PSYCHONAUTS (2005) – DOUBLE FINE
Upon its release in 2005, Psychonauts was given great praise and several accolades from the gaming press – the most notable of these awards however were the ones deeming Psychonauts to be the ‘Best Game That No-One Played’. By the end of the year, less than 100,000 copies had been sold, and the publisher Majesco quietly withdraw from the market. Thus, the game earned a cult following and stayed quietly in the background…until it was included in the fifth Humble Indie Bundle and consequently sold more copies in a few hours digitally than it had done at retail. And it is through these means that I have recently been able to play what I consider to be one of the most well rounded platformers I have come across.
Developed under the stewardship of Tim Schafer (the mind behind games including Grim Fandango and The Secret Of Monkey Island), Psychonauts has you take control of Razputin, a youngster with psychic abilities who infiltrates the Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp in order to receive training as a Psychonaut (a secret agent with powers to defeat evil doers). After being accepted onto the programme, Raz discovers that his fellow campers have started to have their brains taken away at random, and with the help of fellow agents Sasha, Milla and Ford Cruller, it is up to Raz to investigate why the strange events are occurring. In order to do so, he must delve into the minds of some of the eclectic members of the island, including a giant fish, a washed up actress, and the distant relative of Napoleon Bonaparte….Fred Bonaparte.
Much of the praise directed at Psychonauts is due to the ever present humour – it’s a very funny game with a witty script and just the right amount of insanity. Using the thoughts of certified nutters to base your levels around is a genius idea for design purposes; for example, you will infiltrate the mind of a retired milkman who is convinced he is the centre of a conspiracy – the resulting level has you evading agents in a local neighbourhood stuffed with surveillance vans by pretending to be a grieving widow amongst others things. The opening training level, set in the mind of regimental camp Coach Oleander, takes the form of a world war battlefield. My personal favourite has Raz playing a life size battle of Waterloo, complete with convincing peasants to fight against Napoleon.
Even the simple stuff is plain silly – Agent Cruller, who acts as your mentor throughout the game, is summoned by the smell of a piece of bacon, and instead of the usual collectibles you would find in a platformers (*cough cough coins, rings, apples), Raz has to collects figments of people’s imaginations (childish drawings based around the level in question), emotional baggage (crying bags who need their tags returned to them) and unlock repressed memories kept in safes. My only complaint is that the humour drains away a bit by the end of the game, unlike games like Conker’s Bad Fur Day which remains the most hilarious game I’ve played. Still, the writing is top notch and will keep you entertained until the conclusion.
As far as gameplay is concerned, Psychonauts is pretty solid. Much of the appeal comes from using the powers that Raz learns as he progress on his journey, including telekinesis, pyrokinesis, invisibility and confusion grenades. His background as a acrobat also means that Raz is a pretty versatile character to control, being able to jump around, climb up ledges, balance on wires and swing between trapezes; however, swimming is a no-no as his family is cursed to die if they step foot in water. It’s not the toughest game in the world to complete – defeated enemies regularly drop plentiful amount of health, collecting figments allows Raz to level up his skills, and he can also collect items hidden away in levels that increases the amount of lives he has. The in game journal also keeps a helpful list of things to do so you are never out of touch with what Raz must do to proceed.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing is that the large majority of powers do not have a practical use for the most part of the game. Powers such as clairvoyance (allowing you to see Raz through the AI’s eyes – which is sometimes hilarious in what they perceive) has limited use, the PSI Blast becomes the standard attacking power, and Raz’s levitation powers are a tad too powerful; at several points I found that I could skip jumping puzzles by making ambitious leaps of faith and gliding over to a distant piece of scenery instead. Still, the clever writing means that you will never be doing the same thing twice, and unlike many platformers, the boss battles require a bit of nous and quick use of powers for Raz to succeed
It’s nice to see that the varied landscapes of people’s mind is brought to life so vividly in Psychonauts. Aside from the figments being colourful, each level has its own distinctive style to mix things up, including a very striking level set coincidentally enough in the mind of an artist, whose dreams are ruined by the presence of a bull running through the streets. General character design is also fantastic, with the students all having their own quirky look and the emotional baggage looking suitably derpy. I experienced one or two hiccups while playing through on the PC, but in general load times are kept short and the game runs smoothly. On the sound front, the script is brought to life nicely by a good set of voice actors, including the voice of Invader Zim as Raz. I did find however that some voice samples got repeated to the point of annoyance. The soundtrack is also pretty cool, mixing it up as per the design of the levels, with the main theme of the camp standing out for quality.
It’s hard when playing through Psychonauts to try and fathom why no-one picked it up the first time around. With the recent exposure through the bundle, hopefully more people will get to play it and change its status as the ‘Best Game That No-One Played’ to ‘a very competent and funny platformer that more people should experience’. Here’s hoping that Schafer gets around to making a sequel in the near future.