Yay! - finally Psychonauts has been released in the third-world continent otherwise known as Europe! It only took nearly a year to come out, so now us Brits and the rest of the PAL region (who have only just got clean drinking water and colour television), can finally play this game. So was it worth the wait?
What we have here is a very cleverly designed platform adventure game, with a genuinely interesting AND funny story. And it really honestly is funny too – quite a rare achievement in videogames. Can you remember the last funny game? Perfect Dark Zero was a bit of a joke, but that doesn’t really count, er… Monkey Island perhaps, or more recently Gregory Horror show? Hmm… not really. In Psychonauts not only is it well written, but it’s delivered superbly too, by great voice acting and will literally have you laughing out loud.
You play as a young boy called Raz who has special psychic powers, and in the game’s world this sort of ability is commonplace because there are schools for it and everything. So Raz is sent to a special psychic school where he will be able to improve and evolve his skills, along with a bunch of other young children.
Unfortunately not everyone at the school camp is friendly, and somebody is going around stealing people’s brains, presumably for some sort of world domination exercise. Naturally, this is where young Raz steps in, as he is much more tuned in with his skills than anyone else, so he sets off to find out who is causing all the trouble at the Psychonauts training camp.
The game is played in a traditional third person viewpoint, very much like Banjo Kazooie, Jack and Daxter or Mario Sunshine, and you can run, jump and swing around the levels. Throughout the course of the game you unlock and gain new skills and abilities by reaching certain ranks (either by collecting a certain amount of objects, or fulfilling specific tasks). The abilities start off with being able to shoot small fireballs at enemies, and being able to jump much higher and glide around. Later you learn telekinesis so you can pick up objects with your mind and throw them at enemies, and also very cool stuff like clairvoyance and even invisibility. Naturally like all well designed games, you only really learn these abilities when you need them, but if you go back to the early levels with the new skills you’ll be able to get to secret areas to further increase your rank – the tried and tested method Nintendo have been using since forever, and it still works superbly today.
Psychonauts is inconsistently brilliant. One minute you can be playing the awfully dull Milla’s Dance Party level which is just platform after platform with nothing interesting going on and a camera that frustrates, next you can be sucked into the absolutely genius that is The Milkman Conspiracy, which is one of the cleverest and downright enjoyable levels I have ever played in a platform game.
You then have the lives and continue system that seems utterly pointless. If you lose all of your lives the only punishment you get is a loading screen as it dumps you out of the level, but if you return back into the same level again it places you pretty much exactly where you died. What’s the point in that exactly? You might as well be given infinite lives, especially as you’re supposed to be in somebody’s mind anyway, so you’re only there mentally, er… in a virtual kind of way. Then there is the difficulty balance, some of the levels can be really frustrating to get about as you’re under constant attack by some annoying enemy that simply wont go away, but then you get to the boss and they are incredibly easy to beat, even really late on the game. It’s almost like half the game was made by one team, and the other half by another team.
What the game did get perfectly right though, and what I believe is its strongest point is the level design and themes. Ignore the few boring levels in the game, and concentrate on how superb the good ones are. Each and every one is themed completely differently, and in most cases play differently too. The previously mentioned Milkman Conspiracy is set in a street with house upon house, and you must get into the graveyard. However to navigate around the level and to get into certain houses you need to disguise yourself as a workman, or someone watering plants, or cutting hedges, so you have to find objects like stop signs and watering cans so you can get into certain zones. It’s such an interesting and charming level, and its looks like something Tim Burton would come up with – the colours and style reminded me of the street in Edward Scissorhands in fact. In a level later on you must enter a character’s board game and move pieces around for him, talking to the various characters and getting them to fix bridges and form armies etc – it’s really very enjoyable to play and almost always throws something completely original at you. The boss fights, although in 90% of the game are very easy, are also clever and well designed. They usually involve you using your various skills and abilities to find their weak points and beat them. Sometimes the camera can go a bit wonky (like all 3D platform games), but it never causes serious headaches, although can cause the occasional death from leaps of faith and not being able to see exactly where you’re wanting to go.
Graphically and aurally Psychonauts is well presented, with excellent character designs and lovely looking levels. The music is superb too, and especially loved the blatant Star Wars-ish riff when you gain a new ability – a very nice touch.
Overall I enjoyed my time with Psychonauts. There are some annoyances with the game, and a few levels (including the last one) might well have you pulling your hair out with frustration, but on the other hand the majority of the game is a joy to play, and will give you around 12 hours of good solid (and not forgetting funny) platforming action, and you can’t really say fairer than that.