Psychonauts came out to little fanfare in the broader sense, but there are dedicated Tim Schaefer fans who had been looking forward to the title for quite some time. Growing up I played a few of his PC adventure games and while I enjoyed them, I was probably a little too young to appreciate them as much as they deserved. Everything about Psychonauts appealed to me though and when I eventually found a copy, the experience did not disappoint.
In an interesting twist, the main character runs away from the circus in order to join an elite force of psychic detectives. The Psychonauts operate by entering people’s minds and ridding them of their demons. Raz, in a shocking turn of events, shows real promise as a psychonaut, but has to fight his father for the right to do what he wants. The story is by turns creative, funny (although I do think reports of its hilarity are a little overblown), and touching. This is a very well executed aspect of the game.
The level designs were incredibly creative. The game benefits from the fact that possibilities are only restricted by imagination. Each board takes place within a characters mind, and reflects that character’s personality and quirks. This allowed the design team to run wild with ideas.
My personal favorite is playing a hex strategy game against Napoleon Bonaparte. It seems he has been harassing his descendent Fred Bonaparte to the point where poor Fred has landed in an asylum. You have to perform tasks to recruit soldiers, and then use those soldiers to defeat your opponent. The originality comes from the fact that Raz varies in size depending on what he is doing. The level begins with all characters in full human size, then Raz is shrunk down to walk around the game board and manipulate certain items. He is then shrunk down further to interact with other characters, etc. Very clever and fun.
Other levels involve conspiracy theorists, washed up actresses and an entire array of oddballs. Getting to each new level just to see what crazy adventure is in store for Raz is exciting on its own, and then the addition of solid gameplay makes Psychonauts a high quality title.
The game is not without its flaws however. The controls feel a little sloppy. Early platforming sequences can try your patience while you are still becoming accustomed to the way Raz moves. The camera can be a little troublesome at times, but nothing major.
My biggest complaint is that the final level is annoying. It is far more difficult than the rest of the game. I am completely in favor of making games difficult, but in this case it seemed unfair. Not only did it seem out of place and therefore unbalanced, but much of the difficulty derived from what appeared to be a glitch. I’ve checked message boards, so I know I’m not the only one complaining about this, but there is a jumping sequence toward the end where jumping ceases to work. Frustrating.
The game is a collect-a-thon. There is no debate about this. You have to collect psi-cards, psi-markers, arrowheads, scavenger hunt items, figments, vaults, luggage tags, luggage, and cobwebs. Not to mention any items you may need to complete a quest. This is not necessarily bad, it’s simply a matter of personal preference. My only complaint about the collecting is that so many of the items do the same thing — raise your level. That makes the sheer number of distinct things to collect seem a little unnecessary. In general though the things you need to collect fit within the context of the game and it does not feel excessive.
I’m almost reaching for criticism because the game is remarkably good. The graphics are very good. I played the game on a PS2 and apparently the Xbox has much better graphics. There was occasional slowdown with the PS2 version, but episodes of that were few, far between and short so it did not have too serious a negative impact.
The character development is a real strength. The creators managed to give each character his or her own personality despite the fact some of them are very peripheral. You always understand their motivations, and genuinely care about what happens to them. The models are all well designed, and some are remarkably ugly. The style used in this department is unlike anything I’ve seen.
I cannot recommend Psychonauts highly enough. I played a few boards on Xbox and the entire game on the PS2. If you have the option, you probably should go with the Xbox version, but if you only have a PS2 you will not be disappointed. The plot and gameplay are almost flawless, and the experience really was the best I have had in a while. As I mentioned, there are a few minor problems with the game, but nothing that should discourage you from playing it.