Welcome again to my highly irregular (so much so that I can’t quite remember when that last one I did was…) feature “Games I’ve Missed”, a retrospective/review of classic titles I never played at the time. In my first experience of a ‘Double Fine’ game, I’ve been back and played through Psychonauts.
For many this game needs no introduction, and yet despite being considered by its fans as amongst the greatest games ever made it remains a distinctly ‘cult’ title. At release the game was an abject commercial failure and almost caused the collapse of publisher Majesco and selling 400,000 copies, despite being available on PC, Xbox and PS2. For my part, I was still wearing a “Nintendo Blindfold”, and was so occupied with my GameCube at the time I noticed nothing else.
Psyconauts was the first game released by Tim Shafer’s company Double Fine Productions, born out of Shafer’s departure from Lucas Arts. The story behind the title is that when working on a title at Lucas Arts, Shafer envisioned a level based around a peyote-induced hallucination, only for the concept to be vetoed. This kernel of an idea eventually grew into Psychonauts, which tells the story of a young boy named Raz at a summer camp for psychics. Having run away from the circus to try , Raz comes to Whispering Rock summer camp to earn merit badges and hopefully be recruited to join the legendary ‘Psychonauts’ before his dad turns up. In the process, Raz uncovers a series of mysterious events and even kidnappings.
What follows story-wise can be characterised as a ‘coming-of-age’ tale, as Raz masters his psychic powers and overcomes his inner demons (albeit somewhat more literally than usual) to help save the day. But that description definitely doesn’t do justice to what is probably the most engaging title I have played in some time.
From a simple hub world filled with such bizarre spectacles as telekenetic bears and amusingly dysfunctional children, Raz enters different levels by astrally projecting himself into characters’ minds, and its here that the genius begins to shine through. Each world is entirely unique in aesthetic, based on the personality, psyche and fears of the character . The Old-fashioned military guy’s mind is a battlefield, the classy Agent Nein’s a minimalist cube, and the paranoid security guard Boyd’s a warped suburb filled with spies and cameras.
The creators of Psychonauts have put almost obsessive amounts of effort into designing each world and, by extension, every single character in the game to ensure each has a clearly developed personality and is immediately recognisable. From a space-obsessed little girl to a suave turtle named Pokeylope, the characters are endearing and go a long way to ensuring you remain engaged.
As well as charming, Psychonauts is also genuinely funny. While it has its fair share of slapstick humour and silly lines, though, it would be foolish to write this off as a kids’ game. It strikes that fine balance that shows like The Simpsons execute so well, with lines and mechanics (such as emotional baggage and mental cobwebs) that fly right past younger players. And while kids would enjoy the adventure, Psychonauts also respectfully handles the subject matter at hand, the nature of the human mind, so much so that my friend describes the game as “What Inception could have been if it had tried.”
In exploring characters minds we come up against everything that defines them; hopes and fears, love and loss, pride and insecurity and, in the now infamous final level, childhood traumas. Many criticise the disconcerting change of tone in the game’s closing levels, but I found that it added weight to the narrative that only benefited the story arc.
So then what about gameplay? As I mentioned before, Psychonauts has enough variation to ensure that the standard 3D-Platforming style doesn’t grow old, and the range of powers available are all incredibly well implemented, if slightly less well balanced at higher ranks. Impressively, abilities I would have thought impossible to implement without destroying all challenge and breaking the game, like Telekenesis and Levitation, are all incredibly well designed and fit excellently into play. Of course, with so much effort spent of characterisation, something would have to give, and unfortunately here it seems that was the physics. Movement feels oddly imprecise, with jumps seemingly refusing to register based on some unknown set of rules or Raz having an annoying tendency to get stuck on walls.
When doing any kind of retrospective look at a title the key question to ask is: Does it hold up? In the case of Psychonauts, I’m happy to say the answer is a thousand times yes. Sure it sometimes handles like a nightmare. Sure the final level is notoriously, as Yahtzee put it, “an exercise in controller snapping frustration.” Sure the graphics are dated. But the aesthetics are strong enough and the gameplay engaging enough that none of these facts become deal breakers. Such is the originality of this title that I would go as far as to call it timeless. If you, like me, missed Psychonauts, I urge you to swing over to Steam or GOG and buy it, right now, because you’re missing out on what can definitely be considered one of the finest games ever made.