Game Description: For years, the Psychonauts have deployed their psychically-armed operatives all over the world, but now there is trouble brewing in their own boot camp. A deranged scientist is abducting camp cadets for their brains! One student, a mysterious and powerful new arrival named Raz, stands alone against the lunatic. Raz must develop and unleash an arsenal of paranormal powers, including his most powerful weapon of all—the ability to launch himself telepathically into the minds of others. Ultimately, he must enter the psyche of his worst enemy and destroy his dark plans at their source. Entering the mind of madman has its challenges, and Raz must struggle to preserve his sanity while he battles to save the day.
It is impossible, philosophers tell us, for the mind to understand itself. But that doesn't stop neurologists, psychiatrists, or the reporters on 60 Minutes from trying—nor should it. This interest in our own wiring has led to the concept of neurodiversity and the popularity of authors like neurologist Oliver Sacks. Even videogames are turning to the mind as a fecund theme, whether in a supernatural sense (Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy) or a literal one (the Panic Meter in Clock Tower 3). Double Fine's Psychonauts combines psychology and parapsychology: we have personal experience with our own brains 24 hours a day, but a boy with psychic powers and a gateway into people's heads can still prove that the human mind is strange as all get out.
The story unfolds like a Harry Potter book written by Jhonen Vasquez: young Razputin has run away from the circus to join a summer camp—I mean, a "government training facility"—for the best young paranormal warriors this side of Drew Barrymore. This place is Raz's dream: yet, something is terribly wrong. Not only have the folks in charge told Raz's psychic-hating dad where he is, but the other kids' brains are being stolen, one by one. Will Raz get his psychonaut badge before his dad finds him? Will he discover who's turning everyone into TV-and hackeysack-obsessed zombies? Will he and Lili ever get the chance to make out?
A psychonaut's job is to fight other people's demons. Armed with a doorway he can throw at people's foreheads, Raz travels deep into the minds of people around him and cleans up the mess they've made of themselves. While doing battle with honking men with stamps on their hands called Censors, he can open memory vaults, sort bawling "emotional baggage" by finding their proper luggage tags, collect shimmery figments to advance his level and earn new psychic powers (in a role-playing game sort of way), or dust mental cobwebs for PSI cards, which also raise his level.
Yes, we've been collecting items and earning powers since Super Mario Bros. and Kid Icarus. Psychonauts doesn't break any new ground gameplay-wise, but that's okay by me. I like running and jumping and swinging from ropes and finding shiny objects, all things this game has in abundance. But this game is somehow greater than the sum of its parts. Even with all the floating, blasting and scavenger-hunting, Psychonauts is not quite like any platform game I've ever played. That's a very good thing.
First of all, it follows Freddy Kreuger's first law of physics: In the mind, anything can happen at any time. Like the dreaming teenagers in Nightmare on Elm Street, there's no limit to where Raz finds himself. He can grow to Godzilla size and kaiju the heck out of skyscrapers, traverse a neighborhood that tilts sideways, or direct an asylum inmate's mental play. He's part of a board game as both player and piece, and trapeze-swings through a circus made entirely of meat.
The theater of the mind in which the game takes place adds a new dimension to its storytelling. While the main who-did-what-to-whom mystery plot is pretty linear, the stories told in memories Raz finds have an associative, partly subconscious quality. These memories play like slideshows of a child's drawings. Each one tells a story, but it often seems like there are holes in the projection film. Maybe these gaps are a nod to Freud's theory of repression. Whatever they mean in the greater Psychonauts scope, these recovered memories are a clever and subtle use of the game's mental playing field.
The game reminds us, too, that "good" and "evil" are mental constructs. Creatures may be violent and nasty solely because someone perceives them that way: "Is that how I look in your mind?" the real-life inspiration for a particularly vicious being asks. In Psychonauts, as in life, people make their own monsters.
But as refreshing as Psychonauts is, the game is not without problems. Most of those problems involve atrocious load times (both lengthy and frequent) and wonky camera. My view sometimes stuck behind trees and buildings like peanut butter on the roof of my mouth. And often when Raz was swinging from a pole or a rope, the camera would hyperfocus on some useless piece of landscape. I've never understood how adjusting one's view manually every thirty seconds is supposed to be fun.
Despite these issues, Psychonauts is a wonderfully strange platformer. The idea of perception being a reality in itself is the kind of thing I'd like to see future games explore further. The game's rewards are bountiful, and all it requires are a sense of humor, steady thumbs and an open mind.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.
You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who enjoys high concept games more than I do, but regardless of how fancy or sophisticated the idea is, there still needs to be a solid core of enjoyable play behind it. Psychonauts's premise hooked me from the start, and though I have great respect for what creator Tim Schafer has contributed to the world of videogames, I found the "mental spelunking" experience here to be lacking both in terms of plot and content.
Frankly speaking, it feels as though the people behind this game have completely ignored design advances in platform and character adventure games of the last five years. Looking at the formula, I haven't been asked to collect this much crap since Donkey Kong 64, and I haven't missed it. It's very disappointing to see such a decrepit collect-a-thon design choice take center stage. It doesn't mesh well with the "mental powers" concept of the game either; it's just boring and tedious.
For example, it makes little sense to me to have Raz learn new psychic powers by collecting glowy doodads or digging up arrowheads and exchanging them for random bits of junk to create powerups. In one segment of the game, an invisibility power (that I didn't already have) was needed to progress, bringing the game to a complete halt while I went on a binge of money-collecting and picking up scattered items in order to get what I needed. What happened to natural progression of powers? Why isn't Raz's acquisition of this ability built in to the story and character development? Granted, the game is played heavily askew, but it just reeks of laziness.
The controls feel slightly off, and the simple combat lacks crispness. In this genre, control is everything, and compared to recent luminaries like Sly 2: Band of Thieves, or Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal, Psychonauts comes up sadly lacking by presenting dull tasks and uninspiring ways to complete them.
Since the mechanics don't match up to what the competition has to offer, I fully expected the story, characters, and humor that Schafer games are known for to more than compensate, but I don't think they do.
Main character Raz did not strike a chord with me, and I felt the plot and supporting characters were surprisingly weak and uninteresting. Graphically, the game is tops. I love the quirky Burton-ish style and I was ready for the kind of absurdist surreal content that is visually communicated, but I never found the experience to be as funny or sophisticated as I would have guessed from the art design. The main storyline is especially limp, hardly generating enough interest to keep me going. It feels like the Psychonauts team had a great idea, but slapped it all together with very little of its immense potential fully realized. Compared to the creative masterpiece that was the PC's Grim Fandango, Psychonauts seems like a shadow of what could have been possible.
I know a lot of other reviewers were happy to see Schafer back in action (myself one of them) but I can't give this game a pass just because the man's done some truly great work before. It's got killer art style, but in every other aspect, Psychonauts comes up needing a lot more time on the couch before putting its scattered self in order.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.
According to the ESRB, this game contains: Cartoon Violence, Crude Humor, Language
Parents might want to be cautious about letting very young gamers play Psychonauts. Along with several instance of bad language and some very minor sexual themes—Raz and his girlfriend Lili talk about "making out" and kiss on the lips—this game deals with mental illness and dysfunctional families, which might be disturbing for young children. For example, one of Raz's tasks is to save bunnies from an evil butcher, who comes after him with meat cleavers.
Invader Zim fans will recognize Richard S. Horvitz as the voice of Raz, although he doesn't say "Obey the fist!"
Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers can turn on subtitles in the audio options. While they shouldn't have too many problems playing Psychonauts, they won't be able to hear the scuttling of the exploding rats in the asylum or the sobbing of the "emotional baggage" found throughout the game. Both sounds are handy for telling players where these things are.