I knew I was in for a hell of a time even before I fired one psychic blast, smashed one sensor, or lit a psychic bear's tail on fire. Video game visionary Tim Schafer, director and writer of Psychonauts, is the man behind the blockbuster titles Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge, Secret of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle, and, of course, the brilliant comedic adventure Grim Fandango. Having this type of success in the video game industry is rather rare, but Schafer has continuously engaged, impressed, and entertained audiences for fifteen years. While, until now, all of his games are adventures with as many references to Star Wars¯ as there are Wookies on Kashyyyk, Schafer takes Psychonauts into the action/platformer realm with gusto, retaining all of his signature humor and bizarre, mind-bending art design. As for this reviewer, Psychonauts is, without a doubt, one of my favorite games, ever, and one of the finest Tim Schafer has ever made.
First, let me try to explain what a psychonaut¯ is. A Psychonaut is not unlike an FBI agent¦for your mind. Psychonauts are psychic-warriors for good and truth and mental stability and, furthermore, it is the title of Psychonaut that the main character and the player's alter-ego Raz (Rasputin) is questing after. Raz, like any good main character, is very much a mischief-maker and sneaks into Psychic Camp to learn the ways of the Psychonauts. Of course, the camp counselors don't really want mischief-makers running around and, therefore, his father is promptly called. Raz finds himself questing alone through the breadth of the camp (and it's really big) to attain the rank of Psychonaut before his father arrives the next morning. When some kids' brains begin to disappear, Raz has to venture into the minds of the counselors, battling dark enemies, clearing cob-webs, and finding emotional baggage. Yes, even psychics have emotional baggage.
I find it difficult to discuss how great a game Psychonauts is without giving away its incredibly witty and enjoyable plot. Sure, I can talk about the unique and vivid art direction, the truly bizarre characters, the spot-on voice acting, or the clever and challenging gameplay, but that'd be what you'd expect. Perhaps the best way to describe the game is through a simple description. In the beginning, you meet Cruller, the old and noble Psychonaut whose mind is going. Cruller shows up throughout the game as different characters (the boat master, the janitor, the park ranger¦akin to a guardian angel) and eventually, he'll give you a piece of bacon that can summon his likeness out of your ear for a stimulus of help. Yes, I said your ear. Seeing Cruller's head sticking out of Raz's ear is one of the most strangely humorous things I've ever seen in a game. Psychonauts is like the kid at school who never follows rules because he never saw any use to them in the first place.
Mind over Matter
Psychonauts follows a linear game path, for the most part. It gives you enough area to roam - especially in the beginning - so that the game never fails to be adventure-esque, but purposefully vast. Raz begins the game with literally no powers, as a large headed, witty kid voiced by none other than Richard Stevens Horvitz from TV's Invader ZIM fame. Horvitz's voice is perfect for Raz, and his eager-but-confident personality complements the voice. Psychonauts features many voice-acting veterans like David Kaye and Nick Jameson whose voices are recognizable and immediately add a depth to the game.
Depth Psychonauts has; there are upgradeable mental powers like invisibility, telekinesis, and, my favorite, pyrokinesis. There are also mental devices that can be bought at the store such as the cob-web duster, the arrowhead finder - which can be bought with the arrowheads made of psychic metal. Finding these arrowheads is one part of the collecting that Raz will do. But there are more things to collect at Psychic Camp: scavenger hunt items, cards, psychic cores¦Raz will be plenty busy. To get everything, and there's lots to get, Raz will have to search every inch of the camp. Gaining new powers will allow passage to new areas and different, troublesome, spots.
And while you're gaining powers, you can stop and smell the roses, read a squirrel's mind, light a beehive on fire, go canoeing. There are enough powers to keep the game interesting throughout, but the real treat is when it forces the player to think about how to use them, sometimes in bizarrely rewarding ways. I remember using telekinesis to toss board game pieces around in order to crush Napoleon's armies, or throwing trashcans at sensors - little comedic villains who show up when a character's psyche is trying to show restraint (sensor itself).
But Psychonauts is at its best when in the minds of the various characters Raz encounters. The sense of humor and attention to artistic detail is so great in these areas that it's forgivable that the Psychic Camp is somewhat bland - though large. When inside the minds of characters, the usual rules of platformers do not apply. Sure, you're still collecting items like figments of their imagination or emotional baggage, but the level design and purpose of these areas trump that of the Psychic Camp.
Dentists and Disco and Lungfish, Oh My!
The characters in Psychonauts dominate the game and give it, along with the art direction, a wonderfully twisted personality. There's Coach Oleander, the Basic Braining¯ teacher who treats his cadets like military soldiers. There's Agent Nein who speaks with a German accent and whose mind is really empty in here,¯ according to Raz. And when you run into the Lungfish in one of the most amusing tributes to Godzilla ever, you'll notice that the Lungfish actually are badly dubbed.¯ Topping all this comedy is the wonderfully quirky nature of Rasputin himself, who retains a good sense of humor while the camp goes psychotic.
While you'll learn much about Raz's past, it's most interesting how he grows as a character and remains compelling throughout the entirety of the game. Raz never slips as a wonderful main character and I have to hand it to Tim Schafer for almost topping Guybrush Threepwood's asinine, yet wholly enjoyable antics. Schafer's Raz is more a cross of Dib from the Invader ZIM series and Manny from Grim Fandango. He's compelling in a human way, but lovable throughout the satire that is Psychonauts.
Whether it's going into the mind of a disco-loving dance psychic or finding a tower where a dentist is trying to remove a fellow cadet's brain, Psychonauts keeps you laughing. Its strange sense of humor is great and sometimes dry, but don't call it cute. You call it cute and it'll pyrokinesis your head.
Always Blissfully Fun
While Psychonauts has character in spades, it does have a slightly loose control scheme. Neither unbearable nor terrible in any way, the joystick feels a little slower than it could be and the button presses can be sloppy if you're into exact, precise jumping. It takes some adjusting, but playing the game isn't a chore by any means. The camera, like in many platformers, isn't perfect either, but it does a good job of keeping Raz on screen. It can occasionally get stuck in walls or behind objects that you'd wish would fade out. Though on the whole, these minor offenses do not condemn Psychonauts.
What Psychonauts does well is, well, everything else. The game is sometimes psychotic, sometimes, utterly silly, but always blissfully fun. Psychonauts is easily the best game I've played this year and I'm hoping that more intellectual properties like Psychonauts will follow in its footsteps. Bravo to Tim Schafer for creating the most enjoyable and unique game in many years.