Retro game review: "Psychonauts"

TechNews Writer
Mon Feb 11, 2019

Image courtesy of Double Fine Productions

Ah, the post-Christmas games drought, when the air is cold and dry -- but not enough to get us out of class, when the first tests of the year begin to pop up all at the same time, and when Electronic Arts (EA) thinks that propaganda hurled en masse at my computer screen will convince me to pre-order "Anthem." There aren’t going to be any worthwhile game releases until next week, with Bandai Namco’s “Jump Force” and Ubisoft's “Far Cry: New Dawn” coming out on February 15. As such, I figured instead of wading through the drought period contemplating just how much the new triple-A releases are going to let down the masses of hype they’ve built up, I'm going to review a game I already know won’t disappoint me, namely Tim Schafer and Double Fine Production’s “Psychonauts.”

With the upcoming release of its sequel, “Psychonauts 2,” scheduled for release sometime in 2019, I thought now would be as good a time as any to go back and shed some light on an often criminally underlooked game. “Psychonauts” is perhaps one of the most uniquely imaginative and colorful games in history, mashing a blend of odd pairings, vibrant characters, strange settings, and all manner of crazy, chaotic, creative fun. This was the first game by Double Fine Productions, a company made by Tim Schafer and other former Lucasarts employees after their game productions studios were shut down. The base premise of “Psychonauts” is something of the same idea Schafer did with “Grim Fandango,” being about an ordinary service in an unusual situation. This time, instead of being about a travel agency for the dead, it's about a summer camp for psychics. Camp Whispering Rock is a top-secret training camp for the Psychonauts, an elite branch of psychic soldiers. Under the guise of a summer camp, it inducts and trains young, psychically gifted individuals to one day enter the Psychonauts. You play as Raz, a young boy who ran away from the circus his family runs to fulfill his dream of joining the Psychonauts. After being informed the day after he arrives that his father, who has a hatred of psychics, will come to pick him up the next day, Raz decides that he must complete all the necessary tasks and challenges to allow him to become a full Psychonaut by the end of the day. Along the way he uncovers a deeper plot from within to dismantle the Psychonauts as he explores the deranged minds of the camp's characters.

The game is something of a mix between a third-person platformer with combat and puzzle elements. You utilize Raz’s psychic powers to jump, float, and roll around various platforming segments to collect various mental fragments, memories and other things left clouded in the minds of those you enter. As you collect more fragments to level your psychic powers, as well as unlock new ones, you expand your capabilities to further traverse the levels and their obstacles. The levels will also feature a number of puzzles, often dealing with interactions between characters present as figments of the imagination of the minds you explore. And lastly, and by far the worst part of the game comes the combat. It’s certainly not awful, and some of the boss fights and psychic powers are a lot of fun, but overall it’s very same-y and straightforward, and not quite on the level of all the other content the game has to offer. Each of the levels are unique and distinct from not only one another but from one would expect going into them, always being interesting and well designed, filled with engaging puzzles and solid platforming with plenty of reward for exploration. Not all of it is perfect; some of the levels are overly long and can be tedious, with Gloria’s Theatre being of particular note, but the sheer creativity each one has to offer brings their own unique flavor together in making such a game stand out as it does.

The game’s strongest aspects come in the form of its wacky settings and colorful characters. The camp itself is full of zany characters and locations you can interact with, many of whom have larger subplots to expand on and all of whom are entertaining to watch. The settings and situations you find yourself in, whether you are a giant Godzilla-like monster tearing through a city of sentient fish people or battling against a dentist who harvests brains by making people sneeze them out, present some of the most energized creative fun that can be had in a game. The game also has a thousand subtle ways of expanding on itself and the characters you meet, including hidden memory vaults you can find in each person's mind, the various subplots you can explore with the characters, the clairvoyance ability, and the single greatest explanation for token video game aversion to water. The humorous personality each character carries with them brings the game together, tied with the unusual situations you find yourself in makes for a game like no other. There isn't any other game where you can free a man from the grasp of the ghost of Napoleon Bonaparte, battle pyrokinetic cougars, befriend a boy with a tin foil hat to stop him from exploding people's heads, navigate a circus made of meat, discover the glorious milkman, or open the help menu by waving a piece of bacon next to your ear.

Coming from the wonderfully wacky mind of Tim Schafer and made with genuine passion and love, the first “Psychonauts” game was an abject failure on launch, selling only about 100,000 copies despite release on every major system and causing massive losses for the publisher. As time went on, however, the game gained cult appeal and managed to sell around 1.7 million copies by the time "Psychonauts 2" was announced. Moving on from the somewhat disappointing “Broken Age,” Schafer and his crew have dived headlong into “Psychonauts 2” as their next product. With the nearly unparalleled creative charm displayed by its predecessor, “Psychonauts 2” certainly has quite the hurdle to climb, but I look forward to seeing what the mind of Tim Schafer brings us next.

Final Score: 9/10, easily a standout game amongst so much repetition and trend following. Colorful, charming, creative, and imaginative, "Psychonauts" is truly a wonderful entry for the history books.



Teaser Media
Appears in
2019 - Spring - Issue 3