Sometimes we get so wrapped up in taking games seriously we forget that they’re entertainment. After hours of story-driven role-playing games, shooters a step away from military combat simulators, and action games mimicking brutal gangster life, sitting back with a game not trying too hard to give itself a gritty edge is almost a shock. Psychonauts is such a game, a title that’s 180 degrees from serious, but not from serious fun.
Set in a future where particular people possess potent psychic powers, Psychonauts puts the player in the role of Raz, a boy with the gift who’s run away from the circus life. He heads to a camp for psychic kids in an effort to join the Psychonauts, a group whose members are psychic secret agents. This world is fully realized both contextually and graphically, with kids studying under Psychonaut agents and a visual style looking like a cross between Edward Gorey and Tim Burton. Without the flair, this would be just another action platformer, but it ends up being more like an interactive version of something you’d see on Adult Swim.
The camp serves as Raz’s main base and has several areas to explore and secrets to find, while the action levels take place inside the minds of other characters. A Psychonaut has the ability to enter other people’s minds or invite others into theirs, and it’s within this twisted grey matter that challenge and danger awaits. A concept that is central to the game’s unique appeal.
Imagine for a moment that you could enter the mind of, say, Mariah Carey. What would you expect to find? Perhaps an infinite number of Mariahs, all talking about themselves or producing annoyingly bland radio pop, probably in a world covered with mirror tile. And what would you want to do to them? Obviously, you’d want to pummel, torch, disintegrate, and otherwise eliminate every last one of them, and then destroy whatever part of that sick brain compels her to create the utterly worthless music we all know and hate. This is pretty much how Psychonauts works.
Each area has its own challenges, obstacles, and enemies, and each mind its own goal. Early levels are basically tutorials for practicing Raz’s various powers, like pyrokinesis (you know, setting stuff on fire) or levitation. Other levels have specific goals, like the lungfish that lives in the camp’s Lake Oblongata whose mind must be freed from outside control. The level design is some of the best in the genre, with every mind having its own style and distinctive visuals coupled with individual challenges.
Along the way Raz will encounter manifestations of the psyche he’s in, whether they be figments of the imagination to collect, emotional baggage to unlock and sort through, or enemies that detect his presence and try to force the intruder out. To most players this will all sound like psychobabble, but the designers actually took the intelligent route and did their homework. Psychology undergrads will recognize Jungian concepts like the censors, manifestations of the unconscious mind that attempt to stamp out undesirable thought, including Raz. A Bachelor’s degree in psychology will be slightly more useful here than in the job market, with plenty of inside jokes if you know the material.
The game is very linear in order to keep the story flowing, but there is plenty to do in between the main levels and the pacing is superb. The camp is littered with people to talk to and areas to explore, and exploring pays off. Raz can find arrowheads that are used as currency, and uncover plot points by using certain abilities. There’s also a scavenger hunt with bonuses for players who find hidden items, and objects scattered around that can increase Raz’s psychic level to earn additional powers. Because full exploration of the mind levels and the camp unlocks Raz’s latent abilities, players who like to explore and complete levels to 100% will have more options open to them sooner in the game than those who just want to barrel through. Those who want to explore gain the means to venture further, while those who just want to get things over with quickly can do that too. It’s a design choice that works well and adds a good amount of replay value.
All of the characters in the game are fully voice acted, adding deeply to the overall aesthetic. The acting is done extremely well and the scripting is top-notch. This is a summer camp for kids, after all, so you have your normal bullying, insults, and adolescent romances. Likewise, the music is well done, though not a knockout performance. It’s creepy and haunting at the right moments and calm at others.
It’s difficult to really express the true draw of Psychonauts in words alone. It’s loaded with a smarmy sense of humor; Raz can be described as Bart and Lisa Simpson rolled into one character, simultaneously witty and mischievous, sarcastic and determined. Parody and sardonic irony are liberally scattered throughout the game. For example, the lungfish level casts Raz as a giant, Godzilla-like monster decimating the utopian lungfish city, culminating in a classic monster movie battle with an enemy who announces special moves like “Difficult-To-Avoid Area Attack!” In another example, as the children at the camp have their brains abducted they wander around murmuring “TV… hackey sack.” The designers ran with the concept of tooling around in other people’s psyches and chucked in generous amounts of low- and highbrow humor.
Unfortunately it’s not a perfect game. Psychonauts is also available on the PC and Xbox, and it seems to have been designed for these more robust platforms. While the areas are well detailed and look great, the PS2 just doesn’t seem powerful enough for this kind of pixel pushing. This is most evident in the camp, when lots of scenery on screen forces the framerate down noticeably. There are also some fairly long loading times, especially considering that some of the areas aren’t all that large in the first place. Thankfully, you won’t wait more than 25 seconds or so at most, and there is a method of quick transportation present within the camp.
Overall, Psychonauts is a brainy winner, at once mindlessly entertaining and intelligently designed. It’s sure to make end of the year “best of” lists, and straddles the thin line that exists between a good concept and taking that concept too far. The challenge is there for those who want to unlock some of the game’s bonuses, but it’s also accessible even to younger players (though they likely won’t understand some of the humor and parents may find parts slightly inappropriate). If you think this summer has been slow, you haven’t played Psychonauts yet, and you should.