Review: No more collecting! In fact, I'm throwing out my baseball cards as we speak.
I first heard about Psychonauts a few years ago, and at first it was just the title. I imagined a futuristic sci-fi shooter with robots, jet packs, lasers and various icky aliens. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be a comedic platformer starring a goggled hero named Rasputin.
Rasputin (or Raz to his friends and well wishers) has run away from the circus to Whispering Rock Summer Camp, a camp where psychic children channel their mental energy to become Psychonauts (secret agents that are basically Carrie, the Firestarter and several other Stephen King characters all rolled into one). Raz has been training all his life (and reading lots of True Psychic Tales) in preparation for this moment. And he's going to need it when all of the other camper's brains start getting sucked right out of their heads. With no Psychonauts left, it's up to Raz to save the day.
The game opens by dumping you in the middle of the campgrounds, which acts as a hub world for the various levels. The campground area is huge and just learning how to use your map to navigate it is tough. But once you get ready to progress the story along, you'll enter people's minds for some kind of mental challenge. And this is where Psychonuats shines.
Each of the various mental landscapes are very cool and unique. Each level was created to match the psyche of the person who's mind you've invaded. There is a lot of good platformer design here as Raz will have to run, jump, swing and use his various mental powers to advance through each stage. You've never seen anything quite like the worlds of Lungfishopolis and The Neighborhood later in the game.
But before those two twisting, turning platform havens there's a lot of other stuff to slog through. And first and foremost is Psychonaut's obsession with collecting stuff. Arrowheads are used as currency in the camp store. PSI Challenge Cards increase your "Psychic Rank" for every nine you collect. Figments of Your Imagination litter the minds of those you enter. Mental Cobwebs block your path, but also have to be picked up. Mental Baggage and Mental Baggage Tags don't seem to serve any real purpose, but they're there too. To top it all off, there is a scavenger hunt going on around camp that requires you to pick up just random junk. And eventually collecting this stuff will stop being optional and start being mandatory. That resulted in a controller thrown in frustration let me tell you.
All this collecting eventually leads to the meat and potatoes of the game: the psychic abilities. You can equip three at a time and as they said, they run the gamut of Stephen King stories. You've got your PSI Blasts that work like a gun (and are a pain to aim properly). You've got your Telekinesis to move stuff with your mind. You've got your Pyrokinesis to baby light my fire. You have a Thought Bubble that lets you bounce high above the world (or at least higher than regular jumping). You have your Clairvoyance to see the world as others see it. You have your Psychic Shield just because there's always a Psychic Shield. And you have your Confusion to make the world an even weirder place. And you'll need all of these powers to platform through the game.
Those looking for a slightly different platformer experience should probably really latch on to Psychonauts. It's the baby of Tim Schafer, creator of Grim Fandango, the Monkey Island series and Maniac Mansion (which is the only game of his I can remember playing). So obviously Schaefer is no stranger to unique things and Psychonauts definitely has it's moments. But then another part wants to speak up and say "wait a minute..." Psychonauts is very imaginative, don't get me wrong, but it's still just a platformer. Raz could be any anonymous furry mascot. And as a platformer it falls flat a lot. The collecting of the junk we've established. And certain parts of the game have a serious depth perception problem. We are too far into this generation for gamers to be asking the question "Will I make this jump or will I overshoot this platform?" But I must give credit where credit is due, Psychonauts features the most intuitive use of climbing I have ever seen in a game. It was really cool (seriously, Lungfishopolis, play it).
Another of the game's major problems isn't really his fault. After Schafer's deal with Microsoft fizzled, the publishing rights were purchased by Majesco. With the House of Gates out of the picture, Schafer and his team (and the developers at BudCat) went about creating a PS2 version. The jump to a lower powered machine really shows. There are extensive load times everywhere, there is the occasional bit of jarring slowdown and everything kind of has a shimmer that isn't in the Xbox original.
So while the gameplay may falter, at the very least the game is funny. Not as funny as Destroy All Humans! in my mind, but maybe that just makes me uncultured. The voice acting is great and really gives you a feel that these are all very distinct personalities. And some of it is just absurd, like the recreation of a horrible, horrible war scene as the first level of the game in the head of a gym teacher. And I love that all of the kids who lose their brains want nothing else out of life except TV and hackey sack.
The music even picks up on all of this as the game is filled with some very Saturday morning cartoon like tunes that fit the mood perfectly. When we move more into the weekdays, I think I heard several remixes of the Rocky and Patton themes when the time called for it. Other music that sounded familiar, but had a Psychonauts vibe peppered the soundtrack as well.