The power of positive thinking.
When the mysterious mind behind PC gaming gems like Day of the Tentacle and Grim Fandango beckons, you answer. Such was the case in 2002, when I had the pleasure of getting up close and personal with Tim Schafer and his bizarre platformer Psychonauts in the cozy confines of a behind-closed-doors meeting. I was absorbed into his art project for a good half-hour, so impressed with his twisted take on this tired genre that I took part in giving it Best of E3 awards from both GR and the E3 Game Critics. Psychonauts left E3 2002 with more props than the back lot of MGM. There was much rejoicing.
And then, *poof* – it vanished.
Well, not literally, but when a game is mysteriously dropped by Microsoft with little warning or explanation, it’s a safe bet that it will turn into vaporware. As the years slipped by with nary a peep from Schafer’s one-time killer app, we assumed it pulled a Duke Nukem Forever. Was our dream just an Indrema?
To our collective amazement, Psychonauts was not dead, but resting, and it turns out that wonderful things can happen to your brain when you get enough sleep. Thanks to a wake-up call by the kind folks at Majesco, this mind-warping journey has come to a glorious head, and after all this time, we’re still psyched.
To be more specific, we’re finally Razputin, a goggled, psychically gifted kid who crashes a local summer camp that trains others of his kind to be Psychonauts, international psychic super-agents. Just as Raz starts getting in touch with his unique abilities, the camp is rocked by strange, nefarious events involving world domination, a giant mutant lungfish and lots of missing brains. As luck would have it, Raz must go from overexcited newbie to reluctant hero in an effort to save innocent lives’and he has to do it before dad shows up to take him home.
If the premise sounds a little off-kilter, just you wait. Psychonauts is as much adventure as it is action, a fact made clear early on as Raz explores the camp and interacts with its large cast of wackos. You’ll meet counselors like militant Coach Oleander, Morrisey look-alike Sasha Nein and a sassy Brazillian levitation teacher named Milla Vodello. The camp’s creepy janitor, Ford Cruller, has a penchant for being in several places at the same time. The other campers are flush with idiosyncrasies, happy children burdened with enough psychic energy to put John Edward out of business forever.
But the lunacy runs much, much deeper than that. An abundance of funny cut-scenes and voiced dialogue help power the game’s brilliant script, which focuses as much on character development as it does plot. Thanks to the great writing, Raz is a shockingly likeable hero, a rarity in a platformer. If a game lives or dies by its characters and story, Psychonauts might as well be immortal.
Though the plot is based around events shaping the real world, much of your time is spent exploring the minds of its characters – literally. In a move that would make Freud green with envy, Raz can hop into people’s heads to help sort out their problems. No two minds are alike, and in Psychonauts each one gets its own, unique level.
Drawing influence from Tim Burton, Pixar Studios and Schafer’s own warped cortex, the style of Psychonauts is wildly imaginative. Forget the typical snow level, lava level, water level flow of most platformers. Here, you’re thrown into an assortment of delightfully disjointed environments based on the mental demons plaguing the game’s characters. Coach Oleander’s mind is a war-torn battlefield rife with exploding shells and barbed wire, while Sasha Nein prefers the rigid organization provided by a giant mechanical cube. In a hysterical homage to Godzilla, you terrorize the denizens of Lungfishopolis as the gargantuan “Gogglor.” You wind your way through a deranged 1950’s mobious strip while inside the head of a lunatic obsessed with a shadowy figure named “The Milkman” in perhaps the coolest platforming level I’ve ever played. It just goes on and on; the creativity is off the charts and serves as the game’s finest feature.
The varied level design also makes the game less repetitive than most platformers, although the basics are still pretty much the basics. Most levels require plenty of jumping, hanging and swinging while collecting all kinds of stuff. Psychonauts has multiple variations on the Mario coin, from artsy-fartsy “Figments of Imagination” found in people’s minds to Arrowheads that function as currency. You can buy a few upgrades and items at the local shop, but it’s not a very deep system. You’ll also snag psi-cards to increase your rank (which unlocks some extra powers), reunite weeping “emotional baggage” with their appropriate luggage tags and clear mental cobwebs using a vacuum.
Ultimately, the wealth of collectables is a bit overbearing. Searching for pickups can often be a chore, and though you don’t really need to scrounge up every arrowhead, it’s hard not to feel compelled to try since there’s shiny junk everywhere. Someone should have posted a “do not litter” sign.
While incessantly picking things up isn’t much fun, Psychonauts gives you nine interesting ways to put “em down. Normal punches work well, but the best tools are found in your psychic powers, which are key to surviving enemy attacks and solving puzzles. They’re all fairly straightforward – Psi-Blast is your laser, Levitation helps you jump higher, Invisibility lets you sneak by undetected, etc. – but all play a major role in getting through each level. The coolest power is Clairvoyance, which lets you see Raz through the eyes of another. This results in some terrific puzzle solutions, not to mention a ton of groovy little representations of Raz, since everything sees you differently.
The bulk of the gameplay, however, is fairly identical to most games of the genre. You lead Raz to the Promised Land by jumping on platforms, whacking relatively mindless enemies and trying to reach the end of each level. Occasionally the experience is marred by frustrating platforming bits where you keep dying because you can’t make a certain jump, but Psychonauts suffers more from being too easy rather than too difficult. Decent gamers will rarely have to replay any level more than once or twice, and the puzzles are patently easy to solve. Considering the difficulty of Schafer’s PC adventure games, this is a walk in the park.
The undemanding action isn’t helped by the game’s short length. Most gamers will beat it in about 12 hours, and other than going back and collecting every missing fragment, there’s not much replay value. For a game four years in the making, it sure is brief.
And it sure is gorgeous. The visual quality matches the impeccable style with a smooth framerate, outstanding textures and manic attention to detail. The environments were obviously crafted with great care and stand out as the brightest feather in the cap. Really the only graphical letdown is found in the cut-scenes, as the character modeling is a little outdated.
The sound, though, is right on time. The voice-acting is terrific and lends each character a distinct personality, although part of that is due to the script. The same goes for the music, which changes styles as deftly as the game itself. It’s all Elfman-inspired hysteria and it never grows tiresome.
And for the most part, neither does Psychonauts. Though its gameplay is hardly innovative and its length is questionable, it is well worth the four-year wait. This stylish adventure is just what we hoped it would be – a deranged, oddball jaunt through a fun, bizarre world – proving that a creative mind is indeed a terrible thing to waste. Besides, they make sweet levels.