The 2005 release of “Psychonauts” on the PS2, Xbox, and Windows marked the first independent foray into game design by Tim Shafer, one of the demented individuals behind LucasArts’ iconic point-and-click adventure titles, such as “Maniac Mansion” and “Monkey Island.” Knowing the kind of insanity and trainwreck logic most of those games involve, alongside the fact that this game has ‘psycho’ in the title and is NOT an adventure game, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect going into it. What I found was that Mr. Shafer is a truly gifted designer who needs to hire better programmers.
“Psychonauts” is technically average for a PS2 game. The polygonal models look good, are well animated, and have few texture/jaggy issues. It is possible to tell when cutscenes switch from game-engine-rendered to pre-rendered, as the amount of ‘shininess’ and clarity of textures is markedly better in the pre-rendered scenes.
What makes “Psychonauts” stand head and shoulders above other games of its type are the character and environmental designs. The characters are all comically deformed and look like what might happen if Matt Groening (of the Simpsons) and Tim Burton (of… a variety of bizarre stuff) hijacked Pixar’s character-modeling computers and just started doodling. The environments are likewise bizarre and whimsical, yet underscored by a distinct air of menace.
The soundtrack is the weakest portion of the game’s presentation, with overall subdued music that I didn’t even notice most of the time. There are a few almost-catchy tracks, but nothing that I found stuck in my head after playing.
The voiceacting, however, more than makes up for the relatively-weak music. The cast of characters delivers their lines with skill and perfect comedic timing. This is a doubly-impressive feat, considering I didn’t recognize any of the actors’ names in the credits as being particularly well-known.
“Psychonauts” is really a showcase for Tim Shafer’s ability to weave extremely creative and bizarre tales. In this case, the story is about a 10-year-old psychic named Raz (short for Razputin) who runs away from his life as a circus-acrobat-in-training to attend Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp, a not-so-subtly-concealed cadet training camp for the Psychonauts, an international emergency response team for psychic disasters. After he crashes the camp orientation (without paying), the camp counselors are so impressed with Raz’s abilities that they allow him to stay ‘for a few days’ until his father arrives to take him home. Raz vows to put his nose to the grindstone and collect all of the necessary merit badges to move from Psycadet to full-fledged Psychonaut before his dad takes him back to the circus.
Raz’s plans are interrupted, however, by an evil dentist who begins kidnapping the other campers and turning them into brainless, TV-watching zombies (which I found to be a hilarious dig at the whole ‘TV vs. Videogames’ competition for our entertainment dollars). As the counselors abruptly leave camp on ‘official Psychonauts business,’ Raz alone must investigate this evil plot that is hatching in the almost-abandoned asylum on the other side of Lake Oblongata. Standing in his way are a variety of mentally unstable characters whose minds Raz must enter and use his newly-learned skills to lower their mental defenses, clear out their mental cobwebs, sort their emotional baggage (which actually takes the form of various weeping pieces of luggage), and ultimately help them conquer their mental demons and become well-adjusted (?) members of society once again. Only then can Raz confront the mastermind behind the abductions and ultimately confront his own internal demons.
Essentially, “Psychonauts’” story is divided into two halves. The first half features Raz’s adventures at Whispering Rock (which is named for the massive Psitanium meteorite that crashed in the valley 500 years ago), where he must compete in a scavenger hunt, earn merit badges, and is free to chat with the other campers. The second half of the game takes place almost exclusively in the twisted mental landscapes of crazy people. Each mental landscape in the second half of the game is utterly unique, featuring a self-contained narrative that Raz must unravel in order to restore the individual’s sanity. While the natural progression of the story would allow the game to wrap-up neatly and resolve all of its story threads, I was disappointed to see that the game ends with an abrupt cliffhanger, which obviously opens it up for a sequel that has not been (and most likely never will be) made.
“Psychonauts” wants to be both a 3D Platformer and an Action/Adventure title. Many of the gameplay mechanics, from Raz’s double-jump to his lock-on-and-shoot ability to his ability to grind on railings, to his triple-hit melee attack, are directly ripped-off from Insomniac’s ‘Ratchet & Clank’ series. Unlike the refined and polished gameplay of Insomniac’s flagship 3D Platformer/Third-Person Shooter, “Psychonauts” actually plays like an early 3D Platformer that might have appeared on the PlayStation 1 or N64. Raz falls off (and occasionally through) objects when he shouldn’t, the physics are off, numerous slopes that look walkable are actually so steep that they send Raz skidding to the bottom: These are major flaws in a game that is at least 50% platforming! And then there’s the game’s camera… I haven’t seen a camera this horrible in quite a while. It’s hard to adjust, it never stays where it’s supposed to, it frequently looks in the wrong direction or at the wrong angle, and it even gets stuck in walls! These are problems with the fundamental core of the game, and they almost ruin it. Thankfully, there is enough creativity in the level designs that the flawed way in which Raz interacts with his world is tempered enough to make it tolerable.
Each of the mental landscapes looks completely different and most of them feature a unique gameplay gimmick that makes them really stand out. For example, in one mental landscape, Raz is a giant, Godzilla-like monster destroying/liberating a city of tiny fish, in another Raz must manipulate the outcome of a Risk-like strategy game. Unfortunately, the good ideas must have run out by the end of the game, as the final level features the deplorable combination of a long escort mission and a rail-grinding section that allows the game’s camera and physics to show-off the true depth of their awfulness. The game’s boss battles are also quite poorly designed, with flaws ranging from battles occurring out of nowhere, to using the boss’ point of view for the camera (as if the normal camera wasn’t hostile enough!), to extremely poor hit detection. While the ideas behind the bosses are interesting, the execution of those ideas just isn’t up to par.
The Action/Adventure portion of the gameplay mostly involves the way in which Raz gains Ranks (and thus increases the number of hits he can take, the amount of shots he can fire, etc.). Unfortunately, “Psychonauts” is only Action/Adventure in that Raz earns a new psychic power at the end of each level. For the most part, “Psychonauts” is just one big ‘Collect-a-Thon.’ In order to gain the points he needs to Rank-Up, Raz must collect imaginary Figments, Mental Cobwebs, Emotional Baggage, Psi-Cards, Psi-Challenge Markers, and Scavenger Hunt items, along with missing brains and the occasional ‘Golden Upgrade’ for one of his stats. In addition, Raz needs money, in the form of Psitanium arrowheads, to buy Psi-Cores and a bunch of other tools from the main Camp Lodge. Gathering most of this stuff isn’t particularly odious, as it simply requires the player to explore every area thoroughly. However, collecting Figments IS tedious… VERY tedious. Figments are both two-dimensional and garishly colored (plus some of them move!). While one might think their bright colors would make them easy to see, the fact that most of the mental landscapes in which they are found are ALSO brightly colored makes them nearly impossible to see against the backgrounds. I tacked over 5 additional hours onto the normal 15-20 hour playtime for “Psychonauts” by backtracking and looking for Figments. It was not fun.
“Psychonauts” is an amazing game in concept, but a poor game in execution. While the design and writing are both top-notch in creativity and entertainment value, the sloppy gameplay makes this game seem like it was programmed by a development team with little-to-no experience in 3D action games (or maybe they were time-travelers from 1998). Still, I would like to see the alluded sequel appear, hopefully with a more experience team of programmers behind the scenes. I recommend “Psychonauts” to fans of old-school 3D Platformers as well as to people who like whimsical, quirky humor.
Overall (not an average): 4/5