Into the head of Tim Schafer
Many of today's games are entertainment projects which don't fall short of movie productions, especially in terms of the artistic effort put into their visuals. Few games, however, are as convincing with their setting, characters and plot as Tim Schafer's Psychonauts.
This immersion is achieved on more than one level. Schafer creates a familiar little childhood world in which players feel at home - a summer camp. The twist: it's a summer camp for psychically gifted children. Our curiosity is piqued! Enter the hero, Razputin, a slightly kooky, yet immensely likeable and adventurous kid with the grand dream of mastering this little world and claim its reward: employment as a psychic government agent.
The test Raz has to overcome takes on greater proportions when the "usual" training he is supposed to undergo gets disrupted by a villain bent on harnessing the camper's psychic energies for his own purpose. During his journey, Raz studies with many mentors and enhances his mental powers. The learning curve and enhanced abilities that must be unlocked wake fond memories of prime genre representatives like Legend of Zelda in which players get an increasing feeling of skill and mastery of the surrounding world.
In terms of gameplay, Psychonauts translates into mental worlds which Razputin has to visit. Once there, he has to use his skills to solve the problems inside people's heads, helping them to overcome their personal demons and advance the story. Among the game's highlights are visits into a paranoid milkman's mind or the battle with an actress' inner critic in a world resembling a giant stage.
While the premise gets weirder and weirder, it remains perfectly comprehensible because players are introduced to everything one step at a time. Like Raz, they only have a vague idea of what awaits them and are led deeper into the world of Psychonauts through exploration, an integral part of this action-adventure.
The game's graphics are the kind of bent-out-of-shape cartoon designs one would expect from Tim Burton, only less bleak. Bordering on the abstract sometimes, they can be a little hard to get into but radiate an appeal that's entirely their own. The presentation is topped off by a superb voice-over. Not a single character is miscast and no small part of the fun is exploring the "real" world tying together the mental ones and talking to many memorable characters and find out about them. No character in Psychonauts is two-dimensional and it speaks for the game's appeal that running around and talking to people is something players will want to do, even though it's not necessary to beat the game.
While one of the most original games around as far as presentation and story are concerned, Psychonauts doesn't offer much in terms of gameplay that can't be found (and often better) in other action-adventures. The game isn't a cookie-cutter jump 'n' run, yet it's a far cry from brilliant gems like the aforementioned Legend of Zelda which offer better level design and a combination of action and puzzles elements.
Also, while Psychonauts is brilliantly written, it shows that Tim Schafer used to create equally brilliant adventure games for LucasArts. A slight disadvantage in this case as most of Psychonauts' main problems play out like classic adventure puzzles, but are far easier to beat because the solutions are action-based rather than brainteasers.
The Bottom Line
Psychonauts is a game players will play primarily for its story and characters. Giving a story-based approach the fair chance it deserves, it's easy to lose oneself in Tim Schafer's delightfully weird world populated by an incredibly strong cast. However, people who are looking for an experience in gameplay first and foremost may be turned off by this as the game's strength lies in its funny and intelligent plot.