Clear your mental cobwebs before playing!
"Psychonauts" was made by Tim Schafer
of Day of the Tentacle
and Grim Fandango
fame; most adventure game fans, seeing how their beloved genre has been agonizing for the past decade, settled for a compromise: not an adventure game, but a game made by a great adventure game designer. They welcomed "Psychonauts" and created a cult around it, making it one of the highest-rated modern games, despite the poor sales.
"Psychonauts" is a game that relies on its concept, on the premise. This premise is the idea of being able to travel into the minds of people, each mind being a totally new and different location. Already the title screen gives you an idea about how unusual and twisted this game is going to be. It makes you walk over a huge human brain to start a new game or load a save file. From there on, you are drawn into one of the wildest, most imaginative worlds that were ever created for a video game.
The idea of traveling into people's brains opens up nearly unlimited possibilities for creative level design, and that's where the designer's fantasy has exceeded all boundaries. Sometimes you almost think there is too
much creativity here. Waiting for the new location to load becomes an experience of its own. You never know how the new location will look like. You only know one thing: it will be totally different from the one you just visited. You'll be hit on your head by yet another example of incredibly creative level design. All people are different, they have different thoughts, dreams, and fears. So each mind is unlike any other, each location is a mini-world that lives its own life. After playing this relatively short game, you feel as if you have played ten games, because each world here is like a game within a game.
To give you an idea about the sheer craziness of the level design, imagine the inside of the mind of a monster fish looking like a huge city. A real city, complete with skyscrapers, flashy neon signs, cars, news network, army and navy, prisons and dams, and so on. This city is populated by fish. When you emerge in it, you overhear a casual conversation between a police officer and a pretty woman, both of which are fish. You get acquainted with rifle-wielding, bandanna-wearing revolutionaries, all of which are fish.The fish TV is broadcasting news flash about a terrible monster - this monster is you, the teenage protagonist of the game, who can stomp on buildings, pick up and throw tanks, and demolish defense systems in this huge fish city, which is still too small for you.
This is just an example of what expects you in this game. I won't describe every level in detail, because this would make the review much too long. But the experience of encountering highly original and fresh ideas every time the story requires the scenery to change is absolutely overwhelming.
The genius of "Psychonauts", however, is its ability to fit all this variety and all this creative content into what is essentially nothing else but a 3D platformer
. In this sense, it is similar to ICO
. Both take a genre that has been traditionally associated with games for children, and make it into a work of art. But while "ICO" opted for hardcore environmental puzzles and monotonous exploration of the same huge level, "Psychonauts" chooses the opposite way. If "ICO" was introverted and meditative, "Psychonauts" is hyper-active. Just as its levels amaze in their variety and seemingly insatiable abundance of color and ideas, its gameplay amazes in its versatility. Each level is not just a a scenery; it is also a playground with a different set of rules, an experimentation laboratory for a gameplay idea. Of course, every level has its share of standard platforming such as climbing, jumping, bashing things to get items, etc.; but the gameplay style varies with each location. For example, in a level which is the mind of a paranoid guard, you have to find different items and apply them correctly so that the "cleverly disguised" secret agents will consider you one of their own. Another level is a mind of an asylum patient who thinks he is Napoleon; in this level, you have to play a strategy board game. Many of the things you'll be doing in "Psychonauts" have never been seen in a platformer, and sometimes you'll have a hard time applying this genre definition to the game.
Just as "ICO" implemented 3D graphics to convey the feeling of loneliness of two scared kids in a huge castle, "Psychonauts" uses the third dimension to demonstrate sheer optional craziness. Many levels are unthinkable within the frames of 2D platformer, and require a third dimension to enhance the experience and to make a level truly outstanding. As an example, I'll mention the insane Boyd level once again. There, you walk through a quiet neighborhood, but all the streets are totally twisted, going up and down in spirals, like in Escher's pictures. This crazy design applied to an ordinary, boring neighborhood creates an effect of horror that is stronger than thousand hordes of zombies.
But even without all this stuff, "Psychonauts" would still be an excellent 3D platform game. Even the most standard platform activities such as jumping or swinging on ropes are a lot of fun here. Boss battles are fun, climatic, and require clever usage of your so-called "psychic abilities". You gain them over the course of the game, and they work a bit like power-ups in other platform games, but are much more interesting than most of them. Some of those abilities are pretty standard, such as a ranged attack, the ability to set things on fire, or the ability to levitate. But others are anything but normal, and are once again an example of how perfectly the creative content of this game is bound to the gameplay. One of the abilities is called "clairvoyance"; it allows you to see things the way other creatures see them. You can try and use this ability on different people in the game, and each time you'll get an interesting result, even though using it on everyone is not required to proceed in the game.
"Psychonauts" offers many optional tasks to do beside the main objective. There are plenty of things to collect, so if you aim for 100% completion, you'll be spending a lot of extra time with this game. Currency in form of ancient Indian arrowheads, "emotional luggage" to open, deep memories of characters stored in vaults, "mental cobwebs" to clear, psychic cards, and so on. There is also a store in which you'll be able to buy all kinds of gadgets, most of which are completely optional. It can certainly satisfy our collector's instinct, as well as our drive to senseless violence: in every level, there are tons of destructible stuff, and most of it are just objects of everyday usage. This is particularly evident in the genius fish city level I mentioned before, where the destruction reaches unseen heights.
"Psychonauts" also has a wacky graphical design. All the characters are super-deformed to the extreme, sometimes to the point of not resembling human beings, or anything else, for that matter. It's a matter of taste whether you like this kind of graphical design or not, but there is a lot of expression to be found in those ridiculously deformed figures. Once of the characters in the game, a girl who likes you, has disproportionally huge head and eyes, but is still cute in a way. The graphical style is another example of the remarkable unity that can be found in "Psychonauts". Everything is grotesque and weird here, and that includes the story, the characters, the levels, the gameplay, and the graphics. In this sense, "Psychonauts" is very similar to Day of the Tentacle
On top of all that, "Psychonauts" has wonderful dialogues with as much (and maybe even more) twisted humor as in the most venerable classics of comedy adventure. Of course, most of the laughing is caused by the insane character and level design, but the dialogues also supply plenty of comedy. On several occasions the game caused me to laugh out loud, a sensation I haven't experienced to the full since the "scientist language" scene in Anachronox
. My favorite moment was the conversation with the lungfish monster, during which it speaks to you in a "prophetic" male voice, telling you about your noble mission and so on. Then it asks you not to call it "lungfish", but to address it by the ancient name that was given to it by its people. When you ask it what that name is, the lungfish looks at you for a moment, and then utters in a low, heavy voice: "Linda..."
It takes a while to get into the game, particularly because the first two or so levels pale in comparison to what comes after, and the dialogues are also less funny. It also takes a considerable amount of time till the story becomes clear and you realize that there is an antagonist in the game. This is a pity, because the game is not very long anyway. Once the story picks up, everything gets into the right tempo, but it just takes too long to get there, and I'm afraid some players could be repelled by the seemingly harmless beginning. Maybe it was a part of poor marketing that presented the game as yet another 3D platformer for kids, like Banjo-Kazooie
or Spyro the Dragon
, without drawing attention to the imaginative content and the humor.
In certain places I felt that the game was trying too hard to stay true to its platforming roots. No matter what original gameplay concept dominated the level, it was still filled with obligatory jumping, climbing, and occasional whacking of enemies. In fact, I think it would be better if they eliminated regular enemies altogether, leaving just the bosses. There are very few enemies in the game, they are not particularly interesting, and serve just as annoying distractions, like in the least interesting of all levels, Sasha's Shooting Gallery.
The game is very colorful, and some of the levels really don't go easy on the eyes. There are so many objects around, many of which are just decorations or worthless junk; while it is fun to destroy everything around, sometimes it becomes difficult to understand what is important and what is not. Even though I praised the clever integration of the third dimension, sometimes it becomes a real pain to find your way through a level because of the confusing design. Also, the camera rotation is not always optimal, and in some places the camera becomes fixed, which makes things more difficult than they should have been.
The Bottom Line
+ Creative concept and ideas
+ Amazing level design
+ Incredible variety
+ Excellent gameplay
+ Wonderful humor
- Starts a bit slow
If you mourn the death of comedy adventure, you'll be happy to know that the spirit of LucasArts
continues to live in this little insane platform game. "Psychonauts" is so much more than just a good 3D platformer: it is a worthy heir to the great tradition of comedy adventure of the past. Grab a copy of this game and show it to Roger Ebert, and let's see if he dares
say that video games are not art!