Review by BloodGod65

"Psycho Therapy"

Ah, summer camp. Source of so many fond (and not so fond) childhood memories. Meeting your counselors, making friends, playing games, meeting your first love interest, learning to harness your psychic powers; all part of the summer camp experience. Wait, what? Psychic powers?

Let's just say Whispering Rock Summer Camp isn't your run of the mill summer camp. It's a training ground for psychic children, a place where they can learn to use their powers. The most gifted among them go on to become Psychonauts, psychic secret agents who police the world.

Raz, a ten year old psychic boy who comes from a family of circus acrobats, wants nothing more than to be a part of this camp. Though his father doesn't want him to affiliate with psychics, Raz runs away from home. But strange things start happening shortly after he arrives. Yes, stranger than telekinetic children. He soon uncovers a sinister plot to steal the brains out of the camp children, turning them into television obsessed zombies. As the only person still in possession of his juicy gray matter, Raz sets out to find the source of the trouble.

Psychonauts is a Double Fine production (studio of Tim Schafer, he of Grim Fandango fame), so it should come as no surprise that the game is very funny. Not only is the writing hysterical, the characters are memorable, and there's hardly a dull moment in the whole game. My favorite aspect of the writing is the interactions between the camp children. Even though they don't get a lot of onscreen time, each one has a unique and memorable personality, from a pint-sized ladies man, to a rootin' tootin' cowboy, and a Russian kid constantly on the prowl for a bear to wrestle. One of my favorites is Dogen, a pint-sized super-psychic who wears a foil cap to keep out the sinister whisperings of the campground squirrels. Another standout is Bobby Zilch, the gap-toothed bully who picks on everyone relentlessly.

In terms of gameplay, Psychonauts is a 3D platformer with some unusual elements. But at its core it is still a platformer. Raz's background as a member of a circus family gives him a full range of acrobatic abilities, such as tightrope walking and swinging from poles. A suite of psychic abilities rounds out the standard platforming fare with offensive abilities such as pyrokinesis and a power blast. Raz can also turn invisible and use his levitation to bounce super high and float through the air.

Psychonauts extends its unusual premise to the level design. Though Whispering Rock forms a central hub, individual levels put Raz inside a person's mind. Literally. By jumping into someone's brain, Raz can directly interact with their memories and help them overcome their traumas and mental illnesses.

Double Fine does an excellent job of integrating psychological principles into these levels while keeping them fun to play. Moreover, it also makes each level a wholly unique experience, from both a visual and a gameplay perspective. In one, Raz helps a manic-depressive actress overcome her funk. In this level, he directs a play by coordinating scripts and sets by switching her mood. While in mania mode, the sets are bright and cheery. In her depressed state the sets become dark and twisted. Another memorable level has you helping a descendent of Napoleon Bonaparte beat his legendary ancestor in a board game by shrinking down and interacting with the pieces. Yet another, which takes place in the mind of a paranoid schizophrenic milk man, plays out like the world's wildest scavenger hunt as you search for clues to link disparate elements of his bizarre conspiracy theory.

In reality, a fair chunk of the game plays like a scavenger hunt but it rarely descends into fetch quest territory. Scattered throughout the camp are dozens of psi-cards and other assorted items (which are part of an actual scavenger hunt run by the camp counselors). When you're inside a person's mind you'll also be able to collect floating figments, which are fragments of their imagination, and sort out emotional baggage, which manifests itself as literal baggage. Each of these things contributes to Raz's psychic rank, which grants him more health and upgrades to his psychic powers.

While the majority of the game is a pleasure to play, Psychonauts stumbles at the finish line. The last level leaves much to be desired, mainly because it commits one of the gravest sins in gaming. During this final mental foray, Raz must escort a helpless bystander who is, as often as not, completely removed from him. To keep him alive you must quickly navigate a series of obstacles before he is killed by enemies. After you do that, you get another frustrated obstacle course to complete as the area fills up with water. Well, actually it's blood. The whole level takes place in a circus of meat. Not that it makes a difference. It's just kind of nasty. By the way, did I mention that this game is weird? Anyway, these issues are all the more unfortunate because the game ends shortly thereafter, without ever having a chance to make up for this last second stumble.

Though the game is generally lighthearted, the subject matter can get quite dark at times. Putting aside the fact that one of the game's primary themes is mental illness there are still some especially grim moments. On occasion, Raz gets a glimpse of what lurks beneath the surface of a mind and what's there isn't always pleasant. In one person's mind, the owner has a secret room where she contains memories of a fire that killed her children.

In a way, that makes the game's bright and wacky style a little disturbing. But it still works with the subject matter perfectly, kind of like how Tim Burton's grotesque designs fit his often macabre subject matter. Actually, Psychonauts owes a great deal to Mr. Burton, as the style retains his signature cute, weird, and oddly endearing look. The characters are all ungainly freaks with disfigured heads and bodies. And yet somehow they manage to be more quaint than grotesque.

It's worth noting that the game's visual style can change quite a bit from level to level. For instance, in one level that takes place in the mind of an artist who paints exclusively on black velvet, the environment is entirely black with the details painted in vivid neon hues. In another, everything looks like a it was taken straight out of a sixties disco party.

The best part of the game lies in its sound design. Bringing Double Fine's humorous writing to life is a cast of excellent voice actors who play the parts of their various misanthropes perfectly. The music is perfect and just as varied as the settings. However, the PC version of the game suffers some intrusive audio bugs. While it's nowhere near as bad as the PS2 version, the various chirps and buzzes that occasionally pop up are still quite annoying.

This makes the second version of Psychonauts I've played and it's just as enjoyable the second time around. With its zany humor and excellent design, Psychonauts is a game that begs to be played again and again. Though there are a few unfortunate stumbles, they don't do anything to diminish the overall quality of the game. If you like platformers or quirky comedy, don't miss out on Psychonauts.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 06/03/13

Game Release: Psychonauts (US, 04/19/05)

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