Developer: Double Fine Productions
Released: April 2005
Psychonauts is a third-person platformer about a psychic boy named Raz, who runs away from the circus to sneak into a training camp for Psychonauts: psychic spies. While there, he develops his psychic powers, meets a lot of really weird people and helps them overcome psychological issues, and uncovers a sinister plot behind the scenes of the camp.
Critics loved Psychonauts, with average review scores at 90%. Reviewers had a great time with the game's overall presentation, art direction, premise, and humour. Oddly, some complained that the first half of the game wasn't exciting enough, while others felt the game lost steam in its second half. Different preferences I guess.
Unfortunately, sales didn't match the critical reception and were very poor on release. The game has continued to sell over digital distribution, but numbers aren't available.
The current version is 1.04, last updated in September 2005. The Steam version received one new achievement for a Christmas event and seems to have been updated to some extent (judging by the credits) but I'm not sure what was changed.
Premise and Plot
The core premise of Psychonauts — a psychic soldier summer training camp for kids — is great. There have been a lot of weird paranormal military research programs and this seems to just fit right in with some of the ridiculous stuff that happened in real life. It also provides some great themes to work with: a lot of kids are sent there because they're weird or dangerous and it's a good way to get them away from their parents. Again, that's a real-world situation that could be sad or scary, but the funny spin makes it hilarious with a subtle undercurrent of sympathy. There's a lot of dark humour.
Minor spoilers ahead.
At a certain point in the game, Raz discovers a giant mutated lungfish that's been kidnapping children. It turns out the lungfish has been experimented upon and manipulated with an implant. After defeating it in combat, he goes inside its mind to try to fix things. The lungfish's mind is a pleasant city, with Irish lungfish cops and lungfish mothers taking their lungfish babies for a walk. Raz, however, is a giant monster, in 1950's B-movie style. Smashing buildings occasionally results in lungfish screaming “My mattress factory! How will I make a living?!” or “Oh God, the orphanage!”. Part of the lungfish's mind is still resisting the implant, and this is reflected via the lungish resistance against the corrupt lungfish navy, helping Raz with his objectives. It's absolutely hilarious and a great parody of giant monster movies.
The Milkman Conspiracy
Another quest, more spoilers.
Raz goes inside the mind of a crazy security guard and former milkman guarding the gates of the asylum. The guard is a crazy conspiracy theorist, and the town inside his mind is twisted and fragmented to reflect his insanity. There are cameras everywhere, in ridiculous places — plastic flamingoes, squirrels, mailboxes. Secret agents are extremely poorly disguised as workers with only a single prop, with their private-eye-style hats and trenchcoats perfectly visible. Eyes are constantly watching you and disappear when you look at them. It's a segment that displays the extreme paranoia of a conspiracy theorist in a very funny way.
Every mind you explore has a wildly different theme and different mechanics than the last. The design is fantastic. On different occasions, you fight your way through a war zone, race through a party, play a board game with Napoleon, become a stage director, and duel a crazed bull in a Spanish art town, in addition to the two previously mentioned standout stages. The themes and events of the minds also convey a strong sense of each character's identity as you learn how each of them sees the world and organizes their thoughts.
Psychonauts is heavily stylized and very colourful. The wild models are a great fit with the silly characters and themes of the game. Unfortunately, a lot of the characters end up looking way too weird or ugly. I realize that it's likely intentional for some of them — the bullies, for instance — but a lot of the time the character models just don't work for me. While you might disagree with me on that, I did notice that the complexity and texture work of non-essential characters (the other kids) are of far lower quality than the main characters, which is a little disappointing.
The least weird-looking characters — the main characters — are the ones that look the best in my opinion, and not just from a quality standpoint, but from overall design. Again, maybe this is intentional, because it's easier to identify with characters who don't look like Picasso paintings of the circus side show.
At first it's fun to go inside the minds of other characters, and all of the stages are very well designed. Later on, in the insane asylum, it starts to feel tedious despite the consistently strong level design and gameplay twists. You have to deal with four crazy people in a row to and by the end you feel more like a psychiatrist than a psychonaut.
The controls sometimes felt a little hard to handle, but for the most part were totally fine. Targeting and camera controls can be a little weird sometimes.
There are a couple of sequences where a death or a fall will send you WAY back — as in, restart the level back. For the most part it's okay, but when it isn't, it really isn't. Climbing the asylum tower and escorting Oly in the meat circus were the parts that really bothered me.
Another weird thing: when you use the bacon to return to base, and then have Cruller send you back to the field, he returns you to the start of the area, rather than where you actually were. Less frustrating, but still odd.
They're low quality, but you can't really help that -- the game was made in 2005. No, my problem is that if you play in a widescreen aspect ratio, the cutscenes are squished. A couple of black bars would have fixed this.
Recommendation: Play it.
I enjoyed Psychonauts, although I think I was more impressed with the game design than the game itself. I loved the mind sequences and the characters. The sheer amount of variety is amazing. Also it happens to be pretty cheap on Steam.