environments are littered with lovingly-crafted, surrealistic details. When even the puffs of dust that appear when something heavy hits the ground are heavily stylized, you know that this game has some serious artistic talent behind it.

From a aural standpoint, the game is similarly untouchable. Schafer's games have long been known for their outstanding voice casts, and this one is no exception. Every character is matched with an appropriate-sounding actor, without a single flat or stilted performance. The dialogue they're reading is typical Schafer - well crafted, flowing, articulate... and full of gut-busting humor. The characters themselves are quirky and filled with personality, even the ones who have no effect on the overall plot.

Peter McConnell, who composed the score to Schafer's previous game Grim Fandango, returns for Psychonauts, and the results are impressive. While I feel it doesn't have as many stand-out tracks as Grim, McConnell's music brings an extra level of texture to the game. Camp Whispering Rock's theme sounds appropriately bouncy and carefree, while the eeriness of Boyd's paranoid mindscape is intensified by its soundtrack's droning electronic hum. Performed with a miniature orchestra, the music makes the game feel even more cinematic than it already does.

The Bad

If you blaze straight through without stopping, the game is fairly short, with around 9-10 hours of playtime. And, as noted in another review, it's extremely easy up until the final level. So, to extend the length of the game, Double Fine threw in a tremendous amount of collecting. In the real world, Raz needs to look for psychic arrowheads, psi-cards, psi-cores, scavenger hunt items, and eventually missing brains. In each mental world, he needs to keep an eye out for figments, mental cobwebs, memory vaults, emotional baggage, and baggage tags.

That's a lot of stuff to keep track of, and many people may be annoyed that the game is pushing them to "catch 'em all". Luckily, most of the collecting is entirely optional. Plus, the upgrades Raz gets for doing it, such as multi-target psi blasts and regeneration, are worth the effort. A lot of the collectables are pretty entertaining to look at too, especially the figments, which are translucent neon pencil sketches that reflect the theme of the mind they appear in.

Psychonauts also has a few small gameplay glitches here and there. Occasionally Raz will be unable to move after walking from a platform onto a tightrope. Collisions with some of the scenery will cause Raz to slide off in odd directions. Some of the in-engine cutscenes have problems, specifically Raz facing away from the camera when it's clear he was supposed to be looking into it, or characters getting hung up on obstacles when trying to run somewhere. Aside from these, there are a few other small problems that might've been solved with some extra QA time, but they're hardly game-breaking.

Finally, I wish this game had sold better! Its sales in the United States were dismal considering the time and effort put into it, which is a shame. I feel this is partly because of its unusual look and theme. But, I think it's mostly the fault of a misleading advertising campaign that made it look like a typical kid-oriented platformer, and the immense difficulty publisher Majesco apparently had getting copies of the game into stores (something which they are, as of the time of this writing, about to be sued over). Here's hoping that it has better success in Europe when it's released there next month.

The Bottom Line

This is one of the best platformers of this console generation and, moreover, of all time. It doesn't do much to reinvent the genre, but instead takes what has gone before, tweaks it, and injects it with a rarely-seen level of craft, imagination, and painstaking detail. Anyone who, in recent years, has stared at shelves full of cookie-cutter first person shooters, racers, and RPGs and believed that creativity in game design was dead owes it to themselves to give Psychonauts a try.