Developer: Double Fine
Release Date: April 19, 2005
The state of the platforming genre has been fairly unimpressive these past few years. There's been the occasional solid title, offering up some fun elements; games like Super Mario Sunshine and Vexx may have been fun, but in actual design, they were near copies of Super Mario 64, which, had it not been the title to introduce incredible new 3D play mechanics, probably would have been scoffed at for its structure. "Collect a star, leave the stage, go back in, collect more stars until you can unlock more levels. Wash, rinse, repeat."
The PlayStation 2 has easily rivaled Nintendo's GameCube in terms of platformers – how good they actually are is a different question. Ratchet and Clank, Jak and Daxter, Sly Cooper – while not awful games, they're a far cry from masterpieces of generations past. None of them match the level design of Super Mario Bros. 3, or the intriguing exploration of Super Metroid, or the sheer charm and humor of Yoshi's Island. They almost feel shallow, especially in comparison.
Psychonauts is different. Tim Schafer's child has suffered development hell; it's usually not a good sign when a title carried by Microsoft Game Studios – who, need I remind you, published quality software such as Azurik and Tao Feng – drops a game. No one really knew what was going on. Did the game suck? Was Double Fine asking for too much time to complete the game? It was a mystery. Anyone's guess was as valid as any other, and the consensus assumed that it was as good as dead and probably not worth playing anyway.
Luckily for Tim and all of us, Majesco picked up the project. And it may just be the platforming masterpiece that we've all been waiting for.
The game revolves around a small little summer camp, where kids are in training to become "psychonauts." Most of them hate it, and find it insanely boring tripe and simply can't wait to leave. It's not until Rasputin, or Raz for short, shows up that things start to become interesting. Raz is the kid of a circus family, seemingly neglected and shamed because of his psychic abilities. He's a natural when he starts the training exercises at camp, though.
Most of the levels in the game have you, Raz, projecting into someone's mind. There's a real world in the game that you can completely interact with, and where most of the main story progression takes place, but you're going to run into some dead-ends. This is when it's time to slap an entryway into someone's head and solve their own subconscious problems so they're free to help you out in real life.
And thankfully, these are some of the most interesting minds I've ever had the opportunity to explore. Without spoiling too much, you can expect: a Godzilla-like romp through a city – a city populated by lungfish, no less; a trip through the head of a disturbed painter, complete with reminiscing of high-school sweethearts and the wrestling team; a strategic game against Napoleon with hints of Alice in Wonderland as you must shrink to convince the townsfolk to fight for you before enlarging and moving their pieces around the map; and a twisted circus tent full of acrobatic obstacles and, uh, meat... for starters.
Each of the levels is large and detailed and you can generally roam around freely, but there is always a point to the level. There's none of this "collect six colored coins to continue" or "wash off all the graffiti" nonsense that so many other platform games seem to bank on; there's a reason you're in these worlds and a reason to continue past them. It gives the game a real sense of direction. It helps that the storyline is actually worthy of progressing through, too.
The actual game mechanics are somewhat derivative of "traditional" 3D platformers like Mario 64, but there's really no avoiding such a thing. Raz controls very smoothly; he's got a double-jump and a ground-slam, can grab onto ledges, grind down wires, tiptoe around, and all the other typical things that one might expect. What's cool is that he's constantly learning new moves. Much like in the Zelda series, there are a few buttons on the controller set aside for binding the powers that Raz learns.
Raz learns to shoot fireball-type projectiles, set things ablaze, toss around objects with telekinesis, wrap a powerful shield around him for a few seconds, become invisible, and more. He's also got a really cool "levitation ball" that practically changes the way the game plays – it's like hopping into a car after being on foot in Grand Theft Auto. Raz can bounce around, jump extra high, and move around a whole lot faster. Of course, there's balance here too, and the ball isn't particularly stable on sloped surfaces, and has difficulty going up steep hills, so you won't be using it all the time – but it does make getting around suddenly fun. The other powers are often used to solve puzzles or just get around simple obstacles. The fact that you learn them steadily throughout the game keeps things fresh and exciting.
There's also a boatload of things to collect if you really want to – and actually it's worthwhile, if you're into that. Raz levels up in the game much like in an RPG, and as he reaches milestones, he can learn new powers or find that the ones he has will be upgraded. There's a number of ways to level up, and it's not hard to level up at least a little, but those hardcore collectors will actually gain something useful for doing it, and replay value is increased for those planning on playing through a second time and getting everything. It's rarely required, though, so those of you ready to complain about having to acquire hordes of items – forget it. This is no Banjo-Kazooie.
The graphics in the game are, technically, a bit rough around the edges, but the art that Psychonauts sports is incredible and cancels out any negativity you might receive from some pointy polygons. The game has a bit of a twisted, fantasy feel to it, as if it came out of some comic genius' head. It's evident in Lungfishopoli,s and it's there in the neon colors-on-black artist's head, and it's there in the meat circus. Everything just looks so great and just seeps creativity and detail.
The sound is quite good, if not as immediately impressive as the art. The game's musical score does it all, from epic, grandiose pieces to bouncy, funny ones to one right at home in a children's play (which, in fact, there is in one level). The voices are great – everyone is spot on and believable without being pretentious or annoying (well, except for maybe a few of the children in said play). Sound effects are also very solid and fit just fine. Everything just meshes so well together that you can't help but relish in the aural goodness of it all.
Psychonauts is, simply put, a near masterpiece. Ignoring the very occasional awry camera angle (which, 99% of the time, isn't a problem) or niggling puzzle (though hints are always available by waving a slice of bacon and calling on an old geezer), it's nearly perfect. Without a doubt, it's the best platformer developed in the past few years, and quite possibly the best 3D platformer yet produced. It's got art, music, a storyline, incredible levels, a real sense of direction and a great sense of humor. Don't miss out on this – you'll regret it.
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