Psychotoxic – Review

It's June 2005, and I've just finished playing a videogame where my only interaction with the level was when I was asked—non-ironically, mind you—to find a series of color-coded keycards to open a series of doors. I could stop the review right here, and anyone who knows anything about First Person Shooters would know all they needed to about the game. For those who don't consider themselves aficionados of the genre, however, I'll continue, and try to point out all of the other things that Psychotoxic does wrong.

Psychotoxic is a FPS about a young girl who, in addition to shooting a whole lot of cops and FBI agents (sure, they're all possessed, but by the end of the game's thirty levels, I wouldn't be surprised if every Federal agent in New York State is dead), has the ability to physically jump into people's minds to find information buried within. This is the key feature that separates Psychotoxic from most other FPS games. Instead of offering battles against fascist government troops or creepy monsters to shoot, the game offers both: the first in the real-world levels, the second inside the minds of various characters that have important information.

According to most people, the human mind is a complex and mysterious place. Not to the developers at Nuclearvision though. According to them, the inside of people's minds is expressed as a surprisingly realistic rendering of something that the character is interested in. If the character likes fairy tales, the inside of their mind is a medieval village. If they like boats, the inside of their mind is Jules Verne's Nautilus. The design concept didn't seem all that promising during my first trip inside someone's head. I found myself inside what can only be described as "What if a really bad amateur level designer decided to make a sci-fi cathedral? For Quake 2?" The subsequent levels, if a bit literal for a game about the world inside people's minds, at least are fairly well designed and interesting to play, in as much as they manage to seem to actually be levels from a nonexistent FPS where that setting would be appropriate.

The plot, which tries to throw a Chosen One in with Satanism and nanotechnology manages to be even more awkward, thrown-together and uninvolving than this synopsis of it makes it sound, no doubt due to the surprisingly poor writing through which the story is realized. Its heroine is as generic as a videogame heroine can be, and her name, Angela Prophet, is so preposterous that she manages to be taking the Least Cleverly Named Videogame Character title away from Eternal Darkness' Roivas family. Apart from her being a genetically engineered Chosen One, we don't learn much about Angie beyond the fact that she dresses far too skimpily for a New York winter. In fact, her clothing leads to the game's funniest (if unintentionally so) moment: As the game begins, before any of the action has started, Angela is already wearing the costume she'll spend the rest of the game in. I don't know about anyone else, but the idea of someone sitting around watching television in a leather bustier and tight pants with a visible G-string is inherently hilarious.

As with all FPS, the weapons are key, and here Psychotoxic actually doesn't disappoint. There are two entirely different sets of guns, one for the real world and one for the mindscape, and all of them look, sound, and shoot as well as one would hope. It's too bad the enemies just aren't that interesting enough to use the guns on. There's a nice variety of foes, both in the dream and real world. Even in the latter parts of the game, when most of the enemies are just SWAT guys in gas masks, there was still enough variation in their uniforms and equipment that I didn't feel like I was just shooting the same people over and over again.

The shooting itself doesn't fare so well, as characters don't have any pain animations of note, and tend to just soak up bullets without reaction until they collapse from a lack of hit points. They don't demonstrate much life before being shot to death either. Oh sure, sometimes they'll do a dive-roll or jump out from behind cover, but the vast majority of the time they'll just stand in one place blasting away until killed. It's not exactly the AI I've become accustomed to.

If nothing else, the game points out that good physics engines are still enough of a novelty that they massively raise the production value of any game they're in. This isn't Half-Life 2 or anything, but every time a hail of gunfire sent an enemy flying into a pile of barrels, which then toppled over concealing his body, I found myself marveling at just how far games have come.

The level design is shockingly linear, with every room having only a single entrance and exit, and more often than not only a single way to move through it. No matter how different the various levels' textures are, or what kind of monsters the game plunks down in the player's path, the sameness of each of the levels is impossible not to notice. The occasional design variation (two open-concept levels, one rail-shooter level, one woefully wrongheaded stealth sequence) are too few and far between to keep the game from feeling more like a chore than an entertainment.

Psychotoxic has a good physics engine, and some excellent art design (mostly in the dream levels). With a decent story and a far better level designer, this could have been quite a game. Instead, it's little more than a cautionary example warning other developers what can happen if they don't drag their design concepts out of the 90s.

Oh, and in a final note to developers: please don't put pictures of your children in the end credits of your video games. It's not like it kept me from giving Psychotoxic a bad review—I just feel kind of guilty about it. That kind of inappropraiteness deserves a rating of just 2.5 out of 10.