You feel that tingling in your mind? That feeling that you forgotten something, yet this sense of nostalgia tingles inside you and never goes away? That is the feeling of games from your past, games that are now obscure from the public eye. Some are herald classics, others are better left in the landfill, but while they are no longer in the public eye, they still live on in some way. Each week, I plan on embracing that nostalgia, so to speak, and review one of these forgotten games in a series I like to call “From The Well.” This week, we look at Psychonauts.
It is interesting, in my mind, that some games get passed on by the gaming community in their first go around. So often the most innovative and underrated games are later named classics for there time, and a resurging interest into the games is thrusted into the forefront years later.
Psychonauts is easily one of these games, a diamond in the rough for both the X-box and the Playstation 2 at a time where it was hard to find any real innovation besides what new features can be used for the next FPS that has you fighting nazis, terrorists, aliens, or a mix of all three. Psychonauts is the first game to be independently developed by Tim Schafer the brains behind the classic Grim Fandango, a classic game in it’s own right. Shafer is known for his off kilter humor, quirky game worlds and literally stretching the boundaries of where a video game can take you. Psychonauts is no exception.
Here, you star as Raz, a circus runaway who wants to join a summer camp for psychics. Raz is particularly talented for his age, and quickly learns the art of being a Psychonaut, a psychic agent. Raz must interact with the insane characters that populate the camp, from the militant camp counselor to the conspiracy theorist government agent, entering their minds and performing various tasks for each character. These tasks range from sorting emotional baggage (literally!) to unlocking memories from their pasts.
The premise on paper sounds, well, nuts. But the execution was near flawless. Each level is designed behind the characters mindset. Our paranoid government agent has a paranoid world, where everything is twisted and shadowy, while the aforementioned militant counselor relives his war days in his mind. Each level is so cleverly designed, you’re almost at awe as to what you can find next. What’s more, each level fits their character perfectly, truly showing that the human mind really has a limitless imagination depending on how you view the world.
The games script is also the highlight of the game itself. The entire story is as well written and as witty as most novels by Chuck Palahniuk, and in some cases better than him too. What’s more, the characterization is phenomenal. You actually care about the events of the story here, from your young protagonists to even the most minor of players in this performance. An all-star voice cast, mostly from the anime and voice over world, who deliver excellent performances that drive the story, augments all this to form the perfect cohesion of the story and the visuals.
All this praise aside, the games weak points are few, but somewhat major. The game falls prey to a trend that most platformers can never shake off, collection of items. Banjo-Kazooie, Super Mario, Glover, and numerous other great and not-so great games always do this, and Psychonauts is no exception. The tasks here revolve around getting your rank up to unlock powers, purchasing minor upgrades with arrowheads littered around the camp grounds, or collecting figments of imagination inside the heads of every character you enter. This entire act is standard platforming fare, and not as innovative as the entire ambiance around you, but it’s not broken either.
We also have an irritating camera at times and the evil jumps of doom to pits of nowhere. While this was great up the Nintendo 64, platformers as a game genre have almost run their course at this point, and the weaknesses of the genre show in Psychonauts. This, plus the games brevity, cause more problems in the long run but never overpower the games strong points. Its flaws are from a gameplay standpoint, but this is one of the rare occasions where the gameplay is overshadowed by everything else, so it’s somewhat excusable.
But this is just all a minor deferment in the end, because Psychonauts has transcended into the realm of forgotten classics with ease. The games innovation has proven that Schafer, and other developers out there, can still make a new experience that can tease the cortex and tingle our hubris in ways we never imagined, and will no doubt make the most jaded gamer giddy for something new and imaginative once again.
(And on a side note, I hope Schafer’s next game, Brutal Legend, does come out soon as well, because like Psychonauts it lost it’s publisher and is now somewhat dormant. I hope Schafer can continue what he does best, make excellent games for us to play.)
Final Score- A-