The title screen to Psychonauts is an interesting one. There’s a large brain in front of a psychedelic background and when “start” is pressed a strange boy appears. I just sat there for a few seconds until I realized I actually control this boy. I ran around the brain until I found a doorway leading to “New Game.” This title screen is just one of the many trippy touches that makes Psychonauts such a memorable 3D platformer.
The boy with the goggles is named Raz. He runs away from home and sneaks into a psychic summer camp where kids are trained to be Psychonauts. These Psychonauts are basically psychic secret agents that must go inside the minds of troubled people in order to help them overcome their mental problems. Raz wants this job more than anything, but since his Dad has been notified of Raz’s sneaking in he now only has three days to become a Psychonaut. And I thought my summer course condensed the material into too brief of a time period.
The script is written by Tim Schafer of Grim Fandango and Day of the Tentacle fame, so the dialogue is rather funny. The many campers are hilarious, from Dogen, with his serious contempt for squirrels, to Russian Mikhail’s quest to find a hairless bear. There are dozens of clever quips and the many cutscenes are wildly entertaining, and the excellent voice acting helps out greatly. A talented cast uses their gift for humor to make the storyline even more compelling.
As wonderful as the sense of humor is, the true star of Psychonauts are the unique visuals. From a strictly technical standpoint, the frame rate is occasionally poor and the textures are far less detailed than the Xbox version, but none of that really matters since the overall style is truly something special. Think of Psychonauts as a cross between a Saturday morning cartoon and something Tim Burton only wishes he could have envisioned. The distorted objects and vibrant colors are a feast for the eyes and many of look fascinating. The most visually incredible level takes place towards the end of the game and it looks like a blacklight poster and the movie Once Upon a Time in Mexico all mixed together. The amazing use of color and distinctive atmosphere really has to be seen to be believed.
Early in the first level of Psychonauts the gameplay seemed far less original than the look of the war torn battlefield in the drill instructor’s mind. Everything was straight out of the generic 3D platformer handbook. There are plenty of items to collect, the ever-popular double-jump, a simple hand-to-hand combo, but that seemed about it. Thankfully the beginning of the first stage was only the tip of the gameplay iceberg.
Throughout the game, our hero Raz acquires new psychic powers either automatically or by collecting various items and leveling up. These powers, which are complimented with some incredible level designs, are what makes Psychonauts a great game. Even though Raz can dish out some pain with his Psi Blast and Pyrokinesis, combat usually isn’t the focus. Sure, there are many fun boss battles, but some of the stages feature barely any fighting at all. This doesn’t make the game boring; it just makes things more diverse. The stages cleverly present obstacles that must be overcome by deciding which power to use. Chair blocking the way? Use telekinesis to move it. Is there an object too far out of the way? Use the incredibly entertaining levitation (which reminds me of the way Sonic the Hedgehog moves) and then glide across to reach it. These are just a couple of the many obstacles in the way.
What makes Psychonauts truly special, aside from the visuals, are the remarkable twists that make many of levels totally different from eachother. Granted, the excellent style makes each level look different, but the varying gameplay is what makes the levels truly unique. The best example of this is the Fishopolis stage. Raz travels inside a mutated lungfish’s mind and finds a bustling city. There are citizens all over, skyscrapers aplenty and some angry tanks. The twist is that Raz towers over everything in the city, which provides a nice homage to Rampage and the Godzilla movies. Buildings can be destroyed, tanks can be picked up and thrown, and the civilians can be stomped on. This non-stop action was a great change of pace from the somewhat typical platforming that dominates a couple of the stages.
Even when the stages aren’t bursting with action they still manage to be entertaining. One example of this is the incredibly clever Waterloo level. Raz jumps inside the mind of a mental patient who is a descendent of Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon and the poor guy’s personality clash on a hex-based war grid, and it’s up to Raz to help defeat the great general. Shrinking in size, Raz must run around the map completing quests to recruit troops. When the troops are recruited, Raz must move the game piece representing the recruits with his telekinesis. Although this level is slow-paced, the sheer genius of it all makes it quite memorable.
As great as Psychonauts is, there are a couple things that prove to be problematic aside from the sketchy frame rate. Equipping items can occasionally be a pain because of the unintuitive menu, and having to switch between the different psychic powers is sometimes annoying even though you can have three equipped at a time. Even more troublesome are a couple bugs I encountered. I got stuck in objects in two different times, and one time Raz turned completely invisible and wouldn’t come back. Fortunately, a reset and loading up of the current save fixed things in all three occasions.
Despite these minor faults, Psychonauts is a truly unique platformer that demands your attention. The crazy visuals are almost worth the price of admission alone, but the decent gameplay and a great sense of humor also help. Psychonauts even proves to be a lengthy game. It will take at least ten hours to finish and much longer to collect the many hidden items. Needless to say, this is one game that should eventually place on many “Platformer of the Year” lists.