Revisiting Psychonauts, Does it Hold Up?
Originally released in: 2005
Genres: Platformer, Adventure
Platforms: PC, Xbox, PS2, Mac, Linux
Developer: Double Fine
Psychonauts achieved a cult classic status back when it was released due to an imaginative premise, interesting art design and a mix of gameplay styles that wasn't really like much else on the market at the time, or since. This was the first project of studio Double Fine, which was founded by developer Tim Schafer and some of his colleagues from George Lucas' videogame studio Lucasarts. Tim Schafer was previously know for spearheading PC adventure game projects, which were focused on story, characters and puzzles, rather than demanding gameplay or action. Psychonauts feels like an expansion of those point and click adventure games Schafer made, like Grim Fandango and Full Throttle. It's combining the puzzles and character focused writing, with at the time more modern 3D platformer mechanics to create a pretty unique game.
While by today's standards it's not a graphical powerhouse, a lot of what allows this game to hold up so well is its excellent art design. It feels very at home as an early '00s developed game, characters look like they could occupy a Tim Burton film or a '90s Nickelodeon cartoon. It's colourful and has imaginative designs for both its worlds and characters. It's something I'd call "creatively ugly", straddling the line between being cutesy and off-putting, like Ren & Stimpy or Ed Edd n Eddy. As you proceed through the game you're put into varied levels which each excel in terms of design. There's an abstract layer of design to every level, lots of out of the box ideas and aesthetic choices are on hand.
Plot & Characters
Generally the tone of the game is good. It's snappily written and I was never left bored by the excess of dialogue. Characters are cleverly built up, as the game is designed around you entering their minds, which means you learn a lot about them through contextual level design and gameplay, which is a great use of a videogame as a medium to tell a story. While the core plot is fairly simple, there's so many threads and subplots attached to every character that it's almost daunting to think of how much work went into connecting everyone together.
While appearing cartoony and being a platformer, which by the '00s was very much considered a "kids" genre, this is more aimed at teenagers and young adults. Not just would the game be a bit frustrating for kids, but the writing doesn't hold back too much. It's a PG-13 level of writing, as most of the darker moments are low-key and it's consistently humorous front to finish. In typical fashion for a game which would go on to be a financial failure, it leaves on a cliff-hanger, though the core plot is wrapped up meaning that even if the long belated sequel didn't show up earlier this year, it wouldn't of been something worth bemoaning as an unfinished story.
Scope & Attention to Detail
I was hugely surprised by how much the game's summer camp hub setting had to offer. The place is huge by 2005 platformer standards and has a lot going on. There's so many characters, each with their own mini arcs you can follow. Initially, it almost feels daunting once you're given free reign to roam the camp. It's even more surprising then, that come the halfway point, the camp is no longer required and you're put on a linear level interspersed with vignettes where you enter a characters mind to proceed.
Certain vignettes such as 'The Milkman Conspiracy' and 'Waterloo World' are joyfully creative. In 'The Milkman Conspiracy' you enter the mind of a conspiracy-addled security guard, whose mind is laid out like a spaced out '50s American suburbia setting:
This whole level is where the game is at its funniest but also its most creative. Though 'Waterloo World' gives it a run for its money as you take part in a life sized board game, shrinking up and down to manipulate the game in your favour and win. It's in levels like these where the hybrid of adventure game puzzling and platforming really combine and shine.
The Not So Good
This game is very front-loaded with tutorials. There's a mix of levels which act as tutorials and straight up, boring tutorials which ask you to simply perform your new psychic power a bunch of times until the game lets you proceed. The beginning of the game is loaded up with a lot of tutorials and cut-scenes, not too much core gameplay, which can be a test of patience. Though of course it is worth it to get invested in the characters and get to the more challenging and inventive levels.
What pushes the pacing into being a pain however, is multiple sections which require you to farm currency to proceed. There's a point in the game where seemingly out of nowhere you are required to purchase an item, only in order to get enough currency for that item you must buy a separate item which essentially acts like a metal detector for more currency. Then you're left to idly roam the camp grounds clicking a button until you find a batch of currency, rinse repeat for about 15 or so minutes. It's a chore and feels like unneeded padding considering at this point the game really seemed like it was getting into its groove after all the tutorials were done. Similarly at one point you may need to level up your character to unlock a new power, preventing players who're just having a casual playthrough from proceeding until they go collect more optional collectibles, breaking the pace further.
It's Rough Around the Edges
While the plot, characters and art design are all very well put together, the game often doesn't play at a level to match. Platforming is initially a bit floaty and imprecise, but fine as the game is easy enough to allow. As I got closer to the end of the game, I ended up cheesing a lot of the platforming segments to proceed as fast as possible as they were getting more complex than the core mechanics were really built for. Similarly the combat is pretty basic and aside from the boss battles, which mostly play out like puzzles to solve, I would avoid any of the basic enemies, which to sort out you just shoot or punch until they die. While there is options to creatively dispose of them, it's not encouraged and mostly works as a little surprise for the dedicated players. The lack of a dodge also makes combat feel a little restricted.
Annoyingly, some of the game's worst moments come right at the end. You're suddenly thrown into a platforming gauntlet, requiring far for precision than the game is really built to allow for, and to make it worse you're on a time limit. This part of the 'Meat Circus' level is pretty much universally disliked and comes off as a poor decision and will likely be a roadblock for many players, which is unfortunate given that the game is almost over at that point.
On the Whole...
Issues with Psychonauts boil down to the fact that the gameplay simply isn't as good as it could be. However, the game is so strong in other areas that it actually doesn't matter too much. The main draw is seeing what creative idea for a level is next, what wacky character is around the corner, the consistently witty dialogue and rewarding exploration aspects. Pacing does suffer a bit at times too with a tutorial heavy first third and a couple instances of padding to stop gap a playthrough. Still, it's an enjoyably dense game to explore and thoroughly rewarding if you decide to commit and look for all it has to offer. Worthwhile also as it's a unique blend of platforming and '90s adventure games.