Psychonauts | Principal Platforms: Xbox, PlayStation 2, PC | Developer: Double Fine Productions | Publisher: Double Fine Productions, Majesco Entertainment | Genre: 3D Platformer | Year: 2005
For the longest time it seemed like Psychonauts would be forever remembered for its commercial failure. For such a critically acclaimed title to lose its audience was a huge shame, even after digital distribution came to the rescue years later. Psychonauts always enjoyed a strong cult following though, so it was nice to see those good vibes allowing the game to revive and even prosper in new markets.
I’ve always considered Ubisoft’s Beyond Good & Evil as a stablemate of sorts. Both games garnered favourable reviews during a similarly packed mid-2000s release, they both featured original gameplay concepts amid a colourful 3D world, and both are set to become a franchise once their sequels arrive in 2019. Of course the other reason for me making this connection is because I rather shamefully passed on both titles when they originally came out.
Nevertheless, I always maintained strong recollections of Psychonauts after seeing a friend playing the game on his Xbox. The modern PC port makes everything look more hi-res now, and with bug fixes and mod support being available in this version, I knew it was a good time to finally play it for myself.
If you can imagine a cartoon rendition of The Men Who Stare at Goats, then you’ll be close to understanding what Psychonauts is all about. The government is delving into the paranormal again, only here they’re hand-picking children to become “Psychonauts”; secret agents with powerful mental capabilities. Unlike the absurdity found in John Ronson’s book, however, the Psychonauts are the real deal, with several of their existing members able to bend reality with ESP, and venture into the minds of others using strange technology.
It’s this same misfit band that our protagonist, a young circus runaway named Razputin (“Raz”), joins at the beginning of the game. Easily won over by their soaring propaganda, our young psychic decides he wants to be a Psychonaut too, though whilst he shows great potential in basic training, a sinister conspiracy is brewing behind the scenes that will place him, as well as his new-found friends, in mortal peril.
Regardless of their sales performance or overall impact on the industry, some rare video games stay memorable because of their personality. Psychonauts is a very good example of this. It has a cast of instantly-likeable characters, a quirky story loaded with original concepts, and lots of snappy dialogue delivered by talented voice actors.
Whilst most of the game is spent conquering various action stages, Raz journeys to many original settings that are full of surprises. One moment he’s collecting figments of imagination (in order to expand his own repertoire of psychic powers), and in the next he’s chasing a bunny into the warrens of his own mind. You’d expect a simple training exercise involving a target range to be unremarkable at least, but instead Raz learns to unleash psychic laser beams upon tacky furniture; exactly the sort of affront that his stylish instructor abhors! Even if the surreal Double Fine humour doesn’t get you laughing out loud, its creativity alone will guarantee a few smiles.
The overworld hub is supported by travel options and helpful shortcuts to make hunting for collectibles easier. The fast transit system couldn’t just be a boring monorail or teleporter though, in Psychonauts it’s an underground railway network managed by an A.I. with one very sultry voice. Clearly the professor who built it is a dirty old man at heart!
Funnily enough, it’s rare that this sort of characterization is so throwaway. Raz learns that he’ll need allies if he wants to rescue the Psychonauts, and soon after he spends a significant amount of time in people’s brains, gradually helping them overcome their different inhibitions and personal manias. You’ll meet a repressed artist harbouring romantic anxieties, a deranged descendent of Napoleon (who’s actually somewhat pacifist), and a struggling thespian who can’t overcome her inner critic.
That latter episode (Gloria’s Theatre) might be my favourite. The dialogue is quite hefty because of the miniature plays you’re required to watch, but I enjoyed the delicate combination of puzzles and platforming that takes Raz from the stage itself to the rafters where a sinister phantom lurks. The theme of these environments is always strong, and you’re often treated to twisted strands of level design that play with everything from the game’s mechanics to the concept of gravity itself.
Another nice thing about levels like Gloria’s Theatre are their self-contained stories. Raz is in another person’s mind during these episodes, and so naturally he can find ways to discover more about them. The nature of psychosis doesn’t make this easy (practically every character in Psychonauts is at least a little crazy!), but if Raz can free a piece of emotional baggage whilst overcoming those pesky personal demons, the player will unlock albums that wordlessly communicate the backstory of the host mind.
The dark tone of these so-called “memory vaults” frame the wacky world in a more grounded light, and their acquisition remains an optional challenge for those wanting to learn more about the characters themselves. This charm comes through just as well in the gameplay as Raz’s own conflicted memories start to bleed in to the new world he’s trying to master. Raz’s intense fear of water isn’t just so the developers can place a few dangerous traps around each level, it’s a concept that keeps the player invested on their troubled avatar.
There are plenty of memorable moments in this game, to the point where it’s hard to label any one level as the best. I think that asking someone about their favourite level will be a more interesting question than it would be of most video games. Although, I could take firm aim at the one I consider to be the worst.
Psychonauts is similar to Rayman 2 in that it gets spoiled by a couple of seriously annoying levels. The Meat Circus is the big offender in Psychonauts, which is a shame considering the weight of the story threads that entwine the climactic stage. This hellish theme park turned butcher’s shop is a literal nightmare of awkward jumps, unfair enemies, and delicious pork products.
Psychonauts is notable for taking a little inspiration from modern Sonic the Hedgehog games; usually harmless things like rail grinding and mid-air acrobatics. However, the Meat Circus feels exactly like one of those endgame slogs that define a mediocre Sonic. It’s less Green Hill Zone and more Eggmanland, as Raz repeatedly falls to his death due to dodgy platforming segments that seem designed to catch players out.
In one instance, where Raz tries to evade projectiles fired upon a rapidly burning net, I found the intended route to be more unreliable than awkwardly glitching my way into the air and hoping the checkpoint system would carry me closer to the goal. The PC version mercifully patched this place to make failure less punishing, but the sheer frustration and anguish that it will put you through remains intact.
Certain levels are difficult for entirely separate reasons. The Milkman Conspiracy is a good example. I know many players have love for this chapter, but aside from its stylistic qualities, which are admittedly rather fun, I didn’t enjoy myself here. The story follows the mythical “Milkman” character that every G-Man and shadowy figure is out to find. Your mission is to locate the elusive guy too, with the level in question being far less concerned with enemies and platforming than it is with puzzle solving and backtracking.
It wasn’t strange to see Double Fine injecting a little of their classic adventuring into the mix here, but the somewhat contrived logic of the puzzles still frustrated me. It’s the same with the boss battles which struggle to hit a balance between fluidity and challenge.
I was also unconvinced by the adventure going on outside of the action stages. Raz has to stockpile a lot of collectibles before the mid-game will unlock, which is annoying, and there is a substantial number of side quests that seem unrewarding when compared to the lure of the main story.
Another thing that disappointed me was the sound design. It’s not uncommon to hear some NPCs endlessly repeating their lines, and the repetitiveness of the music further aggravates the annoyance during longer levels. Waterloo World is especially bad for this as the backing track features a tiresome sample that gets played over a short loop. Most of the music is appropriate for the setting, but quite a lot of what you hear is very “circusy” and honestly, I think it all sounds a bit mundane.
Overall the story is a fun one, full of twists and turns to keep you interested. If you can stomach the unreasonable difficulty that the game unleashes in its final act, then you’ll likely appreciate the crescendo of sheer craziness that it all builds up to. And yet the main plot thread that ties Raz together with his idol, Coach Oleander, resolves in a lacklustre fashion. The characterization and voice acting that begins so well in the early game starts to erode when the deeper plot emerges.
Raz and Coach Oleander are two central characters that don’t really get a chance to discuss their relationship as the story develops, so when the two later become linked in the psychic realm, their connection takes on a very one-sided quality where Raz is the only voice we hear. The witty conversations and bizarre cutscenes grow colder towards the end as more Psychonauts get captured to further an evil plot put forth by villains with seemingly little motivation. It’s a tremendous shame.
The originality and character in these moments is still way ahead of your usual offering from 2005, though. It’s not surpising that Psychonauts has engendered such a fan base, because even at its worst, this is still a game blessed with a bizarre amount of creativity. Psychonauts 2 has already felt this adulation during its successful crowdfunding campaign, so it will be exciting to see where the wider story treads once the sequel hits consoles and PCs next year.
Until then, Psychonauts remains the de facto Double Fine caper. It’s still a delicious blend of wacky acting and platforming mayhem; a video game fortified with everything the adventuring expert needs to maintain sanity and smash the system!