Short Form Review: For this review, I’m playing with a shorter format that will let me do more reviews. I’ll ideally have some games that have more succinct, focused reviews and others that have the full categorical breakdown.
Released: April 2005
For the longest time, Psychonauts was one of those perpetually “on-my-todo-list” games. I’d always had an interest in it (I’d even played the beginning before), but I’d never taken the time to sit down and give it the time and attention it deserves.
And let me tell you, it deserves it! After hearing about the successful crowd-funding of the sequel, I thought to myself “Gosh darnit, Paul, you oughtta finally play Psychonauts!” So I fired it up on Steam and jumped in. I was honestly surprised that I’d ever put this game down the first time I started it (probably about 6 years ago). It’s almost immediately engaging, even if it takes a bit of time to get into the to the 3D platforming groove. The jumping and punching handled well enough and every set piece and bit of dialog was chock full of charming weirdness, which was enough to suck me in.
The game follows Raz, the starry-eyed runaway who dreams of becoming a Psychonaut (basically, a secret agent with psychic powers). Throughout the game, players acquire a set of psy-powers with which to conquer a variety of combat and puzzle situations. Most of the levels in the game are the minds of other characters, in which Raz must often solve puzzles and help the owner of said mind grapple with some sort of personal psychological issues. Each mind is essentially another platforming level, but they also have unique mechanics that often integrate with new psy-powers Raz acquires. Overall, the game has a certain satisfying blend of combat, platforming, and puzzle-solving all mixed together. It can certainly get clunky at times, the sticking point being either an inscrutable puzzle or a tricky platforming bit, but I can’t say this happened more than a few times (mostly on the last level).
There’s also an element of collecting and exploring in the main camp, which has a multitude of areas with hidden secrets. While this could have been expanded on, it does provide a nice bit of freedom to the earlier parts of the game. It also provides a chance to interact with some of the characters before digging deeper into the game’s story.
Now, playing through all the zany levels is a fun romp in its own right, but the heart and soul of Psychonauts is its characters. The strange and surreal art direction of the minds you’ll visit plus the witty and well-delivered dialog is sure to endear players to the bizarre characters in the world of Psychonauts. The game has a small cast of main characters and a larger cast of side characters, mainly just other kids at the camp and characters whose minds you’ll explore. Small interactions with these other characters do a lot to make them interesting or at least charmingly quirky. The overall story has even better characterization but has a bit of a pacing problem: it feels like it escalates and progresses too quickly, and it becomes confusing to figure out how much time has actually passed. The rushed nature of the story makes it feel as if there were more intermittent pieces that could have been delved into: specifically, more time for Raz to get to know his fellow students and experience camp life before getting swept up in the game’s grand story.
Even being generally odd and lighthearted, Psychonauts also tangles with some dark themes and serious mental health issues with surprising grace. While not perfect, it puts effort into humanizing and instilling a desire to help these characters, who are trapped in the aftermath of psychological traumas. I think it falls far short of starting any meaningful conversations, but it certainly treats these issues with an unexpected degree of respect and delicacy.
Ultimately, Psychonauts’ characters and environments are so bursting with personality that the pacing issues are forgivable. To look on the bright side, I think the story’s rushed nature leaves plenty to be explored with these characters and the world they live in; so here’s to high hopes for the sequel!
Play this game if you’re okay with platformers and you like games that are unrelentingly odd. Pretty much, play this if you like Double Fine’s work in general; it’s not likely to disappoint you.