|Each mind you explore in Psychonauts has a totally different aesthetic
|19 Apr 2005
Critically acclaimed but a commercial failure
I was a big fan of Lucasarts adventures back during their heyday and I especially enjoyed adventures where Tim Schafer was the designer. He started out co-writing Lucasarts adventures in the early 90s such as The Secret of Monkey Island, Monkey Island 2 and Day of the Tentacle, and eventually became project lead on his own games such as Full Throttle and Grim Fandango. All good things come to an end though, and Lucasarts stopped developing adventure games with the release of the fourth game in the Monkey Island series, Escape from Monkey Island in 2000. Tim Schafer also left in this year to found Double Fine Productions and the first game they released was Psychonauts in 2005.
Psychonauts is a 3D action-adventure platformer where you play the role of a kid named Raz who has made his way to Whispering Rock Summer Camp. Here, kids train to become psychonauts, special agents that use psychic powers. Things aren't what they seem though and you eventually find yourself as the only hope for saving the students and teachers from a terrible fate.
Despite Psychonauts being an adventure game of sorts, it was a 3D action-adventure with platformer elements. I originally didn't take a liking to Schafer's change in direction away from point 'n' click adventures. I know it made sense, because everyone was heading towards 3D console-friendly games in the early 2000s, but it still made it very difficult for me to enjoy Psychonauts when I originally played it, meaning I ended up not finishing it and not touching it again for a long time. It was only after backing the development of Psychonauts 2 and news of its imminent release that I decided to give it another try.
Psychonauts was loved by the critics and currently holds a Metascore of 87 and also won several awards too. However, unfortunately for Double Fine, the game sold poorly, selling less than 100,000 copies in North America for its first release. Critics praised the game for its original, weird and humorous story but criticised inconsistent level design, difficulty spikes and a lack of innovation in the platformer genre.
|Black Velvetopia is a level inspired by Mexican culture
Weird and wacky, but original and fresh
I love Tim Schafer's knack for weird, wacky but ultimately unique worlds to explore. In Psychonauts this is achieved by exploring peoples' minds and uncovering their deepest, darkest secrets. Particular highlights included a level that acts as a homage to "Godzilla" and "King Kong" where Raz is a giant monster terrorising a city of lungfish as well as one that plays out like a strategic board game where your opponent is Napoleon Bonaparte.
Some of the humour in the game comes from the unexpected situations you find yourself in and sometimes it comes through plot twists and trope inverting. At one point in the game you'll encounter someone who is portrayed as being insane and relies on her pet to provide a plan of action to deal with one of the game's villains. There's no revelation that the pet could talk nor would you expect it too, so you could imagine my surprise when the pet not only reveals that they can speak and articulate a plan, but he does so in a deep and reassuring Barry White voice.
Also, since the game does explore mental health issues I also liked missions that personified concepts such as your "inner critic". At the successful completion of one level, you're able to help someone reduce the size of their inner critic to the point that they're not as influential anymore. It's not often that you find games with such original and fresh concepts. What I find even more surprising is that they're in what is technically a AAA title like Psychonauts and this was released back in 2005 predating the indie game boom following Minecraft's release in 2009. You don't often find AAA titles taking risks with already established formulas, which is probably why despite Psychonauts being critically acclaimed, it wasn't a commercial success.
Zany art style that works in its favour
When I first booted up the game, one of the first things I noticed was that despite the game being over 16 years old is that I could run the game on my monitor's native resolution of 1920x1080. True, it's not a big ask but I was actually surprised. Maybe Double Fine incorporated some Quality of Life improvements? So, the game itself actually doesn't look too bad in 2022 and the fact it has a zany cartoon art style probably works in its favour. It's just too bad the cutscenes are still low-res and now look worse than the actual in-game graphics!
Also, I do like how each of the levels in the game have their own distinct art styles as well as background music. For example, at one point in the game you visit a level inspired by Mexican culture full of fights with luchadors, Latin American music and a high contrast between bright, neon colours and complete darkness.
|The final level of Psychonauts is the Meat Circus and it's really frustrating
The Real Platformer Blues
As mentioned earlier in this review, yes, I understand why Tim Schafer went with a platformer and although I originally lost interest in the game when I first played it because I became frustrated with the gameplay I thought maybe if I tried it again, age would bring tolerance.
Boy, was I wrong.
I've never been good with platformers and I abhor jumping puzzles, which tends to be part and parcel for the genre. While I managed to tolerate the jumping puzzles most of the time (since it was balanced out with a humorous and original story) there were a couple of times I was very close to throwing in the towel.
One such time was during a level that taught you how to levitate and you're tasked with floating and jumping up what is basically a very tall tower. Anytime you made a mishap though, you would fall all the way to the bottom of the tower meaning you'd have to start all over again. It would've been more forgiving if there were some save points along the way but alas, there aren't, meaning you have to execute each jump perfectly if you want to make it to the end of the level or risk repeating the whole arduous process again.
Also, the final level in the game called the "Meat Circus" is infamous amongst Psychonauts fans. Platformer experts might only be mildly inconvenienced by it but for the rest of us mere mortals, it's really frustrating. Frustrating to the point I was starting to swear at my screen at how incredibly unforgiving it was. I retried this level way too many times and in fact spent a quarter of my entire playtime on it: that's four hours on one level. FOUR HOURS!
Anyway, I really think the game would've been a more enjoyable experience if it weren't a platformer although I totally understand how it would've been a harder sell for a publisher.
One aspect of the game that I think hasn't aged well is its clunky interface. It seems like the interface is a haphazard mix of things that tend to work on the PC (e.g. the inventory system) and things that work on console (e.g. the cycling between screens). I also found it quite a challenge to aim at enemies if you were trying to hit them with projectiles meaning I had a preference for melee combat whenever I could get away with it. The game also only has a paltry five save game slots and no ability to quick save, quite a bit different to today where action games tend to be an autosave only affair (and while I was never a fan of autosaves when they originally came out, I now feel like it's a must-have for any game that is released nowadays).
Psychonauts is a weird, wacky platformer with a zany, but appealing art style. It's a game that was ahead of its time and yet its clunky interface reminds you that this is a game from 2005 that's basically a Tim Schafer point 'n' click adventure in platformer clothing. If the game weren't a platformer Psychonauts would have been a much more enjoyable experience for me, but the infuriating jumping puzzles and the huge difficulty spike on the last level prevents it from receiving a higher score.
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