One Fifteen Dollar Game, Psychologist Not Included
Over the years, I've come to realize that video games aren't that unusual. Yeah, we're controlling the lives of characters molded by artists and programmers, but rarely do these titles mess with our minds. Occasionally, a title will arise that breaks that trend (Silicon Knights' Eternal Darkness immediately comes to mind), but usually games are quite tame...unless they're produced by Tim Schafer.
During the early '90s, Tim Schafer gained a reputation among gamers for his wacky humor and writing style in the Secret of Monkey Island. It's debatable whether or not that game remains relevant today, but it certainly broke ground when it came to game writing and humor in games.
Numerous Schafer titles were produced since then, but few people besides hardcore PC (and Mac) gamers had the opportunity to experience them. Well, that changed with a title called Psychonauts. For the first time, Tim Schafer produced a platformer that would appear on two game consoles and PCs. Many gamers (including myself) passed on this title lauded for its humor, due to the wealth of notable triple A titles that were available, and because our ignorance got the best of us. Even though Psychonauts received glowing reviews in EGM, I remember passing it by because of its quirky art style. Boy, did I ever make a mistake.
Psychonauts' visuals may look a bit odd at first glance, but as the old saying goes, "Appearances can be deceiving." After spending an hour with Psychonauts, it quickly became apparent that this was one of the most atmospheric titles of its generation, if not all time. Besides Bioshock, I can think of few other titles that set a mood as well as Psychonauts.
What makes this 3D platformer special is its dark, eerie atmosphere. Platformers are usually known for their colorful environments and cute mascots, but Psychonauts is one of the rare exceptions. I mean sure, some players may find the pint-sized psychonaut known as Raz cute, but it's highly unlikely that they'll think the same of the game's creepy environments.
The character Raz begins his adventure at a summer camp meant exclusively for psychonauts in training. Psychonauts are humans who've gained complete control over their minds, and so have the ability to counter harmful intrusions. Raz's parents wouldn't allow him to attend the Psychonaut Camp, so he had to sneak into the compound, only to be caught moments later. Even though Raz was an intruder, the counselors permitted him to stay -- but only until his parents' imminent arrival.
During the first day of camp, Raz decided to impress his coach to buy himself enough time to become a psychonaut before his parents' arrival. After leaping out of bed, he headed towards the coach's first lecture. This was no ordinary lecture -- Raz and the other psychonaut trainees were brought inside the coach's mind. Once the young cadets entered via the coach's powers, they discovered a disturbing warzone.
This warzone is not only the first stage of Psychonauts -- it's also a representation of the coach's chaotic nature. Inside his mind, the player has the opportunity to explore the coach's traumatic past. During this stage, Raz will make daring leaps, escort a boy to safety, dodge tank shells, and survive what appears to be the depths of Hell. The coach's mental warzone is a good introduction to Psychonauts' platforming gameplay, and it also reveals the inner nature of one of the game's important figures.
After you've completed your first mission, Raz is brought back to the real world. There, one of the camp counselors approaches him and asks if he'd like to receive illegal advanced training. From that point on, an adventure begins that will have Raz playing the role of a psychologist.
You'll continue to explore the campground hub world, but a significant portion of the game takes place inside certain characters' minds. These minds are all vast worlds that you'll explore throughout the course of Psychonauts.
The characters' minds you'll enter contain some of the most creative levels to ever grace a video game. One level has you uncovering a mystery: the disappearance of the mysterious Milkman. In this level, you'll wander city streets that are blocked off by shadowy detectives. You'll have to discover methods to get around them, and work to uncover clues. The items you'll pick up such as weed cutters allow you to access previously inaccessible areas.
The Milkman level is also quite comical. You'll encounter girl scouts who try to sell you explosive cookies, you'll play tricks on the detectives, and you'll uncover the true identity of a psycho.
Another level has you commanding a board game-like war. This board game war is occurring inside the mind of a descendant of Napoleon, and it is up to you to whip the cowardly man into shape, so he can defeat his ancestor.
During the Battle of Waterloo, you'll command soldiers and peasants to do your bidding as if you were a general, but first, you'll have to shrink down to the size of your board game subjects and earn their favor.
One segment of this level requires you to seek out an engineer to repair a broken bridge. If you want him to join your cause, you'll have to get rid of thieves congregating on the roof of his humble abode. This task is more difficult than it sounds, but it's necessary to complete to turn the tide of the war.
Carrying out tasks like these changes the surface of the game board, and it eventually results in your victory (and a change in the real world).
Did you think that was the last of Psychonauts' oddities? Think again. You'll explore a creepy insane asylum, crash a disco party, glide through a meat circus, and more. Pretty much every crazy idea you've never imagined is in this game.
Clearly, each level has a drastically different theme, but that's not all that is special about Psychonauts. The player will also learn new abilities, solve the mystery behind why events of the mind are becoming reality, and the player will tackle mental problems plaguing Raz and other camp attendees.
Raz can learn several abilities, but first it's important to describe his initial moves. Like most other platformer heroes, Raz can run and jump, but he can also grind rails like a skateboarder, and he can walk across tight ropes. Besides these simple maneuvers, the player has complete control over the camera via the right analog stick.
Once Raz meets certain individuals, earns enough money, and finds enough trinkets, he can learn several other abilities. Raz will learn to shoot, flame broil enemies, ride a ball, glide through the air, and a couple other unique abilities which I won't spoil. It's also worth mentioning that each ability is upgradable.
Fortunately, most of these abilities can be learned simply by completing levels and finding items strewn about the standard path, so the player will rarely have to adventure into uncharted territory if he doesn't want to. At a certain point in the game however, the player will need to purchase an expensive tool that sucks up cobwebs. To come up with enough change, he'll need to buy a cheap shovel and explore the campground to fill his pockets with money.
While exploring the compound, the player has the option of meeting other campers and learning about their personality quirks. Many of these characters exhibit traits we've all witnessed during grade school, so there are plenty of humorous conversations to be heard.
Every character in the game (including Raz) is fully voiced, so the characters' personalities come to life. Some of the kids' voices are a bit irksome, but most of the voice acting is top notch, which is great, as Psychonauts heavily relies on a humor.
Even though Psychonauts generally has a dark tone, Raz's witty remarks will often bring a smile to your face. This is a nice counterbalance to the somewhat disturbing, yet realistic themes.
You'll also probably grow attached to (or grow to hate) some of the other kids during your adventure. After they're kidnapped, you'll notice that the camp has grown eerily silent, so that alone almost makes you want to recover their stolen brains.
Saving the minds of your camp instructors is also an important part of your journey, and it makes you aware of the internal struggles they're going through. Anyone who's battled with past struggles or emotional trauma will be able to instantly relate to these uncanny journeys through the mind.
Psychonauts may have the most creative levels to ever grace a platformer and a unique premise, but as with any game, there are a few shortcomings. The first of these problems is Psychonauts' oversized hub world. I appreciated the fact that its open nature invited exploration, but there just wasn't much to see. Once the player has spoken to all the villagers, it becomes a dull, empty place. Fortunately, there are shortcuts to reach important areas, but I still felt that the world could have been condensed a bit.
The most conspicuous flaws however, are the mediocre hint system and brutal level design towards the end of the game. Psychonauts' in-game hint system can be useful at times (particularly during boss fights), but occasionally, it won't acknowledge the current situation you're in. I found it useless during the Milkman level in particular. While I was looking for a certain item, instead of hinting that it was inside another object, the hint system only repeated the end-of-level goal.
Even worse than the occasionally useless hint system was the brutal challenge provided by the final level. During an early portion of this level that's a vegetarian's worst nightmare, you have to perform several difficult maneuvers consecutively. You're tasked with saving an obnoxious ally who flies on ahead of you from enemies, and in order to catch up with him, you have to perform several daredevil stunts. This portion of the final level only takes ten to fifteen minutes to complete, but it easily rivals the difficulty of platforming segments in the early Mega Man games. The addition of checkpoints would have made this portion of the final level more tolerable.
Psychonauts may have a few minor flaws, but overall, it's a wonderful game that should be experienced by anyone who appreciates creativity. It doesn't have quite the level of polish of Mario Galaxy, but with each level being a drastically different experience, you really can't complain. Throughout the entire game, you won't encounter a single uninspired level, and as a result, you'll never want the game to end. With Psychonauts priced at a measly fifteen bucks, you'd be a fool not to purchase it before it's forgotten.
· You can be a psychologist without that fancy degree
· Features some of the most creative levels to ever grace a video game
· Psychonauts is one of the most atmospheric games in existence
· One of the rare video games that is humorous (in a good way)
· Solid voice acting
· Great controls are accompanied by a fully rotatable camera
· There are a few frustrating platforming segments towards the end
· Some areas could use more checkpoints
· The in-game hint system is occasionally unhelpful. The hub world feels a bit empty