In the past twelve months there has been a steady flow of remarkable games that have pushed genre boundaries in various directions and countered the accusation that the industry has run out of original ideas, games such as Darwinia, Fahrenheit and Shadow of the Colossus. Psychonauts not only belongs with such esteemed company: it arguably outshines them all.
After an amusing but largely unremarkable opening cut scene, you find yourself playing Raz, a kid with untrained psychic powers that has snuck into the Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp against his parents’ wishes. The first few minutes involve running, jumping and bouncing you way around the leafy cabin area, collecting various inexplicable objects and chatting to the other children.
It’s all very platformy, very cute and very familiar. The jumping-about antics are good fun, more limited than the acrobatics of Prince of Persia but also snappier and more charming. Genre staples such as a double-bounce jumps, trampolines and handy tree branches all feature as you would expect.
In the brain
A short while into the game it reveals its true genius. Raz is a budding psychic, which means he has the ability to leap into other people’s minds and run about in their brains. Each mind is a physical manifestation of the owner’s personality, full of their own unique emotional problems, nightmares and subconscious desires.
The first mind is that of Coach Oleander, the man responsible for your training. Being an ex-military type and no doubt a subscriber to Soldier of Fortune magazine, the coach’s mind turns out to be a war-torn battlefield, full of trenches, barbed wire, explosions, military propaganda, flag waving, mine laying, parachuting and rope scaling. The sheer scale of the imagination at work in the visuals, sound and level design hits you like a psi-blast between the eyes.
Remarkably, the coach’s mind is one of the more mundane of the levels you encounter. Each mind is unique, offering a different design aesthetic and often introducing entirely new gameplay concepts – one involves racing around a twisting snowboard-style course on a rolling ball of psychic energy, while another finds you directing pieces around a game board using telekinesis. To say more would be to give away some of the game’s most glorious moments, which are best discovered fresh and unspoiled.
The scope of the concept design in the game really cannot be over-emphasised: Psychonauts has more imagination in a single level than most other games put together. Tasks involve ridding the mind of some inner demon – an actress you encounter needs to be cured of her fear of critics, for example. Achieving the objectives usually involves a mixture of logic and acrobatic puzzles, while fighting ‘censors’ that are intent on wiping out unwanted thoughts.
The platform mechanics are solidly executed and extremely good fun, helped by level design that rarely leaves you confused. While a couple of sections require some irritating pixel-perfect jumping, for the most part the game treads a perfect level of difficulty, managing to be challenging without resulting in the frustration and irritation often associated with the genre.
Technically the game excels, mainly through artistic achievement rather than whiz-bang gimmickry. Bucking the current trend for photo-realism, the visuals instead opt for a style reminiscent of the movie The Nightmare Before Christmas, albeit with far less goth. Each level brings something new to the palette, frequently changing the entire appearance of the game and playing with lighting and scale to gobsmacking and often hilarious effect.
Sound is similarly polished, with atmospherics specific to each level and one of the best and most varied musical scores I’ve ever heard in a game, each track evoking the mood (both mentally and figuratively!) of the currently inhabited mind. The composer effortlessly switches from military bombast to epic heroism to quirky without dropping a beat.
So, here we have an accomplished and visually imaginative platform game. Taking Psychonauts into the realm of an all-time classic is the peerless writing, working at a level I’ve never experienced in a computer game before. The story is a brilliant slice of quirky psychic adventure, wrapped around a group of characters brought to vivid life by strong dialogue and faultless voice performances. It’s rare to encounter such convincing and engaging characters in a game, and the voice acting sets a new standard.
The game effortlessly switches from fun adventure and insightful drama (you frequently discover hidden memories while exploring minds, often tragic and deeply moving) to laugh-out-loud hilarity. Yes, this game is genuinely funny. Not cheap student humour either, or the carefully cynical satire of GTA: Psychonauts delivers proper gut-wobbling laughter, regularly and through the natural interaction of characters or cunning level design.
Yes, it’s true: I like this game a fair amount. There are some flaws, however, mainly to do with the platform clichés on offer. There’s the aforementioned pixel-perfect jumps, which ambush you a couple of times and suddenly ramp up the difficulty for no good reason. These moments are particularly incongruous given the slick and entertaining nature of the platforming the rest of the time.
The main problem, though, lies in the hundreds of items that are lying around to be collected. There are figments, psi cards, psi challenge markers, emotional baggage tags, memory vaults…the items seems very foreign at the start, with inadequate explanations for the rampant bouts of psychic kleptomania leaving you rather perplexed about their use. Collecting might be fun for younger players, but it invariably feels slightly tacked-on and intrusive.
Like all great entertainment experiences, the few complaints soon fade into insignificance when compared to the otherwise mighty achievements. Psychonauts treads a fine line, providing addictive platform antics for the kids and a deep, resonant comedy-drama for older players. It appeals to all ages without alienating anybody, much like the best cartoons and animated films. Psychonauts feels like a classic Pixar movie, rendered instead as a brilliant platformer. I can’t think of much higher recommendation than that.
Verdict: The most fun you will have with a video game all year. Astoundingly original and perfectly paced mixture of imagination, game design and platform leaping that is guaranteed to plaster a happy grin across your face for almost the entire duration. 9/10
Review by Simon 'Tarn' Jones © 2006