Psychonauts Updated Impressions

We wrap our brains around a new demo of Double Fine's psychic-powered platformer.



Touch your monitors and hearken to our latest look at Psychonauts, the upcoming platformer from Tim Schafer's Double Fine Productions. Though it's been cooking over at the San Francisco-based development house for quite a while now, based on this latest look at the game, there's really not much cause for concern. Much like the old adage about shipping wine before its time, the Psychonauts team is taking its time to give those who are looking forward to the game a polished gem to enjoy. The demo of the game we tried was confined to what's essentially the tutorial segment that eases you into main character Raz's mechanics. Although it's a segment we've seen on and off over the course of Psychonauts' development, this latest demo showed off a significant amount of polish that bodes well for the final game.

For those who haven't followed Psychonauts, the game casts you in the role of a young'un named Rasputin--Raz for short--whose wish in life is to join the Psychonauts, an elite organization of psychic peacekeepers. Raz's dream drives him to sneak into a summer camp designed to help children build up their mental abilities so that they can then join the 'nauts. Unfortunately, his quest for glory is sidetracked when Raz discovers there may be sinister things afoot at the camp, and so he sets off to discover what the deal is. As you'd expect, there is some wickedness going on and, in a game-friendly turn of events, it looks like Raz is the only one that can save the day.

As we mentioned, the demo kicks off just after the intro movie has set the stage for the game. When you take control of Raz you'll have the option to roam about the school grounds, interacting with the environment and your fellow camp denizens, or you can run off to "basic braining" for a more structured tutorial experience. Roaming about the campgrounds lets you get a feel for Raz's accessible controls: he runs, jumps, climbs, and double-jumps like a champ. You'll also be able to check out the first-person mode in the game as well. But while all that is well and good, the best part of snooping around the grounds is interacting with other characters that showcase the game's goofy sense of humor and character designs. Whether you're talking to kids and arguing about the name of a rock band or just trying to chat up the scary kid who's being told to do disturbing things by some innocent-looking squirrels, the campgrounds do a great job of bringing the quirky world to life.

The game's graphics have a tasty layer of polish at this late stage in development.
The game's graphics have a tasty layer of polish at this late stage in development.

To attend classes, you are first sucked into your coach's head, which is essentially an obstacle course. His name is Coach Oleander, and he behaves like a general in the army. In the course, you learn about the core mechanics of the game, and you're also shown the inventive and funny touches that have been crammed into the storyline. Oleander's mind is basically a crazy quilt of war-movie elements with some great stylized touches that put a fresh twist on the standard third-person platformer. The expected "floating platforms" you'll have to navigate through to get to new areas are set amid a mock-up of an air battle. You'll also come across the amusing collectibles, which include "figments" of Oleander's imagination, vaults that hold his secret thoughts, and emotional baggage (helpfully sorted out by finding the proper luggage tag), which all give the game a charm that's hard to resist.

The demo also shows that curious players will be rewarded, as it's possible to find a hidden route through one section of Oleander's obstacle course. One of the best elements in the level is when you come across classmates who are trying to get through the course. Their panicked reactions and some of the situations that come up are great fun. As you'd expect, the course gets more challenging toward the end, with some involved jumping and swinging that works pretty well despite a few awkward camera moments. The pacing is mixed up some by the inclusion of a whack-a-mole-style minigame that tasks you with bopping enemy standees and leaving alone those who have babies. The demo ends when Raz clears the course and earns his first merit badge.

The gameplay has shaped up quite well and is pretty much ready to pick up and play. Raz's basic move set is solid and offers just the right amount of responsiveness. His moves will increase considerably over the course of the game, as you gain new psi powers and upgrade his existing ones. The jumping and swinging also work pretty well. Raz is no Prince of Persia, but he gets by OK.

Psychonauts' visuals show off a really impressive layer of polish that keeps the game looking solid. The stylized look has been beefed up with some new Xbox effects that give it an impressive sheen. While it's still not going to blow Riddick and Halo 2 out of the water, we'd say the game holds its own compared to most Xbox games, thanks to its technical and artistic merits. The same holds true of the audio, which features great voice acting, a fun soundtrack, and plenty of ambient noise.

Raz is finally coming home in April.
Raz is finally coming home in April.

While we just played a tiny bit of the whole Psychonaut experience, we have to say we're digging what we've seen so far. The game is shaping up to offer a fun, accessible platforming experience, which has been conveniently missing on the Xbox. If you factor in the game's style and humor, we have a feeling the Xbox's platforming void will be a lot closer to being filled when Psychonauts hits this April. Before then, check out a guest appearance by Tim Schafer in the latest episode of our weekly live show, On the Spot.

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