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Pyschonauts Review 2005

by on Mar.29, 2006, under The Rest

Kieron has declared today to be Official Psychonauts Reviews Posting Day. Who am I to argue?

Here is my original Psychonauts review from PC Gamer, a year ago when it was first meant to be coming out, as opposed to the second one last November when it was, er, second supposed to appear. (It finally came out in February this year – buy it, you fool). It’s the unsubbed version, so expect mistakes.


Get your brain in gear, it’s time to mess with your mind.

Developer Double Fine is the home of hero of the 90s, Tim Schafer. After learning his trade by script writing for the early Monkey Island games, he went on to create what must be recognised as the finest adventure games to have existed, Day of the Tentacle and Grim Fandango. Back then, Schafer did something special to a fine format. He looked at adventure games, and he decided to make a new rule: Everything has to be Game. If an object was present in a scene, then there must be a unique gag for looking at it, picking it up, using it, even talking to it. “I’m sorry, I can’t do that” was not an acceptable response. If the player could think of it, it was to be met with a written reply. Every scene was poured over, explored and experimented with, raising a joy that can only be known when recognising someone had thought of you when they made this. Please, get excited. He’s done the same for platform games.

Don’t be fooled. Psychonauts is not a kid’s game. It’s a game about being a kid. Yes, it is Nickelodeon coloured; yes, you play a ten year old boy; and yes, it’s a platform game. But it’s time to shed your prejudices, shake off your assumptions, and come fresh-faced to a game that’s going to raise you above its shoulders and carry you around town.

I’ll be honest. For the first half hour I was disappointed. Despite a thoroughly entertaining introductory cutscene, introducing Razputin, a young kid gate-crashing a summer camp for psychic children, it was all over too soon and I was left assigning buttons on my gamepad so I’d be able to jump, punch and move the camera without losing fingers (after an abruptly aborted foray into the hopeless mouse/keyboard controls). It felt typical, and it didn’t feel anything special. The initial training level doesn’t engross, dutifully introducing all the basic obstacles and simplest moves in a ‘Nam environment. There are too many interruptions, too much happening at once, and it all feels like the insane saccharine rush of flailing through a Crash Bandicoot level. Please, play past this.

Games only occasionally have the kind of moments that follow. The first came when exploring the cabin area where the children sleep. A few of the vast cast of fellow psi-campers were hanging around, having conversations. Really funny conversations. Mostly about kid stuff, but with that sense of universal importance that ten year olds understand their worlds by. But one was on his own, his head pressed to a building. I ‘used’ him to talk, and he explained that he was waiting to watch the girls getting changed through a hole in the wall. He was that kid at camp. I went to ‘use’ him again, but accidentally hit the wrong button, and smacked him with Raz’s whopping great psi-punch. But I didn’t lose a life, receive a warning message, or watch him ignore my violence. Instead, his head was pushed through the tiny hole, leaving his tubby body and little legs waggling off the ground. I dashed inside, and there was his head, stuck through, dazed and confused. And there, in that moment, there’s a rush. The realisation that something far more involved is happening here. And it wasn’t a fluke. Everything is Game. Punch someone, jump on someone, and there’s a unique reply, natural to their character, relevant to your action. As the game progresses you gain more psychic powers, including telekinesis and pyrokinesis. Lift them off the ground, set them on fire, there’s something new. And we haven’t even left the opening area yet.

The game unfolds in two ways. There’s the campsite, which is enormous, all freely explorable, riddled with hidden extras, and packed with gags like nothing before. It hints at opportunities to come, and these locations change as you progress through the game’s other half, the cranial sections. A psychonaut, you see, is someone who enters another’s mind, Fantastic Voyage style. That opening training level was inside Coach Oleander’s mind – a military war vet, obsessed with the action he’d faced in his youth. A world apart from the next, the insides of mysterious Agent Nein’s brain, a neat orderly. Which is a world apart from the beautiful Agent Vodello, and her 70’s disco reality. All worlds apart from the giant mutated lungfish who swallows Lili, the Tim Burton inspired girl who might be your girlfriend were she not inside a fish.

Each mind has a series of tasks to be completed, which at first are the fairly standard combination of reaching destinations, and collecting items. These collectables include mental cobwebs (to be vacuumed up), figments of the imagination, and labels for the weeping suitcases (emotional baggage – ho ho), which are exchanged back in the camp for psi cards, the tokens that allow you to gain new powers. There’s also arrow heads to be dug up in the camp grounds which are used to purchase items from the camp store. And unlike every other platform game ever, the shop is for real. You don’t have to buy all the stuff it sells – I finished the game without ever finding out what the magnet does.

As things progress, events take a turn for the worse (i.e. there’s a plot), and it becomes a matter of necessity that you enter minds, rather than for the previous summer camp training programme. People’s brains are going missing, leaving the rest of the kids zombie-like, wandering around the place mumbling, “Teee Veeeeee”. Someone has to do something, and with the aid of the retired Agent Cruller, it’s up to Raz. Fairly obviously.

So far, so cute. Original, certainly, and involved. But there’s more than just that going on. The second revealing moment came when inside Agent Nein’s head. Another of the goals is to unlock memories that are locked up in safes. The safe scampers around scared until you punch it open, letting you see a brief slide show of static sepia-toned memories of the host. Until this point these have been funny rewards for a completed task. First picture is a young Nein playing with his mum. The second the mum and dad looking concerned. The third shows his dad looking scared at his mum lying in bed. The fourth the funeral. The fifth Nein and his father unable to communicate. Laughter stops. Jaw drops. This isn’t a game for kids.

This becomes more evident when stomping around Lungfishopolis (the mind of the lungfish – this still makes me laugh out loud) a giant Godzilla-sized version of yourself, punching over buildings, climbing skyscrapers, and swiping aeroplanes from the sky. A breakaway group of lungfish militia realise you’re there to help, and arrange to meet you by the dam. You have to clear the area of enemies first. And as you crash your way through this huge city, amazed by realising that this could be a game by itself, there are news flashes, spreading propoganda about you. One informs the city’s citizens that you are often to be found “popping pills and soliciting inexpensive call-girls.” This isn’t a game for kids.

About halfway through the 15 to 20 hours of play, the sheer volume of brilliant jokes slows, and the game develops a greater maturity. Fittingly enough, it becomes cerebral. For example: for reasons best discovered you meet a man with a very literal Napoleonic complex – a split personality in conflict. Entering his mind reveals a drawing room, at its centre the two halves of his personality sat either side of a table-top strategy game. They are playing for domination. Raz jumps into the game and shrinks down, from where he can move the pieces to play against Napoleon, moving them with his telekinesis power. But there aren’t enough pieces on your side, so you shrink down further, and knock on the doors of the houses within, convincing people to help. Each gives a platforming quest to be completed before they will. Game inside game inside game inside game. (And through the upstairs window of one building, you can see a drawing room, two men sat either side of a table-top strategy game). That’s one surprise spoiled – there’s no way I’m ruining any more. But please believe me when I say that each incredible, unique notion is strong enough to have been a game on its own.

The game just falls shy of a shiny 90% due to a really fundamental issue with its edge detection. Much swearing occurred when huge sections had to be re-climbed innumerous times thanks to a particularly awkward jump, and Raz’s ensueing failure to grip ledges. Brilliantly the game is never so cruel as to kill you, but you will see some sections so many times. It’s such a simple thing, but it’s fundamental – it does so much damage to enjoyment. And blood pressure. There are also a few aesthetic bugs, mostly with the sound, music vanishing, and snippets of dialogue too quiet to be heard no matter the volume settings. Niggles, but important ones. But not nearly important enough to stop you from getting hold of this.

I feel evangelistic about my desire to have you play it. You’re a gamer, and as such this is something you should see. Not only is it exquisitely beautiful, each level receiving a new graphical attitude, the character animations detailed beyond comprehension, but it’s so utterly special. There are more new ideas in here than a hundred Half-Life 2s, and it contains more laughs than any game before. It’s wonderful. Please, have a go.

Exquisite gaming, imaginative and hilarious.

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