It gets into your head and doesn't leave
Psychonauts is a game that's been getting a lot of attention, and as far as I'm concerned, it's about damn time! A massive low-seller upon its initial release in 2005, Psychonauts was and is one of the most unique concepts for a game, and one of the most fully-realized concepts, too.
Psychonauts is about Whispering Rock, a summer camp for psychically-gifted children, where they can hone their mental abilities free from the world's prejudice, and under the watchful eye of the Psychonauts- heroic world travelers that defend the innocent by entering the minds of their targets- and, thus, solving problems from the inside (the deep inside). Our hero is Razputin, "Raz", a young circus performer who has run away in hopes of becoming Psychonaut. But, since his dad is coming to bring him back the next day, Raz has only a single evening to earn all of his merit badges... and, oh yeah, to save the world from psychic destruction.
Whispering Rock and its surrounding area forms the core of Psychonauts' appeal. Every single character has a fully-developed personality and character arc, and the real fun part is, a lot of those arcs require the player's input to uncover. As you wander the real world, be on the lookout for its many inhabitants, and be sure to eavesdrop and utilize your various abilities as much as you can. Nearly everything in the game has a story to it, and it's usually either hilarious or incredibly disturbing. The unique sense of character shines through the game's every orifice, as we view the innermost thoughts of various characters in clever and inspired ways- a conspiracy theorist's mind looks like a twisted suburb, a man obsessed with board games has a psyche that is a board game, and a starving artist sees the world through ultraviolet lights. You can only enter the minds of the most important characters, yet it feels like no character is under- or over-developed.
These great characters are supported by great writing and visual design. The humor is perfectly delivered, down to a science- knowing when to turn full tilt and wacky, and when to back off and let the game's dramatic parts run their course. Whispering Rock's many campers are all unique and entertaining, from a gossipy blonde to a recovering pyromaniac to two suicidal occultists. They serve as part of the game's comic relief- welcome relief indeed, given how bleak the game can get at certain points. The running romantic subplot involving Raz and a girl named Lili is funny and cute at the same time, since both of them are quite unsure of how to describe their relationship ("she's not my girlfriend! Well... maybe she is?"). Raz's mentors all have funny quirks, as well as tragic pasts, that make them as endearing as ever. In particular, Ford Cruller - Raz's "big good", basically - was defeated in psychic battle and left quite mad (he can only think intelligently while within his sanctuary), leaving him making amusing remarks and putting on a variety of different personas. The writing is accompanied by a wonderfully bizarre art style, with many disorganized angles, misshapen and asymmetrical features, and unusual color schemes. It looks a lot like a Henry Selick movie, and it all looks gorgeous.
As for the gameplay, well... it's not quite as perfect. It's largely a marriage of classic 3D platforming and the adventure game genre that designer Tim Schafer comes from, and they aren't always a perfect fit for each other. The majority of the game involves interacting with other character and solving problems to get to the next area, as most adventure games do. But every once in a while, you get to a part where you have to fight some enemies or leap across a new area, and the game drags down. The platforming is generally well designed - the fights, not so much - but the simple fact is that platformers and engrossing stories rarely go well together. The sections of pure action only served to irritate me, since I just wanted to see another character or watch the plot progress. Also, the system most people are likely to play this game is on the PC- and a keyboard is a terrible interface for 3D platforming, because of the many buttons that it requires and the very exact motions required for the character and camera. You'll need to shell out a bunch of extra cash for a controller, and who wants to do that?
But, of course, Psychonauts is so brilliant and clever that it actually manages to make the basic gameplay elements a part of the story. No base is uncovered, and it helps to alleviate the game's issues somewhat. Why are there enemies attacking you? They're Censors, the parts of a mind that remove thoughts that don't belong. Why do you have health and extra lives? Because you need to keep up your mental health, and your ability to remain inside someone's mind! How is Raz so acrobatic? Because he's a circus performer! It's all there, and all detailed- to an impressive degree, considering nobody would have questioned it if it wasn't there.
Psychonauts occasionally frustrates with its over-designed gameplay and clunky combat, but you'll barely even notice. A world that's as beautiful and vast as this one absolutely must be explored by everyone.