Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin is a weird little project. It came out in 2017 on PC and PS4 VR as a short experience that bridges the stories of Psychonauts 1 and the sequel. It takes place immediately after the end of the original Psychonauts and resolves that game’s cliffhanger, though in a way that makes the timeline a little confusing. Nonetheless it’s a fun piece of Psychonauts storytelling with a lot of the fan favorite characters from the original game, mostly with their original voice actors. Fans hadn’t seen these characters headline a game in 12 years when it was released, though I played it the same evening I finished the original Psychonauts so it didn’t have quite the same impact.
The Psychonauts series is known for its 3D platformers but Rhombus of Ruin is a point to point VR puzzle game. You play as Raz again and you transport yourself psychically in between the minds of various people and animals in the environment and interact with various objects using your psychic powers to do things like press buttons, burn curtains to reveal what’s underneath, or pile a bunch of heavy objects in front of a door to block a guard from entering a room. This is a pretty common gameplay technique for earlier VR games and it works okay, but it doesn’t make for the most exciting game play. Rhombus of Ruin is primarly concerned with showing cool environments and telling its story anyway, so you’re not going to get complex puzzles or involved mechanics like in a game like Statik. An example of this is that there’s a puzzle where you can pull objects apart and combine the components to create new objects, and the game offers you two objects with two components each, meaning that you only have a few possible combinations and the puzzle is trivial. It just never asks very much of you and much of the challenge is in looking carefully over the environment to find the things you can interact with. This is more of an interactive VR experience, though there are enough puzzles and things to do that it does qualify as a game.
If the gameplay isn’t the focus then how does it rate as an experience? The answer is…fine. It’s written by Tim Schaefer and it has those great Psychonauts characters so it’s funny and engaging in that way. You spend the majority of the game in the real world in the game, instead of entering people’s minds, so you don’t get quite the trippiness you do in the main Psychonauts games. Despite that some of the environments are still interesting and impressive, and sometimes when you see the world through a character’s eyes there are some cool effects caused by their delusions. The story is lighthearted and fun and worth seeing through to the end. It's also canon in the Psychonauts universe in a way that feels a bit unfair. The first game ends on a cliffhanger and this game resolves it. You get a recap in the beginning to Psychonauts 2 but for people who played the game in 2005 or have played it many times since as an old favorite it feels a little cheap to hide the resolution to that part of the story in a flimsy VR only title.
The problem with Rhombus of Ruin is that it plays things entirely too safe. The original Psychonauts took the concept of a 3D platformer and overlayed adventure game elements on to it and then added some of the most outlandish and trippiest visuals of any game ever. It had a level inside a black velvet painting and another in a circus made out of meat. It showed you things you’d never seen before in a video game. This game just does the conventional with a Psychonauts twist. It's even set underwater, and while it acknowledges that Raz has a hydrophobia it sort of drops that in a way that felt inauthentic to the character. It was always conceived of as a Psychonauts game, but it doesn't feel like it's really part of that boundlessly creative universe. It feels like a bit of a stapled on license, even though it's not.
Rhombus of Ruin has you inside environments you’ve seen dozens of times. A school bus. A bomber plane. A UFO. A train. They all have cool and interesting visual touches, but they aren’t exciting in the same way, and instead they are just polished takes on environments we’ve seen in other games. And since the things you do in them are pretty limited the game as a whole isn’t exciting or wonderous. The biggest moment for me was when the James Bond style theme song came on during the late title sequence. That was funny.
VR has the capacity to do a lot of fun and interesting gameplay and aesthetic things. Earlier this year I played a game called Hotel R’n’R where all you do is smash up hotel rooms, and it was incredible because of the immersion and freedom to just destroy stuff. I played Moss, which had an incredible sense of scale and proportion. I played Statik, which has a real sense of place. Rhombus of Ruin doesn’t do any of those things. It’s cool to be in the Psychonauts universe and see the characters up close and personal but I really wanted to be immersed in some exciting and unique areas and instead I found myself psychically jumping from jellyfish to jellyfish to get to a new location and kind of underwhelmed by everything.
I know Rhombus of Ruin was meant to reintroduce the Psychonauts world and get people interested in the sequel and I’m sure it did that. It has some neat moments and it’s not a bad game for a VR point to point adventure. You get to play around with some cool powers and you can hand coach a roll of flaming toilet paper if you want to. It’s fine.
But it’s also very unnecessary and it shows how a lot of studios just weren’t sure what to do with VR. They couldn’t make conventional games work well and the ideas they had were often a little half baked. This game isn’t innovative or mechanically interesting and it just skates by on story and character charm and the fondness people had for the Psychonauts. At the end it says that Psychonauts 2 is coming. Well Psychonauts 2 is here now, and Rhombus of Ruin feels a little like a slightly awkward acquaintance at a party after your real friends have showed up. You don’t necessarily need him to leave, but he also doesn’t draw that much of your attention and you’re content to let him hang out by himself in the corner flipping through his phone while you spend time with the people you really care about.