Tim Schafer has a loyal legion of fanboys for good reason. The creator of PC classics Full Throttle and Grim Fandango `is one of the most innovative game designers in the industry. Previously, Schafer worked at LucasArts, but left the company a half-decade ago to start his own company, Double Fine Productions. After a long journey that involved multiple publishers and a slow development process, and an unexpected port to the PS2, Psychonauts has finally landed on store shelves.
In Psychonauts, you take on the role of Raz, a young psychic who sneaks into Psychic Camp in the hopes of becoming a famed Psychonaut. If Raz's dreams are to be realized, he'll need to find a way to accomplish this is a single day, as the camp counselors (all great Psychonauts in their own right) can't allow Raz to stay at the camp indefinitely. Fortunately for Raz, his father won't arrive until the next morning and there are mischievous happenings at the camp.
When Raz discovers that the students of Psychic Camp are being abducted and their brains taken in the middle of the night, he has no choice but to save them all by entering the minds of various adults -- both good and bad -- to discover the source of the abductions. Using a bevy of psychic powers, Raz battles the dark forces inside numerous minds as he travels through the psychic baggage of camp counselor's, psychotics and a lungfish. Yeah, that's right, a lungfish.
Campers Gone Wild
Psychonauts is, at its core, a platformer. However, unlike the typical platformers of the current generation, this is a free-roaming adventure that removes almost every restriction. The campgrounds in which Raz can explore are large and there are a number of hard to reach areas, which will challenge your platforming acumen. And if you hope to collect everything in Psychonauts, you'll need to explore every inch of the campgrounds... because there's a lot to collect (even more than the Ratchet and Jak games combined -- no, seriously).
The collect-a-thon begins with purple arrows, which hide inside destructible objects or underground. Collect these in order to purchase helpful items in the Camp Lodge. Then there are the figments. These two-dimensional images litter the interiors of the minds Raz must enter throughout the game. For every hundred you snag, you go up a level -- all the way to 100. There are also Psychic Cards, which are carefully placed throughout the campground and each mental level. Collect enough cards and they can be redeemed to earn an extra level (but it's a long way to that magical level 100). But we're not done yet. There are 16 Scavenger Hunt items that are very well hidden throughout the game. Yes, that's a lot of crap to collect, but it's pretty entertaining for the most part if a little overdone.
As a platformer, the controls are relatively simple. There's a single hand-to-hand attack button and three buttons are dedicated to using Raz's various psychic powers. Each power must be earned, but cover the standards of the psychic world, including clairvoyance, levitation and telekinesis. You can map any power to three of the shoulder buttons, but since you need to use a variety of powers in each level, you'll need to enter the menu regularly to swap out powers, which can get a little tiresome by the 10th hour.
No platformer would be complete without some platforming and Psychonauts has plenty. Along with the typical double-jumps and bar swings, Psychonauts adds a great trick thanks to the power of levitation. With this power, Raz creates a mental bubble that he can ride on. This super ball allows him to bounce higher and move faster. While in the air, the press of a trigger turns the ball into a balloon, which can be used for gliding. This is easily the most resourceful tool in the entire game.
While I certainly enjoyed much of the platforming aspects, I must admit that by the end of Psychonauts things were degrading from fun to frustrating. There's no "smart zone" where, if close enough, Raz will grab a ledge or bar. You have to be very exact and when it comes to the platform-heavy elements of the final level, this becomes increasingly problematic. There are times where you'll keep jumping at the same ledge a half dozen times before Raz finally grabs hold. It's these little things that slowly drag down what is otherwise one of the most refreshing and original games on PS2.
Psychonauts' true genius is displayed when Raz enters someone's mind. Each mental level is tailored to that specific character. So when Raz enters velvet painter Eduardo's mind, his costume changes to match the velvet world. Eduardo is tormented by a bull that rampages through the streets and has an uncompromising rage. Another level has Raz playing in a board game where he continually shrinks at first to manipulate the board and then to attempt to recruit pieces for the game and lastly to enter their homes for exploration.
The best level by far is when Raz enters the mind of the mutated lungfish. It turns out the lungfish is more afraid of Raz than anything else. Because of this, Raz is actually a giant within the lungfish's mind and the level proceeds with Raz tearing through Lungfishopolis as the Godzilla-like Goggalor.
Each mental arena isn't just a pretty design, however. Schafer and company went in-depth with the psychology of each character. Everyone has some major mental hurdle they are dealing with and in order to proceed, Raz must solve these mental roadblocks. These serve as mini-stories within the larger piece and work nicely within the framework of Psychonauts. Oh and did I mention that the idea here is awesome? No? Okay, well then, it is.
Things won't be so easy for Raz as each mind has censors which hunt down thoughts that don't belong. Raz, of course, is one such thought and the censors are determined to take him down. Don't fret though, as just about every enemy in Psychonauts is practically mindless and fairly easy to defeat. As with much of Psychonauts, the censors are a clever idea for the first half, but become tiresome old news in the final hours of gameplay.
Fortunately, each boss is just as unique as the levels that they inhabit. While every boss battle rely on pattern memorization, it's just great to see enemies that properly fit each level.
Laugh Until It Hurts. Ow.
As much fun as I had with the gameplay, it's the humor of Psychonauts that really makes it worthwhile. The first half of the game is unbelievably funny. After noting that Goggalor is in search of his "girlfriend," our hero Raz begins muttering about how he really isn't sure that he's exactly dating her yet. The rebel leader of the lungfish looks up at Goggalor and says frankly, "I only meant that she is a girl and that she is your friend."
The only problem with making a funny game is that the minute it stops being funny, it becomes glaringly obvious. The last few hours of Psychonauts, while dotted with some humorous moments, just isn't as off-the-wall laugh-so-loud-you-wake-up-your-girlfriend funny as the earlier moments. It almost seems as if Double Fine ran out of gas or felt the game needed to be a bit more serious in the later hours. In either case, there's a noticeable lack of laughs, which is unfortunate, because part of what makes Psychonauts endearing is its humor.
What, is She Funny or Something?
What was an attractive game on Xbox and PC is pretty standard fare on PS2. Though developed by Double Fine, the PS2 version was ported by Budcat Creations. The textures and detail of the Xbox version are lost here. Don't blame it on the PS2 being a "weaker" system either. Go look at Jak 3 or Ratchet and Clank and there's no reason Psychonauts couldn't have performed at least close to the level of the Xbox build. The framerates a little more naggy here too, but luckily, it's not enough to harm the gameplay.
The good news is that the level design remains identical and the art style is unblemished. Though I miss the boring gray walls of endless buildings and rehashed environments in every first-person shooter, I just love the look of Psychonauts. Each level is so unique that there's little that could be reused from one level to the next. There's absolutely no sense of repetition here and each environment perfectly fits the situation. Art is about more than hi-res textures and specular highlighting -- it's also about design and Psychonauts has design out the wazoo.
When I wasn't dazzled by the original-looking levels, I was getting an earful of the fantastic score. Of course, more important than the background music are the voices. There's not a wrong note in the voice-acting, something few games can claim. The highlight, again, are the lines from the lungfish of Lungfishopolis. I'd move there in a heartbeat.
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