Some seriously strange creatures dominate Psychonauts, recently released on Xbox.
Credit: Beth Rankin
If you have heard of Psychonauts and think it is a kids’ game, don’t forget that Sam ‘n’ Max, another game designed by Tim Schafer, was about a talking cartoon dog and cat who blew up a bus full of “hopefully no one we know or care about” within the first five minutes of the game.
It’s the sort of naively twisted humor that Schafer’s games — Full Throttle, Day of the Tentacle and Grim Fandango and a few others — are known for, and Psychonauts is no exception. But what does change is the gameplay style. All Schafer’s other games were relatively unintense adventure games, but Psychonauts is an all-out platformer. It’s a drastic shift, but it works.
The story follows Raz, a young circus runaway with psychic powers who sneaks into a psychic camp for kids. He’s discovered but still allowed to begin the long, grueling process of becoming a Pyschonaut — sort of a supernatural James Bond — until his dad arrives to pick him up in two days.
The game takes place between the physical and the mental worlds. In the physical world, the more adventure-y part, Raz wanders around the camp exploring for hidden goodies, doing things that advance the plot and learning new psychic abilities. The meat of the gameplay takes place once Raz enters various people’s minds to battle their inner demons.
Each level is suited to the individuals’ personalities, and this is where the game’s greatest strength comes in to play: not only is each level entirely unique, but they are easily the most breathtakingly designed levels yet seen in videogames.
A lovesick Mexican artist’s level unfolds as a velvety blacklight barrio complete with day-glo bull. A Russian scientist’s mind is portrayed as a Escheresque take on the puzzle box from Hellraiser. Perhaps the game’s most memorable level is one in which a gigantic Raz becomes “The Evil Goggalor,” stomping skyscrapers in Lungfishopolis while a tiny lungfish runs and panics, yelling, “I hear Goggalor hates babies!”
The game is not too difficult, and if players get stuck figuring out what to do — and it sometimes happens with the game’s many unique bosses — help can always be summoned by waving a piece of bacon in the air to summon Raz’s mentor out of his ear. The game is only frustrating if one tries to accomplish absolutely everything it has to offer: There is more senseless crap to collect in this game than any other in recent memory, and there is a certain point where it just doesn’t feel worth it anymore.
But that doesn’t keep the game from being wholly enjoyable. Psychonauts is not the most original platformer ever, but its personality makes it second to none. And while it might have the epic, emotionally resonant narrative of Grim Fandango, it’s always a thrill to see what happens next. Hopefully this one doesn’t disappear into cult obscurity.
Contact Pop Arts reporter Jon Dieringer at [email protected]