What's the Greatest Video Game: Psychonauts

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imunbeatable80

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Edited By imunbeatable80  Online

This is an ongoing series where I attempt to play and beat every video game in the known universe and then rank them into a decisive list to determine "What is the Greatest." For previous games and entries, check out other blog entries, or look at the google doc (link below) to see the list.

There are very few games that i worry about re-visiting for this series. For some games, it is because I would be unable to hide my bias (positive or negative) towards the game. For Psychonauts, and other games, it is because I don't want to be confronted with how the game has aged. Games from my childhood, will be evergreen, and I can never knock a game like River City Ransom, or Lost Vikings for its age, but in the 3d environments of games, there is a "best by" date slapped on its label. Some games have a longer shelf life than others (Final Fantasy 7 is a fine wine, while Nightmare creatures might be the equivalent of milk left on the counter for 24 hours), and it is why I get scared playing games in the 10-20 year old window.

I need to set the stage a little bit. I am a big Tim Shafer fan. Some of my favorite games growing up, were Lucasarts adventure games (Monkey island series, Full Throttle, Grim Fandango). I wasn't big on the internet back then, so the first I heard of his new studio was when Psychonauts was coming out. I had an original bulky xbox, and even fewer games, but I still put down a pre-order for Psychonauts so I could get it when it came out. I played the game back then, went so far as to 100% it, even without achievements, and would recommend it to friends when I could. Occasionally I would fire it back up, but never do a full playthrough, until now.

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Psychonauts is probably best described as an adventure platformer, a genre that I don't know gets too many releases. While most of the game plays like a regular 3d platformer (run, jump, double jump, etc.) there are adventure game elements where you are picking up items and then using them to solve puzzles. The puzzle aren't as diabolical as full fledged adventure games, but maybe a tad harder than puzzles found in resident evil (keys shaped like birds). Early on in the game, you get a psychic yoga ball, that allow you to jump higher as well as hold to float slowly down from high places. This one power almost trivializes the entire platform elements within the game. There are multiple parts in the game that lean heavier on the platformer parts, but I found that using this ball to bounce extra high and float to ledges, allowed me to bypass large chunks of these areas. It is never 100% and it certainly didnt feel like cheating, but I could see these spaces being crafted with an obstacle course in mind, and then BAM, you could be halfway through. I do feel this is needed. Our hero, Raz, is a bit floaty to control and when you have to line up exactly to land on swings or ropes, it can be a real pain in the ass if you didn't have a nice shortcut to get you back to the platform you fell from. That doesn't mean there aren't spots that are incredibly frustrating when it comes to jumps. These spots are few and far between (well except one area, which we will get to later), but it never ceased to amaze me how precise they wanted you to be, when the game is so imprecise.

You play as Raz, a kid who wants to be a Psychonaut (psychic James Bond). You sneak into a summercamp and attempt to complete your training all before your dad comes and picks you up. However, strange things are happening at the camp, and soon kids are losing their brains (literally), and you are left to look into the disturbance. As you go through levels you gain new psychic powers which can then be used to either fight baddies easier, solve puzzles, or both. Your shield can deflect attacks, you can throw confuse grenades, set things on fire, you know standard stuff for psychics.

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There are two absolute standouts in the game, the first are the levels. Each level has you jumping inside the mind of a character in the game and freeing them from whatever torments them (more or less). However, the majority of people you are dealing with are not mentally sound. This isn't just going into people's heads, where the levels are divided into ice world, fire world, water, etc. The levels itself usually play uniquely with their own set of rules. One level sees you playing a pseudo board game, another level has you acting in the role of Godzilla, and yet another has you enter the mind of a conspiracy theorist (thankfully not Qanon). While obviously not every level is a banger, the variety and theme of each level is interesting enough to continue on. While I don't get asked often, I still rate "the milkman" level as probably one of my top 10 favorite levels (in any video game). It focuses less on traditional platforming, and more about figuring out a mystery using your items and skills to get it done.

I also can't comment on the levels without discussing the writing in the game. It holds up surprisingly well, there are multiple moments that made me laugh in the game, despite knowing about these jokes already. The Godzilla level, I feel is a standout for this, as it is probably the first "Non-tutorial" level you experience and actually showcases the humor fairly well. Obviously these are very subjective, and you might not find the game funny at all. I get it, comedy is hard for everyone to get. For some obvious reasons, if you liked the humor in those early lucasarts adventure games, then I think you will like this game. But if you think borderlands is the funniest series in the world, well then I don't know if we can be friends.

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I do have one absolutely HUGE critical mistake that I think this game makes, and it is the final level. It is honestly so out of place in the game that I can say with some certainty that it shaved places off of my list because of having to go through it. I am of course talking about the "meat circus" which is by itself a pretty gross name for a level. In the level you have the first third being an escort mission (which are always the worst in video games), but is compounded by requiring you to navigate the trickiest of platforming that you havent seen in any previous levels. For instance, at multiple points in your almost vertical climb, you have to have an enemy throw a knife into a spinning board, then grab that knife, and swing your body to a platform that is just far enough away. The catch is the enemy throws the knife where you are, so you have to time jumping towards the board, when he is about to release. If the knife is too close to the middle, you probably won't be able to jump far enough to the ledge. Assuming you make it through the escort mission, you then have an absolute terrible platforming section that requires a hell of a lot of precision to make it to the end. This is while the room is filling with water (your weakness) and an enemy is throwing fire at you. Fall in the water and die instantly, and depending on when you get hit by far could mean you falling off a ledge where... you die instantly. And finally you have a 3 stage boss battle. Stage 1 and 3 aren't so bad, but stage two is a nightmare. I am playing all these games without looking up walkthroughs or cheats, and I sat on this boss for over an hour because I honestly had no idea how to even hit him. I tried literally every power, I tried multiple times, but it didn't seem like anything really worked. The secret is so incredibly stupid that when I figured it out, I wasn't mad at myself, I was mad at the game.. Do you want to know? you have to throw a mine, that is being littered on the floor against a giant boss running at you. However, you can't throw that far, and if you hit him anywhere that is not a knee, it doesn't do anything. So when I tried this before, and I hit him in the chest, and the foot, maybe the arm, and there was no reaction, I kinda moved on. I also can't stress this enough, you can throw this thing about 2 feet in front of you. The boss wields a giant machete, you have to basically stand within range of being attacked, and just trust you will hit him before he hits you.

ok, phew, I'm done. But I can't overstate enough that the final level really soured me on what is a rather good game. Also just to note, but the graphics do not hold up. I played the original xbox game in a X360, so there isn't much if any upscaling being done.. and I know there was a PC release, and it probably looks better on there, but Woof, the game does not look better with age.

All in all, I think Psychonauts holds up pretty well, but only based on how you get along with its writing. The platforming is serviceable, but didn't revolutionize 3D platformers, and the combat amounts to you hitting X 3 times. So, this game I can see being rather polarizing. Those that love the writing and humor are going to say its pretty good, and those that don't, that think it is overrated.

Is this game the Greatest game of all time: Getting warmer, but no

Where does it rank: This is the new #10 greatest game of all time out of 27. It finishes above NBA 2k20 and below Lost Vikings. It actually fits nicely next to Lost Vikings, as both games have atrocious last levels, and both are played to see what the "next world/level" is going to be. In the end I felt that the writing and humor could only take it so far.

Up Next: Shaun White Skateboarding

Anyone looking for it: here is the link to the list and more if you are interested in following along with me (this is not a self promotion). Here

Thanks for listening.

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wollywoo

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#1  Edited By wollywoo

Nice review. Generally agree - Psychonauts is good. Mostly because the level concepts and writing are very smart. I'm not a big fan of the kooky art style though. Anyway, looking forward to the sequel.

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sparky_buzzsaw

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Solid write-up. I don't think I ever got past the last level. My annoyances with Psychonauts added up pretty quickly, from missing various interactions to the sometimes straight-up bad level design, but it's such a creative game it's easy to recommend. I almost wish it was a different genre, maybe just a regular adventure game, but what's here is pretty neat.

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imunbeatable80

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#3 imunbeatable80  Online

@wollywoo: Thanks for the read. Yeah the writing is the standout here. You can certainly feel like you are fighting the controls in some spots. You can get away with that in the parts where you arent asking to do precise platforming, but in the final level you feel it.

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imunbeatable80

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#4 imunbeatable80  Online

@sparky_buzzsaw: I agree, i think this would have served better being a standard adventure game. I saw Noclip's interview with Tim Schafer, and he mentioned that he wanted to get away from doing the same game design over and over. So perhaps he was just sick of adventure games and wanted to try out a new idea.

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sparky_buzzsaw

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@imunbeatable80: Yup, definitely can't fault their team for wanting to branch out. Just a personal taste thing.

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#6 rorie  Staff

Psychonauts is one of my favorite games and I wish the PC versions of it were better than they seem to be - last time I tried to play it I had a ton of issues with the controls. The Milkman level is still a high watermark for games writing for me.

If anyone's interested, Erik Wolpaw was one of the main writers on it, I think. He was responsible for a lot of the weird humor in the Half-Life 2 episodes and Portal/Portal 2 and is one of my favorite game writers. If you haven't read Old Man Murray, he wrote a bunch for that in the early 2000s and I think it's great although it's definitely uses a fair amount of what we would call "not the preferred nomenclature" in the 2020s.

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wollywoo

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I actually enjoyed the platforming. I love 3D platformers in general and they are rare to come by. The game wouldn't have been enjoyable to me if it was straight-up adventure - I just like the freedom of running, jumping, and generally exploring in 3D worlds. But I agree with all that the Meat Circus was stupidly frustrating due to awkward controls for one or two tricky jumps.

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Shindig

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I gave up on it during Napoleon's level. I was enjoying it, though. The setup of each level is where the charm lies and I haven't seen anything like it since.

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imunbeatable80

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#9 imunbeatable80  Online

@rorie: Here is hoping that with the eventual release of the sequel, we might see a remaster of the original.

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imunbeatable80

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@wollywoo: Thanks for the read. I really liked roaming the summercamp early and doing jumping puzzles for collectables, but i felt once you get the levitation ball it trivalizes a lot of the platforming. Maybe if they leaned in harder in either direction.

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imunbeatable80

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@shindig: Thanks for the read. Any reason why you gave up on it? I liked the napoleon, but its probably my unreasonable love of board games.

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Shindig

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I'm pretty sure I just died a few times, got stuck and then decided it wasn't worth continuing.

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ItHas2BeSaidKVO

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Agree that the Milkman level is dope, but I personally don’t recall the meat circus level being terrible. Maybe I just got lucky, or I was mad at the time but have forgotten it in passing. One of my favourite parts of that game though is when you’re running around in the campgrounds open area, and you come across the egg-shaped head kid skulking in the bushes. When you ask him what he’s doing, he straight-face gives you the Predator line, ‘I’m hunting the most dangerous prey of all...man’. Makes me chuckle every time I think of it.

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glots

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I played through the whole game for the first time couple of years back and generally enjoyed my time with it! Meat Circus was as terrible as people had hyped it up to be, but the visual style and humor alone kept the game going for me. I also played Rhombus of Ruin afterwards and while it was kinda short, it was still a fun experience and got me more excited for Psychonauts 2.

...which I hope finally comes out this year. At least it will be on Game Pass at launch, so no risk in trying it once it’s out.

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imunbeatable80

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@ithas2besaidkvo: Thanks for the read. Honestly when I beat the game when it came out, I also don't remember the meat circus being a big sticking point. Maybe my skills have gone south, or maybe I blocked it out of my memory because I liked so much more of the game leading up to it.

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imunbeatable80

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@glots: Im with you in terms of Psychonauts 2, I really hope it comes out and is good. I never played Rhombus of ruin, but it is on my list if I ever get VR.