Psychonauts is a charming and intelligent platformer rich in story, ambience, and gameplay that’s worth checking out.
Through a series of wacky and unexpected events, Raz finds himself thrust into action, where he must use his newly developed psychic powers to save his fellow Psychonauts from a dastardly scientist bent on stealing people’s brains. Though the premise sounds odd, Psychonauts is a charming and intelligent platformer rich in story, ambience, and gameplay that’s worth checking out.
The gameplay mechanics in Psychonauts initially fall under standard platformer fare; Raz can run, jump, and climb like every other character in the genre. But unlike other furry mascots and mustachioed protagonists, Raz can learn a variety of psychic powers that enable him to blast enemies from afar, levitate, light fires, and do virtually anything he wants.
These powers are mastered over time, and unlocked through the acquisition of merit badges. Each power eventually comes into play and is pivotal in solving certain puzzles and defeating the game’s healthy roster of crazy bosses.
No platformer would be complete without its share of collecting, and Psychonauts follows the formula of exploring environments and amassing items fairly closely. Your reward for unearthing mystical arrowheads, Psi cards, and other doodads can range from increased powers to new gadgets, extra missions, and the like. Unfortunately, you’re not only expected to hunt out these items, but are actually required.
For instance, you’ll need to amass 800 arrowheads before you can buy a certain item from the camp store. Without that item, you won’t be able to advance the story. It’s a minor gripe, but for those who don’t feel like digging up dirt for half an hour, it’s a chore.
Psychonauts is visually compelling. Its art style vaguely resembles that from a Tim Burton film, with oddly proportioned characters, strangely patterned environments, and subtle references to pop culture. Most levels take place outside the camp grounds, where Raz must navigate a series of obstacles and defeat a variety of enemies—all of which are connected to a particular person’s psychosis.
Raz will literally jump into someone’s head (through a door on their skull, no less) and traverse his or her mind, while collecting bits of emotional baggage until eventually confronting the host’s deepest anxiety. Each level is unique and unrelated to others found in the game, so Psychonauts rarely feels conventional in its design. The artists and level designers at Double Fine (the development studio) took great care in crafting each mission, and it shows.
Unlike other platformers, Psychonauts puts strong emphasis on character development, storyline, and voice acting. It’s no surprise, though, as the game is helmed by legendary designer Tim Schafer, who was responsible for such LucasArts PC adventure classics as Grim Fandango and Day of the Tentacle.
Players are treated to a game that assumes they’re intelligent enough to understand the underlying themes of psychological disorder, rejection, acceptance, friendship, and love—all inside one fantastic package. Oddly enough, it all works. The voice acting is excellent, and a true testament to quality writing and voicing possible in games. The only complaint one could levy against Psychonauts is that it’s rough around the edges.
Voices will overlap one another and cutscenes will sometimes trigger before lines of ambient dialogue are completed, especially when Raz is training to earn a merit badge. Hiccups like this aren’t really bugs, just a lack of polish.
The same rushed feel applies to the menu system, which at times looks like a jumbled mess of stats and pictures rather than an organized place to keep track of progress. It’s a little too easy to feel lost inside the world of Psychonauts, even with the included map system and stated mission objectives.
Despite its minor shortcomings, Psychonauts is a gem of a game, and publisher Majesco’s crowning achievement to date. It’s unique, fresh, endearing, yet cynical all at the same time. The Xbox doesn’t have an abundance of quality platformers in its catalogue, save for Voodoo Vince and a handful of other lesser-known titles. Psychonauts fills that gap nicely and is worth a rental, if not a purchase.