Psychonauts is one of the rare feel-good stories to come out of the game industry in quite some time. The unique action game from San Francisco-based developer Double Fine once seemed poised to join the ranks of those sad games that never see the light of day when their publisher passes on them. Thankfully, Majesco Games came in like an old-fashioned cavalry and saved the day earlier this year by picking up the rights to publish the game, ensuring that gamers would be able to play a one-of-a-kind title that could only come from a troupe of folks headed by industry vet Tim Schafer. Mr. Schafer's resume includes seminal entries in the adventure genre, such as Maniac Mansion, Monkey Island, Full Throttle, and Grim Fandango. We recently had the opportunity to check in with Schafer at Double Fine's San Francisco offices to get an updated look at the game.
For those unfamiliar with the game, we'll offer this short primer. Psychonauts puts you in the role of Rasputin, "Raz" for short, a young boy who hopes to become a member of the Psychonauts, an elite organization of psychic peacekeepers. Raz's quest to become a psychonaut leads him to run away from home and sneak into a summer camp designed to help children build up their mental abilities. (Think the Boy Scouts, only the merit badges you earn are in such mental disciplines as pyrokinesis and telekinesis.)
Upon arriving at the camp, Raz starts to get into the groove of camp life, interacting with the kids at the camp and the psychonauts who serve as the camp counselors. All seems well. However, the seeming normalcy of the experience is deceptive. Raz soon discovers this when he stumbles onto an old-fashioned mystery that leads him to believe that there are far more sinister things afoot. So what's an aspiring young psychic camper to do in the face of such things? Solve it, of course, which is where you come in.
At its core, Psychonauts is a third-person action adventure game that has some snappy trimmings, thanks to Raz's array of psychic powers. During Schafer's last demo we got a rough idea of how everything was going to work, but during this visit the game shined--courtesy of the polish that has since been added. Despite the fact that Psychonauts was without a publisher for a short time, Schafer and the team never stopped working on the game. The end result is a much more refined experience that has likely benefited from the extra time the team has had to fine-tune everything.
Our demo took us through the beginning of the game, where young Raz is exploring the campgrounds and getting to know his fellow campers. We also saw a few other levels in the game, which were set in the minds of various individuals who Raz encounters. The campground is essentially your hub in the game as the action takes place in people's minds. The mindscapes we checked out were a totally disparate collection of locales that were fine showcases for the inventive art being created for the game. The training area, in the mind of the drill sergeant who's head of the camp, is a boot camp-like setting that brings you up to speed on Raz's various abilities and the basics of brain exploration.
Psychonauts displays a winning sense of humor that permeates everything from the dialogue to the whimsical design of the environments and characters. It's hard not to crack a smile when you come across the "emotional baggage" in each character's mind, which is represented by sobbing pieces of luggage. The baggage prevents you from advancing into certain areas until you supply it with a tag you'll find in the level, which yields a funny cinematic of the pair reuniting. As for the locales, the most striking area we've seen is the mind of an artist that looks like black velvet. The richly detailed area gets a lot of mileage out of the look, thanks to subtle neon lighting effects and outlines on the denizens that you'll encounter, along with a distinctly Latin feel.
The graphics in the game look good, thanks to the timeless approach Double Fine has taken with the game. Rather than put its effort into creating a game that uses every bell and whistle on the Xbox to churn out a slew of special effects, the team has focused on creating a stylish look. The end result is a game that may not be the most technically advanced, but one that still manages to impress with some inventive uses of the Xbox hardware's power. For example, the black velvet level features neon lighting and a subtle glow on everything in it, which looks a lot like a velvet panting under black light.
The audio is turning out equally well, with great voice acting that complements the genuinely funny dialogue. The effects for the various psychic powers are good and zany. The game's soundtrack is shaping up to be an engaging and eclectic mix of tunes ranging from minimalist to funky, and it all works in the game's wacky context.
We're pleased to say that all appears to be more than well with Psychonauts on the Xbox. We worried a little when the game lost a publisher, but it's nice to see Majesco come in and save the day. The impressive work-in-progress version of the game we saw still has a few i's to dot and t's to cross, however, there appears to be plenty to look forward to thanks to the wit, solid gameplay, and overall polish we've seen so far. At present, the game is slated to ship early next year on the Xbox, PC, and PlayStation 2.