Developer: Double Fine, Budcat Creations (PS2 Port)
Publisher: Majesco Games (2005-2011), Double Fine.
Formats: Windows (STEAM VERSION REVIEWED), Xbox, PlayStation 2, OS X, Linux
Released: April 19, 2005 (Xbox and Windows), June 21, 2005 (PS2), October 11, 2006 (Steam), September 29, 2011 (OS X), May 31, 2012( Linux) Copy purchased a long time ago in a Humble Bundle
So hey, Psychonauts 2 is happening. You know, the long awaited, long requested sequel to that game you never played. Seeing as I reviewed Grim Fandango Remastered for Periodical Media, I’d take a look back at the very first Double Fine game to see if it still holds up and if it was worth waiting all these years.
Art and Business
Back in 2000, game designer Tim Schaffer left LucasArts after the release of Grim Fandango to form Double Fine Productions. Before they starting crowdfunding or amnesia fortnighting their games, Double Fine’s first game was going to be published for the original Xbox. Then Vice President of Microsoft games Ed Fries liked Tim Schaffer’s game pitch about a boy who goes into people’s minds and Double Fine began production on Psychonauts in 2001. During the games three years at Microsoft, they wanted to change Psychonauts for that whole “appeal to a wider audience fallacy” with their marketing division citing all kinds of batshit crazy focus testing notes. Double Fine stood their ground against changing their game but once Fries departed Microsoft in January 2004, the new reneged the publishing deal for Psychonauts. Double Fine still continued development on Psychonauts and were able to negotiate a new publishing deal with Majesco.
After 4.5 years and a final budget of $11.5 million, Psychonauts was released in 2005 with critical acclaim but sadly, only shipped 100,000 copies by the end of the year. Majesco lost a crap ton of money and ended up withdrawing from the “Triple A” games industry (which is probably for the best. I mean, have you seen it lately? Everything’s all “Microtransaction this” and “Season Pass that”). Psychonauts garnered a cult following since its release which has only grown stronger once Double Fine reacquired the rights from Majesco and republished the game themselves onto digital storefronts like Steam, GOG, and Humble Bundle. So with all the hype surrounding the long awaited, super expensive sequel, is the original 3D Adventure Platformer game really that good?
Set in Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp, a (fictional) remote US government training facility under the guise of a children’s summer camp, you play as Razputin “Raz” Aquato. Ray is a 10 year old boy who runs away from his home at the circus to sneak into the camp in the hope of becoming a Psychonaut; an elite psychic secret agent. The camp councilors who just so happen to be veteran Psychonauts agents allow Raz to stay at camp before his father picks him up and while he was initially forbidden from participating in the camp activities, Raz’s psychic prowess impresses the Psychonauts during Coach Oleander’s “Basic Braining” exercise. Soon after, Raz is thrust into a sinister plot involving a mad dentist stealing the brains of the camp’s children and consolers for use in mental warfare. With the assistance of Veteran Psychonaut Agent Ford Cruller, he must save his fellow would be Psychonauts brains from the clutches of evil before his Dad picks him up!
It’ll take you around 10-15 hours to complete the game and even longer if you want to wanted all the collectables and Steam Achievements. Said collectables such as Psy-Challenge Markers (used to rank up), Scavenger Hunt items (used to rank up), Mental Cobwebs (used to make Psy-Cards), Figments (collect a hundred to rank up), Mental Baggage (used to unlock concept art), and Psy-Cards (formed with a Psy-core to form a Psy-Challenge Marker) are scattered across the physical and mental world. Collecting these items will level up and as Raz’s rank rises, you unlock rewards like psychic abilities and unlimited mental ammo. The problem with all of these collectables is their placement are so spaced out of the way that it becomes a chore. Once you unlock the useful abilities, there’s not much incentive to collect them all as the maximum rank is…this deleted scene.
Another thing to note is the use of Arrowheads. They’re scattered throughout the campground and are used to buy items in the Camp Lodge. The game doesn’t explicitly tell you this but all of those Shop items (with the exception of the cosmetic PSI Energy Colorizer and the somewhat superfluous Dream Fluff Candy) are essential to progressing. The Cobweb Duster is needed in one level to remove a Mental Cobweb embedded your path but to get it, you’ll need 800 Arrowheads which could take hours unless you have the Dousing Rod to collect more Arrowheads which itself cost 80 Arrowheads. So yeah, there’s a ton of crap to collect but aside from the useful stuff, only a devout player should spend their time hunting down every single collectible item in the game.
The gameplay of Psychonauts is indicative of the 3D platform games of the early 2000’s. You explore a 3D hub world which leads to levels to collect items and fight a boss at the end to progress. Right from the start, Raz can double jump, climb up ropes, walk across tightropes, swing on poles, and can grind on rails to help him traverse the world. Raz is conveniently cursed with not being able to swim in water as stepping into any body of water as doing so will summon giant hands that will drown him. The gameplay borrows a lot of elements from its platforming influences but players should have no problems with the basic mechanics.
The controls are relatively simple as it should be for a platform game. Along side a dedicated jump, interact, and melee attack button, you can map any power to the three hotkey buttons. But since you’ll need to use multiple psychic power in any given level, you’ll need to regularly to swap out powers via a radial inventory menu. It’s a tedious process and one that builds up as you gain more powers/items. The camera handles well enough but has serious depth issues in levels with verticality. Personally, I preferred using a wired collector than the mouse and keyboard controller. While it’s easier to switch between hotkeys using the keyboard, the game requires a lot of precision in the platforming. Interestingly, a recent update on Steam also added support for Xbox 360 Controller icons in the user interface and fixed a nasty bug that would crash the game between loading levels (unless you changed the compatibility back to Windows 2000).
Every environment crafted in Psychonauts feels distinct and lively. The Whispering Rock and the Thorney Towers Home for the Disturbed hub areas in particular still feel like unique settings in all of gaming and the lore behind it all feels fleshed out thanks to great dialogue. Conversations with Raz’s fellow campers change throughout the course which makes for great relationship building and proper incentive to save everybody… well maybe not everybody but there’s just so much dialogue.
Exploring imaginary worlds within people’s brains is the real selling point of the game. The initial levels within Oleander, Nein and Vodello’s brains do a great of slowly teaching you how to play but the later levels in the mental asylum are the clear standouts. By far the best level is the Milkman Conspiracy where you infiltrate a 1950’s “nice, normal neighborhood” by wearing disguises to fool G-Men in order to find the Milkman. It’s so bizarre and every line of dialogue is instantly quotable.
Past a point of no return near the end of the game (Protip: make sure to save before this) lies the Meat Circus, the final and most notorious level in the game. Even though the difficulty has been lowered in the newer versions, playing through the Meat Circus is still painful as it starts with a difficult escort run where you fend off an endless onslaught of monster bunnies while trying to capture a normal bunny in a series of precision platforming puzzles the games camera can’t handle. Once you’re done with that slog, you fight a boss that’s difficult to climb on to punch and play through an even worse platforming section as you must make it to the top of the tent or you’ll drown. Lastly, you have a two stage boss fight with the last stage featuring a giant Raz that can easily defeat the boss with several well timed punches.
But do not be fooled by all the jumping and laugh out loud moments, Psychonauts is a trojan Adventure game. Both the puzzles and the humor crammed in each area are from the same linage as Tim Schaffer’s work at LucasArts. Each of the mental worlds reflects a condition such as Napoleon Complex and Raz must find a way to cure it in order to progress. Several of these worlds don’t even feature that much combat or platforming as you simply have to solve puzzles like you would in an adventure game but without the need to point and click on everything. There’s a lot of lateral thinking required to solve the problems but thanks to the Bacon, you’re never completely lost on what to do. Boss battles that appear throughout the game aren’t that great as you’ll have to consult with Ford Cruller via bacon to figure out attack patterns and exploit them. There are some clever subversions of platforming tropes throughout the game but the boss battles don’t feel as thought out as the rest of the game.
Psyche-delic Sights and Sounds
Just like most E to T-Rated 3D platformers of the early 2000’s, Psychonauts features an art style that’s delightfully charming to the eyes. It’s reminiscent of a Henry Selick/ Tim Burton stop motion animated movie which helps give the game a unique look compared to other games (mostly because the industry went crazy in trying to make everything look real, gritty, and fucking joyless). Psychonauts was developed for the original Xbox and it shows. While the PC version has plenty of graphical options and sliders, the original pre-rendered cutscenes look exactly as they did on the Xbox. It’s cringeworthy to watch smooth PC run gameplay transition into grainy, low textured video clips.
The soundtrack composed by Peter McConnell is perfect. Every level features a carefully orchestrated track that feels something Danny Elfman would come up on the fly and best represents the level Raz is exploring. My personal favorite track is the Black Veletopia track with acoustic guitars, tambourines, bassoons, and castanets that surround the dark covered streets like a Spanish flamenco. The voice acting is top notch which great direction to help deliver the funny, heroic, and downright awkward moments in the game. Specifically, veteran voice actors Richard Horvitz and Nikki Rapp turn in great and memorable performances as Raz and Lilli (respectively). My gripe with the audio suite is that the PC version has technical issues that cause certain lines and sound effects to drop in and out. There’s no fix for this issue but your experience may differ from mine. It’s a shame considering how great the effort that went into producing the sounds of Psychonauts.
A Beautiful Mind…Pun
After playing this game, I understood why Double Fine had trouble making this and resorted to crowdfunding for its sequel. Psychonauts is the kind of game that isn’t made anymore in todays homogenized graphics obsessed game industry. The constant point and clicking of adventure game puzzle solving has been eliminated to fit a 3D platform mold but in its place is the taxing chore of hunting down all the collectables. The platforming elements feel derivative of other more successful platform games but it’s polished enough for anyone to pick up and play. If you’re looking for a unique platform game with the right amount brains for your buck, then pick this game up. As for the sequel, I’m looking forward to seeing how they build upon the solid foundation with a new engine and a story that follows the cliffhanger at the end of Psychonauts.