E3 2002Psychonauts impressions

Play as a character with the ability to enter people's minds in this Xbox platformer.

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At this year's E3, we got a chance to see Psychonauts, which is in development at Double Fine Productions. Double Fine is the studio that was founded by Full Throttle and Grim Fandango creator Tim Schafer, and Psychonauts is perhaps one of the most unusual games at this year's E3. During the presentation, Schafer explained that he likes the fact that console games give you something to do if you get stuck at a particular point in the game as opposed to PC adventure games, which sometimes grind to a halt when you're unable to solve a particular puzzle. He also wanted to create a game that is easily accessible and will appeal to a wider audience. These ideas have been applied to Psychonauts, a platformer in which you take on the role of a boy named Raz who desperately wants to become a member of the Psychonauts, a CIA-like group that gathers information by invading people's minds. But before he can join the group, Raz has to go through training at a school for psychics, where he has to earn merit badges for various psychic powers.

The school level essentially functions as hub for the game, as Raz will meet up with different characters at the school who need his help. In one of the first missions in the game, one of the teachers at the school asks Raz to come up to the classroom so that he can attempt to help a girl who's been having nightmares. While traveling up to the classroom, you'll become familiar with most of Raz's basic skills, which include jumping, the ability to swing from trapezes, and the ability to walk across tightropes (which Shafer explained is due to Raz's acrobatic family background). You'll also learn how to use Raz's psychic skills (such as mind control and confusion), which you access via a thought bubble that appears over his head. This thought bubble can also transform into a ball that Raz can ride around the level and a land mine that can hit numerous enemies in a single area.

When you finally reach the classroom, you'll jump into the mind of the girl and immediately find yourself in an odd Nightmare Before Christmas-like level where there are lamps made of bacon, sinister-looking trees, and large slabs of meat at every turn. Within the first few seconds of entering the girl's mind, you'll see an odd-looking rabbit that the teacher says may be the source of her nightmares, so you're told to follow it. The enemies in this particular level are called sensors, and they attempt to attack Raz because they know he doesn't belong in her imagination. These enemies are a little difficult to describe because they look so odd--they almost look like walking stalks of asparagus--but they yell warnings at Raz in a hilarious robot voice. A few zaps of Raz's psychic bolts can take the sensors down, but it's also possible to avoid them entirely by using Raz's psychic ability to turn himself invisible.

The levels in Psychonauts aren't entirely focused on puzzles. There are some basic puzzles in the game that can be solved in any number of ways, some of which require Raz to combine multiple psychic skills. In one such puzzle, Raz comes across a small ravine filled with thorn bushes that can be burned, but can also regenerate within a matter of seconds. If you look to the side of the screen, you'll see a large boulder that Raz can pick up and place in the ravine using his psychic crane skill. With the boulder in place, Raz can cross without getting a single scratch. There's another puzzle that is quite similar, but for that one, you have to use Raz's fireball skill to set the boulder on fire and lift it into the ravine with the crane so that the thorn bushes will catch on fire and disappear. This gives Raz a brief opportunity to jump on the boulder, run a few feet across the bottom of the ravine, and then jump back out.

At various points in this particular level, Raz will encounter creatures that manifest themselves in the girl's dream as a result of events that happen in her actual life. For example, the girl knows the story of a large, horrible fish that lives at the bottom of a lake at the school. This fish appears at about the midpoint of the level and it somewhat serves as a sub-boss. Since the story of the fish is a widely known one at the school, it makes more than one appearance in the game.

Eventually, you'll learn that the source of the girl's nightmares is her father, who apparently raised rabbits--rabbits that her father actually used for his butcher shop. Naturally, at the end of the level, you'll have to defeat a manifestation of her father.

There are all kinds of bizarre stages in Psychonauts. In one of the other levels, Raz will have to enter the mind of a man who thinks he's Napoleon. Interestingly, when you enter his imagination, the man is actually Napoleon and you have to defeat him on the battlefield at Waterloo.

Psychonauts is one of those games that you need to see in person in order to truly appreciate its uniqueness, both in terms of its concept and the fact that Schafer and his development team have seemingly managed to apply a level of character depth usually reserved for adventure games to a platformer. We'll have plenty more on Psychonauts before its Q2 2003 release.

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