Like Grim Fandango, Psychonauts is a bizarre, well-received, cult classic from the mind of Tim Schafer. Unlike Grim Fandango though, you don’t need a walkthrough holding your hand at every turn. Instead of a what-the-fuck-do-I-do game, we’ve got a player-friendly platformer. I’d heard plenty of great things about Psychonauts, usually involving under-rated games, and it had been on my to-play list for quite some time. When it went on sale for five bucks, I had to jump on it. If it’s as good as everyone says, it’s a great deal. If it’s shit? Then it’s cheap shit. Low risk, high reward.
Guess I’ll just get right to the point: I loved this game. There were some flaws here and there, but damn did I enjoy it. Sometimes when you play a video game, especially if it’s not totally by choice (Steve and I agreed to do this review, so we had to commit to it), it can start to feel like a chore. I never felt that way with Psychonauts. I was always ready to play and had a tough time putting the controller down.
At its core, the game is a standard 3D platformer similar to others of its day (Ratchet and Clank, Jak and Daxter, etc…). You play as Raz, using different abilities to make your way through levels, beat up on enemies, and collect tons of things. And when I say, “tons of things,” that’s what I mean. Psychonauts really could have stood to lose a category or two. Figments, emotional baggage (which includes both baggage and tags), memory vaults, mental cobwebs, arrowheads (in-game currency), brains, 16 random items for a scavenger hunt, PSI challenge markers, and PSI cards… Jesus Christ… That’s a lot… Even though all of them improve your PSI cadet ranking, allowing you to learn and improve abilities, it just seems like a bit much. Then again, I’d rather have too much to do than too little. We’ll consider it more of a first-world problem.
I’ve played plenty of games where you learn an ability, use it once, then forget it ever existed. In Psychonauts, you’ll be busting all of them out throughout the game. Each one is important in getting past various scenarios. There are some puzzle elements and the way to solve those puzzles are your abilities. Whether it’s reaching a different part of the level, avoiding fire from a sniper (yeah, that happens), or taking down a boss, it’s up to you to figure out how. Everything is sensible. This isn’t a game with bizarre, cryptic solutions that you’d only come across by accident. It even offers hints if you’re confused. Unlike Grim Fandango, where I used a walkthrough for 90% of the time, I only had to ask for a hint twice.
So, the gameplay is good. Solid, standard 3D platforming. But Tim Schafer games aren’t known for just gameplay. They’re known for their unique designs, characters, and writing. And man… Psychonauts fits the bill.
The characters are all… I don’t even fucking know… Misshapen?
Each one has a very distinct personality, usually based on certain stereotypes. One kid acts like a damn cowboy, one is a bully, one tells incredibly boring, shitty stories, and one is… really fucking stupid. He’s the one in the front-right, and you can’t really see it, but he wears foil on his head because he accidentally caused someone’s head to explode. The tinfoil… stops that I guess? They’re all pretty amusing and worth talking to. Even Vernon and his damn stories (they’re so-bad-they’re-good).
I won’t dive much into the plot. Mainly because there’s really not a whole lot to say. A guy is stealing the brains of psychic kids to take over the world. It’s… Something… But the important part is the “psychic” aspect. While there is a “real” world with stuff to do, a decent chunk of the game takes place in the minds of other characters. Instead of real, tangible levels, Raz projects himself into various characters’ consciousness and helps defeat their personal demons. Considering they’re all god damn batshit crazy, there’s some wild stuff to see.
You have a lady who keeps performing for an audience of potted plants, a guy who loves to paint but can’t stop adding a bullfight to his work, a relative of Napoleon Bonaparte who…. Keeps acting like he’s Napoleon Bonaparte, and Boyd, a paranoid, conspiracy-obsessed maniac. You also enter the mind of a huge, grotesque, sentient lungfish with a deep, robotic voice named Linda. So even when a level isn’t in the mind of a lunatic, it’s in the mind of a damn fish. Game’s weird as hell.
All of the levels are unique in that it’s never a “get to the exit” type of deal. There’s always some sort of objective. The level inside of the Napoleon fella involves Raz helping him in a table top game. Linda’s is a Godzilla-type format. You’re a giant, wreaking havoc on the city as the military is trying to put an end to “Goggalor,” as giant-Raz is known. You never really know what you’re getting yourself into each time you hop into a level for the first time. And I really have to mention Boyd’s… It’s known as The Milkman Conspiracy and is somewhat notorious. A twisted neighborhood where you have to grab items so government agents (he’s into conspiracies, you see) think you’re one of them. If you don’t have the right item, they throw you the hell out of the area. The boss of the level is a girl scout troop leader, too. It… is insane and I loved it. It encompasses the feel of the whole game.
The writing and voice acting is a real highlight. The humor is great, due in large part because of the perfect deliveries. Without actually hearing the dialogue, a lot of the comedy would be lost. It’s not always about what you say, but how you say it. Deadpan and dark humor abound in this game.
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows though. While most of Psychonauts is great, there are a few things that need to be addressed. Edgar’s (the bullfighting painter guy) level is extremely frustrating. One wrong move, and you may be redoing damn near the whole thing. You’ll grow to hate it… But that doesn’t even come close to the absolute worst part of the entire game. In the final section, you have to keep moving and climbing as water is rising below you. It’s all pretty simple… Until you get to this:
Jumping between those curved mesh things is absolute hell. Raz double jumps only when he feels like it, sometimes you land on the opposite side that you jump from, making it disorienting, and every now and then Raz doesn’t even grab on! Each time you fall, you’re sent back to the section BEFORE, where you’re inevitably going to get hit by projectiles that are being thrown in no discernible pattern. Actually falling from the mesh doesn’t hurt you, but those projectile hits will slowly eat away at your health, while your sanity follows suit as you hear Raz’s dad repeat the same voice lines over and over again.
One other negative that I can’t avoid bringing up… The cobweb duster. It’s 800 arrowheads. 800 is a lot of fucking arrowheads. Usually, you get them one at a time, but using an item, you can dig up ones worth 50 or even 100. That item costs 200. So in all, you’re gonna need 1000 arrowheads. It’s way, way, WAY too much. As I was enjoying my playthrough, I got a warning before entering Boyd’s mind saying I would need the cobweb duster. My adventure came to a grinding halt as I had to collect a bunch of arrowheads. It’s not difficult. It’s not fun. It’s just tedious as all hell. The duster should have been 400.
Those issues are just a blemish on an excellent game though. Loved Psychonauts and, as luck would have it, a sequel will be coming out next year. Perfect timing.
Psychonauts is….a game. Really, I don’t know what else I can say about it to introduce it. It’s a strange little trip into a demented world with weird little kids and strange happenings. It’s not great, it’s not horrible. It’s just…..something.
The first thing that I really liked about this game was the character and level design. All of the characters have this otherworldly and monster-like feel to them that make them all interesting to see. The setting of the camp and each persons mind really reflected the weird and almost paranormal look that the game was going for. This relationship really shined through in some of the strange settings of peoples’ deranged minds. Looking at you, night guard.
However, my hate for platforming games was really brought to the forefront with the same strange level design. Everything had to be a goddamn platform here because it made everything look weird. Want to go level up your PSI level? Have to climb up these platforms to leave. Want to go into the hub world for peoples’ minds? Have to climb up ladders to get out. I get that the game can’t just be on rails or in a straight line, but I fell so many damn times that it just made me aggravated. I didn’t want to keep trying it, I wanted to tell the game to fuck off.
The story was another thing that was a weird, sort of mixed thing about this game. I have to say that along the way I never really knew what was going to be happening next. One second, I am fighting a giant brain-powered tank. Then the next I am a giant monster stomping around Lungfishopolis. The game really shines where Final Fantasy VII really failed for me recently. Psychonauts had a ton of different game styles and quirky little side stories but didn’t really detract any from the game at hand. I still felt part of the world and the story instead of randomly snowboarding now a mountain when you were just fighting monsters.
However, because everything was strange and surreal, I found it hard to stay on the task at hand in terms of the story. It was really nice of them to give you the guide to your next objective so that you never really have to ask what you are doing next, but since I didn’t really know what weirdness to expect, I never really cared much about what I was doing. Oh okay, I have to go save the kid with the powerful brain from the doctor who is removing kids’ brains. Oh okay. Why again? Like it was almost too weird for me to care.
The point where I stopped playing was during The Milkman Conspiracy, like I said at the beginning. “Why?” you might be saying. “The Milkman Conspiracy is one of the better parts of the game!!” Yes it is. But you know what isn’t fun? Not having the 800 arrowheads to get the Cobweb Duster. I played up to this point thinking that the Cobweb Duster would be something that I needed for maybe an optional objective or something, but nope. You have to purchase this thing for a ridiculous amount of “coins” where you wouldn’t even have close to the amount you need unless you bought another item that allows you to find higher coin amounts. It would’ve been way better if they just made the Cobweb Duster be 400 arrowheads, not 800.
While I was playing through it, I definitely enjoyed what I was playing throughout. Ignoring the fact that it was a platformer and I despise platformers, the story and characters really carry this game to where it is remembered. It is such a unique game, with the combination of witty writing, strange environments, and abnormal way of progressing through the game. I would recommend this in a heartbeat to anyone who wants a fun platformer (bleck) with a fresh storyline.
Rikki: I know you hate platformers, so on a scale from one to I-want-to-light-myself-on-fire, how much did you hate Psychonauts? Cause I loved it.
Steve: Well, I didn’t hate the game. The settings and plot of the game really shined while I was playing through it. However, it still had some of the platformy bullshit that I expected. So I guess… light my arm on fire? But have some water relatively close by. What did you love about the game?
R: Gotta singe the arm hairs, huh? I liked virtually everything about it. It wasn’t cheap bullshit like in Grim Fandango. Things were pretty clear and simple to figure out. I liked that all of your abilities were needed throughout the whole game instead of needing one for one puzzle, then never needing to use it again. The characters, the plot, the writing. I liked it all.
S: I can see the greatness of this game that people often go back to when talking about it. There is so much in there that makes it such a good game. HOWEVER, like I said, there was so many things that just weren’t necessary but were just in the game because it was a platformer. Was it really needed to have a ladder to climb up and out of Nein’s lab after jumping up platforms? Was it really needed to have the floating platforms to get up from leveling up your PSI Level? I fell so many damn times just trying to leave levels that it just frustrated me.
R: Ehh… Never really bothered me. I grew up with a lot of platformers, so it felt normal to me. I will say riding the levitation ball gave me some trouble at times. It was kind of hard to control with how the momentum was. I know you didn’t get to it, but there’s a part at the end that infuriated me and almost made me quit. So I didn’t love EVERYTHING.
S: The Levitation Ball was super floaty. Which was the point of it but made it difficult to control most of the time. There were a bunch of small annoyances that kind of built up for me and with the Cobweb Duster I just kind of said “Eh whatever, fuck it.” and quit.
R: Understandable. It was way too expensive and I bet a lot of people quit at that point too. I was frustrated with it because I was plowing through the game and having a great time, then suddenly I had to run around with my dowsing rod for like 20 minutes collecting fucking arrowheads. It’s a momentum killer.
S: At that point too, I think I had like 50 arrowheads. I just wasn’t really collecting them. Anywho, I imagine you would give this a pretty high score considering what you’ve said. What would you give it out of ten?
R: You missed out on a lot of cool level designs and funny dialogue. Every level was totally different. I’d give it a solid 8.5/10. I’d bump it up to a 9 if it wasn’t for the cobweb duster issue and a few other things I mentioned in my review.
S: I would give it an incomplete 7.5/10. I recognize that the game has a lot there for a person who is into platformers to enjoy. Those things drove me away from playing it. But I would totally watch someone play it. The writing was witty and quick. The level design was very unique. It was all pretty good.
R: That’s fair. I’d recommend watching a Let’s Play or something then. It’s worth a watch if you’re not into the gameplay. Everything about the game is really interesting. It’s original. It feels fresh when you’re playing it. Or if you’re even just watching someone else play. The characters are all entertaining, the voice acting is great, and the gameplay, if you’re into platformers, leaves nothing to complain about. I’d recommend it to literally everyone I know that doesn’t hate platformers. It’s awesome. We would give it a 8/10 all in all.