Enter the minds of strangers and freaks on a quest to become a Psychonaut.
PC Release: April 19, 2005
By Ian Coppock
The video game medium allows for some truly eccentric creations, ranging from something as novel as Super Mario 64, to something as horrific as that Crack-Life mod that was reviewed a few months ago. Though video games are rife with kooky characters and strange worlds, there is perhaps no game more quintessentially weird than Psychonauts, the proudest creation of the venerable Double Fine studio. With the long-awaited Psychonauts 2 now underway after over a decade, it’s time to go back and evaluate the original title. What has made it so endearing, and so weird?
Psychonauts is a third-person adventure game set in a world of strangers and freaks, where certain people possess the gift of telepathic potential. The United States government identifies these individuals when they’re still children, and trains them to be secret agents at the Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp. It is the aspiration of these cadets to become Psychonauts, telepathic agents who can use their powers to enter the minds of other people and battle the evil within.
Razputin, a young boy and the hero of this tale, infiltrates Whispering Rock to attend the camp even though he wasn’t invited. The camp’s administrators are set on sending him away, but relent after testing the boy’s impressive psychic potential. Though Razputin is allowed to stay, he’s challenged to complete the grueling Psychonaut training in just one night. Otherwise, he’ll get sent back to the abusive father he ran away from. Only by getting his Psychonaut certification will he be truly free.
Raz settles in with the gaggle of bizarre psychic children who also inhabit the camp, and sets about earning various Psychonaut merit badges. Psychonauts is nominally open-world, with Whispering Rock serving as a central hub for side activities and getting supplies. Each of the game’s levels takes place inside the minds of Raz’s friends and foes, and though they can be quite expansive, they’re usually linear. Just like the dungeons in The Legend of Zelda, each level in Psychonauts requires a new power or tool to proceed. Raz adds a new ability to his psychic arsenal with every mind he conquers.
Despite having no formal training, Raz rapidly outpaces the other students at the camp, earning the admiration of some and the enmity of others. Although Raz does well under the watchful eyes of the Psychonauts, his arrival coincides with strange happenings (well, stranger than usual) at the camp. Children begin disappearing for hours, only to reappear with their brains taken away! Raz realizes that a mad scientist on the other side of the lake is gathering the students’ psychic minds to create something new, something horrible, and his training to become a Psychonaut turns into a race to save his fellow campers from the evil… the horrible… Dr. Loboto!
At the outset, Raz’s adventure to save his friends looks little different than any other third-person adventure game from the mid-2000’s, but part of what has made Psychonauts such a long-lasting hit is its sheer variety of gameplay. Raz has access to a wide range of psychic powers that allow him to do almost anything, from flying to shooting to setting things on fire. He can get around faster on a glowing orb, or swat the camp’s psychic wildlife away by more physical means. Each of these powers has the potential to pull Psychonauts in lots of different directions, but they’re streamlined remarkably well, and make the gameplay much more diverse than just hopping platforms.
Raz can also pick up a few things around the camp to enhance his psychic abilities. There are shards of psychic crystal buried deep in the ground, and collecting enough of them can unlock new tiers of psychic energy. A few items scattered around each of the levels, like luggage bags with eyes, and lots of colorful “mental cobwebs” also help in this regard. Pretty neat, but hardly anything unusual for a platformer.
Psychonauts‘ visuals have aged pretty alright for a game that’s a decade old. The game is clearly a product of the mid-20oo’s, but its visual fidelity to the game’s narratives and themes is still sound. That, rather than 4K resolution, should be the true test of whether a video game’s visuals are “good”. Sure, Psychonauts isn’t as sharp as games that came out four seconds ago, but its good enough. The character animations can be a bit stiff, but the game will never leave players wondering what emotions certain motions were meant to convey.
Far more impressive than Psychonauts’ gently dated visuals is its strong use of color. Any game that deals with the eccentricities of the human mind is bound to have some bright colors, and Psychonauts is no exception. Each level and world in the game is decked out in different colors and different graphical styles. One level set in a spy-ridden suburban neighborhood looks animated and cartoonish, while another set in a dark Spanish town is surreal and neon. Each of Psychonauts‘ worlds carries enough visual novelty that they could almost be considered their own games. It certainly doesn’t leave the player begging for visual variety.
Far more than the colors, though, what truly gives the levels in Psychonauts so much staying power is their novel gameplay. Each level is almost completely different from the last, with a unique style of gameplay, a unique aesthetic, and a backstory to accommodate each mind Raz enters. The famous “milkman” level, in which Raz explores the thoughts of a paranoid delivery man, sees him infiltrating cabals of secret agents populating a suburban neighborhood. Another, set in the mind of a crazed descendant of Napoleon Boneparte, forces players into a life-sized strategy game with board pieces and manageable resources. There’s even a level where Raz is blown up to the size of Godzilla, and rampages around a metropolis inhabited by sentient lungfish.
Now, at this point, all of these settings and gameplay styles may seem completely random, and Psychonauts makes no secret of that. Though each level feels disparate in its design, from eluding a giant bull, to performing circus tricks in a tent made of meat, this randomness gives Psychonauts the novelty that’s kept it alive all these years. The aforementioned milkman level is often cited as one of the most brilliant video game levels ever made, and though it has its drawbacks, there’s certainly nothing else like it in the world of video games. Each level’s design reflects the psyche of the characters Raz encounters, and are as different and vivid as can be.
The main factor that keeps the levels of Psychonauts from feeling like 10 separate games, despite their vast differences, is the strong narrative underpinning them all. Despite being as garishly cartoony as the best platformers of its age, Psychonauts is a surprisingly mature story. Though the characters in the game look goofy, the psychological issues underlying each one are very frank. Raz makes little secret of the abusive environment that he escapes from, and he unearths similar tragedies in each of the minds he explores. An insane actress he encounters has her depression traced back to being abandoned as a child, and the entire affair is demonstrated like one of the stage productions she starred in. Psychonauts still packs a lot of comedy and lighthearted humor into its running time, but it’s not afraid to paint sadness and mental illness.
The narrative is not without its backdrops, but these mostly have to do with pacing. A great deal of the game is squished into the last area, where Raz has to infiltrate several minds just to assemble a disguise. Until then, Psychonauts feels a lot more long-winded, with lots of open-world exploration between levels. This pacing of stretching out the levels in the first half of the game, and then squishing a bunch together in the last half, is definitely noticeable.
Although Psychonauts‘ gameplay is smooth, the game’s age means that it can create some headaches on modern systems. The version of Psychonauts used for this review was run on Windows 7, and the game frequently features textures popping in and out of existence throughout the summer camp overworld. The game occasionally crashes for no discernible reason, and sometimes even the character models can suffer texture errors. But, if that’s the worst to be said for a game this old, Psychonauts is more than definitely worth risking a few bugs to experience.
Psychonauts‘ poignant narrative about the nature of the human mind is one of the most intimate stories out there, despite its admittedly ridiculous-looking exterior. The different gameplay in each level guarantees keeping the game fresh, the visuals succeed in conveying the game’s aforementioned emotional themes, and the voice-acting is top-notch. Modern gamers risk a tremendous deal by giving this classic a miss. Its graphics may be clunky, and its jokes might be a bit stale by current standards, but Psychonauts is one of the finest adventure games ever crafted. Its worlds are intriguing, and its core concept is soundly executed. Get and play it while waiting for the next big game to come out.
You can buy Psychonauts here.
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