Remember back in the days where terms like Hidden Gems were actually something that could be applied? I mean, with the prevalence of the internet and rise of independent gaming, the term just doesn’t seem all that applicable anymore, as very few things are hidden, and I seldom hear about legitimately good games not getting the sales they so desperately needed. Assuming you’re not something like Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, that is. Anywho, I wanted to play Psychonauts since 2006, was able to come 2009, and didn’t until I could get it for $2.50 in 2013. So of course I feel the need to talk about it and feel bad for saying the things I’m about to say!
Release Date: 15/4/2005
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), Xbox, PS2
Developer: Double Fine Productions
Publisher: Double Fine Productions
Rig: AMD FX-8320, 8GB of RAM, Radeon HD 7770, Windows 7 64-bit, Xbox 360 controller
Psychonauts takes place in a world where psychic abilities are relatively commonplace, but kept in a more Pokemon state of morality. Where there are bad people who want to take over the world, but not really anybody is killed. With the protagonist being a surprisingly gifted ten-year-old by the name of Razputin who escaped his family’s home of the circus and instead ventured to a summer camp centered around training psychics. Attempting to fulfill his dream of becoming a Psychonaut, a secret agent and master of what amount to super powers, or perhaps abilities would be a better fit.
What made Psychonauts so remarkable at the time of its conception and release was very much centered on its creative freedom and presentation similar to a long forgotten, but very well written 1990s or early Ots cartoon. One that was a bit resque in terms of off handed jokes, yet somehow lighthearted about suicide, semen, and setting animals on fire. It is ultimately a very humorous, but never in any way vulgar little romp through the minds of people with quite a bit of emotional baggage, and could probably stand on its own as a television show or comic.
From that, you might assume that I would ease in onto a couple gripes with the narrative, such as how easy it is to miss loads of minor scenes with the otherwise sparsely characterized campers. Or perhaps how the later half of the game seems to lose focus, as it features two levels that do very little in terms of the overall story. But where Psychonauts falls beneath the unnecessarily high expectations that come with years of rosy-eyed whispers is in what I can safely refer to the the most critical part of a game, the actual gameplay.
Psychonauts is a tad difficult to pinpoint on the genre wheel, but one part platformer, one part 3D Zelda-lite seems to fit the bill. From Zelda it takes a small arsenal of powers that vary in terms of their actual use, with some items being particularly forgettable despite how they are all displayed on a single screen. While as a platformer, it takes the collectathon spirit, but in the way that left me sour when it came to games like Tomb Raider and Far Cry 3, instead of provoking a thirst for exploration ala Banjo Kazooie, or even Shadow Complex.
It is a very fine line that I think I finally pinpointed after quite some time. With the collectables ultimately being a design decision that demands the player’s attention, while also distracting those who are virtual kleptomaniacs, which I basically am. It is never required to get any of the figments that exist in the many worlds, or in this case, minds you explore. With the moving figments being a particularly annoying bunch, but not as much as the ones that are not properly laid out so they are rather easy to obtain, as the collectibles are perplexingly kept as two dimensional objects.
It is a very backwards idea, much like how 3D platformers can seem at Psychonauts’ worst. With the camera never being too hard to control, the ability to float jump being unlocked fairly early, and there being zero fall damage, Psychonauts was clearly made in mind of what caused the genre to not work before it was murdered in the HD revolution of 200X. But the perception of depth and occasionally very abstractly designed levels have the style over substance effect, except applied to the layouts of the mental worlds of possibly disturbed individuals.
Yet I’d feel a bit of remorse if I did not give the game props for at least trying to create things like twisted gravity effects in a platformer five years before it blew everyone else away. Or perhaps throwing in second person perspective gameplay in the very same level. It was very ambitious for its time, but very rarely can a team with little to no experience in a genre be able to successfully get everything right and incorporate new idea without quite a lot of jankiness to go with them. In fact, janky is probably the best word I have to describe the gameplay, as it has that same archaic feeling a game from ten years ago almost always has in some shape or form.
Although, the game does a pretty good job at not showing its age, in part due to an HD coating placed over the game. Even when, the game keeps a very stylized aesthetic in place, featuring plenty of at times janky looking and weirdly proportioned characters, so it does keep an appeal visually. With a unique theme for the game’s ten levels keeping things interesting, while also filled with a pleasant dose of color. Leaving only some of the textures looking a bit muddy in terms of visual quality, at least until considering the FMVs. From what I understand, nearly every game looks better when it is being made than it does when finally released, with the cutscenes being no exception. So it is well worth asking why they look to be around 240p despite how there is very likely a high quality production archive tape around somewhere.
I actually knew what would happen in Psychonauts long before ever playing it, and I know it sounds very rude to say that I liked the game more back when I wasn’t playing it. I’ve done this dance before, but gameplay is the most important part of a game, so if it is hindered in any major way, then the entire game is lessened because of it. Psychonauts creates a unique and interesting little world, one that I wish were a bit more focused on showing every aspect of it, but falls flat more due to how it’s not the most enjoyable to navigate. The gameplay is a grab bag of ideas, but very few of them felt as if they were used to their full potential or were very much needed to enhance the game as a whole. It has you destroy a city of fish people with psychic powers, but it’s not all that fun beyond the novelty, okay?
A solid title that may be lacking in an infinite amount of different ways, or just a few big and difficult to ignore issues. Varies based on the title, but still worth giving it a go overall!