First posted on 04 February 2010. Last updated on 04 February 2010.
Tim Schafer's classic adventure game Full Throttle was originally supposed to include an entire sequence in which the player would join the game's main hero Ben in a psychedelic acid trip after he ate a poisonous cactus. While that sequence was ultimately abandoned, the concept for it would return to Schafer's mind years later to become the inspiration for a different game—the first title to be created under his own label Double Fine Productions. The game would be a tale of humor and excitement about a boy endowed with psychic superpowers who could enter the minds of other characters to unlock their memories, dreams, and fears. The challenges in the materialized mental worlds would introduce unique game mechanics of an arcade adventure that would allow the player to both figuratively and literally dig into the inner workings of demented and fragile psyches of the game's characters. Clearly, Psychonauts was to be an ambitious undertaking that tried to concurrently explore the lightest and darkest elements of human nature.
The story of Psychonauts takes place at Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp, a camp for psychically endowed young children which concurrently is a military facility operated by psychic agents called the Psychonauts. The camp's primary goal is to train a new generation of mental soldiers who can fight against the world's evil doers. The main protagonist of the game is a boy named Razputin, or Raz as he prefers to be called, who has escaped from home to join the camp without his parents' consent. Being from a family of acrobats that wants him to grow up to be the same, Raz has always been repressed by his family in using his psychic powers which he has been born with. However, Raz has long cherished the dream of becoming a Psychonaut. He is determined to prove to himself and to others that he is capable, no matter what obstacles he may have to face.
Amongst all its wealth of characters and colorful worlds, it is difficult to discern an entirely coherent plot for Psychonauts. While the game underlies the familiar theme of saving the world from a dangerous madman, the core of the story seems to be a chain of random, outrageously insane events that are loosely interconnected. There is a dozen or so single level plotlines that are mostly fun to follow, and there is also a plethora of subplots unrelated to the main quests that are optional. This disjointed story design is further marred by the fact that, in the demented reality of Psychonauts, the characters show very little honest care for the lives and feelings of each other, which influences also the player's empathy towards them. For example, the main hero, Raz, is a boy who basically just wants to look cool and please people who can return him a favor. He helps strangers, whom he meets along the way, not out of true kindness but with an expectation that they will help him to advance in his own agenda. While such morals may not feel out of place in the grotesque reality depicted by the game, it certainly does not draw the player into caring about Raz's own goals and feelings.
Among the initial lures of Psychonauts is the ability to use cool psychic powers in the game. Consequently, the core game mechanics are expected to be more than just thumping the opponents with fists, shooting all moving objects with energy beams, or jumping over many bottomless chasms. Yet, gamers expecting from Schafer his usual creativity in creating game obstacles are up for a disappointment. For the first quarter of the game, the only psychic powers given to the player are telekinetic attack (to thump enemies with a giant fist), psychic blast (to shoot enemies from a distance), and levitation (to perform super high jumps). These abilities provide little beyond that is already available as standard powers in most other action adventure platform game titles. The game improves a bit later on as the player gains other skills such as pyrokinesis, invisibility, telekinesis, clairvoyance, and confusion. Unfortunately, when these abilities are finally introduced, they feel rather tacked onto a game that has largely become an exercise of tricky acrobatics and mindless disposals of enemies.
Any enjoyment of playing Psychonauts is additionally hindered by the clunky controls and the awful camera system. The locations are also filled with many unexpected invisible walls, and the powers do not always work the way they normally do. Puzzles in the game are reduced to simply guessing which psychic power to use to bypass the obstacle in question. The biggest challenges are the boss fights, but finding their weaknesses is frequently both an unintuitive and a frustrating process. Conversations between characters are plentiful, overtly long, and rarely interactive. Moreover, the game relies heavily on finding countless different kinds of collectibles. Just memorizing all the types of items that the player needs to seek right from the start of the game is enough to make any gamer's head spin. It only gets worse; with new collectibles added in all the time, it quickly escalates to be the biggest activity in the whole game—just collecting hundreds of shiny objects.
The first half of Psychonauts is largely made up of a tutorial, followed by slow and rather uninteresting exploration of the camp site, intermixed with many long, pretty cut scenes establishing dozens of characters that are of little importance to the remainder of the game. As the game progresses, the levels become more complex, especially at the insane asylum. There, the gameplay benefits additionally from the fact that the minds Raz gets to probe are those of the wacky asylum patients, including the most deranged of them all—The Milkman. The final level sees an extreme increase in difficulty, and beating it requires nerves of steel.
For a game in which humor is an important focus, the developer seems to be unable to decide on what audience the game is supposed to target. Frequently, the game plays to a younger audience with zany animations and the prevalent childish mindset of characters with a lot of awkward insults and point scoring behaviors. At other times, the game plays instead to an older audience, such as with The Milkman Conspiracy level presenting a brilliant satire on the extreme paranoia delusions with cold war era stylization and agents incognito in trench coats.
The game is released in both CD-ROM and DVD-ROM versions. The game's soundtrack, arranged by Peter McConnell, is very fitting, drawing inspirations ranging from Looney Tunes to The Twilight Zone. The surreal visual art style is also great, and the animations (both in-game and cut scenes) are top notch. The 3D graphics (including object models and textures) are quite decent, but the level architecture is rather unremarkable. A very creative aspect in some of the level designs is how the levels are presented to the player -- multiple camera viewpoints, twisting perspectives, and constantly changing proportions in size between objects in the game. All these can make the game more fun to play, even when the quality of the gameplay elements lingers behind.
Psychonauts must be credited for the craftsmanship and style that have gone into its audio visual presentation and the many little details that have been painted into its wacky world. Yet, the gameplay is a mixed bag of up and down moments. It never truly shines and is bogged down by overdrawn cinematics. In the end, the game neither delivers an exciting experience to fans of arcade games nor enticing storytelling to gamers seeking a well crafted narrative. Ultimately, despite Psychonauts' complex premise, the spectrum of characters whose personalities the player experiences and whose minds Raz probes in the game reflects rather simple, stereotypic phobias that are largely played for laughs.