Due to a history of being both poor and cheap, I tend to trail far behind everyone else in the video game culture. Rather than being an early adopter, I usually wait to pay for things until they’re old and cheap and most people have forgotten about them. Sure, I miss out on the initial excitement of the zeitgeist and the thrill of current discussion on some message board, but I get to save about forty bucks a pop. Plus, it gives me the opportunity to provide a valuable service: to remind you all about awesome games you may have missed or want to return to after a long absence. No, no need to thank me. Just doing my job, citizen.
Released back in 2005, Psychonauts is about a psychic boy named Raz who lives with his family of acrobats in the circus. Sure, why not? But his acrobat father hates psychics so he runs away from the circus (that happens? In this game it does) to join a summer camp for psychics to train under the government’s secret psychic agents during their downtime from fighting evil with their psychic powers. Turns out, a huge psychic meteor had crashed there ages ago and since it enhances psychics’ latent abilities, it provided an ideal location for a psychic training ground. Also an insane asylum apparently, which seems like a really bad idea because no one wants a crazy person who can shoot mind bullets at you. Oh, and there are cougars that can set you on fire, and there’s a monster in the lake. Anyway, there are some strange happenings a foot when students’ brains start disappearing and Raz begins to have sinister visions of meat.
Obviously, this game is a little weird.
And the oddness is certainly aided by the art design, which immediately sets this game apart from other, inferior games, what with their vain attempts at realism. I’ve heard the game described as Tim Burtonish, but I’d say it’s more Jhonen Vasquezy. Actually, the main art director is Scott Campbell (be sure to check out his adorable LOST drawings!) who walks that fine and popular line between cute and horrifying. This stylization suits the game well seeing as everything is kind of nutter butters. Although, some of the supposedly human characters are exaggerated to the point of monstrousness, it’s easily forgivable given the charm.
The gameplay follows a pretty standard format of third person platforming where you run around the camp and jump on things. Since Raz is an acrobat he’s able to do a bunch of acrobatic feats, walking tightropes and swinging on bars and the like. A nice excuse explanation. Your psychic powers start off with a simple double jump, but you gain additional powers as you progress, such as afore mentioned mind bullets, as well as levitation, pyrokenesis, telekinesis and so on. As gameplay goes it’s not revolutionary (though occasionally frustrating, more on that later), but it provides a stable familiarity when the game goes batshit off the rails and throws you into the heads of deranged side characters, from the Psychonaut agents to the inmates of the asylum, who prove to be only slightly less insane. And in a particularly memorable level, a giant mutated lungfish.
While the campground acts as a main overworld, much of the game takes place in various characters’ minds which gives each sublevel their own distinct flavor according to each personality. The mind of the camp’s militaristic coach is realized like a warzone. Groovy Agent Milla’s mental world is a never ending dance party. The orderly brain of Agent Nein is represented by a giant puzzle cube that rearranges itself to suit his needs and desires (luckily, no Cenobites appear to tear Raz’s soul apart). Each level is nicely unique in concept and design.
These mental worlds are fun and all, but the game only begins to earn its achievement gold star sticker with the lungfish level. I’d rather not spoil the details of Lungfishopolis, but it’s here that Psychonauts went from just humorous to fucking hilarious and from merely really good to one of the best games of all time. To the end of my days, I’ll have fond memories of an insomnia wrecked evening when I couldn’t stop playing and laughing at three in the morning. The merriment continues in the Milkman Conspiracy, which features the surreal absurdism of the G-Men who disguise themselves as, among other things, road crew by miming construction work with a stop sign and deadpanning, “My red sign helps me work on the road. No ped exing. I cannot wait until the next payday. Look at that woman’s breasts, they are large.”
What I’m saying is that the game is funny, mainly because of the dialogue. While not nearly approaching the scale of, say, Mass Effect 2 or something, there is a good amount of talking in between all that running and jumping around. Luckily it’s all hilarious and brilliantly delivered by the voice cast. Playing the game is almost more of a means to hear the dialogue than an end unto itself. Don’t get me wrong, the game is enjoyable and all the mental worlds are entertaining to experience, but the platforming can be controller throwing difficult at times. The finicky camera doesn’t help either. This isn’t much a problem for most the time, seeing as that you’re not punished too severely for falling off the many high wires into the many bottomless pits. The enemies aren’t very hard either and are mainly filler until the boss fights. However, I wonder what the percentage is of people who have actually achieved and watched the ending movie firsthand, because that blasted difficulty curve takes a sharp turn upward right around the point of the dreaded Meat Circus. How many busted controllers is Psychonauts responsible for, thrown across the room in fits of rage? I wouldn’t blame anyone if they gave up after falling into that lake of blood for the twelve hundredth time. That’ll do, video game player.
Sadly, sales of the initial release of Psychonauts were not very good despite critical screaming at everyone else. Despite some control and camera issues, the game is well worth seeking out. So good news to those who haven’t had the opportunity to play it yet: Psychonauts is currently available on Steam and as an Xbox Originals download for the Xbox 360. You’re welcome, citizen.